World-renowned filmmaker Werner Herzog visited the Caltech campus on June 8 for a private screening of his recent documentary, Theatre of Thought. Sponsored by the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech, the screening allowed audience members to see advances in neurotechnology through the eyes of Herzog, a science-curious writer and director of idiosyncratic films including Aguirre, The Wrath of God; Fitzcarraldo; and Nosferatu the Vampyre. Herzog fielded questions in a Q&A following the film.
David J. Anderson, director of the Chen Institute, described the screening as "an exciting opportunity to engage with one of the most important film directors of his generation. To see Herzog bring his unique documentary style to bear on neuroscience is extraordinary. It shows the potential benefits of the science and technology for humanity, but also the risks, which he confronts head on. Because of Herzog's world-wide reputation, it has the potential to reach a very large audience."
Theatre of Thought, a 110-minute documentary film, focuses on a two-week road trip in 2021 to neuroscience labs on both the west and east coasts of the United States. Professor Rafael Yuste, director of the NeuroTechnology Center at Columbia University, initiated the collaboration with Herzog. Yuste is co-founder of The Neurorights Foundation, which seeks to investigate and evaluate neurotechnologies and artificial intelligence for their ethical implications. "As much research as we do," Yuste says, "we're just a little pebble in the sea compared to the impact that the artistry of documentaries can have."
Yuste emailed Herzog with the idea of doing a documentary on neuroscience, and Herzog was immediately intrigued. "There was not much deliberation," Herzog said during the Q&A session after the screening. "It was easy for me to be on board because I had questions about the brain that have been very urgent inside of me."
Because COVID-19 restrictions were easing during production, Yuste and Herzog, along with a skeleton camera crew, were able to visit neuroscience laboratories across the country. During these travels and interviews, Herzog found the focus for the film—and its title. The idea, Yuste explains, came from a key hypothesis being tested by many neuroscientists: "That the brain works by generating a virtual reality model of the world. In other words, the world we live in, the reality that surrounds us, is actually generated by our brains."
Theatre of Thought contains interviews with prominent neuroscientists such as Richard Axel (Columbia University), Cori Bargmann (The Rockefeller University), Karl Deisseroth (Stanford University), Christof Koch (Allen Institute for Brain Science and former Caltech faculty member), and Joseph LeDoux (New York University). For the Q&A session, Anderson was joined by Professor Doris Tsao of UC Berkeley (formerly of Caltech), to draw out Herzog's perspective on the film and to field questions from the audience, who asked not only about how neuroscience is perceived by laypeople, but also about the interface between neurotechnology and film.
This screening of Theatre of Thought was the first in a Neuroscience and the Arts series sponsored by the Chen Institute.