Cinema in the Classroom

R. Ranney Mize, Ph.D.

Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center


Clinical videos illustrating deficits produced by brain disease are commonly used in medical and other health professional neuroscience courses. Although of value, they are often of low image quality, show compliant patients who follow physician commands without noticeable feelings, and sometimes do not effectively demonstrate the deficit. As a consequence, I have begun using cinema to more dramatically illustrate the emotional as well as physical impact of neurological disorders upon the patient and family. Some also demonstrate the inner workings of the human mind. Commercial DVDs that I recommend include:

1) Coming Home (Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, 1978). Segments are used to show the environment of a rehabilitation ward and the progression of the character played by Jon Voight as he returns from Viet Nam and struggles to live meaningfully with his war-induced paralysis.

2) Hilary and Jackie (Universal Studios, 1999). The 35 minute sequence which I show illustrates the somatomotor skills of the classical cellist, Jacqueline DuPre; and her loss of those skills as she succumbs to multiple sclerosis. No fewer than seven symptoms are effectively portrayed by the actress Emily Watson.

3) Iris (Buena Vista, 2001) The entire film is shown in class to illustrate the devastation of Alzheimer’s on the mind of the English novelist Iris Murdoch, brilliantly played by Judi Dench; and the impact of the disease upon her husband and family.

4) Sylvia (BBC, 2003). The final segments of this film evoke the quiet descent of the poet Sylvia Plath towards suicide after a life-long battle with major depression. The film is particularly effective in showing the failure of those around her to recognize or react to her impending suicide.

5) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, 1968). I use the opening sequence, “Dawn of Man”, to illustrate both the creativity of the human imagination and also the brilliant characterization of the evolution of the human brain and behavior.

Student evaluations suggest that students find that these cinematic experiences: 1) teach empathy for the patient’s condition; 2) dramatically demonstrate the full constellation of symptoms; 3) connect the physical symptoms with the emotional experience of the disease process.