Thinking theater

Brain and Cinema Week comes to the Jerusalem Cinematheque, exploring the complicated machinations of our minds via lectures coupled with movies.

The 86th Academy Awards nominations for Best Lead Actress in a motion picture are Amy Adams, ‘American Hustle’; Cate Blanchett, ‘Blue Jasmine’; Sandra Bullock, ‘Gravity’; Judi Dench, ‘Philomena’; and Meryl Streep, ‘August: Osage County.’  (photo credit: LIONEL HAHN/ABACA PRESS/MCT)
The 86th Academy Awards nominations for Best Lead Actress in a motion picture are Amy Adams, ‘American Hustle’; Cate Blanchett, ‘Blue Jasmine’; Sandra Bullock, ‘Gravity’; Judi Dench, ‘Philomena’; and Meryl Streep, ‘August: Osage County.’
If it really is true that it is the thought that counts, then the annual Brain and Cinema Week is a very significant event in our cultural calendar. The festival takes place, for the fourth year, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, from March 8 to 13, as part of International Brain Awareness Week.
Naturally, there is plenty of cerebral collateral on offer over the six days, with lectures and panel discussions lined up on a wide range of tantalizing topics, such as fantasy and brainmachine interfaces, how we learn new skills, the machinations of the musical brain, the sensorial processing of smells and the ramifications of responses to pressure situations.
Each talk or discussion session will be followed by a movie. The opening lecture by Prof. Merav Achisar on how we acquire new skills, for example, will precede a screening of In Her Shoes, starring Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine, Prof. Eitan Globerson’s talk about the musical brain will be followed by Disney classic Fantasia, while the closing lecture by Prof. Yosef Grodzinsky on how the brain completes missing information will be augmented by a screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 psychological thriller The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall.
On March 12, Prof. Hermona Soreq, a lecturer on molecular neuroscience at the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which initiated the festival, will enlighten her audience about the dangers inherent in the changes that occur when we behave under stress, and whether there is a connection between genetic structures and how we cope with pressure. Her talk will be followed by Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, for which Cate Blanchett won the Best Actress Oscar on Sunday.
Those of us who have made aliya from cultures and social milieus that markedly contrast with this part of the world may be aware of differences between the way someone born here reacts to pressure as opposed to, say, someone born in London or San Francisco.
That, says Soreq, also comes into the equation.
“We normally say that reactions to pressure situations are generated by three factors,” she explains. “Genes play a role. We might say someone is sensitive and that is not a surprise because his grandmother was also a gentle soul. That indicates that we intuitively understand that there is a genetic connection.” That may sound a little like something gleaned from the old wives’ tales’ take on life, but Soreq, scientific breeding notwithstanding, does not discount the sagacity of timeworn beliefs.
“OLD WIVES’ tales are not totally groundless,” she states. “And there is the person’s environment – exposure to harmful elements can be stressful. I was in China recently and the pollution in the air in Beijing is very stressful.”
The third of the triad of stress-generating factors, says Soreq, is something with which many of us in Israel are familiar. “The last element is individual experience. That is very relevant to us here – traumas. Unfortunately, we have a lot to research in this area.”
Part of Soreq’s March 12 talk will address the genetic side of stress generations, which explores the possibility that some of us are more prone to succumb to a sense of pressure due to our familial lineage. Establishing that can help us to approach challenging circumstances on a more even emotional keel. “If, for example, you are aware that you are very sensitive to tense situations you will be less bothered by the fact that were pressurized,” she proffers. “You might say to yourself: ‘I have an interview today, so it’s not surprising that I’m tense.’” There are, of course, health-related aspects of understanding where sensations of tension come from, and benefits to be gleaned from being aware of this.
“If that also includes risk factors connected to ailments that can result from tension, you will have an early warning facility available to you,” continues Soreq. “And if, for example, you know you are susceptible to chemical spray used on crops, then you will make sure you don’t live in some pastoral spot surrounding by [non-organic] agricultural fields, or in Beijing,” she chuckles.
Soreq posits that we have a long history of feeling stressed out. “Think about the why Neanderthal man felt stressed – because he saw a sharp-toothed tiger chasing after him. He has to run away quickly, and his blood pressure rises so that there will be a greater supply of blood to the heart. That puts the whole system in high gear and, at the same time, you block off systems in the body that are not crucial, at that particular moment. You won’t feel hungry while you’re running for your life, because you don’t have time to worry about that. And when you are stressed out you don’t think about sex. All those systems shut down in high-pressure situations.”
SHE ADDS that we slip into pressure mode as a sort of preparatory step, before the actual damage makes its presence felt. “While the Neanderthal man is running away from the wild animal, his body goes into stress because he knows there is the possibility of him sustaining serious injury,” she says. It seems we are still running away from tigers. “The same thing happens when we expect some negative tidings and the phone rings. We become stressed, in anticipation of the bad news.”
The choice of movie to accompany Soreq’s talk appears a tailor-made choice.
“The woman in the movie discovers her husband is cheating on her and she harms herself,” Soreq notes. “She is dependent on him for everything.
Her whole world collapses around her, and then her Xanax [anxiety disorder medication] doesn’t work and she is a mess.
“Woody Allen has always lived on his nerves. He is a stressed-out person by definition. But he makes good movies,” laughs Soreq. • For more information: