21 de April de 2023

Article by Iciar Iturmendi Sabater

Film meets Neuroscience in Toronto: a review of Herzog’s Theatre of Thought

* Content curated by José Manuel Muñoz

When a neuroscientist and a filmmaker come together, they should meet in common ground—perhaps in a “Theatre of Thought”. Such is the title of Werner Herzog’s new documentary, presented at the Toronto International Film Festival this September. Herzog follows Spanish neuroscientist Rafael Yuste on a trip across the most prominent neuroscience labs in Europe and North America, with the purpose of exploring the philosophical, ethical, and legal implications of neurotechnology. Referring to Miguel de Unamuno, Herzog’s documentary asks the researchers he interviews and the viewer: “could it be that we all live in a self-constructed reality?” If so, what created our theatre of thought?

Complex answers have been sought for such a complex question. In IBM’s headquarters, Darío Gil supervises the development of a quantum computer aimed at simulating the human brain, which has about 171 trillion brain cells and ten quadrillion connections between neurons—ten quadrillion is a ten followed by sixteen zeroes. Just as you probably zoomed out rather than attempted to get a gist of the magnitude of these numbers, Herzog’s image blurs out and sound fades as Gil enthusiastically explains why quantum mechanisms are suited to explain the brain’s extreme computational complexity. Herzog honestly admits he has no idea what Gil is talking about and playfully interrupts the mathematical explanations: “would you still be able to fish a trout?”. Toronto’s audience laughs.  So does Gil: “I would hope so!”.

Herzog’s obsession with fish continues throughout the documentary. After asking Siri co-inventor Tom Gruber “how stupid is Siri?”, the camera lens fixates on video images of schools of fish synchronously swimming through the ocean on Gruber’s living room TV. Fish’ simultaneous behavior seems more intelligent and evolved than Siri, who can beat-box but struggles when answering whether it is self-conscious. Herzog challenges his interviewees and the audience asking: are computer systems truly analogous to human brains? will technology ever be able to recreate the workings of the mind?

Theatre of Thought reminds us that neuroscience is still bounded by limitations. Herzog gives the example of the famous functional imaging study that found neural activation in a dead Atlantic salmon—fish again! Dead fish do not actually have neural activation, but imaging neuroscience methods do produce false positives. After discussing the potential and challenges of neuroscience research, Herzog awkwardly keeps recording his interviewees for an extra 5 seconds which seem eternal to the viewer, revealing a human side to their intellect.

What could be taken as a sign of irreverence towards academic authority, rather seems a mischievous and light-hearted attempt to question the extent to which hard sciences can answer “what is it like to be oneself”, as philosopher David Chalmers puts it. Thomas Nagel already posed in 1974 that even if we perfectly understand the biological mechanisms involved in allowing a bat to fly and see in the dark and technologically recreate these, we will still not know what it feels like to fly at night.

As a graduate student, I am startled that Herzog dares ask neurobiology professor Cori Bargmann and Physiology Nobel laureate Axel Richard—presented as a normal couple enjoying Sunday morning in Central Park—what they talk about at dinner. He seems to be reminding us that they are not just exceptional scientists, but also ordinary people. Along these lines, Theatre of Thought not only shows Joseph LeDoux as the eminent director of the Emotional Brain Institute at New York University who discovered the amygdala—an almond-shaped subcortical structure of the brain—as the neural centre of fear and anxiety. LeDoux is rather primarily presented as the lead singer and guitarist of The Amygdaloids, a rock band composed by LeDoux’s lab members whose lyrics revolve around neuroscience topics.

Before diving into the ethical and legal implications of neurotechnological advances, it feels like Herzog cannot help but surrender to improvisation, disregarding the storyboard. Seemingly challenging LeDoux’ research and lyrics, he next interviews high-wire walker Philippe Petit. Petit confesses to only have felt fear before and after walking between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 1974, but not during his feat. Herzog also rescues a footage from 1930s Earth by Oleksandr Dovzhenko, where Petro asks dying Semion: “After your death let me know where you are, in paradise or in hell, and let me know how you are doing”.

Theatre of Though suggests that reading minds—living minds—could be a realistic goal for neurotechnology in the future. Rafael Yuste volunteers himself as a guinea pig to try Bryan Johnson’s $110 million portable brain scanner, a Star Wars-like helmet he claims capable of reading one’s brain activity.  Although brain scanning is not the same as and far from mind-reading, this technology does raise ethical questions. How can we protect our neural privacy? If mind reading is ever achieved, could personal mental states be encrypted to prevent them from becoming public to the world? While Herzog and Yuste worked on Theatre of Thought, Chile became the first country to contemplate so-called ‘Neurorights’ in its new constitution. The Neurorights Foundation, which Yuste directs, aims to plan ahead and protect our right to mental privacy.

Theatre of Thought makes the viewer Herzog and Yuste’s accomplice throughout their journey. As the credits begin rolling, I feel convinced that the Mind-Brain problem is a scientific issue that can also be explored artistically and philosophically. I also feel the urgency for governments and institutions to legally regulate Neurorights. I am indeed pleased that the International Centre for Neuroscience and Ethics (CINET) was launched just about a year ago, and to be reflecting about these issues in its blog. And I encourage everyone to go watch Theatre of Though—currently seeking distribution—to hear about the top-notch research currently being conducted by all scientists interviewed by Herzog, whose names extend beyond those mentioned here.

Still, I leave the theatre with the uneasy feeling that not satisfied with just confusing his interviewees, Herzog also messed with my sense of reality. As I jump on the northbound train, I look up the opening song to Herzog’s documentary, allegedly Chuck Berry’s: “In my Theater of Thought I am rocking. / In the Dance of my Mind, I am swinging. / C’mon, babe, roll over to me.” Nothing comes up. Did this song really play in the documentary? Or did I make it up? Did Chuck Berry ever sing this? Only Herzog knows. I am left to wonder in Toronto’s fog, which reminds me of Unamuno’s “Niebla”.

About the author

Iciar Iturmendi Sabater is a PhD student at the University of Toronto. She investigates social processing and coping in youth with neurodevelopmental conditions under the supervision of Dr. Meng-Chuan Lai. Prior to this, she completed her master’s and undergraduate degrees in Neuroscience and Psychology at University College London, Yale University, and the University of Navarra.