The Frontal Cortex

Locked-In Syndrome

It is, perhaps, the most nightmarish of neurological conditions: when the brain stem is selectively injured, a person can be perfectly self-aware and yet completely paralyzed, so that they lose control of virtually all voluntary muscles. The technical name of the syndrome captures the horror: “Locked-In Syndrome“.

This weekend, I watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (newly released on DVD), which tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French journalist, who suffered a massive stroke that left him painfully cognizant of his complete paralysis. He ended up writing a memoir by blinking his left eye in response to the correct letter. (Needless to say, the writing process was slow and agonizing.)

Directed by the painter Julian Schnabel, the movie is lush and gorgeous. It’s also an incredibly vivid portrait of what it’s like to be “locked-in”. Most of the movie unfolds from the limited perspective of Bauby’s left eye, so that we see what he sees. When he blinks, the screen goes briefly blank, like a camera shutter. When a doctor sews his right eyelid shut – he couldn’t blink that eye, so it was getting dry and infected – we see the needle thread the flesh, but we see it happen from the inside. Can you think of any other movies that are primarily rooted in the first-person perspective?


  1. #1 Jeff Darcy
    May 5, 2008

    Do Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield count? There the “first person” is supposedly a video camera wielded by one of the characters, but it seems like a similar idea.

  2. #2 Steve Higgins
    May 5, 2008

    Those two came to mind as well. There are a couple of older ones as well. I can’t think of them off the top of my head but they are mentioned by J.J. Gibson in his writings about motion pictures. If I remember to check I’ll send them along when I get home tonight.

    I also ‘accidentally’ saw this movie over the weekend and was very impressed. Especially since the first-person view didn’t make me want to throw up and wasn’t cliche. In cloverfield I wanted to puke the whole time (the shittyness of the movie didn’t help).

  3. #3 Daniel
    May 6, 2008

    This was an incredible film for many reasons, notably its technical representation of the first person perspective.

    While Blair Witch and Cloverfeild feel like they are filmed in the first person you’re continually tied to the view of the camera and not necissarily the character. The only other example which comes to mind are a number of scenes in Being John Malkovich where you see life through his eyes.

    This film really is a first (to my knowledge) in that the camera is set in position of the actual eye – you get the distortion of the feild of vision, interference from the eyelid, the translucancy of flesh, even the drowsy unfocussed vision of waking. Not only that but during scenes where he delves into his imagination you essentially watch the images being produced in his minds eye.

    Technically I would say that this film is the only one to represent ‘being another individual’ to this degree of reality. It acheives this thanks to some very ambitious camera work and cinematography from Janusz Kaminski.

  4. #4 jb
    May 6, 2008

    Years ago I sat next to someone on a plane who had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Ultimatly she would lose all muscle control and die of breathing difficulty. All she would be able to do in her final days would be meditate and so she had received instruction (I can think of nothing worse than being trapped in your body and being at the mercy of one’s thinking mind). A year or two later a friend of mine was similarly diagnosed and we meditated together until she was unable to communicate….I didn’t know about the possibility of communicating through the eyes then. In her final days I would just read Bible passages to her, not knowing what else to do for sure. Interestingly enough at her funeral, two of her three daughters mentioned having dreams of their mother the night she died in which she told them about her savings account where she had saved the money to pay for her funeral.
    They had not known of this and indeed there was the money.

    I’m also reminded of Jill Bolte Taylor’s experience with a stroke that disabled her left hemisphere for 8 years. She lost the ability to move and communicate and think which made her a meditation master mentally though physically an infant in a adult’s body. Fortunately she was and is an neuroanatomist and has a mother who was willing and able to ‘re-raise’ her, though she still can return to her blissful right hemisphere at will. Time magazine has just named her one of the 100 most influential people of the year. Catch an Oprah interview with her next Monday night May 12 at

  5. #5 Magatha
    May 7, 2008

    I just got home after visiting a friend who survived a v-fib event, the kind that kills most people, but he’s alive, not locked-in, and he knows his name, and he knows me, and he knows his wife, but he is unstuck in time, and his mind flits about, and it troubles him a lot. His wife is working with the health insurance case managers (I myself would perhaps beat the crap out of them) and the next step is to get a neurologist/psychologist person to do the tests that will help us figure out which parts of his brain are firing or mis-firing, and we are hoping that will help us figure out what kinds of things we can do to help his brain heal, or to help him enjoy life as it is now, or to somehow make things not suck so much.

    Can any of y’all direct me to a site or board or blog or anything that deals with recovery from anoxic/hypoxic brain injury? And maybe has some information about how I can help? I am sorry to hijack this thread, but I came to ScienceBlogs because I’m getting real concerned about my friend – he’s currently living in a facility that specializes in Alzheimer’s and other progressive dementia conditions, and we know this isn’t the right place but it’s the best we can do right now – but I can’t seem to find the right search phrases. Also, I’m afraid of ending up on some site that’s all about conspiracy theories about the REAL reason his brain got damaged. Ya know? I don’t need a crusade.

    I will keep looking, so if you can’t help, that’s okay. Geh gesund. I’ll find a way. He’s my friend.

  6. #6 claus
    May 7, 2008

    As for movies using a radical first-person perspective, there are two film noirs which come to mind: Robert Montgomery’s “Lady In The Lake” is a Philip Marlowe vehicle entirely filmed from view point of the central character. As are the first 20 minutes or so of Delmer Daves’ “Dark Passage” about a murder suspect undergoing facial surgery. The whole pre-surgery story is seen through the eyes of the main protagonist (before he miraculously becomes Humphrey Bogart). However, in both movies the focus is more on the novelty effect of the perspective, and not on realistic details of perception.

    Somewhat related: “Death Watch” by Bertrand Tavernier, a sci-fi thriller starring Harvey Keitel as a paparazzo who has a camera in his brain – with the eye as lens – so he can film live footage of a dying Romy Schneider.

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    Directed by the painter Julian Schnabel, the movie is lush and gorgeous. It’s also an incredibly vivid portrait of what it’s like to be “locked-in”. Most of the movie unfolds from the limited perspective of Bauby’s left eye, so that we see what he sees. When he blinks, the screen goes briefly blank,

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