It’s hard to remember now but there was a time not so long ago when dystopian movies starring teens dominated the box office.
In the early 2010s hits like The hunger Games and different catapulted actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley to stardom. maze runner rounded out this unofficial trilogy of sci-fi inspired teen franchises, but how realistic is the science behind this dark thriller?
(Spoilers ahead for The Maze Runner.)
In the film, the earth has been ravaged by a deadly pandemic called flare, a disease that appears to affect the brain. But some people, like the guys in The Maze Runnerare immune.
Scientists from a group called WICKED have placed the boys in a stressful maze environment to map their brain patterns as they try to escape the maze. Her goal: to find a cure for the disease through this bizarre experiment.
Experts say the film’s massive science experiment is underwhelming, while entertaining on the big screen.
“I can’t imagine how putting kids in an ever-changing maze would provide insight into their disease resistance,” says Charles Vorhees The opposite. Vorhees is a neuroscientist and co-director of the Animal Behavior Core Lab.
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How do real maze experiments work?
In the film, boys live surrounded by a walled labyrinth that appears to be the size of a small town. The film’s gigantic maze is a technological marvel – its shape changes every night, bewildering the “runners” searching the maze for a way out. Monsters known as Grievers also lurk in the maze.
“They run through the maze, map it, remember it and try to find a way out,” says one of the other boys to newcomer Thomas, the film’s protagonist.
Such an elaborate maze isn’t exactly plausible, though Labyrinth RuneThe construction of r bears a slight resemblance to real rodent mazes, which test the animal’s memory and cognitive ability to navigate spaces.
“We often use mazes because rodents have very good spatial navigation skills and the tests provide clear objective measures of learning and memory,” says Lindsay Lueptow, director of UCLA’s rodent behavior testing core The opposite.
The most famous is the classic Morris water maze, in which mice have to find a hidden platform in a murky pool. (Vorhees led a similar experiment known as the Cincinnati Water Maze). Another variation is the radial arm maze, in which a food reward is placed in some of the maze’s “arms” to test the rodent’s memory.
“There are basically two types of long-term memory that a rodent, or any mammal, including humans, can use to navigate a complex environment,” says Vorhees.
The first is allocentric or spatial navigation. With allocentric memory, people can effectively create a spatial map to escape mazes. The part of the brain we use for this is the hippocampus.
trailer for The Maze Runner.
“Regardless of whether the maze changed every night or not, you would probably use your hippocampus to get around,” says Lueptow.
The second is egocentric or implicit memory, and it involves skills we’ve learned through repetition, like brushing our teeth or driving a car.
Vorhees says when the kids come in The Maze Runner could see “stable, unchanging clues” outside or above the walls of the maze, then they could use these fixed landmarks to escape the maze. But the walls of the maze are so high and so uniform The Maze Runner that the children cannot rely on such landmarks.
“In that case, they would have to rely on self-centered navigation relying on self-moving cues, such as For example, having a fixed starting point and moving at a certain speed in a certain direction for a certain amount of time and making a series of turns that you remember to use next time,” says Vorhees.
The problem is that the maze changes every day, but you could theoretically use egocentric memory to escape the experiment in a single day before the maze changes lanes.
is maze runner‘s experiment realistic?
The basic idea of putting humans in a maze that they must try to memorize and escape from before it changes every day is not far-fetched and is actually similar to some rodent experiments.
“All of the tasks you mention are quite similar in that the rodent is placed in the contraption and has to use spatial cues in the room to navigate to an escape or to find a specific reward,” says Lueptow.
The idea of an ever-changing maze has been replicated in real experiments. In the Morris water maze, you can change the position of the hidden platform every day to test the rodents’ memory, Vorhees explains. Mazes aren’t, in theory, a bad way to test for brain disorders either, since the hippocampus – which is impaired in degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s – relies on spatial navigation.
“The use of tests based on spatial navigation is therefore useful when modeling these brain disorders or testing new treatments,” adds Lueptow.
But the maze experiment falls apart when we examine its specifics.
First, to achieve your goal of understanding why the children are unique, you would need both an experimental group of children who are immune to the disease – which we have in the film – and a control group of children who are immune to the disease are vulnerable. But there is no control group in the film.
“In this hypothetical experiment, you would have to put the ‘special’ kids in the maze and measure how they behave, and then put ‘normal’ kids in the same maze and compare the results,” says Vorhees.
Second, the idea that children need to be placed in a high-stress environment in order to map their brain patterns also doesn’t hold water. In general, you want to minimize the effects of stress in memory and learning experiments. Even in Morris’ water maze, rodents — who are good swimmers — don’t face the stakes of life and death that human children face The Maze Runner.
“If you want to understand how a virus affects cognitive abilities, I don’t necessarily want to introduce the additional variable stress,” says Lueptow.
Vorhees adds, “I can’t imagine how such an experiment would lead to insights into how these kids are different from other kids.”
Could we test humans in real life in mazes?
“The boys would have to be tested and sacrificed in harsh environments where their brain activity could be studied. Anything to understand what makes her different,” explains the director of WICKED.
In the film, WICKED is portrayed as a somewhat nefarious group conducting unethical experiments on children in order to find a cure for the disease that is infecting mankind. But could you actually put people in a maze in real life to test their cognitive functions? Maybe, but it doesn’t make much sense, experts say.
“In theory, you could test humans in the same maze-based tests as rodents, but that would be kind of pointless,” says Lueptow.
There are now more sophisticated tools to test human spatial memory and learning, like using virtual reality in a lab environment. You can use word repetition games or less physically intensive puzzle solving.
“Basically, it’s much easier to test human cognition because we can talk to each other than rodent cognition,” adds Lueptow.
Even if you put people in a maze for a science experiment, it would be nearly impossible to track their brain activity at the levels shown in the film because you can’t study brain patterns in “free-moving people,” says Vorhees. Instead, they would have to view a virtual reality maze in some kind of fixed brain scanner.
But rodent mazes are likely to remain — even if human mazes like the ones we see them in The Maze Runner never manifest.
“Unfortunately, we still need our animal models because we can’t give humans experimental treatments and our ability to ‘look’ at living human brains is limited,” says Lueptow.
maze runner now streaming on HBO Max.