Bob Drake

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Mind Talk: The Brain's New Story

Drake, Bob

Last Updated: Mar-10-2009
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Video


This documentary film explores the interdisciplinary quest to understand the mind--its relationship to the brain, to the soul, to consciousness and sentience, and to the societal implications of free will. The film begins with the crisscrossing flow of people in a train station and an overvoice expressing the existential questions of "who are we?" and, ultimately, "who am I?"

This compelling image, filmed in black and white, serves as a representation of people as humanity and as individuals, as well as a metaphor for flow, such as of time or of impulses along a neural network. Hence, already in the introduction, the viewer is aware that this film will address some of the deep philosophical questions of all time complemented by visual imagery which enhances and enlarges on the dialogue.

The film is then divided into twelve sections: The Soul, The Body, Mental Disorder, Mind to Molecule, Bit to Brain, Consciousness, Free Will, Citizenship, The Moral Brain, The Brain on Trial, The Medical Mind, and Who Am I? Experts from multiple fields such as theology, neuroscience, psychiatry, law and justice, philosophy, sociology, history of medicine, physics, computer science, and filmmaking offer insights and questions either directly to the camera, or as voice-over for other imagery.

For example, to name just a few of the numerous eminent persons in the film, there are statements by mathematical physicist Roger Penrose (Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness, and The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics), philosopher Daniel Dennett (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, and Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds), philosopher John R. Searle (Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World) and neurologist Antonio Damasio (Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain). The multiple experts all address the basic question posed by the film: "What will a science of the brain add to the human story?" but the approaches to the question, and what aspects of the question are most important, vary considerably in this far ranging journey through religion, history, ethics, medicine and science.

A few of the many interesting segments of the film include sections on cognitive neuroscientist Nancy Kanwisher who studies specialization by parts of the brain, such as a face-recognition center; developmental neuroanatomist Miguel Marin-Padilla, who has studied the motor cortex for over 25 years, which he demonstrates by dissection to be smaller than the tip of his finger; and Dennett’s one-armed robot, Cog, which is "learning" in developmental stages as an infant would. Eloquent commentary is also provided by computer scientist Jaron Lanier, sociologist Howard Kaye, psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, and filmmaker Ken Burns, among others.

Much of the film deals with psychopathology and implications for morality, behavior, and responsibility for behavior (free will and crime). Segments include an interview with a patient with manic-depressive disorder, a historical note on Phineas Gage (whose dramatic wound of his frontal lobe so altered his behavior), and a lawyer, psychiatrist and judge discussing free will, diminished capacity, and the legal system.

The film concludes with some concerns about reductionism to the biologic model of the mind, the growing haziness of borders between human and artificial intelligence, and the role of psychoactive medications. Although full mapping of the brain may not lead to complete understanding of the mind, still, the film concludes, the quest is fun.

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