It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time not long ago when dystopian films with teenagers dominated the box office.
In the early 2010s, hits like The death games and Divergent catapulted actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley to stardom. Maze runner rounded off this unofficial trilogy of sci-fi-inspired teen series, but how realistic is the science behind this dark thriller?
(Spoilers ahead for The Maze Runner.)
In the film, Earth has been ravaged by a deadly pandemic called the Flare, a disease that appears to affect the brain. But some people, like the boys in The Maze Runnerare immune.
Researchers from a group known as WICKED have placed the boys in a stressful maze environment to map their brain patterns as they attempt to escape the maze. Their goal: to find a cure for the disease through this bizarre experiment.
Experts say the film’s massive science experiment isn’t exactly convincing, though it’s entertaining on the big screen.
“I don’t see how putting children in an ever-changing maze would provide any insight into their disease resistance,” says Charles Vorhees Reverse. Vorhees is a neuroscientist and co-director of the Animal Behavior Core laboratory.
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How do real maze experiments work?
In the film, boys live surrounded by a walled maze that appears to be the size of a small town. The film’s giant maze is a technological miracle – its shape changes every night, confusing the “runners” who search the maze for an escape. Monsters known as Grievers also lurk in the maze.
“They run the maze, map it, memorize it, try to find a way out,” one of the other boys tells newcomer Thomas, the film’s protagonist.
Such a sophisticated maze is not exactly plausible, but Labyrinth Runers setup bears a slight resemblance to real rodent mazes that 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, supervisor of UCLA’s Rodent Behavioral Testing Core. Reverse.
The most famous is the classic Morris water maze, where mice must find a hidden platform in a murky pool. (Vorhees spearheaded a similar experiment known as the Cincinnati Water Maze). Another variation is the radial arm maze, which places a food reward in some of the “arms” of the maze 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 find their way through a complex environment,” says Vorhees.
The first is allocentric or spatial navigation. Using allocentric memory, humans can efficiently generate a spatial map to escape mazes. The part of the brain we use to do this is the hippocampus.
Trailer for The Maze Runner.
“Whether the maze changes every night or not, you’re probably using the hippocampus to get around,” says Lueptow.
The other is egocentric or implicit memory, and it includes skills we have learned how to do through repetition such as brushing our teeth or driving a car.
Vorhees says that if the children enter The Maze Runner could see “stable, unchanging cues” outside or above the maze’s walls, then they could use the fixed landmarks to escape the maze. But the walls of the labyrinth are so high and uniform The Maze Runner that the children cannot trust any such landmarks.
“If so, they must rely on egocentric navigation, which relies on cues about self-motion, such as having a fixed starting point and traveling in a given direction at a given speed for a given period of time and making a series of turns that one remembers for 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 its paths.
Is Maze runnerIs the experiment realistic?
The basic idea of putting people in a maze that they have to try to remember and escape from before it changes every day is not strange and actually resembles some rodent experiments.
“All the tasks you mention are quite similar in that the rodent is placed in the apparatus and has to use spatial cues around 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-life experiments. In the Morris water maze, you can change the position of the hidden platform every day to test the rodent’s memory, Vorhees explains. Mazes are also not a bad way to test for brain diseases in theory because the hippocampus – which is weakened in degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s – is dependent on spatial navigation.
“So it’s useful to use tests that rely on spatial navigation when modeling these brain diseases or testing new treatments,” Lueptow adds.
But the maze experiment falls apart when we examine its details.
First: To achieve the goal of understanding why the children are unique, you need both an experimental group of children who are immune to the disease – as we have in the film – and a control group of children who are vulnerable to the disease. But there is no control group in the film.
“In this hypothetical experiment, you put the ‘special’ kids in the maze and measure how they did, and then put the ‘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 to map their brain patterns doesn’t hold much water either. In general, you want to minimize the effects of stress in memory and learning experiments. Even in the Morris water maze, rodents – who are good swimmers – do not stand for life and death as human children do in The Maze Runner.
“If you’re interested in understanding how a virus affects one’s cognitive abilities, I wouldn’t necessarily introduce the additional variable of stress,” says Lueptow.
Vorhees adds, “I don’t see how such an experiment would lead to any insight into how these children differ from other children.”
Can we test humans in real-life mazes?
“The young people had to be tested, sacrificed, in harsh environments, where their brain activity could be studied. All in an attempt to understand what makes them different,” explains the director of WICKED.
In the film, WICKED is portrayed as a somewhat evil group that conducts unethical experiments on children in order to find a cure for the disease that infects humanity. But can you actually put people in a maze in real life to test their cognitive functions? Maybe, but there’s not much point, experts say.
“Theoretically, 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 for testing human spatial memory and learning, such as using virtual reality in laboratory settings. You can use word repetition games or less physically intensive puzzle solving.
“Basically, because we can talk to each other, testing human cognition is much easier than testing rodent cognition,” Lueptow adds.
Even if you put people in a maze for a science experiment, tracking their brain activity at the level seen in the film would be nearly impossible because you can’t study brain patterns in “free-moving people,” says Vorhees. Instead, they have to see a virtual reality maze in some kind of fixed brain scanner.
But rodent mazes are probably here to stay—albeit human mazes like the ones we see in them The Maze Runner never manifest.
“Unfortunately, because we can’t give humans experimental treatments and our abilities to ‘look’ at live human brains are limited, we still need our animal models,” says Lueptow.
Maze runner now streaming on HBO Max.