DOC NYC: Theater Of Thought, Exploring The Human Brain With Werner Herzog

DOC NYC: Theater Of Thought, Exploring The Human Brain With Werner Herzog

The pioneer of New German Cinema ventures into the intricate realms of the mind. Werner Herzog, who recently turned 80 is receiving DOC NYC’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and at that same festival is presenting his latest work, Theater Of Thought.

The documentary explores the various scientific facets of the human brain, from artificial intelligence to visual image processing. Herzog has written, directed and narrates this effective voyage through neuroscience that begins with his very evocative statement: “Sometimes there are coincidences that fall seemingly from nowhere.” Thus begins Herzog’s road trip with scientist Rafael Yuste, to interview an eclectic ensemble of brain specialists who share their knowledge about the most mysterious organ on Earth. 

The film comes across as a scientific essay projected on the silver screen, as it probes into technology, human rights law, philosophy and more. Darío Gil, IBM’s head of research, takes the filmmaker on a tour of his lab, explaining how nature obeys quantum mechanics and that machines should be built following that example. The married couple Richard Axel (Nobel Prize in Physiology) and Cori Bargmann (neurobiologist known for her work on the genetic and neural circuit in the worm), unveil the way the sense of smell operates in unison with the brain. A.I. expert Tom Gruber, one of the creators of Siri, is asked to put the virtual assistant to the test. Through the various discussions, similarities between humans and other creatures are disclosed, whether it comes to social behaviour patterns or forms of interspecies mutualism.

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We also come to the understanding that both infants (with cartoons) and adolescents (with video games) favour a world of fantasies rather than reality, just as mice prefer virtual realities when hunting crickets.

Interviewees also 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. In Theater Of Thought he explains the method he uses to ignore fear while performing his acrobatic feats. Our existence, just like for the high wire artist, is a matter of balance between life and death as the mind registers every instant. Herzog’s exploration of this state of being is portrayed not only during the conversations with experts of consciousness, but also through his love for cinema. In fact, he includes footage of a farmer dying on a pile of apples, from the 1930 silent film of the Soviet Union: Earth (Зeмля, Zemlya) directed by Alexander Dovzhenko.

What emerges is a profound investigation on the self, whether we can define it factually or through a continuous construction of experiences and memories that get rewired by our brain. There is no truth within our minds. We realise that we somehow invent our lives, as our mind keeps narrating our personal history. And yet at the end of this cinematic research none of the people interviewed can explain exhaustively what a thought is. Nor do we arrive to finding an axiom of emotion. Feelings are too articulate to be broken down into a single essence.

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Bioethics are confronted when it comes to manipulation of the brain for medical purposes, as opposed to the possible usurpations that can arise from these practices. The array of testimonies that delineate this mind-bending trip lead audiences to ponder upon the mysteries of our cortical structures and their potential, when combined with today’s technological evolutions. 

Theater Of Thought, although didactic at times for the conventional talking heads style, by and large comes across as a mindful experience to unearth the enigma of what lies within our skulls. Werner Herzog is a valiant guide in leading the way through the anatomy of sensory experience, memory, emotion, thought, and all that regulates our body.

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Check out more of Chiara’s articles.

Final Grade: B-

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