When we go to the movies, we cheer for the underdog to win the game, we hope that the guy will get the girl, and we expect that everyone will live happily ever after. After all, movies are supposed to be a perfect version of reality. But what happens when movies take liberties with more serious subjects, making bullet wounds seem less bloody, car chases seem less dangerous, or comas seem less life-altering? Can these inaccurate portrayals impact real-life perceptions and decisions?

In an article published in the May 2006 issue of Neurology , researchers studied the portrayal of comas in movies, as well as the reactions of nonmedical viewers to those portrayals. They found that less than one percent of the movies they surveyed accurately characterized comatose patients. And, although viewers couldn’t identify inaccurate representations of comas one-third of the time, 39% of viewers said that what they had seen in the movies would influence their decision-making if a loved one was in a coma.

About the Study

The researchers identified 30 movies released in the United States between 1970 and 2004 that depicted a character in a prolonged coma, and judged how accurately comas were portrayed in these movies. Seventy-two viewers without a medical background then watched key scenes from these movies and scored how well they thought the movies had depicted the overall portrayal of comas, awakening from a coma, recovery after comas, and discussions between family members and medical personnel. Finally, the viewers were asked whether the scenes they had watched would influence their decisions if a loved one were to go into a coma.

Out of 30 movies, the researchers judged only two movies to have accurately portrayed comas. Inaccuracies included normal muscle tone in coma patients, absence of feeding tubes, and sudden awakening from a coma with no lingering physical or mental problems.

Although the majority of viewers identified inaccuracies in the way comas were portrayed, viewers did not correctly identify important inaccuracies in one-third of the scenes. In addition, 39% of viewers said that if a family member was in a coma, their decision-making would be influenced by what they remembered from these scenes.

This study’s assessment of how viewers would behave in real-life situations must be taken with caution because the researchers were only able to ask hypothetically what they would do, not what they actually had done.

How Does This Affect You?

This study found that the vast majority of movies do not accurately portray comatose patients. The study also demonstrates that viewers often do not recognize important inaccuracies, yet suggests that what these viewers have seen will influence their decision-making if a family member goes into a coma.

When it comes to real life, decisions should be based on facts, not fiction. Unfortunately, recovering from a protracted coma, especially without ill effects, is the rare exception, not the rule. If a loved one goes into a coma, carefully question his or her physicians. While their predictions are unlikely to be very precise, experienced medical professionals can at least offer a realistic idea of what to expect in terms of care, the probability of your loved one waking up, and the likelihood of long-term physical or mental problems if he or she does come around.