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Getting Philosophical at the Film Festival

We tend to think of scientific experts as people to go to when we are looking for certainty and answers, but Paul Broks, an expert in clinical psychology, is interested in questions. They are questions about consciousness and our sense of self– questions that science may not be able to answer– and he is using prose, theatre, and film to ask them. Broks was in town this summer presenting an event called Machine in the Ghost at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. He sat down to tell me about his latest projects and his exploration into what gives us our sense of identity.

The night before we spoke, in Teviot’s dimly lit debating hall, Broks led the audience of Machine in the Ghost on a philosophical journey, encouraging us to think about how our identity relates to our physical, fleshy selves. He illustrated the challenges of pinning down our sense of self by introducing both fictional and real people whose identities get lost or duplicated. We saw clips of Arnold Schwarzenegger playing characters with amnesia and body doubles, watched animated characters grappling with a machine that replicates people, and (in Broks’ own film, Martino Unstrung) met jazz legend Pat Martino, who lost his memory and ability to play guitar after a brain aneurysm. The evening also included a glimpse of Broks’ not-yet-finished film, Rupture, and ended with a reading from his book, Into the Silent Land.

Broks’ interests are diverse, but he has spent most of his career as a clinical neuropsychologist and is still teaching, currently as a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Plymouth. He says, “I’m in a sort of strange position, where I’m employed as a clinical teacher in a science faculty, but do arts.” Inspired by cases he has seen over the years, Broks’ inquiry extends beyond the limits of science, but he feels these areas need to be addressed. He says, “I think that in science, certainly my areas of interest, you have to confront the philosophical questions.”

What are the questions inspiring his work? One puzzle he points out is, “Day by day, we lose cells and cells get remade, and after a period of six or seven years you don’t have a single cell in your body that’s the same cell, except in the brain. But even in the brain, the cells regenerate at a molecular level, so physically you’re not the same thing as you were ten years ago.” If our physical selves are always changing, then what gives us our persistent sense of who we are?

We can begin to explore our sense of self by considering what makes it up. We have a ‘minimal self’, which is “a core consciousness, […] where you experience hunger and pain and all those immediate sensations“. We also have an ‘extended self’, the story we tell ourselves, which is “where you develop a stable sense of self”.

From his clinical experience, Broks has gained insight into these selves. For instance, he believes it may be possible to dissociate them. “There’s no hard evidence for this, but anecdotally, I’ve seen people who seemed to have lost one kind of self but retained the other, and vice versa.” An example of losing the sense of minimal self is Cotard’s syndrome. “In the very pure cases, [people] will very logically argue that they don’t exist anymore. I think that’s because there’s been a dissociation between the autobiographical systems and the sense of being alive in the moment.”

The ‘extended self’ with its personal narrative can temporarily slip away in a condition called transient epileptic amnesia. “People can be walking down the street […] and suddenly they forget who they are. Their immediate sense of what they are, where they are, is, if anything, even more intense so that they and their connection with the world seem to be even more real, more vivid. But they have no idea who they are. […] They’ve lost their extended autobiographical self that makes them the same from one day to the next.”

Broks’ latest project is Rupture, a film about survivors of brain injuries. His collaborators are former Bond girl Maryam d’Abo, who herself experienced a subarachnoid haemorrhage– a dangerous form of bleeding next to the brain– and d’Abo’s husband Hugh Hudson, best known for directing Chariots of Fire. Broks helped develop Rupture’s structure and wrote the narration. But he says he also acted as “devil’s advocate for the dark side”, at odds with d’Abo and Hudson’s more upbeat outlook. The result will not be a typical documentary. “I think for any good film or theatre piece you have to give the audience work to do and that’s what we tried to do with this film.”

Broks expects Rupture should come out later this year. In the meantime, check out Into the Silent Land, a collection of essays, reflection and case studies relating to the search for identity.

Catie Lichten is a PhD student in the Centre for Systems Biology


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