Neuroscientist Tononi Confirms Bourne Identity Conceit

Yesterday, May 30, speaking at a panel held under the aegis of New York Cityâ''s first annual World Science Festival, Spectrum author Julio Tononi told an audience at the Museum of Modern Art that the Bourne Identityâ''s artistic conceit is not merely plausible but in fact completely credible. In the first film of the hugely successful Bourne triology, Jason Bourne turns out to be a former remorseless CIA assassin. Though at the outset he has no memory of who he is or his life history, he has, inexplicably to him and the attractive but flakey German woman he has picked up while running for his life, the entire skill set that a top-level international hit man would be expected to have.

Yesterdayâ''s MOMA panel brought together Bourne director Doug Liman, a film scholar and script writer who served as moderator, and Tononi, an Italian-born psychiatrist and neuroscientist, now at the University of Wisconsin. Disarmingly, director Liman said that when he conceived and developed the Bourne films over eight years, he considered Bourneâ''s special kind of amnesia a fictional device and did not really care whether it had any basis in reality. But Tononi told of a patient presented to him when he was doing his medical residency in Italy: a geography teacher, the man woke up one day with no idea who he was, what his life story was, or who his wife was; however, he could effortlessly recite every important town and city in Italy, along with a wealth of other information any geography teacher would be expected to have at his fingertips.

Every panelist at the near-capacity MOMO event had something of interest to say. Moderator James Schamus talked about a late-Fifties movie, Three Faces of Eve, which was based on a real woman with three separate personalities; without skipping a beat, Tononi, threw up a slide of the Eve movie poster, saying that in cases of multiple personalities, separate regions of the brain light up in a scan, as the person switches from one personality to another. The director talked about how he had taken a â''Republicanâ'' novel, in which the Soviet assassins were bad guys and the American assassins good guys, and turned it into a â''Democraticâ'' movie in which all the assassins were bad; when asked whether Bourne was â''guiltyâ'' of the murders he committed, Liman said without hesitation that of course he was. Tononi, however, pointed out that there have been cases of sleepwalkersâ''a situation in which one is conscious but not self-conscious and arguably not responsibleâ''who have committed crimes, even in at least one case a murder, and been acquitted.

The MOMA panel basically was set up to be Tononiâ''s show, and so he canâ''t be accused of having stolen it. But if it had been necessary for him to steal itâ''letâ''s say he showed up at the panel without any notion of who he was and where he was, but soon discovered that inexplicably he knew way more about the brain than anybody else in the roomâ''he would have effortlessly run away with the event.

At the outset and through much of the discussion, Tononi talked mainly about how highly compartmentalized the brain is. But at the end, he took everybody a little by surprise with an eloquent statement about how the brain is subtly or not so subtly changed by every single thing it takes in, and how the whole is affected by changes in the parts, modifying our character for ever; he advised us, gently, to make better friends with our brains. It was a surprisingly spiritual statementâ''and got an approving nod from director Liman as well as many in the audienceâ''coming from a man who argues in the current issue of IEEE Spectrum that some day, in fact, machines will achieve full consciousness.

Spectrumâ''s June special issue, â''Rapture of the Geeks,â'' explores the question of whether supersmart machines will ever be smart enough to make us humans obsolete.


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