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The Most Scientifically Dumb Plots Hollywood Keeps Feeding Us Anyway

October 15, 2020 1.2k votes 221 voters 15.9k views11 items

List RulesVote up the scientifically stupid plots that you still enjoy anyway.

If you're like us and you've learned most of what you know about the world from movies and TV shows, you should also know that most movies and TV shows don't adhere too closely to the truth. Especially when it comes to science. Movies and TV shows are full of these tropes: head injuries cause amnesia; hypnosis is the same thing as mind control; truth serum is real and it works. These tropes get repeated so many times by so many different stories, and eventually, we start to believe that they're real. After all, one effective way to convince someone a false claim is valid is to repeat it over and over again

It shouldn't surprise you that movie depictions of science are often wildly inaccurate. It's still worth examining these tropes to figure out what's true and what's hogwash. So in that spirit, here are some of the scientifically dumb plots that Hollywood keeps feeding us, along with the actual truth. Vote up the ones you love even though they're total nonsense.

  • 1

    We Only Use 10% Of Our Brains

    Photo: Limitless / Relativity

    Notable Offenders: Lucy, Limitless, Defending Your Life

    The Movie Myth: The human brain only uses a small fraction of its capabilities, usually 10%. With the right synthetic drugs, a person can unlock the remaining 90% of their brainpower. This will allow them to access mental capabilities that would otherwise be impossible, like the ability to perform complex math equations. Or, depending on the movie, psychokinetic powers. 

    The Reality: Various theorists, like early 20th-century psychologist William James, have speculated for centuries that the human brain has untapped potential, which is probably where this trope originates. But it's just not true that 90% of our brainpower goes unused. If it did, our brains would be hugely inefficient. While some parts of the brain are inactive at different times of the day, over a 24-hour period we do use 100% of our brain's capabilities. When strokes and other illnesses cause brain damage, even a small reduction of functionality has massive effects on a person's life.

    Awesomely dumb idea?
  • 2

    Someone’s Been Buried Alive And Actually Has A Chance To Get Out

    Photo: Buried / Lionsgate

    Notable Offenders: Kill Bill Vol. 2, BuriedThe Vanishing, Premature Burial, Double Jeopardy

    The Movie Myth: If someone is buried alive, there's still hope for survival. A buried person can wait for several hours or even days to be rescued. Sometimes, the person even digs their way out of their own coffin themselves.  

    The Reality: Being buried alive is one of humanity's most universal fears, and for very good reason: if you actually were placed in a coffin and covered under six feet of earth, you'd be a goner. Your first danger would be running out of oxygen. While estimates differ on how long a person can survive in a sealed coffin, the consensus is about 60 minutes - and that's if you don't waste more oxygen by panicking. 

    To have any chance at survival, you would need rescuers to start digging you out from the moment you were buried. It's even less likely that you would survive on your own. Even if you could somehow break through the coffin and into the surrounding soil, like Beatrix Kiddo does in Kill Bill Vol. 2, that soil would immediately overwhelm and suffocate you, like quick-drying cement.

    Awesomely dumb idea?
  • 3

    If You Get Hit On The Head, You Have Amnesia Now

    Photo: Overboard / MGM

    Notable Offenders: Regarding HenryOverboardSpider-Man 3Fast & Furious 6, and every soap opera. 

    The Movie Myth: All it takes for someone to develop amnesia is a head injury, which can happen in any number of ways. Once they sustain a traumatic brain injury, a person forgets every aspect of their previous life but otherwise suffers no ill effects. In some movies, amnesia can also make the subject think they're a completely different person than they used to be. Occasionally, the remedy for amnesia is the same as the cause: another bonk on the head. 

    The Reality: Amnesia is a medical condition. There are at least seven varieties of amnesia, and none of them work the way that most movies would have us think. The two most common are: retrograde amnesia, which is when a person forgets memories from before the onset of amnesia, like the kind Harrison Ford experiences in Regarding Henry; and anterograde, which is when a person cannot make new memories after the onset of amnesia, like the kind Guy Pearce experiences in Memento. Retrograde amnesia is more commonly depicted in movies and TV shows, but in real life, it's more commonly caused by an illness like a stroke. While a traumatic injury can cause either form of amnesia, amnesia usually only lasts for a matter of seconds or minutes. And it's definitely not cured by another traumatic brain injury. 

    The only medical condition that can cause a total loss of a person's identity, like the one experienced by Jason Bourne, is a dissociative fugue state, not amnesia. But these are extremely rare in real life, and they're caused by psychological, rather than physical, trauma.

    Awesomely dumb idea?
  • 4

    Hypnosis Can Be Used To Control A Person's Mind

    Photo: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari / Goldwyn Distributing Company

    Notable Offenders: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Naked Gun, Videodrome, X2

    The Movie Myth: A person's mind isn't entirely their own. A malefactor can use hypnosis, subliminal messages, or a serum to take control of someone's mind and make them do things they would never do otherwise. Often, this means crimes like murder or robbery. 

    The Reality: Hypnosis is a real therapeutic technique, but it's much different from how it's depicted in the movies. In a clinical setting, a therapist hypnotizes a patient into a state of deep relaxation and focus. Once the patient's guard is down, the therapist encourages them to make positive behavioral changes, like breaking a bad habit. Hypnosis doesn't work on everyone, and it's not foolproof even for suggestible patients. Most importantly, people under hypnosis don't commit actions they would otherwise never do while fully conscious. The version of hypnosis as a form of mind control comes from stage-show versions of the technique, which obviously aren't medically sound. 

    Awesomely dumb idea?