'You must be joking': 007 in the laboratory and academia

With a proper psychologist making an appearance in the latest James Bond film, Professor G. Neil Martin looks at how and why scientists have studied the secret agent.

Everyone knows Bond’s resident scientist. Major Boothroyd, played by Desmond Llewelyn – the original Q – was a regular foil to Bond’s insouciance and cavalier disregard for office equipment. Desmond morphed into John Cleese, who then transmogrified into the dry, youthful, voluminously-coiffed Ben Whishaw who operated intriguing security breaches from the matutinal comfort of his pyjamas. His was the youthful demeanour which elicited Bond’s exasperated ‘you must be joking’ response. But Q, of course, has not been Bond’s only cinema scientist.

Ignore the dispensable villains and their bacteriological or viral plans for world destruction, and there are some notable meetings of minds between spook and boffin in Bond. There was arguably Bond’s first strong female lead, Dr Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), the US astronaut in Moonraker. And there was, at the other end of the hotpants spectrum, Dr Christmas Jones (Denise Richards), The World Is Not Enough’s unorthodox physicist. The first Bond Girl of the Pierce Brosnan era was Caroline (no surname, just Caroline, like Sting, or Lulu, or Bono) who was sent to undertake a psychological evaluation of Bond in Goldeneye, but ended up unwillingly racing Xenia Onatopp and being seduced by Bond in his DB5. Dr Molly Warmflash (Serena Scott Thomas) did a similar job – this time rehabilitating Bond after his collision with the Millenium Dome – in The World Is Not Enough. Doctor Hall was the comically Freudian shrink in Skyfall. And, let’s not forget – since we are in the era of SPECTRE – Bond’s first Eon film villain, Dr Julius No. Treasurer of the greatest criminal organisation in China, SPECTRE member, and dextrocardic (in Fleming’s novel, he was born with his heart on the right side), Doctor No went to medical school in Wisconsin but, after an unfortunate radiation accident, ended up having his hands replaced with pincers. And, now, in SPECTRE, we have the appearance of Bond’s first proper psychologist in a significant role requiring more than just word association and debriefing, Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux).

So science and psychology have intruded on Bond’s world, but what about vice versa?

A curious cottage industry exists examining films via the prism of psychological theory and research. Review papers have examined the veracity of the representation of amnesia (Baxendale, 2004), epilepsy (Baxendale, 2003) and neurology (Ford & Larner, 2009) in the movies. Books have been written on the mad scientist archetype (Grayling, 2005), and the representation of mental illness in cinema (Wedding & Niemiec, 2014).

The cottage industry extends to Bond. For example, tucked away underneath the seemingly innocuous title, ‘functional connectivity of the macaque brain across stimulus and arousal states’ lies an fMRI study of monkeys’ brain response to Tomorrow Never Dies (Moeller Nallasamy, Tsao & Freiwald, 2009). ‘In our first experiment,’ Sebastian Moeller and co-authors begin, ‘we scanned two monkeys (monkeys L, H) while they viewed clips of the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies,” interleaved with three blank periods.’ Via this method, the authors found 20 cortical network regions involved in the processing of arousing visual stimuli (which probably excluded Elliott Carver’s portable keyboard taping etiquette), including the visual, auditory, somatosensory, motor, prefrontal and parietal cortices. Bond crops up in another study, on imitation and smoking (Harakeh et al., 2009). Eighty-four smokers watched a Bond film which featured smoking (Dr No) or no smoking (The Living Daylights) and which contained breaks for pro-smoking or anti-smoking ads. Watching the smoking in Bond had no effect on ‘smoking intensity’, according to the study published in Tobacco Control. Tomorrow Never Dies was also the subject of a paper in Magnetic Resonance ImagingTND is the go-to Bond film of choice for scientists (Whittingstall et al., 2010). This paper examined alterations in EEG activity during the continuous viewing of a two-minute film clip (the first two minutes of TND) in seven participants. The researchers found that the perception of differences between visual contrasts in the film were correlated with increased EEG activation in the primary visual cortex.

Another, psychophysiological study examined participants’ responses while they played the part of James Bond in the game, JB007: Nightfire (Ravaja et al., 2008). In the experiment, GSR and EMG were recorded while people either killed or wounded villains, or were themselves wounded and killed. The aim was to discover the psychophysiological responses generated by different emotional and moral perspectives. When an opponent was wounded or killed, participants’ skin conductance increased but some of the muscles in the face (zygomatic, orbicularis occuli and corrugator mucles, all found around the eyes and mouth) decreased. When the protagonist was wounded or killed, there was a similar GSR increase but also an increase in two sets of facial muscles and a decrease in another set. These results suggest that the emotional consequences of attacking another or of being attacked can be characterised by subtle, facial muscle changes.

On the subject of violence, a couple of studies have examined the degree of violence in the Bond movies. Violence in cinema and TV is a perennial favourite of social psychologists exploring the relationship between exposure to violent material and the subsequent expression of aggression or violence. A 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Psychiatric Association Pediatrics found that the portrayal of serious violence in the Bond films increased significantly over time, even when accounting for film length (McAnally et al., 2013). The most severely violent was Tomorrow Never Dies, which may explain why scientists have been so keen to use it in their studies. The 2008 re-boot, Casino Royale, featured 250 acts of violence involving a perpetrator, action or target, compared with 109 in Dr No. And it isn’t just violence that’s increased: sexual activity and more violence against women has increased, too. A 2010 study of 195 female characters across 20 Bond films, which was published in Sex Roles, also found that end-of-film mortality was ‘predicted by sexual activity, ethical status (good vs. bad), and attempting to kill Bond’ (Neuendorf et al., 2010).

To M (or at least Judi Dench’s rendering of M), Bond, of course, was a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur’ and a ‘relic of the cold-war’. Some may agree with this harsh personality assessment. Some may argue it has as much validity as the Myers-Briggs. But some dark areas of science publishing have wondered aloud what sort of personality Bond enjoys. For example, one paper, which includes ‘James Bond’ in its title and then proceeds to mention the name once in the entirety of the paper, suggests that Bond may express the extreme ends of the Dark Triad. This was based on an analysis of ‘upper division and weekend-course psychology students’ and was probably a desperate way of attracting attention to a paper that would have been otherwise unremarkable. In a vein more in keeping with ill-judged comic-japery than wit, a study from the Medical Journal of Australia attempted to provide a psychological evaluation of Bond by assessing – and I apologise in advance, I really do – the Bond Adequacy Disorder (BAD) using the Bond Additive Descriptors of Anti-Social personality Scale (BADASS). They must have been up all weekend. There is not much you can conclude from this paper other than it is terrible.

One of the more methodical papers investigated how people viewed changing situations or circumstances in films (Magliano et al., 2001). One of the films studied was Moonraker (the others were Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, and Jeremiah Johnson). Participants made 85 change-of-situation judgments in Moonraker, mid-way between the other two. Shifts in time and movement were particularly noted. Staying with Moonraker, the same research team had previously examined people’s ability to make predictions while watching the film – i.e. indicate what was going to happen next (Magliano et al., 1996). People were actually quite good at doing this, using visual and discourse clues in the film. Which either suggests that the participants were quite adept at this or that Moonraker is a predictable watch. The climax of the scene where Bond encounters Jaws on a plane, fights, bails out and the latter’s parachute fails to open and he falls onto a circus tent – a set of scenes grimly illustrated in the paper – was predicted by participants. None of the participants had seen the film before. The best predictors of what was going to happen were the mise en scene, montage, framing and dialogue. Using these, participants made very specific predictions about what would occur in the film.

And, let us not, despite our better instincts, forget semiotics. Holly Cooper and colleagues from Griffith University in Australia, for example, presented ‘a textual analysis of the brand narratives… specifically in the context of James Bond films’ (Cooper et al., 2010). ‘In engaging with the text of popular culture,’ Cooper and colleagues write, ‘consumers engage in the story and the embedded brand narratives in that text. Consumers readily draw on these texts for directions in constructing.’ Not only that, ‘consuming, viewing, and engaging with films and the embedded brand narratives in film fuels consumer dreams and consumption ideals.’

Cooper and colleagues examined the use of brands in all Bond films up to Casino Royale. The first analysis begins with ‘Vignette 1: The Bollinger Lover Brand Narrative’ and goes quickly downhill from there. It describes Bond’s seduction of Caroline, the hapless MI6 bureaucrat tasked with psychologically evaluating Bond in Goldeneye. ‘The Bollinger brand’, write the authors, ‘embodies the masculine desire of James Bond and presents as a social tool of romance.’ Oblivious to even Bond levels of innuendo, the authors thus set the tone of the analysis.

The next vignette pits the Aston Martin against the Jaguar. I’ve always had a soft spot the Aston Martin – and not just for the nickname possibilities if I was to be employed at Birmingham’s second University. The sleek, understated sybariticity, the purring power and modesty, the cunning stealth… these are all devilish attractions, as is that fact that the company was named after Lionel (Martin) and his favourite hill (Aston). Here, Cooper and colleagues stray into the world of the esoteric, in a way that even Derek Akorah would admire. Commenting on the ice-chase between Zao and Bond in Die Another Day, they write: ‘The depiction of supernatural abilities can only nurture the aspirations of consumers, who are seeking a sophisticated and superhuman status’ (the supernatural abilities are those of the motors). They conclude, ‘the scene embodies the Jaguar brand narrative of an antihero or an outlaw rebelling against the sanctions of society.’ Well, there we are. Think on that when you’re next driving the Jag to the Dangerous Sports Society’s Annual Ball.

- The name’s Martin: Professor G. Neil Martin, Regent’s University London. E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: @thatneilmartin


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