One of the trippiest shows of 2018 was Maniac. The Netflix series debuted in September, introducing us to a futuristic world or depressing technology, poop-scooping robots, and a new pill therapy designed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
This fictional PTSD cure sends Maniac’s two main characters (played by Emma Stone and Jonah Hill) on a mind-bending adventure that includes a Lord of the Rings-inspired quest, a sci-fi spy thriller, and 1980s suburbia. That might all sound ridiculous (and it mostly is), but it turns out there’s some very real science behind the pills that send Hill and Stone on their saga.
On the show, patients take a series of three pills. The first, A, forces each person to relive their traumatic moment so a computer can observe and analyze it. The second, B, helps identify the defense mechanisms our brains create to protect you from your own trauma. Finally, the C pill forces each patient to confront and (hopefully) accept that trauma.
As Inverse’s Peter Hess explained in a September article, each step in this process is actually inspired by research into PTSD treatment:
In a major sense, pills A and B mirror the ways in which psychologists treat patients with PTSD. In cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the gold standard treatments for PTSD, a therapist guides the patient in confronting the reality of their trauma, challenging the unhelpful cognitive distortions that accompany it, and developing coping strategies that change their relationship to the trauma.
The belief that confronting deep trauma can help people overcome was also supported in a recent study in which rats were placed in a box and electrocuted to the point where simply being in that box caused them to exhibit signs of trauma. The rats were then placed in the same box without being shocked several times. Afterwards, their brains still exhibited signs of trauma but also a secondary response recognizing that they were safe. This shows that rats (and by extensions humans) can’t eliminate traumatic memories, but we can reduce their effect by covering them up with new ones.
Additionally, studies have shown that treating PTSD with MDMA works to the point where subjects no longer meet the established criteria of PTSD. Researchers have found that MDMA can help patients confront old trauma without triggering the emotional response that’s usually associated with it, similar to the way Maniac’s C pill lets the subjects relive their own traumatic moments.
So it turns out that not only is the science of Maniac pretty realistic, it’s actually being used already to treat PTSD in some cases. Now if we could just get some poop-scooping robots we’d be all set.
This December, Inverse is counting down the 20 best science moments in science fiction this year. This has been #6.
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