Tag Archives: neuroscience

On the Radio

Boomer Alley Radio invited me to speak about ecopsychology and bizarre plant life on their late September episode “Demystifying the World.” The show also features the esteemed Carl Zimmer on football, concussions and the brain and Bill Prady of “The Big Bang Theory.”

Listen here!

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.

Digging Up The Roots of Intelligence: Plant Neurobiology: A Sapling Science

Plants are passive creatures. When it comes down to it, they’re not much more than nature’s pretty green backdrop. They stay in the same place their whole lives, silently soaking up water and sunlight, growing a little bit each day, pretty much defenseless against hungry herbivores. They just don’t do much—right?

If that’s what you think – and you wouldn’t be alone – take a look at this excerpt from David Attenborough’s spectacular The Private Life of Plants, produced with the BBC:

For most plant scientists, the notion of plants as passive, unresponsive and motionless organisms is simply insupportable in view of the vast evidence to the contrary. Time-lapse photography and film show that plants do in fact move, albeit at a much slower pace than most animals. Over time, for example, the roots and shoots of many developing plants twirl out into the environment, evaluating soil content and sources of light and water, searching for the best direction to grow, looking for a foothold and—in some cases—even sniffing out neighboring plants as friend or foe.

Sometimes, plants move exceptionally quickly: flowers rush to open in time to receive spring’s flurry of pollinators; seed pods explode, sending pollen grains flying; the leaves of Mimosa pudica (the Sensitive Plant) recoil instantly when touched; and, perhaps most famously, the Venus Flytrap snaps its green jaws whenever a six-legged meal crawls its way. See the proof for yourself:

Flowering

The Sensitive Plant (Mimosa pudica)

Venus Fly Trap

The field of plant physiology, which concerns cellular and molecular functions, has discovered a wide array of active signaling mechanisms important for communication both in the individual plant and between plants—mechanisms that rely on hormones, proteins, peptides and electrical signals. When attacked by hungry insects, for example, potato and tomato plants respond by increasing the production of protease inhibitors—chemicals that inhibit digestion of leafy material—not only in the wounded leaf, but in all leaves.

Recently, plant science has witnessed the emergence of a new minority advocating even greater recognition of plants as organisms that respond directly to their environments with sophisticated signaling systems. This minority—associated with a novel field called “plant neurobiology”—argues for plants as “information processing” organisms capable of true behavior and adaptation, drawing attention to the potential neurobiology underlying these abilities. As the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology states on its web site, “The nascent field of Plant Neurobiology has been formed based on recognition that neurobiology of humans is a most rapidly breaking field in biology today, and the reality that much of the biochemistry, cell biology and electrophysiology known in classical neurobiology exists as well in plants.”

Many of the scientists in this minority are represented by The Society of Plant Signaling and Behavior, which has already held six international symposia. Here is an excerpt from their web site:

The goal of this field is to illuminate the structure of the information network that exists within plants. Plants are dynamic and highly sensitive organisms that actively and competitively forage for limited resources both above and below ground. Plants accurately compute inputs from the environment, use sophisticated cost-benefit analysis, and take action to mitigate diverse environmental insults. Plants are also capable of refined recognition of self and non-self, and are territorial in behavior. This view sees plants as information processing organisms with complex, long-distance communication systems within the plant body and extending into the surrounding ecosystem. Our Society was originally founded in 2005 as the Society for Plant Neurobiology to reflect these views of plant function. In May 2009 the Society voted to expand its view and change its name accordingly.

Why did the Society change their name in May 2009? Why remove the term ‘neurobiology’ from their title? Their decision reflects the controversy they have inspired and the resistance they have encountered from their scientific peers. Neurobiology—the detailed study of the nervous system and the brain—has nothing to do with plants, many of their colleagues argue; plants do not have nervous systems and making parallels between their signaling systems and those of animals is unwarranted, unscientific and misleading. Just two years before the Society changed its name, thirty-three researchers—from such universities as Oxford, Yale and the University of California Davis—signed a letter of opposition questioning the rationale of the entire plant neurobiology movement and claiming that it “does not add to our understanding of plant physiology, plant cell biology or signaling.”

However, there are several striking similarities between the cellular and molecular signaling mechanisms of plants and those of animals, namely: (1) the use action potentials—a change in voltage across an excitable cell membrane; (2) voltage-gated ion channels in cell membranes; and (3) evidence of neurotransmitter-like molecules. Plants have cells capable of sensing different aspects of their environment—especially light, temperature, humidity and gravity. They respond to these environmental stimuli with directly observable and measurable developmental changes. That action potentials and neurotransmitter-like molecules could be involved in these interactions and in internal plant communication is a valid claim supported by some preliminary evidence.

So the controversy continues, for now. Whether Plant Neurobiology will take root or not is unclear, but the evidence to which they point is too intriguing to simply ignore.