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Want to Change Your Life? This Movie Might Inspire You

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A scene from People V. The State of Illusion. Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

People V. The State of Illusion, a new docudrama from Samuel Goldwyn Films, is a mixture of fiction and brain science that, despite these awkward bedfellows, was compelling enough to keep me up late on a Friday night. Although most of the well-worn findings parroted by the movie’s parade of experts were not new to me, the filmmakers helped me see them in a new light. The result was at the very least thought provoking and might, in fact, inspire some people to change their outlook on the world for the better.

The movie tells the story of a single father, Aaron Roberts, who destroys his life in an instant, in an accident portrayed as a culmination of stress and sadness. Roberts was driving while intoxicated and ran a red light, leading to a crash that claimed the life of the other driver. He ends up in prison and his daughter becomes a ward of the state. The prison walls become a metaphor for the confining boundaries we build in our minds and from which, the movie suggests, we must all try to escape if we want to be happier and reach our full potential. As Roberts gradually transforms his outlook inside the prison cell on the movie set, the experts tell the rest of us how to do this in a more metaphorical sense.

J.B. Tuttle as the imprisoned father in People V. The State of Illusion. Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

The film, which was written and produced by a former attorney Austin Vickers, invokes a good deal of science to back up the simple, uplifting argument that we all have the power to change our lives by changing our own minds. The message is not unlike that of many life coaches, but the arguments are more subtle and interesting than the platitudes I usually hear. Here are some lessons the film extracts from the science along with a few untethered snippets of advice for becoming a happier person:

  • We perceive a tiny fraction of the information impinging on our senses. The brain employs a filter: neural processes focus our attention on the data that seem necessary and important to us at that moment. The sheer amount of data that exists, however, underscores the theoretical possibility of choice. If we are paying attention to something that makes us unhappy, then, we could, in theory, choose to focus on something that would make us feel good instead. The film doesn’t initially tell us exactly how to train our attention differently or even what we are supposed to be looking for, but the idea of being able to live in a different perceptual universe from the one we currently inhabit is kind of cool.

    Stress relief? Courtesy of Mindfulness via Flickr.

  • Many of us have incredibly busy lives that often feel stressful. The stress, the film suggests, has the effect of making our world seem smaller, of making our mental walls close in. The suggestion is reasonable, although I’ve never heard it put quite this way. Stress hormones are known to suppress the function of our brain’s chief executive, the prefrontal cortex. This area, on the brain’s surface just behind the forehead, governs numerous decision-making, thought-juggling tasks. Stress inhibits those processes. As a result, children who grow up in stressful homes have trouble in school. It somehow never occurred to me, though, that my own stress could shut down my thinking capacity, or that, more generally, the epidemic of adult busyness (or worse) might be having that same impact on an entire culture. The film indicates, moreover, that if we don’t slow down and figure out how to limit the stress in our lives, our brains could be dangerously compromised. When you can’t think clearly, you could end up like the film’s protagonist: a victim of impulses that lead to dangerous behaviors such as drinking and driving. I am not sure the slope is usually that slippery, but the advice to slow down and take it easy for these reasons did resonate with me.


    Feelings guide our gaze. Courtesy of scinern via Flickr.

  • No matter how mellow our lives or how well our brain’s CEO is operating, the film reminds us that emotion is what really guides our behavior. Our fears, loves, ambitions direct our attention even down to manipulating the eye muscles that govern our gaze. People often feel that their feelings are immobile, that they are stuck with them and so simply need to cope with them or somehow, work around them. But in truth, like everything else in the brain, the emotional system is flexible. We can train ourselves to feel differently about things. Strangely enough, one way to accomplish this about-switch is through practice, or so the movie’s experts tell us. People who practice suffering every day do the same thing as people who practice their golf swing: they get better at it. Conversely, if you practice optimism, you may well get better at that. Programs for children such as Goldie Hawn’s MindUP, an initiative spreading through schools around the world, help instill such emotional habits and patterns at an early age.

    iPhone lock screen reminds you to be mindful. Courtesy of ssoosay via Flickr.

  • Another way to influence your emotional reactions is to retell your life story. Think about the story you are in, how you cast the narrative of your existence. Ask yourself, the film advises, “What might be a different perception of the same facts that would change my life for the better?” Assemble the pieces of your life that are dark, broken or dirty into an attractive mosaic or cast them off to the side as unworthy of inclusion. Psychotherapists frequently help their clients recast upsetting events in a new way. The technique can be very helpful, although perhaps difficult to accomplish on your own.
  • Sometimes we need turn off that internal storyteller. Lighten up. Relax. Be in the moment. Research suggests that practicing mindfulness, a state in which we focus fully on the present moment without elaboration or judgment, can lower stress and increase happiness. Or as one talking head put it, “We are all in a deep slumber.” So let’s wake up.
  • Once we open our eyes, we should also be willing to take risks. To achieve success, people need to say yes to the unknown, and embrace the discomfort of unsafe territory.
  • Another piece of related wisdom the movie tosses out: Be gentle with yourself. Take the time to pat yourself on the back. Be kind to others as well. Love, we learn, is the act of me allowing you to be you.

Austin Vickers

Austin Vickers in People V. The State of Illusion. Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

For more about People V. The State of Illusion, which opened March 16 in Seattle and today in Denver, click here. Future release dates are:

Portland: March 30

San Francisco: April 13

San Diego: April 20

Los Angeles: April 27

Chicago: May 4

Dallas: May 11

Miami: May 18

New York City: June 1

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. pammalamma 2:39 am 03/24/2012

    I don’t understand why Scientific American is teaching mysticism. This is very strange. I have read this magazine since the 80′s, and now this? I have no problem with metaphysics, being that I do believe in Jesus, but, what does this have to do with science, I’m wondering? This is like something one might see on or It’s nice, just not that much science, really. I mean, when Christians try to tell other people how to have better lives or what is right and wrong, we’re supposedly imposing our beliefs on others, but it’s perfectly fine for Scientific American to moralize and teach religion, I suppose?

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  2. 2. Markuf 8:06 pm 03/24/2012

    The late David Bohm was a quantum physicist who made significant contributions in the fields of theoretical physics, philosophy, and neuropsychology, and to the Manhattan Project. He became an assistant professor at Princeton University, where he worked closely with Albert Einstein, might be helpful in understanding the wholeness and the implicate order. Thought is a system he defined: What is the source of all this trouble? I’m saying that the source is basically in thought. Many people would think that such a statement is crazy, because thought is the one thing we have with which to solve our problems. That’s part of our tradition. Yet it looks as if the thing we use to solve our problems which is the source of our problems. It’s like going to the doctor and having him make you ill. In fact, in 20% of medical cases we do apparently have that going on. But in the case of thought, it’s far over 20%.
    …the general tacit assumption in thought is that it’s just telling you the way things are and that it’s not doing anything – that ‘you’ are inside there, deciding what to do with the info. But you don’t decide what to do with the info. Thought runs you. Thought, however, gives false info that you are running it, that you are the one who controls thought. Whereas actually thought is the one which controls each one of us. Thought is creating divisions out of itself and then saying that they are there naturally. This is another major feature of thought: Thought doesn’t know it is doing something and then it struggles against what it is doing. It doesn’t want to know that it is doing it. And thought struggles against the results, trying to avoid those unpleasant results while keeping on with that way of thinking. That is what I call “sustained incoherence”.

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  3. 3. N a g n o s t i c 8:47 pm 03/24/2012

    Changing (improving) your life by changing your mind is a dangerous concept promoted by Libertarians and Conservatives. We must not let this concept endanger the manifest truth that government action is the most effective way to change (improve) lives.

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  4. 4. BrainBites 12:01 pm 03/25/2012

    Thanks for this review Ingrid. I’ll keep an eye out for this movie. The ideas here are reminiscent of cognitive therapies, and extending back to the work of Albert Ellis and rational emotive therapy. Regarding the comments about the lack of science, I believe the interplay between our thoughts and the physical hardware of our brain is only now being realized. It doesn’t seem to be a large leap that if our brains are the author of our thoughts, then our thoughts can affect our brain. As an example cabbies in London are tasked with memorizing a body of work called “The Knowledge”, which has to do with complex routes taken between destinations in London. This spatial memory task apparently alters the relative volume within the hippocampus. Memorization is just a special form of “thinking”, so is it really a stretch that more subtle types of thinking can shift our thought platform?

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  5. 5. PersephoneK 1:05 pm 03/25/2012

    Nagnostic, please tell me you’re just being ironic. Government is the only way to improve our lives? You have got to be kidding me.

    While I am still very undecided about the ability of anyone to change their thoughts, I can’t see how government action can every achieve greater happiness.

    For more on the power of thought, I suggest people read Sam Harris’ “Free Will” and Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Harris, a neuroscientist, discusses how we cannot control our thoughts pretty much at all. Kahneman, a nobel prize winning psychologist/economist, discusses the different types of thinking.

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  6. 6. N a g n o s t i c 11:39 pm 03/25/2012

    Marvin Harris is more to my liking, probably because I have no control over my thoughts. Thanks for the heads up. I shall now exercise no control of myself and disregard all rules, including those of grammar and communication…

    I be #$$^Gg283v!$d(*&^%!!

    Ahh… exhilarating.

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  7. 7. WRR Munro 12:56 am 03/26/2012

    It isn’t mysticism (pammalamma), it’s neuroscience. Because ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ we can train our own brains (deliberately acquire ‘brain habits’) just as we can train our bodies. I can recommend two fascinating books on the subject: ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’ by Norman Doidge and ‘The Science of Happiness’ by Stefan Klein.

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  8. 8. miesjz 2:35 pm 03/26/2012

    …To achieve success, people need to say yes to the unknown…
    I read the article, saw the introduction, and though this is clearly meant for US audience, there is a universal message. The phrase above surprised me, the whole thing is not about success, and the hunt for it, but mainly about hapiness, consiousness, being in the now, being satisfied with what you have instead of what you may have. A typical topic though very interesting

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  9. 9. Rob369 4:05 pm 03/27/2012

    I took a class several years ago on counseling drug addicts at PCC, and one of the textbooks required was called, Inside the Brain by Ronald Kotulak. It fascinated me to no end. A year later I had read about 15 other books on how the brain works. I’m very excited about the movie, People v. The State of Illusion. I’ll be seeing it this Friday here in Portland. Those who belittle neuroscience are fools. All of life is a reflection of how the brain works (and dysfunctions), and vice versa.

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  10. 10. bucketofsquid 9:47 am 04/9/2012

    Having successfully changed my thought patterns many times I can assure you that changing your thought patterns is very possible and is based on solid science. From the simple but powerful habit of waking at the desired time without an annoying alarm clock to the ever useful discarding of anger over past events that are no longer relevant, I’ve been able to greatly improve my life. It isn’t easy but with practice becomes much more doable. My first efforts usually failed but as I persisted it became easier and I recommend it to everyone.

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  11. 11. Ingrid Wickelgren in reply to Ingrid Wickelgren 10:33 am 04/11/2012

    bucketofsquid: That is inspiring. Thank you for commenting. On the whole, I really enjoyed this entire batch of comments. Thanks to all of you for sharing your wisdom.

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  12. 12. steventhaw 3:27 am 12/4/2012

    This is simply Wickelgren’s translation of Christ’s Sermon on the mount. Nothing new. Next.

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