Thoughts on the brain

Cinema and Brain Week kicks off at the Cinematheque with a multidisciplinary approach to neuroscience.

Brain cartoon 521 (photo credit: LA Times/MCT)
Brain cartoon 521
(photo credit: LA Times/MCT)
René Descartes, the 17th-century French father of modern philosophy, who coined the phrase “I think therefore I am,” would probably have approved of Prof. Idan Segev’s take on life. Segev, a professor in the Department of Neurobiology and various other sections of the Hebrew University, is one of the speakers at the forthcoming Cinema and Brain Week (March 12-17, in Hebrew), the local edition of international Brain Awareness Week (BAW).
Segev, who also holds the David and Inez Myers Chair in Computational Neuroscience and works at the Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation, will deliver a talk at the opening event of Cinema and Brain Week on the latest discoveries in brain research. He will touch on such fascinating and potentially explosive issues as whether we can achieve the ability to stir up various emotions or to implant and delete thoughts and memories in the brain. Each talk will be followed by the screening of a feature film that is related to the subject.
Segev’s address and discussion with film director Avi Nesher will preface a showing of Michael Gondry’s 2004 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which tells the story of a couple who undergo a procedure to erase each other from their memories when their relationship turns sour.
Segev says he is keenly aware of the dangers of meddling in thought processes and how advanced technology can be misused to serve all sorts of demagogues looking to condition others to follow their nefarious lead. “If we ever acquired the ability to control certain areas of the brain, it would be up to society to decide how to use this facility. But there are plenty of positive benefits of fine-tuning parts of the brain, for instance for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease or other ailments that cause severe discomfort.
But I think that is still a long way off in the future.”
For Segev, the brain is the be all and end all, although he eschews the single-lane approach to his field or any other field of study. “The 20th century was about specialization and following narrow avenues of research and learning, but I think that people now understand that everything is connected.”
That understanding has led to an ambitious multimillion-dollar project to build a new interdisciplinary center for researching the workings of the brain. “People who studied in the 20th century were channeled into very specific areas of learning,” continues Segev. “But we want to produce students who understand medicine, mathematics and psychology and use all these fields and others in brain research. The new center will pool researchers and students from many disciplines, and we will also have an artist at the center. As I said, everything stems from the brain, including the arts, emotions and intuition.”
The plans for the new facility are currently being drawn up, with preeminent British architect Lord Foster in charge of design and planning. Foster is one of the most celebrated members of his profession, with a CV that includes such grand projects as the construction of the Hong Kong International Airport and the new Wembley soccer stadium in London, and the restoration of the Reichstag in Berlin.
“Lord Foster has never been to Israel, and I think he was excited by the nature of the project. It will be one of the biggest interdisciplinary brain research centers in the world,” says Segev.
Segev is a natural choice for the opening slot of the local BAW event, as he is an employee of the Edmond Safra Campus of the Hebrew University in Givat Ram. The Jerusalem program is sponsored by the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) in conjunction with the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which will host the screenings. The ELSC employs interdisciplinary research teams that are looking to widen our understanding of the human brain and discover the causal relationship between genes, brain circuits, cognition and behavior.
“We should aspire to reach the level of, say, someone like Leonardo da Vinci, who understood art and science and even knew how to ride a bicycle. Last century there was pressure to specialize, to be either an artist or a dancer or a scientist. But that has a detrimental effect on our efforts to progress and learn more about ourselves and the world. It is only now that we have grasped that,” he says.
Other speakers and panelists in the Cinema and Brain Week program include Prof. Naftali Tishbi, who will address a subject that engages many of us as we advance in years: “Is Death Necessarily the End of Life?” Tishbi’s talk will look at brain research and computer sciences and how they are opening up new possibilities to preserve human memory and maintain our social contact, even after death. His talk will be followed by a screening of The Fountain, in which a man discovers a source of water with magical powers that he could use to heal his wife but also presents him with an ethical quandary.
Prof. Haim Sompolinski’s talk, entitled “Brain and Freedom,” touches on the issue of whether we have total freedom of choice or whether biological and physical mechanisms that control our body are the sole vehicles we use to plan our lives and make decisions.
The subject also has implications for religious beliefs, for instance in the context of whether there is an actual differentiation between our good and bad inclinations. That will be followed by a screening of David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game, starring Michael Douglas, about a wealthy man who receives a gift of a live-action game that gradually takes over his life.
Other lectures and discussions during the week will look at responses to pressure situations as a defense mechanism; the interface between the brain and the computer and the possibilities and dangers the synergy presents; and psychological and neurological ailments and how we can go about curing them.
Food for thought…