We must suspend our belief for a little while when we watch the latest medical drama or Hollywood heart-pounder. We know what we’re watching isn’t going to be entirely reflective of reality. But just how much of Hollywood’s portrayal of medical methodology is accurate? With the help of The Conference Website, a leading organiser of medical conferences, we look at medical myths on the big screen and how true they are.
CPR is perfect for a gripping drama, and it’s understandable why so many films and TV shows have the patient gasping air into their lungs, eyes flying open, as a result of a dedicated doctor’s CPR attempts. But the success rate of CPR is not as high as people may think.
Less than one in 10 victims of cardiac arrest in the UK go on to survive and be discharged from hospital, according to the British Heart Foundation, It must be noted, however, that the UK’s survival rate is lower than other developed countries: Norway has a 25 per cent survival rate, for example, and Seattle in the United States has a survival rate of 20 per cent.
Amnesia is a common trope of cinema and TV, but the effects of amnesia, and the touted cure for it, isn’t what someone could call ‘medically accurate’.
Amnesia does not wipe a person’s entire recollection. More accurately, amnesia causes partial memory loss. Old memories can become difficult to recall, and new memories become harder to retain. People suffering from amnesia can also find it hard to imagine what may happen in the future. But it is not, as TV shows and movies often present, a total slate-cleaning. People with amnesia tend to still retain a sense of self and lucidity.
It is also not as common as the silver screen might have you believe. Nor is it treated by a swift blow to the head! In fact, amnesia tends to resolve on its own, without any treatment.
Always a dramatic moment in a drama: the surgeon is working hard, sweating, swearing under his breath, and then we heard it. That tell-tale, tinny, persistent beep.
The patient has flatlined.
Next comes the frantic scurrying, the charging of a defibrillator, the yell of “clear!” or a valiant plea that the surgeon “isn’t giving up on you!”. However, this is all untrue in the real world. Once a patient flatlines, no amount of electricity or shocking will restart the heart. This is because a heart, when flatlining, has no electrical activity in it. In order to successfully shock a heart back into a stable rhythm, the heart needs to have some electrical activity of its own left, i.e. it needs to still be beating in some way, even if it is a dangerous quiver.
Common Myth: We only use 10 per cent of our brains
Movie posters and trailers for the French-American film Lucy (2014) posited the following tagline: ‘The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.’
All around the world, doctors, psychologists, and neurosurgeons collectively screamed in frustration.
This myth is one that has been around since the early 1900s. It’s easy to see why such a story would be appealing — the idea that we only use 10% of our brain capacity is both an excuse and a motivator. On the one hand, it excuses people for their current state of living, while on the other, offers a tempting 90 per cent of ‘untapped potential’ for people to strive towards. It assures people that right now, they are not living as their best possible selves.
However, it doesn’t lay blame. ‘Everyone’, on average, is the same. The same statement suggests that there is so much more ‘within’ to give. No wonder self-help gurus and motivational posts love this brain-based myth.
Unfortunately, this is a complete myth. In fact, balling your hand into a fist takes more than a tenth of the brain to perform. Your brain does not have large portions locked away from you, nor are professionals gathering at medical conferences to debate how to crack into the mythical ‘other 90 per cent’ of the brain.
It seems there are just some of the medical myths that films, TV, and fictional books continue to cling to. Sure, they make things more dramatic and exciting, but they are by no means accurate!
British Heart Foundation, 2014. ‘Creating a nation of lifesavers’