Stumble in my footsteps

Redefining spatial relations in Brainstorm (1983)

Brainstorm title screen cap

Prepared 6 October 2008 for Prof. Deborah Leslie (GGR327H1F, University of Toronto).

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“What do you see, angel?”

So opens Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 sci-fi film Brainstorm, as Dr. Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) — lit cigarette dangling from her mouth as she furiously pecks away at a keyboard — asks her research partner, Dr. Michael Brace (Christopher Walken), if he is able to detect stimuli output from an input source. Michael, seated in an examination chair, head enclosed by a complex electrode cap, holds a glassy stare. His face mimics mastication. Michael’s stare betrays what he is actually experiencing. Sensory input from a lab assistant, also wearing an electrode cap (inside a portable helmet), is capturing what he experiences — in this case, a mishmash bite of food; the assistant’s input is then transmitted as output to Michael’s brain.

These two cognitive scientists have just made a paradigmatic communication breakthrough by capturing and reproducing a multimodal integration of sensory experiences: recording and playing back everything the brain receives as sensory input — as experienced by another person.[1] In effect, body spacing is no longer the solitary domain of the beholder, but a wholly reproducible experience. The pair demonstrate a way to record this input to special tape media for playback by anyone equipped with an input/output apparatus. The invention raises ethical and moral implications that comprise Brainstorm’s central plot, complicated further when Lillian and Michael realize that the recording device can additionally document memories, feelings and, thus, entire life experiences.

This fictive invention not only draws attention to novel conventions of perceptual reality and remote body spacing, but it also proposes whether people could be able to empathically comprehend life experiences not of their own — a kind of walking in the shoes of another person’s social placement and worldview.[2] Unfortunately, this plot device is only marginally considered. One such event is played to sexist effect by Trumbull when a boardroom of business and military leaders, all experiencing playback from a demo tape, are cut abruptly to an experience (recorded by the same assistant in the opening scene) at a gentleman’s strip club. A woman executive at the boardroom table clearly emotes her discomfiture of being placed, literally, in the shoes of the heterosexual male recorder. While she literally tries to look away (in the boardroom), her male colleagues continue gazing forward, chuckling and clearly relishing the experience until Alex, the research company’s male project director, hurriedly halts playback and adds, “Sorry about that, ladies.” The behaviour of the boardroom demonstrates an argument proposed by Rose: “Occupying the uncertainties of subjectivity . . . is also to glimpse the possibility of another spatiality, to feel a crack in the everyday, to sense an aporia in the disciplining webs of gazes and performances.”[3]

While this technology is central to the film’s raison d’être, character relationships provide an instructive component to the story’s foundation. Michael’s co-researcher and best friend, Lillian, articulates her dialect of gender in a manner which transgresses socially normative expectations ascribed to her body’s sex, highlighting how “gender is culturally constructed . . . [it] is neither the casual result of sex nor as seemingly fixed as sex.”[4] Her articulation as a woman is contrasted against the other (few) women in the film. She is middle-aged, extraordinarily educated, single, and focussed on her work: “[T]o the one who never gives up: Lillian Reynolds, EE, M.D., Ph.D, PMT, BVD, RSVP, COD — my friend,” Michael toasts after their breakthrough. She distinguishes herself in other ways from other female characters: she chain-smokes (cigarette often dangling from her mouth) and forcefully asserts her territory when challenged. Lillian’s domain is the workplace — more to the point, the research lab: she is the only woman seen in the company operating as a scientist. She asserts herself, for want of a better trope, as one of the boys in a highly gendered division of labour (white-collar science research) — an activity (in 1983, at least) not typically ascribed to women in the U.S.[5] Even as Michael’s wife, Karen (Natalie Wood), works at the research facility, she does so as an industrial designer (tasked, incidentally, with cosmetically improving the apparatus headset). While both work late, Lillian, unlike Michael, lives at the research campus, spending nearly all of her time in the lab — contravening social expectations of gendering her to a domestic space on the basis of her body’s sex.[6] Her lab coat, worn constantly, signifies this claiming of non-traditional space as her own (including the one instance when she leaves campus briefly to attend a party in honour of her and Michael’s work breakthrough).

When the film begins, Michael and Karen are divorcing. Both still live in the same home they co-designed (minutes away from the North Carolina Research Triangle). The events leading to their separation are not explored, but Karen’s reservations over Michael working late hours and his aloofness are possible triggers. Only after Michael records Karen’s experiences consensually while they are having an argument, playing back the experience on himself while she watches, is he able to empathize with her. It is also clear from playback that she still loves him. Later, Michael presents Karen with a tape for her to play. “It’s me,” he says. While she experiences his feelings during playback, one cannot help but ponder the device’s unintended manipulative potential for interpersonal relationships. Indeed, the two reconcile and halt the divorce.

As the project falls under the shroud of military interests, Lillian confronts Alex at a meeting while Michael accedes to his paternal authority. Her stress, agitated by the argument — “Alex, don’t goddamn me, sweetheart! … This is my project!” — triggers a mild heart attack over which she leaves to recover in the women’s washroom. Lillian understood the Foucauldian theory of how “power is shown to take on the forms of the surveillance and assessment of individuals.”[7] She knew that they would lose direction over their research while giving the military complete monitoring over their every move. The two were previously informed of how the military wanted to “tap into higher brain function” by using the project as a tool for psychological conditioning and training. Michael follows her to the washroom to assign blame for embarrassing him (his masculinity, to be precise) before the other men. Alex, following Michael, also enters the washroom before Karen, observing the incident from her desk, kicks out the men from the gendered space. Lillian controls her cardiac condition with nitroglycerine pills. This remedial measure works until a subsequent incident whilst working alone in the lab triggers a major cardiac arrest which ultimately kills her. Aware that no one can help her, she records her own death for Michael. The remainder of the film pivots on this plot twist as Michael, locked out from their project, tries to dodge military security to access and experience the tape.

The military’s takeover following Lillian’s death also altered the lab’s morphology from an open, collaborative space adorned with plants, windows, personal effects, and classical opera music — a kind of home away from home — to a compartmentalized chamber with artificial lighting, security doors, glass chambers, and video surveillance. These changes literally thwart Michael from entering the lab, but they also alter the context of the lab’s creative space from nurturing to hostile — a metaphor for how the technology had been repurposed. The incubatory milieu fostered by Lillian and Michael supports Domosh and Seager’s observation that “the physical and ideological separation of work and home that began in the early modern period seems to be eroding.”[8] The military’s arrival upon that space undermines the lab’s setting as a grounds for co-existent domesticity and professionalism.

While other films try to situate obvious juxtapositions of gender and spacing, Brainstorm was chosen for this analysis because of its atypical setting, timing, and circumstances. Trumbull contrasted the story’s placement of women in a position of professional authority (in Lillian Reynolds) against a prevailing status quo of masculinist agendas (in Alex, in the military, and in objectifying women generally). Such conflicts continue to be portrayed in contemporary cinema (e.g., Charlie Wilson’s War, Donnie Darko, etc.) to varying outcomes, but Brainstorm was a relative novelty in 1983 — a year better known for Flashdance (which also explored gender and spacing relations, albeit in a stereotypical manner of the manufacturing workplace). Distinguishing aspects of the story — shared heads of household; a merging of work and home environments; and the presence of women in career roles which were previously the exclusive province of men — are now increasingly common and, if not taken for granted, more acceptable. But Brainstorm’s enduring quality derives from implications of a core technology which has yet to be realized — if it ever will. Until then, it remains impossible to definitively verify whether being positioned into another person’s life experience would be an effective medium to convey oppositional power relations without being mired by the interpretive and subjective complexities of language and its arbitrary, disputed systems of meaning.


  1. See Coen, Michael H. 2001. Multimodal integration: A biological view. Proceedings of the Fifteenth International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, 1418. “Multimodal integration” is defined as an “abstraction mechanism whereby perceptual events are separated from the specific sensory mechanisms that generate them and then integrated into higher-level representations.” It is, in effect, the result one experiences when all sensory input — vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, heat detection, pain detection, sense of balance, etc. — is combined by the brain to form a conscious, perceptual reality.
  2. See Margolis, Diane Rothbard. 1995. Isolation and the woman scholar. Individual Voices, Collective Visions: Fifty Years of Women in Sociology. Eds. Ann Goetling and Sarah Fenstermaker, 228.
  3. See Rose, Gillian. 1995. Making space for the female subject of feminism: The spatial subversions of Holzer, Kruger and Sherman. Mapping the Subject: Geographies of Cultural Transformation. Eds. Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift, 345.
  4. See Butler, Judith. 1990. Subjects of sex/gender/desire. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 6.
  5. See Naiman, Joanne. 2004. How Societies Work: Class, Power, and Change in a Canadian Context (3rd Ed.), 307–8.
  6. See Valentine, Gill. 2001. Social Geographies: Space & Society, 66–9.
  7. See Weedon, Chris. 1997. Discourse, power and resistance. Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory, 121.
  8. See Domosh, Mona and Joni Seager. 2001. Home. Putting Women in Place: Feminist Geographers Make Sense of the World, 33.


Butler, Judith. 1990. Subjects of sex/gender/desire. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity, 1–34. New York: Routledge.

Coen, Michael H. 2001. Multimodal integration: a biological view. Proceedings of the Fifteenth International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, 1417–24. Seattle: IJCAI’01.

Domosh, Mona and Joni Seager. 2001. Home. Putting women in place: feminist geographers make sense of the world, 1–34. New York: Guilford.

Margolis, Diane Rothbard. 1995. Isolation and the woman scholar. Individual voices, collective visions: fifty years of women in sociology. Eds. Ann Goetling and Sarah Fenstermaker, 219– 32. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Naiman, Joanne. 2004. How societies work: class, power, and change in a Canadian context (3rd Ed.). Toronto: Thomson-Nelson.

Rose, Gillian. 1995. Making space for the female subject of feminism: The spatial subversions of Holzer, Kruger and Sherman. Mapping the subject: geographies of cultural transformation. Eds. Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift, 332–54. New York: Routledge.

Weedon, Chris. 1997. Discourse, power and resistance. Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory, 107–35. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Valentine, Gill. 2001. Social geographies: space & society. Essex: Pearson Education Limited & Prentice Hall.