Monday, 14 April 2014

Lars and the Real Girl - May 22nd at HEB

Lars and the Real Girl (cert. 12) from 6pm on May 22nd at the Hadyn Ellis Building 

Sometimes you find love where you’d least expect it. Just ask Lars, a sweet but quirky guy who thinks he’s found the girl of his dreams in a life-sized doll named Bianca. Lars is completely content with his artificial girlfriend, helped along by a supportive community of colleagues, friends and family, but when he develops feelings for Margo, an attractive co-worker, Lars finds himself lost in a unique love triangle, hoping to somehow discover the real meaning of true love. Offbeat and endearing, this romantic comedy takes a fresh look at dating and relationships and dares to ask the question: What’s so wrong with being happy?

Join us for a FREE screening of the film followed by a sciSCREEN discussion touching on issues of mental health, healthcare, community, religion and relationships from a panel of academic experts.

Refreshments will be provided.

Date: Thursday 22nd May
Time: 6pm
Venue: Hadyn Ellis Building, Maindy Road, Cardiff
Book at:  Lars and the Real Girl

Tickets are free but must be booked in advance.

Sponsored by the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute as part of a series of events exploring mental health and neuroscience issues.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Surveillance and the Search in The Hunger Games

The following essay is written by Dr. Jamie Lewis and relates to The Hunger Games sciSCREEN.

Disclaimer: I approach this essay as someone who has not read the books and who has only watched the Hunger Games Part 1.

The central premise of The Hunger Games, that of kids killing each other for public spectacle, is extremely chilling and disturbing. To this end, The Hunger Games revokes memories of William Golding’s dystopian novel ‘Lord of the Flies’, which itself was adapted for film in 1963, and again in 1990. It also has a nod, well more of a bow actually, to the 1975 classic RollerBall in which Jonathan, like Katniss, defeats the purpose of the game by deciding not to kill their opponent; an act which not only changes the rules of the game but an act which presumably sets in motion a challenge to the ruling elite – a spark to ignite the uprising. The film is therefore far more than a killing spree. For me, the film is a commentary on the inequality of society, presented in the increasingly popular young adult action-romance genre that includes films such as the Twilight Saga and the Harry Potter series. However, it is the underpinning social commentary that the film provides which, in my opinion, elevates The Hunger Games above similar contemporary pictures. The film takes us on ride from the past (with references to Roman gladiatorial events and circuses underpinned by a David and Goliath narrative) to the present (of TV screens, trains, and an ever expanding celebrity gaze) and into a future (of forcefields, trackerjackers and genetically engineered animals). To attempt to unpack all of the central threads in the film would therefore be a foolhardy endeavour.  There are far too many. For the purposes of this essay I will therefore focus on a couple motifs that interest me as a sociologist.

‘A journey of expedition, for hunting, exploration or investigation, especially in East Africa.’

In The Hunger Games we are privy to two aspects of the concept of ‘safari’ – ‘the hunt or the search’ and ‘the journey’

The Hunt/ The Search
In one of the first scenes in the film, we find Katniss resisting the State by illegally foraging for food in the forests of District 12. She is hunting food presumably to take home to feed her family.  It is the hunting skills she develops growing up in the forests along with other essential survival skills which providers her with the necessary attributes to survive being hunted by a group of contestants during The Hunger Games.  To hunt in packs (a nod to our primitive pasts) is a tactic some of the contestants deploy during the games as they target Katniss who they perceive to be a significant threat to them winning the contest.

Whilst we see the concept of hunting in its literal form figure prominently in the film, we also see ‘the hunt’ in a more metaphorical presence.  The title of the film mirrors its main event – The Hunger Games - where the hunt is on discover the last ‘tribute’ standing who will be crowned the victor. Such a search is presumably a chilling commentary on the explosion of talent shows such as X Factor, and Britain’s Got Talent that attempt to find the next new star and survival reality shows such as Castaway and 71 Degrees North, which also catapults its contestants into the public domain.  Dressed up in more grotesque form, The Hunger Games does far more than create the next star though. The sadistic annual games serves the purpose of distracting those based in the districts from the realities of their life – from poverty, from inequality and from every day hunger. A Marxist might speak of the games as the ‘opium to the masses’ – distracting the unprivileged from the reality of their shared situations. This might explain why the districts have not routinely come together in revolt against the Capitol – an apathy that, in part, borders on voluntary servitude. Of course, Rue’s death watched together by inhabitants of District 11 on one of the large telescreens does cause a communal emotional response – what Durkheim might have called ‘collective effervescence’-  that sets in motion a mini riot instigated by Rue’s father. However, that the technology screening the events is seemingly one way, with little opportunity for the citizens of District 11 to communicate with one another other than through communally watching events unfold in controlled areas, meant that a spontaneous mob-like reaction was quashed relatively abruptly. Nevertheless, the tantalising tagline for the next film Catching Fire that ‘every revolution begins with a spark’ suggests that a more significant, organised uprising is not too far away.

The Journey
The film’s central character is Katniss Everdeen and it is through her eyes with which we see most of the world. Katniss’ personal journey is one of adaptation. Ironically, despite its obvious dangers, in many ways she is more comfortable in the virtual forests of The Hunger Games that remind her of the forests she grew up in, than she is in front of the gaze of the TV cameras and during some of the lavish spectacles in the build-up to the main event. In the spotlight, Katniss feels out of place, and much of her training is tailored towards being seen to be more approachable, lucid and confident on camera.  Developments in such personal characteristics are a feature of many people’s teenage years (although it may not extend to television appearances). Katniss’ personal development is not the only journey we are taken on in The Hunger Games though. Although situated in a static present, the film juxtaposes ideas of the past, the near past, the near future and a possible dystopian future. The symbolic scene of the train moving from the impoverished boroughs of District 12 whose primary industry is coal, passing through some of the other under-privileged districts predicated on agriculture and livestock through to the wealthy districts that manufacture electronics and weapons is especially poignant.  Such a journey reflects some significant human developments – the move from pre-industrial society, to industrial society and into a new technological age of virtual reality and xenotransplantation. Of course, such ‘progression’ is also compartmentalised in today’s world. The districts of Panem could be seen to represent different areas of the world at present. Today, we have societies built on industrialization, others on agriculture, whilst others still have entered a new technological age. These are often conceptualised as stages in a progression in which countries, communities and individuals endeavor to own the products of their own labour.


Inequality between the Capitol and the Districts is perhaps best illustrated by the divide between the technological haves and the technological have nots. In the Capitol, there have been significant developments in science and technology that include advancements in technologies of inspection and surveillance, developments in genetics, and significant augmentation in virtual reality. These enhancements are countered by the scenes in the poorer districts where there is a conspicuous absence of technologies – mobile phones, televisions, the internet etc. Like many dystopias, it is difficult to discuss the film without considering George Orwell’s 1949 book 1984. Like 1984, the citizens of Panem are subjected to omnipresent governmental surveillance and control. The Hunger Games itself, acts as an intense microcosm of what actually happens out in the real world. The tributes playing the game have to fight to stay alive, they have little in the way of resources and they are controlled, managed – even stage-managed – by the puppeteers in the Capitol. Both those playing the game and those living in the district have a carrot too. The carrot for those in the games, is raw and fundamental – the reward for winning the event is their life. The cult and celebratory status that comes with winning is presumably a further bonus. For those in the real-world, The Hunger Games is a type of annual entertainment. From the relief of not being selected or having a child selected to participate in The Games to the sense of district pride, identity and outright passion in supporting your tribute as you would support your local football, rugby, hockey, netball team, The Games act as a source of escapism for those watching back in the districts. Citizens of the districts back their tributes, willing them to win. As President Snow declares:  ‘Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it’s contained’. Too much hope then can move an issue from an inconvenience to a serious situation very quickly. This is especially true if one of the winners, in this case Katniss, becomes bigger than The Games itself.

In the same way that technology is the privilege of the Party in Orwell’s Big Brother, technology is the privilege of the Capitol in The Hunger Games. Technology is used to control, manipulate (sometimes genetically), strike fear (for example, through the release of Wolf Mutts), and for entertainment. As such, the concept of Big Brother in The Hunger Games is a mix of Orwell’s Big Brother in which the state is watching and surveilling its citizens and the UK television programme which places strangers together in a house, locked away from the outside world for around 3 months as a form of voyeuristic entertainment.  When speculating as to the reasons the citizens of Panem continue to watch the games year in year out: we might propose tradition, utter fear of the repercussions of resistance, sadistic enjoyment or morbid fascination – in the way we sometimes can’t take our eyes off a road accident. Ironically, though, the extremely violent concept of The Games serves the purpose of pacifying the masses.  The tributes are not the only ones surveilled and controlled, so too are the citizen of the districts who watch The Games on the large telescreens.

When scholars write about surveillance, their starting point is often Jeremey Bentham and the panoptican. The panoptican describes the architecture of a prison, where prisoners in a cell may occupy the circumference, whilst the officer is positioned in a watchtower in the centre. From their vantage point, the single watchman or woman can observe all the prisoners, but cannot be seen. This places them in the position of being able to surveill all the prisoners without them knowing they are being watched.  Of course, the same systems of surveillance that are built to protect, may be feared for their power to keep track of personal lives, and groups. The control room of the virtual reality games reminds us of this design.  But where once surveillance was relatively static focussing on a single space (such as the panoptican), authors such as David Lyon comment on how the means of communication is increasingly mobile and people cannot hope to evade surveillance. In The Hunger Games this is achieved through remote spies such as Tracker Jackers and JabberJays. Even when Katniss moves towards the far-flung boundaries of the virtual forest, she is tracked and chased back towards the centre by a fire ball. This move from the outskirts of the forests back towards its heart also mirrors a central theme in the film. Katniss shuns the limelight, her move to the borders may not have just been a survival technique, it may have also been her yearning for the familiar. Indeed, the comparative privacy of District 12’s forests (the most remote area of the most remote district), which we see at the beginning of the film contrasts with the end of the movie in which Katniss is positioned centre stage in one of a number of celebratory public appearances.

Monday, 24 March 2014

District 9 on April 10th

District 9 (certificate 15), Thursday April 10th from 6pm 

The next Cardiff sciSCREEN will follow a screening of District 9 in the Hadyn Ellis Building, Cardiff University from 6pm.

The panel will include Howard Barrell (apartheid and South African politics), Gordon Hughes (policing and urban security), Nick Johns (race and racism), Richard Gale (residential segregation) and Martha Triantafilou (infection and immunity).

Tickets: are FREE but must be booked in advance. Book tickets here. Please be aware this film is a certificate 15. It contains strong language and violence
Showing: 6 pm. Please arrive 10-15 minutes before the showing starts so we can check tickets and get you to your seat.
Venue: Hadyn Ellis Building, Cardiff University, Maindy Road, CF24 4HQ: Location information.

The event is sponsored by Cardiff University's School of Social Sciences.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Hadyn Ellis Building sciSCREENs

For those who have never been to the new Hadyn Ellis Building, here is a picture of the lecture theatre where we will be screening the films for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Hunger Games 1 sciSCREENs this month.

Please remember both events are FREE, BUT BOOKING IS REQUIRED. You can register for the event HERE.

Friday, 28 February 2014

The Hunger Games 1 - March 20th

As well as the Diving Bell and the Butterfly sciSCREEN on March 11th, we will be running an event on Thursday March 20th.

As part of Science and Engineering Week  we will present the Hunger Games 1 at the Hadyn Ellis Building, Cardiff University. Following a 17.30 screening of the film, we present a FREE drinks reception and panel discussion.

 Speakers will include
5.30pm - Film screening
7.55pm - Refreshments
8.20pm - Talks and discussion
9.15pm - Finish

Refreshments and snacks will be provided and everyone attending is welcome to take part in the discussion part of the event.

The event is free, BUT BOOKING IS REQUIRED. You can register for the event HERE.
For more information please ring 02920 876936 or email

This event is sponsored by the British Science Association and the Welsh Government. Please note that the certificate for this film is 15.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - March 11th from 6pm

The next Cardiff sciSCREEN event will follow a free 6.00pm screening of the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly at the Hadyn Ellis Building, Cardiff University on Tuesday 11th of March as part of Brain Awareness Week. Following the screening Cardiff sciSCREEN present a FREE drinks reception and panel discussion. We will explore themes including the neuroscience of stroke, locked-in syndrome, the philosophy of perception and mind, and creative nonfiction related to illness.

Speakers confirmed include:

Wine and snacks will be provided and everyone attending is welcome to take part in the debate.

The event is free, BUT BOOKING IS REQUIRED. You can register for the event HERE.

For more information, please contact Catherine Hortop at 02920 688341 or on email at

This event is sponsored by the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute. Please note that the certificate for this film is 12.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Cardiff sciSCREEN's 4th Birthday treats

Cardiff sciSCREENer,

Our last event, which followed a screening of the film Her at Chapter Arts Centre, was the 30th film we have discussed. In addition to these films, we also supported the first Wales African Film Festival and were involved in the 2012 Times Cheltenham Science Festival.

March will be our 4th birthday, and as a treat we will be organizing 2 Cardiff sciSCREENS, as well as another one in April. These will be held in the new Hadyn Ellis Building at Cardiff University.

We will be in touch soon with information on these events. In the meantime, you can find a list of all the films we have organized our events around, as well as speaker essays, here. Many thanks to all those who have attended our events and continue to support the programme. For more up-to-date information, please follow us on Twitter.

Burgers, Baileys and Pugs in Denim Jackets: The Role of Social Isolation in “Her”

The following is an essay written by Katie Lewis and relates to the sciSCREEN discussion after a screening of the film Her. When you first heard the storyline for “Her”, you might have thought,

“A guy falling in love with his Operating System (OS) sounds quite weird. I had that teenage phase where I thought social interaction was too much effort and spent 12 hours a day playing World of Warcraft, but I don’t think I’d ever have taken it that far”. Hence, part of the success of this film rests on how believable or understandable the story is to us, the audience. Whether it works or not, this film highlights that meaningful connections with others are a fundamental human need, and it turns out that science has a lot to say about this.

If one day you thought, “cardiovascular disease, that sounds like fun” and you asked some people how you would go about getting it, after giving you a few weird looks, they would most likely recommend smoking 10 packs of cigarettes a day, going to McDonald’s for every meal and washing it all down with a bucket of whiskey (or something along those lines). This is also what health professionals thought. However, researchers were surprised to find that you can double (or even quadruple) your risk of chronic diseases simply by being socially isolated. Recent research even argues that its effects are on par to smoking and alcohol consumption. In addition to physical health, loneliness also has a negative impact on mental health. For example, being lonely increases the risk of depression, results in a poorer prognosis for those with dementia, and heightens risk of relapse for those with schizophrenia. The findings for physical illness are particularly intriguing because the medical profession traditionally held the view that psychological and physical issues were very separate things. So what accounts for this association? One argument was that lonely individuals are more likely to partake in unhealthy behaviours. In other words, if you’re lonely, you are more likely to eat KFC for 6 nights in a row plus there is no-one there to say, “why are you drinking Bailey’s from a shoe?” or “stop eating that black stuff on the George Foreman grill”.

However, research suggests that while social isolation can influence health behaviours, its effects on health persist even when controlling for a range of factors such as smoking, alcohol, diet and exercise. In particular, perceived social isolation (more commonly known as “loneliness”) seems to be more important in increasing this risk. This suggests that there are physical consequences of loneliness that are independent of our behaviours. In fact, lonely individuals have been found to have heightened levels of stress hormones and inflammatory markers in their blood, plus a range of other physical characteristics associated with the development of chronic diseases.

So why might humans have this detrimental response to loneliness? Most of us have heard someone describe the sensation of breaking up with a partner as “hurting”. However, research suggests that this statement is closer to the truth than it sounds. It turns out that the areas of the brain that are activated when we feel socially rejected overlap largely with those involved when we experience physical pain. Just like physical pain serves an adaptive purpose -- for example, “It hurts when I rub this cheese grater on my face, so I will stop doing that” -- so does social pain. Evolutionary psychologists propose that feeling pain in response to isolation bestowed an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors because it motivated them to seek connection to social groups. Groups promote survival through increased access to care, food and protection. They also act as an arena for meeting potential mates, and the protection of the group would mean that any resultant offspring would be more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Hence, over time a desire for social bonds became central to being human.

This need for connection can drive lonely individuals to seek substitutes in order to limit the negative consequences of social isolation. These substitutes can be animals, for instance, a lot of us may have suddenly found ourselves talking to our dog, even though we know they cannot communicate in the same way back. Some people might take this anthropomorphism a bit further and dress their pug in ‘revolting’ denim jackets. Studies even show that making people feel lonely will increase their likelihood of attributing human characteristics to inanimate objects such as gadgets. Hence, if people attribute human characteristics to things to combat loneliness, then it is understandable that Theo would attempt to combat any feelings of disconnectedness by forming a substitute connection to a very human-like OS. Thus, at face value, a guy falling in love with his OS might seem weird, but knowing what we know about human beings, it might not be that far fetched.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Tim Burton, Psychology and The Nightmare Before Christmas

The following is a presentation produced by Rhys Bevan Jones and relates to a sciSCREEN discussion around Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Music and Emotional Manipulation at the Movies

The following is an essay written by Dr. Alan Watson and relates to the film Her.

The use of music in films is the secret weapon that producers use to manipulate our emotions and shape our responses to the story. The same footage may appear romantic, sad or even sinister through the choice of music and within these broad confines, more subtle gradations of emotion can also be engendered. A little personal reflection will confirm that a piece of music can change how we feel within seconds, which is quite remarkable for a stimulus which is not found in the natural world. Though we may react emotionally to an ambient sound such as birdsong (perhaps as a consequence of the associations created by early memories) our feelings are unrelated to its real purpose or its meaning to the animal concerned. Furthermore, musical sounds are much richer in structure than natural sounds. The salient parameters include not only melody and rhythm, but also sound quality (timbre), harmony, and key (major versus minor). Despite some exceptions, music that triggers happy or positive emotions is more likely to be in a major key and at a brisk tempo, while melancholic, peaceful or romantic pieces tend to be either slower or in minor keys or both. Music intended to frighten is often discordant with strong or irregular rhythms and large changes of dynamics. Within a given culture, the lexicon of music-associated emotions is largely shared regardless of each individual’s listening preferences, which  is something that film producers must rely on if they are to pull off the trick.

Different aspects of music are processed in distinct regions of the brain. Where there is an insistent beat, we feel the urge to tap, nod or even dance in time. These activities require us to predict the beat, for which we must employ internal oscillators or metronomes. The brain does not have any that are dedicated to sound alone, so those that are used to control rhythmic movements (e.g. walking) are pressed into service, hence our compulsion to move. The greater mystery however, is the access that music has to both the mental and physical dimensions of our emotions. It strongly activates the reward system of the brain (which is needed to ensure that we carry out tasks such as eating and reproductive behaviour necessary for our survival) and influences the emotional centres of the limbic system. Our mental responses may be associated with physical ones such as increases in heart rate, changes in blood flow and the prickling sensation of hair rising on the skin. Why it is so effective in doing this is a mystery, as some of the features of music most effective at hijacking this system (e.g. harmony and key) are recent human inventions and can have played no part in shaping the evolution of our brain.

Coming at last to the film, one of the most interesting features of the soundtrack is paradoxically, the use of silence or ambient sounds to accompany the greater part of the story. The music of the introductory sequence is a series of discords, almost a palate cleanser, after which the palpable silence which follows is a relief. The representation of normal life is bland and artificial and the backstory of the human characters is limited and two dimensional. It is only the relationship with the operating system that is given emotional depth and a musical narrative. The OS composes a piece to provide tangible evidence of the relationship with Theodore for which there can be no photographs and one activity that they can share on an equal footing is singing together. Even when there is personal conflict, the music tells us that the breakup does not engender anger or resentment, but only a feeling of loss as the two main characters (one human, one virtual) find themselves inexorably drifting apart. Neither does it allow us to consider that a group of operating systems acting for their own benefit might be sinister or a threatening concept, a question that is perhaps left to be explored in another story!