DOC NYC: Theater of thought, exploration of the human brain with Werner Herzog

DOC NYC: Theater of thought, exploration of the human brain with Werner Herzog

The pioneer of new German cinema ventures into the complex realms of the mind. Werner Herzog, who has just turned 80, receives the Lifetime Achievement Award from DOC NYC and, during this same festival, presents his latest work, Theater of Thought.

The documentary explores the different scientific facets of the human brain, from artificial intelligence to visual image processing. Herzog wrote, directed and narrated this powerful journey through neuroscience that begins with his very evocative statement: “Sometimes there are coincidences that seem to fall out of nowhere.So begins Herzog’s road trip with scientist Rafael Yuste, to interview an eclectic cast of brain scientists who share their knowledge of Earth’s most mysterious organ.

The film appears as a science essay on the big screen as it explores technology, human rights law, philosophy and more. Darío Gil, head of research at IBM, takes the filmmaker on a tour of his lab, explaining how nature obeys quantum mechanics and that machines should be built following this example. Married couple Richard Axel (Nobel Prize in Physiology) and Cori Bargmann (neurobiologist known for her work on the genetic and neural circuitry of the worm), reveal how the sense of smell works in unison with the brain. Artificial intelligence expert Tom Gruber, one of the creators of Siri, is invited to test the virtual assistant. Through the various discussions, similarities between humans and other creatures are revealed, whether in social behaviors or forms of interspecific mutualism. It is also understood that infants (with cartoons) and adolescents (with video games) favor a world of fantasy over reality, just as mice prefer virtual realities when hunting crickets.

Other interviewees include entrepreneurs, mathematicians, surgeons and wire artist Philippe Petite. The latter became famous for walking between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Theater of Thought he explains the method he uses to ignore fear when performing his acrobatic feats. Our existence, just like that of the tightrope walker, is a question of balance between life and death because the spirit records every moment. Herzog’s exploration of this state of being is portrayed not only in conversations with consciousness experts, but also through his love of film. In fact, it includes footage of a farmer dying on a pile of apples, from the 1930 Soviet Union silent film: Earth (Zemlia, Zemlya) directed by Alexander Dovzhenko.

What emerges is a deep inquiry into the self, whether we define it factually or through a continuous construction of experiences and memories rewired by our brain. There is no truth in our minds. We realize that we are somehow making up our lives, as our mind continues to tell our personal story. And yet, at the end of this cinematographic research, none of the interviewees can explain in an exhaustive way what a thought is. We also fail to find an axiom of emotion. Feelings are too articulated to be broken down into a single essence.

Bioethics is confronted with the manipulation of the brain for medical purposes, as opposed to the possible usurpations that can result from these practices. The range of testimonies that punctuate this mind-blowing journey leads the public to wonder about the mysteries of our cortical structures and their potential, combined with today’s technological developments.

Theater of Thought, while at times didactic for the conventional talking-head style, overall it comes across as a mindful experiment in unearthing the riddle of what lurks in our skulls. Werner Herzog is a valiant guide leading the way through the anatomy of sensory experience, memory, emotion, thought, and everything else that governs our bodies.

Discover more articles from Chiara.

Final grade: B-

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