The art of thought – at Art and Brain Week

The rest of Art and Brain Week events should provoke ponderings aplenty.

A scene from sci-fi thriller ‘Ex Machina,’ which follows a talk on language and fantasy (photo credit: Courtesy)
A scene from sci-fi thriller ‘Ex Machina,’ which follows a talk on language and fantasy
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"I think, therefore I am,” noted 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes in his weighty 1637 tome Discourse on the Method. But as we all know, emotion also features prominently in our day-to-day functioning. Thank God for that.
As I settled down to chat with Prof. Rafi Aviram, executive director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, about the forthcoming Art and Brain Week Festival (Jerusalem Cinematheque, March 13-21), I quipped that I tend to feel more than I think.
“Emotion is also a sort of brain function,” he said, putting me firmly me in my layman’s place. “We know that everything comes from the brain.”
That also applies to creative endeavor, as will be elucidated during the course of next week’s proceedings.
As usual, the festival (in Hebrew) will touch on a wide range of topics which take in the mysteries of schizophrenia, sleep and dreams, decision-making, the relationship between emotion, the brain and behavior, and language and imagination.
The sixth installment of the event adheres to the tried and proven format of a lecture, or panel discussion, followed by some entertainment offering.
For the first five years, the festival went by the name of Cinema and Brain Week, but the cultural purview has been stretched this year to take in dance and theater, in addition to movies.
“We do a lot of things with the community,” explains Aviram. “Two years ago we ran an activity with a group of caricaturists. It was a project designed to produce caricatures which were inspired by brain research.”
That fun initiative fueled the publication of a magazine called Shpitz and a collection of framed works which now adorn the walls of the corridor leading to Aviram’s office at the center.
Rather than burying themselves deep in the recesses of their laboratories and computers, the executive director says, the center and its personnel attach great importance to nurturing a two-way-street connection with life around them. “The center definitely sees the bond between the community and science as a crucial element of our work. That’s why we invest so much energy in projects like this festival.”
The Art and Brain Week program certainly appears geared to getting the average Avi or Dina on the street onboard and conveying a simple message – that we all have a brain, and that it might not do us any harm to understand a little more about the way it works. And, if you throw in a bunch of entertaining movies, a theater production and a dance performance, you’re looking at a nicely enticing proposal which should keep one and all enthralled and engaged.
The shebang opens on March 13 with an intriguing encounter between celebrated writer David Grossman and Hebrew University computer sciences professor Naftali Tishby. The two will present their thoughts on the topics of language and fantasy, under the moderation of Tel Aviv University lecturer on brain sciences and philosopher and media personality Dr. Liad Modrik.
The session will be followed by a screening of sci-fi thriller Ex Machina. The next day’s session is called Sleep and Dreams, and will explore how the brain functions when we close our eyes and switch off physically, before the audience settles down to watching 2010 sci-fi heist thriller Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
In case you might still be wondering whether the areas covered by the festival program actually relate to the practicalities of common-or-garden everyday functioning, you might want to pop along to the March 16 slot when Prof. Maya Bar-Hillel of the Hebrew University illuminates her audience on the cerebral machinations of decision-making.
The ensuing movie is the 2015 drama Experimenter based on the 1961 experiment carried out by psychologist Stanley Milgram on obedience at Yale University.
Milgram, who came from a Jewish family, was influenced by events taking place in Jerusalem at the time, while the Adolf Eichmann trial was in progress. Milgram’s project produced startling evidence that the participants were willing to seemingly inflict severe pain on other subjects through a process of depersonalization.
In addition to the big-screen action, there will be live entertainment in the form of a performance of Aadel’s Days by the Psik Theater company, at its Beit Masie home. The play focuses on an unlikely synergy that develops between a schizophrenic Muslim Palestinian and a hapless yeshiva student who find themselves incarcerated in a closed ward of a psychiatric hospital.
The on-stage action goes up a couple of notches when the Kolben Dance Company enters the festival fray, with an excerpt from its Hai Beseret (Living in a Movie) work which, no doubt, will add insight to the preceding talk by Edmond and Lily Safra Center staff member Prof. Eilon Vaadia.
Younger festivalgoers have their own slot on March 17, when Hebrew University neuropsychology graduate Maya Lacker presents her talk on “The Connection between Feelings, the Brain and Behavior,” which will be followed by a screening of the delightful French animated movie Inside Out.
The above may look lip-smacking good, but at the end of the day, the festival is a once-a-year event and, surely, the idea is to make brain research, and the exploration of what makes us tick cerebrally, more user-friendly for the rest of us, outside the cloistered facilities of the brain sciences center.
Aviram believes that the annual event does do the trick.
“The festival, of course, helps to bring science closer to the ordinary person on the street,” he states.
“Before each artistic event, we have a lecture by one of our scientists which is tailored to the general public. That enables everyone to hear, to understand and also to sense, with the eyes and ears, where the scientific community is going. We believe that is very important. The new research programs in the field of the brain will affect each and every one of us.”
Some of the stuff the center staffers are currently getting up to may seem a mite ethereal and difficult to visualize for now, but Aviram says it is all highly relevant.
“You might think it is a bit futuristic, but we are looking at things like whether it is possible to find an apparatus that can read a person’s thoughts.”
That sounds a bit scary, especially if such a development were to fall into the wrong hands.
“From a scientific point of view, that might be very important and, yes, we also have to address the matter of who would be suitable to make use of such a facility, if it were possible to achieve.”
That’s certainly food for thought, and the rest of Art and Brain Week events should provoke ponderings aplenty.
And, if you want to spend time viewing some pertinent works of art at your leisure, you might want to get yourself over to Jerusalem Artists House, where the “Between Synapses: Where Art and Brain Sciences Intersect” exhibition has just opened, and will run until April 30.
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