What can aliens teach us about being human?
Review of Arrival, my film of 2016 (USA, 2016, directed by Denis Villeneuve)
By: Dr James Hartley, Foundation Year 2 at Brighton and Sussex University Healthcare Trust
The above question is one that is commonly asked in the sci-fi genre. Think Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of homo sapiens eternal desire for survival when pitted against “the perfect organism” in Alien, or Scarlett Johanson’s exploration of the human experience in Jonathon Glazer’s abstract extra-terrestrial-thriller Under the Skin. In Arrival, the latest outing from talented Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, based on a short story by author Ted Chiang, the study goes more than skin-deep and profound questions are raised that have relevance to us not only as humans but as clinicians.
Twelve alien space crafts with the appearance of giant obsidian eggs have landed on our planet. Within each machine there is a gravity-bending corridor that, every 18 hours, opens itself, inviting visitors from planet earth. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a highly regarded linguistics professor, is tasked by the US military to establish a dialogue with the life forms within. As Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) puts it: ‘What do they want? Where are they from?’ Her partner for the challenging task is Physics jock, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Using linguistic science as their weapon, the duo battle with the 7-legged ‘heptapods’ and their inky ‘logographic’ scrawls. In the global backdrop, there is a growing unease amongst certain nations about the true nature of the intergalactic guests and to complicate matters further, Dr Banks is struggling with a growing intensity of traumatic memories and visions. The film builds to an emotional climax and ends as any good cerebral drama should; answering some questions whilst leaving others open for further thought.
Language and the role it plays in our thinking is the beating heart of the film. Defined as “the method of human communication[i]”, language is something that many of us take for granted. At 18 months old, humans already have a vocabulary of 50-100 words, and by age 5, some of us are able to practice the art of literacy, lending permanence to our thoughts and cognitions. But how does language influence our thoughts? And is it even possible to ‘think’, without language? In linguistic circles, these questions sum up a theory known as the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’. Whilst the theory is not without contention there does appear to be a growing body of evidence demonstrating the powerful effect of language on thought. In their study into the effects of Korean and Chinese language on visual interpretation, Rhode et al (2016) showed a statistical difference in “attentional bias”. Korean speakers were more likely to focus on information in the background of an image (‘ground information’), whilst Chinese speakers better recalled information pertaining to ‘salient figures’ in an image. The authors postulate that the formal structures of language itself underpin these differences. In Arrival’s take on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Dr Bank’s growing adaptation to the non-linear constructs of heptapod language allows her to perceive the world in a different light altogether – an eloquent, if somewhat hyperbolic, demonstration of the differences seen in Rhode’s 2016 study.
Thinking of language in a medical context, we can appreciate the impact of pathology on language in stroke syndromes. There are a number of language deficits that occur depending on the site of vascular brain damage. Wernicke’s and Broca’s aphasia are two ‘textbook’ examples (Harding M, 2014). The effect that these deficits can have on one’s cognition is demonstrated powerfully in the documentary film ‘My Beautiful Broken Brain’, which tells the story of Lotje Sodderland, a young Londoner who suffered an intra-cerebral haemorrhage in 2011. I was fortunate enough to see the film and meet Lotje, when she visited Princess Royal Hospital in October 2016 as part of the ‘World Stroke Campaign’. In the film Lotje presents the world around her after her stroke as surreal and frightening, comparing it to a David Lynch film. Lotje’s stroke had affected her temporal and parietal lobes, causing severe aphasia and changing her perception of the surrounding world forever. In an article for The Guardian, which Lotje dictated via siri following three years of intensive rehabilitation following the stroke, she explained that losing the ability to speak, read or write had left her “unable even to contemplate the idea of fear…as if I had become fear itself” (The Guardian, 2014). In a strange resemblance to Dr Bank’s familiarity with heptapod’s ‘non-linear logograms’ in Arrival, Lotje describes her new-found perception as lacking in ‘left-to-right’ patterns. In a further echo to Dr Banks character awakening at the end of the film, Lotje describes her new world as “a kind of rebirth; unexpected and painful, but also more vivid, filled with purpose, meaning and potential”. Not withstanding the significant differences that exist between Denis Villeneuve’s fictional screenplay and Lotje’s challenging reality; both Dr Banks and Lotje’s stories demonstrate the power of language in its influence on the mind.
Arrival is one of the most interesting and emotionally arresting films of 2016. It is refreshing to see a big budget Hollywood film not shying away from exploring a thought-provoking idea based on solid scientific grounding. In addition to highlighting the importance of language in human cognition, the film also delivers another topical message; the merits of compassion, understanding and tolerance in ‘trumping’ over wall-building and divisiveness, a message more pertinent than ever in our current socio-political climate and one I hope we can carry forward into 2017.
- Rhode, a.k., voyer, b.g. and gleibs, i.h. (2016) ‘does language matter? Exploring chinese–korean differences in holistic perception’, 7.
- Harding, m. (2014) dysarthria and dysphasia. Medical information. Patient. Available at: http://patient.info/doctor/dysarthria-and-dysphasia (accessed: 3 january 2017)
- Sodderland, l. (2016) ‘i felt as if i had become fear itself’: life after a stroke at 34. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/nov/22/it-felt-as-if-i-had-become-fear-itself-life-after-a-stroke-at-34 (accessed: 20 december 2017)
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