Tag Archives: brain

An Interview with Documentary Filmmaker, Journalist, and Neuroscience-Enthusiast Noah Hutton

[This post originally appeared on March 12, 2010, on my short-lived blog Savvy Saplings, which explored the world of plant signaling and communication. I am transferring certain posts to The Mind's Flight so they are not lost behind closed doors in cyberspace]

As I’ve mentioned before, here at Savvy Saplings I’m interested in exploring more than just plants and science. I also want to explore how best to communicate science—how best to communicate in general.

I’m especially interested in talking to people who are similarly invested in the challenge of effective communication. We’ve already investigated the world of electronic books with Vook author Eric Gower, as well as the art of the viral video with YouTube sensation Liam Kyle Sullivan.

Now, I bring you an interview with documentary filmmaker, journalist, and neuroscience-enthusiast Noah Hutton.

A recent graduate of Wesleyan University, Hutton is the co-director of the documentary “Shooting for Peace” and director of “Crude Independence”—which was an official selection at the 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival and won the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2009 Oxford Film Festival. For the next ten years, Hutton will be working on a documentary about neuroscientist Henry Markram’s famous Blue Brain project in Lausanne, Switzerland: an attempt to reverse-engineer the mammalian brain using supercomputers and biologically accurate models of neuronal activity.

Based in New York City, Hutton is the Creative Director of Couple 3, a production house for independent media. He also founded and runs The Beautiful Brain, a webzine that “explores the latest findings from the ever-growing field of neuroscience through monthly podcasts, essays, and reviews, with particular attention to the dialogue between the arts and sciences.”

Here’s our interview.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in Los Angeles, but we only lived there for three years. After that, our home base was in New York but both of my parents were working often so we traveled most of the time and I was tutored on the road. I didn’t attend a school until the third grade when we settled for good in New York.

Was that upstate NY or the city?

The city—Upper West Side.

Do you have any particularly strong memories from those roaming years—ones that stand out, or that you consider formative?

I have a lot of memories from that period as we were traveling through many different countries. I lived for almost a year in England. In 1995 ,when I was eight, we trekked through China searching for pandas in the wild for a BBC documentary. I also remember spending time in the Sahara when my mother was filming “The Sheltering Sky.”

Where did you go to college, why did you go there, and what did you study?

I went to Wesleyan University and I don’t have a particular reason why—it was one of the first schools I visited and I just had a feeling that I wanted to be there. I spent my first two and a half years there taking mostly art history classes, which is the degree I ended up with. By junior year I caught the neuroscience bug and took nine neuroscience classes, but didn’t take the year-long pre-med requirements, so didn’t get the neuroscience degree.

Was there something specific that inspired the interest in neuroscience?

Yes, there was. It was two books I read back to back: “Why God Won’t Go Away” by Andrew Newberg, which reports on his research that ties out-of-body religious experiences in monks and nuns to irregular activity in the posterior parietal cortex, and E.O. Wilson’s “Consilience,” which makes an impassioned plea for bridging the humanities and sciences and became sort of a manifesto for me.

How early did filmmaking come into the picture? When did you start getting behind the camera?

I’ve been making shorts and experimenting with video cameras since early high school. My first serious filmmaking experience was in the summer of 2007 when I got into a program called World Crew, run by the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York, which sent me to Uganda with three other college-age aspiring filmmakers to make a feature-length documentary about three pressing humanitarian issues in that country: child soldiers, HIV/AIDS orphans, and water treatment. The film is called “Shooting for Peace” and we spent two and a half months in Uganda filming it.

Tell me a little about your documentary “Crude Independence.”

After the Uganda experience, I was determined to direct a documentary feature of my own, and over winter break that year I saw an article in the Times about a massive oil boom in western North Dakota that was dramatically changing small town life. I put myself on a plane and was in Stanley, North Dakota two days later, meeting locals and laying the groundwork to return that summer and shoot the film.

And it was quite well received, yes?

I wasn’t expecting anything with it, but it was thrilling when we started getting into film festivals, the two high points being our SXSW selection and winning best documentary feature at the Oxford Film Festival.

Were you still working on “Crude Independence” after you graduated from Wesleyan? If not, what did you do right after you graduated?

No, I had finished “Crude Independence” in the fall of my senior year, and was flying back and forth from festivals to school to make sure I graduated that spring. When I graduated I got my first apartment in NYC and started a job as an in-house editor at a film production studio. After a few months of that, I decided to quit and put all of my energy into building my own production company and directing projects, and that’s what I’ve been doing since.

The new production company being Couple 3 or had that already been in the works beforehand?

Yeah that’s it—I formed Couple 3 as a NY corporation before making “Crude Independence.”

When did you get the idea to start making a documentary about Blue Brain—how does that fall into the timeline? Why choose Blue Brain as a subject? What fascinates you about it?

I have been following Blue Brain through various media coverage of the project for a couple years, and after reading Jonah Lehrer’s SEED Magazine piece about the project, I felt strongly that a film needed to be made about the project. As it’s a ten-year (estimated) project, my plan is to take yearly trips over there to track its progress, and put together updates each year with the new footage that I post online on my site. From a marketing sense, I hope that will build an audience for the film project, so that in ten years when Markram is finishing up and things are getting dramatic and I’m finishing the film, there will be a built-in audience for the final, feature-length film I create. On an intellectual level, the project is fascinating for so many reasons, as are the people that are carrying it out. It is the “Fitzcarraldo” of modern neuroscience.

Can you elaborate on the “Fitzcarraldo” reference?

I’ve always thought of the quest to create artificial intelligence as a relative of Fitzcarraldo’s quest to push the steamship over the mountain in Herzog’s film, which is one of my personal favorites of all time. It is something that few believe they can do, but for those who do believe they can do it (like Henry Markram), we will all watch from the sidelines, awed by progress up the mountain, always thinking that the ship may slip back down at any moment (as it has many times before), but still watching because we have a sense that it could actually happen someday.

Going back to the marketing aspect, how do you specifically plan to use Twitter and social media to build up an audience? Any specific strategies? It seems like today, in 2010, there are a lot of ways to attract viewers that simply didn’t exist even 5 years ago.

Yes, absolutely. I have been using Twitter to promote my production company’s projects and The Beautiful Brain and I think it is an invaluable tool these days, especially when one is thinking about building an audience for a project. One still has to create a good film. But the point is that I can post the first piece tracking the first year of my Blue Brain film online, post a link on Twitter, and within a couple days thousands have watched it around the world. I’m not sure if that was possible before these tools were around.

For Blue Brain, my strategy is to post these yearly updates to build interest both in the project (so that I will continue to have access) and in the film I’m making, so that when I release a feature-length documentary, there will hopefully be an audience that has been watching these pieces over the years and feels invested—we’re talking about a decade of seeing a film come together. I think the future is in using these tools to engage your audience throughout the entire process of creating a film, so that one feels personally invested in the outcome. Tools like Kickstarter are also coming up with innovative ways to make that investment a monetary as well as an emotional one.

A 10-year film project seems like a massive investment of time and resources on your part. How does one support oneself through that, or raise the necessary funding? And how will it be profitable in the end?

Well, saying I’m making a 10-year film probably sounds like more time and investment than it is. In reality, I will take one brief trip over there once a year for the next ten years. I own all the equipment, so really we’re talking about plane tickets and lodging for the trips. I work year-round on many various projects for the clients of my company so that I can fund the trips over there. In the end, I hope to make a feature-length documentary that I can take to festivals and then sell for a theatrical release or for TV. Then things could be profitable—but again, one has to forget about those things and focus on making as good a film as they possibly can given all the circumstances. These will be my Blue Brain “vacations!”

Have you sold documentaries for theatrical release or television broadcast in the past?

Not like I hope to in the future. With “Crude Independence,” I put together a release strategy where I’ve been traveling to cities and having theatrical screenings where I speak afterwards, and we released the DVD at the same time. In the future I hope to partner with distributors for wider, more conventional releases.

Okay, so Beautiful Brain: when did you start working on that and why did you decide to create it?

I started it this past December as a way to stay engaged with what I had been studying in college, and to hopefully produce content that people will enjoy and find interesting. I have a couple friends who I spend a lot of time talking neuroscience and art with, so I got them to come onboard and since then I’ve been able to interview some incredibly interesting scientists and artists for the site. Our audience is growing: we are averaging more and more visitors each month, and I hope to recruit more writers for the site who are interested in the art/science dialogue, and to either partner with a nonprofit or advertise on the site so that we can monetize things and I can pay those who contribute to the site.

So right now you’re focusing on content and building an audience, and hoping to monetize in the future?

Yes, I hope that after a few more months of producing diverse content and building our audience, we’ll be able to tackle monetization.

How did you go about building the site? What programs/languages/platforms did you use?

I used a WordPress theme that I custom CSS coded a bit to fit our needs, and then have been using Photoshop to create all graphic content for the site.

Do you find it difficult to juggle maintaining the site and the production company?

At times, yes. There is a lack of time for it all, but the good thing about the site is that I’m always very personally interested in whatever I’m writing or editing for it so I have no problem doing that at 1 am or on an off day from film stuff.

How many people work with you in your production company, and how many on The Beautiful Brain?

With the production company, it’s me full time, and for each specific project I bring in others—for example, right now, I have an editor in NYC who is co-editing a commissioned documentary we just finished shooting, and here in Minneapolis I’ve hired two really talented local cinematographers to shoot this concert with me. So it’s project by project. On The Beautiful Brain, I work with two others: Ben Ehrlich and Sam McDougle, both friends of mine from high school.

[At the time of the interview, Hutton was filming in Minneapolis]

Was it challenging to start your own production company right out of college? Or was it more a matter of using your accomplishments to market yourself and get commissions / projects? How did you go about that process?

It’s still just a matter of one project to the next at this point. I do hope at some point to have a real studio and have full-time positions with the company, so I’m building towards that. After I graduated it was mostly a matter of using “Crude Independence” to market myself for a range of freelance projects.

What do you think distinguishes or will further distinguish The Beautiful Brain from other mind/brain-focused sites and publications? Do you see a specific gap in the coverage to fill?

There are some other sites that pursue the brain/art dialogue, such as edge.org, but my vision with TBB is to fill exactly that niche with a visually appealing site that presents a range of media—not just text. So, for one, I’m not aware of other podcasts that deal specifically and exclusively with the art-brain dialogue, so that’s one gap I’m trying to fill, mostly because I was looking for a podcast that did just that back in the fall and couldn’t find one.

Speaking of other media beyond text, have you thought at all about thinks like ereaders and the iPad? We’ve seen quite a few demos of magazines/publications on such devices. Would you want to continue The Beautiful Brain as a web site, or expand into some kind of ereader?

That’s an interesting thought—I hadn’t even considered that yet. I’m focused for now on building the audience for the site, and then all sorts of expansions could be possible in the future.

The Marshmallow Larva: A Breathing, Squirming Body-Pillow Companion

Warning: the video below may creep you out excessively. But this is something I think everyone needs to see because of its implications: the ways in which we interact with intelligent technology are evolving so quickly that, though future possibilities often excite us, the nature of these interactions seem equally likely to become bizarre and frightening. Take a look:

Many of you may be wondering what in the world I just asked you to watch. Allow me to explain. As part of his graduate thesis, German designer Stefan Ulrich worked with electroactive polymers (EPAs), a type of synthetic material—similar to everyday plastic—that changes shape in response to an electric current. Researchers have already explored the use of such polymers to make artificial muscles, even inspiring an arm wrestling match that pits an EPA robotic arm against a human. Ulrich, however, decided to take advantage of the material’s unique properties to create a shape-shifting robot of marshmallow texture and color. Ulrich claims the project, which he calls Funktionide, provides its user “with an atmosphere of presence, thus counteracting the feeling of loneliness.” Okay, acknowledging the less than satisfying translation of his native tongue—“atmosphere of presence,” anyone?—we can infer that Ulrich intends the robot as a kind of surrogate companion, one that can help offset loneliness.

Hmm. Even though this living cushion mimics the gentle rise and fall of human breathing, when I look at Funktionide slowly squirming its way towards its owner—or, perhaps, its companion—I think of nothing so much as a fly larva. But maybe that’s just me. Let’s say something like this actually would catch on with a certain subset of the population: is it really a good idea to offer up a featureless—though huggable—larval pillow as a legitimate means of combating loneliness? (This brings to mind the Japanese phenomenon of body-pillow girlfriends, or the disturbing but incredible documentary “Guys and Dolls,” which concerns men who turn to life-size dolls for sexual and emotional companionship; you can usually find it on YouTube.)

Making and maintaining interpersonal relationships with other human beings is not easy for everyone—or anyone, really. For some individuals, it’s especially difficult. There’s already a whole host of therapies for loneliness that do not depend on forming bonds with other people: herbs, dietary changes, exercise routines, anti-depressants and similar drugs, to name a few. And everyone knows cats, dogs and other pets help comfort those feeling lonely or depressed. So if some kind of artificial substitute for human companionship—even something like a squirmy body-pillow—can safely and effectively help people, why not? Well, here’s the real question: is it actually helping? Are substitutes good enough? Do they get to the root of the problem? Are they psychologically healthy solutions? Answering those questions would take a whole separate blog post—a whole book, really—but my intuition says No.

To be fair, Ulrich is not unaware of the concerns his project raises: “The work’s intention is to ask what happens if a product, which was proposed as a relief against social isolation, begins to become the solution. In this way the thesis[’s] intention is to create a picture for discussion, which enables us to question how much we want technological products to satisfy our emotional needs,” his Web site reads.

I think that’s well put. If you’ve seen popular science fiction films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, then you’re already familiar with particularly vivid examples of futuristic technology designed specifically to “satisfy our emotional needs,” like android prostitutes, interactive holographic girlfriends, and the ability to live out our desires in virtual reality. The problems with such speculative technologies are clear: they effectively drive people away from one another, encouraging convenient and synthetic fulfillment of people’s basic psychological needs—encouraging illusions.

Now, we’ve all heard the pervasive arguments that in today’s world of cell phones and text messages, of e-mail, instant messaging, Facebook and Twitter, we daily deprive ourselves of genuine face-to-face interaction in favor of communication from behind computer screens, avatars and online aliases. But I don’t agree with many of those arguments. Cell phones, e-mail and online social networks have invaluably augmented our ability to communicate with one another. These are immensely helpful tools on which many of us depend—and justly so. Do you really want to go back to the era of Jane Austen, when handwritten correspondence was pretty much all you had to work with, and many a day was passed with palms pressed to the window pane, awaiting the messenger with your beloved’s letter in hand? And how could we give up the opportunity to instantly scrutinize the Facebook profile of a potential romantic interest, a perfectly accurate and impartial means of judgment? Pride and Prejudice 2.0.

What we do need to remember is that we are extremely social creatures, perhaps the most social creatures on the planet (with the possible exception of Bonobos: “Bonobos are peaceful. Aggression is diffused by sex and play”—frisky little apes!). Our social, emotional and psychological needs didn’t exactly evolve to be fulfilled by dolls, robots, computers, or pillows—regardless of how squishy, lifelike or intelligent they are. People need other people. And—at least right now—there is no technology out there that even comes close to matching the emotional intelligence of a human being. Yes, human companionship can be incredibly confusing, frustrating and difficult to understand and navigate; yes, certain individuals suffer a loneliness so great they need therapy, not just company. But there is real danger in substituting interactive technology for human relationships. We all need to learn and grow socially—by taking risks, by making mistakes, by confronting both love and rejection. Our brains expect it, demand it! When technology threatens to become a permanent substitute for the friendships and intimate relationships vital to natural human psychosocial development, that’s when we need to stop and rethink the implications of what we’re creating. Not when we spend a bit too much time choosing the perfect profile picture for Facebook, or abbreviate some words in a text message, but when we spend more time in a virtual world than outdoors (oh wait, maybe that’s already happened…)—or when we wake up with marshmallow larvae breathing silently beside us: that’s when we need to stop and rethink

New Scienceline Blog

You can now see a newer version of my last blog post published on Scienceline.org!

Coming up next: robots that want to be human.

Illuminating the Secrets of Mind Control in Light of the Coming Singularity

This past weekend, the 92nd Street Y hosted the 2009 Singularity Summit. Maybe you’ve already heard of Ray Kurzweil and his widely cited book The Singularity is Near, but here’s the gist just in case: Kurzweil and many others claim the exponentially increasing rate of technological development is evidence for a shift in the near future —a shift called the Singularity—during which artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence and machines will supersede humans as the dominant sentient forces on the planet. If this sounds like something out of The Matrix and more than a little kooky—don’t worry, you’re not alone. But the Singularity Summit wasn’t just an excuse for enthusiastic futurists and computer science geeks to stand up on a soapbox and spout speculation—the Summit welcomed a diverse range of scientists whose presentations described some really fascinating current research. One that caught my attention in particular was Ed Boyden of MIT.

Boyden’s speech focused on synthetic neurobiology—a field in which researchers create technology that interacts directly with the brain—and a remarkable technique for specifically manipulating individual neurons, a technique Boyden helped pioneer. Many organisms—such as jellyfish, algae and bacteria—produce light-activated protein pumps. Using harmless viruses as vehicles to transport DNA coding for these proteins from one organism to another, researchers can make neurons in the animals they study light-sensitive as well. What’s more, by using different kinds of protein pumps—one which excites neurons in response to blue light and one which inhibits them in response to yellow light—they can precisely determine whether the neurons fire or not. Eager for an unprecedented level of control over different parts of the brain and nervous system, researchers have readily adopted the technique, successfully applying it to a range of animal models, from zebra fish to primates.

So what does any of this have to do with the Singularity? Well, during his presentation at the Summit, Boyden described attempts to make fiber optic implants for the human brain, implants that could directly stimulate or inhibit neurons with light. Let’s think about this: brain implants that precisely determine whether our neurons are firing or not? Sure, there’s great therapeutic potential here—especially for diseases that involve abnormal firing patterns, like epilepsy and Parkinson’s—but there’s also something a bit alarming. The technology Boyden described is similar to deep brain stimulation (DBS)—in which an implanted brain pacemaker regulates specific areas of neurons—but there is a crucial difference: present day DBS uses electrical stimulation, which is not nearly as precise as light stimulation. The more sophisticated the technology with which we study the brain becomes, the more we learn about the brain’s function and the better we become at treating psychological disorders; on the other hand, one can’t help but imagine how precise control of individual neurons could turn into the kind of mind control science fiction has long warned us against. Scarily, fiber optics have already been used to stimulate the brain in mice, as this little fellow demonstrates: when the light goes on, he involuntarily runs in circles:

If Kurzweil is right—and computers will soon be smarter than us—I’m sure they’ll take full advantage of any mind-controlling technology at their disposal. Who knows: maybe the Singularity already happened and we’re nothing more than a bunch of brains in vats, lapping up the rays of light that power our dream reality—all for the amusement of our supercomputer overlords.