Charlie Kaufman takes you inside your own mind

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On Saturday, Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, came to New York to talk to us about the nature of consciousness. Here's what he had to say.

The event was part of New York City's annual World Science Festival, which often pairs groundbreaking scientists with brilliant artists. While the Oscar-winner was the main draw, sleep researcher Guilo Tononi certainly brought plenty to the table. Alan Alda acted as moderator and translator for those of us without PhDs. (If I had to guess, I'd say the crowd leaned heavily toward Kaufman fans, but with a respectable number of neuroscientists scattered throughout.)

A clip from Being John Malkovich set the tone for the discussion. Struggling puppeteer Craig (Jon Cusack), envious of a rival's success, turns to his wife's pet chimp and bemoans the painful burden of consciousness. (The chimp, for his part, looks skeptical of Craig's bitching.) After we'd watched the clip, Tononi asked Kaufman whether he'd trade consciousness for all the filmmaking awards in the world and a great pile of money. The screenwriter said no: Craig doesn't necessarily represent him, and he chooses "the curse of consciousness" for himself.


That led into an in-depth discussion of what neuroscience has to say about consciousness, as well as Tononi's own "integrated information theory." Think of consciousness as what fades away when you fall into a dreamless sleep. But even that working definition doesn't really tell us what consciousness is, or what it means for there to be an "I" that nods off at night. Sorry to disappoint anyone who'd hoped for the secret of life, but science just isn't advanced enough to provide an answer. Tononi even admitted that our own cognitive limitations may mean we'll never get one. But that's not going to stop researchers from trying, which is why they're constantly collecting data on what happens where in the brain. But if scientists are going to make any sense of our own minds, Tononi argued, they'll need some sort of working theory. His contribution is the "Integrated Information Theory," which suggests a being is conscious if it's a single entity, but with many potential states. He used the metaphor of a movie: You've got an enormous number of possible frames, but you only experience one at a time. All potentialities narrow down to this one frame, this one experience.

Having provided the audience with a crash course in current theories of consciousness, Tononi, Kaufman, and Alda launched into a more free-form discussion, featuring clips from Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine as jumping-off points.


Especially interesting were Kaufman's thoughts on artificial intelligence. We'd just seen a clip from Scientific American Frontiers, with Alda participating in an experiment that narrowed his field of vision down to a single image of flashing, cross-hatched lights. The brain can't process the competing information, so he was seeing the colors alternate every couple of seconds. That's when Kaufman jumped in to suggest one big difference between human and artificially constructed brains:

Said Kaufman:

There seems to be a lot of fighting going on within a person. And I'm not sure what it's for, but it's there. People argue with themselves all the time, about decisions. They come from different places: ethical concerns, survival concerns, self-aggrandizing concerns, or whatever. And they're all sort of mish-mashed together, and there's not a clear single agenda. It occurs to me that seems to be a difference.


While machines are designed to be efficient, confusion is inherent in human beings. Even if it were built into machines, Kaufman added, "it would have to be built in in an artificial way." Of course, part of the problem might be that we're trying to make computers conscious like a person, rather than conscious like a computer. "Maybe that's not something we could do, maybe a computer needs to make a computer that's conscious like a computer." The whole tangent seemed to suggest there's something wonderfully accidental about consciousness.


Kaufman also mentioned Ray Kurzweil's Ramona, the computer designed to interact like a person. He found her realistic enough that he couldn't sign off without saying goodbye and found himself a bit sad at how easily she said goodbye to him. "I felt this sort of, I don't know, longing or something, to have a connection with her, even though clearly it was nonsensical," Kaufman said. But that poses the question: "How much of what we see in other people are we completely making up?"

Another clip spurred a discussion of individuality, and whether there's something abhorrent about having multiple versions of ourself wandering around. Tononi also brought up the scene where John Malkovich slides down the tunnel to find an entire restaurant of Malkoviches, asking Kaufman whether he was trying to make a particular point. First, Kaufman simply said, "Because it was funny." But Tononi pressed him, and Kaufman recoiled at the idea of actually experiencing such a thing. It's funny, but it's also horrifying: "But if there are five of me, or even just two of me, let's make it easier, I'm still not in both people. I'm not thinking in that body." Alan Alda made the point that within seconds, the multiple versions of yourself would branch off into different people with different experiences, but Kaufman responded, "But there would be that one first second, like, holy shit."


They even touched on teleportation. The discussion turned to whether the process could preserve your consciousness, given that it would require destroying your body in one place and reproducing it elsewhere. "Would you do it? Would you still be there, on the other side, if it's a copy of you-would it be you?" asked Kaufman.


Alan Alda echoed his question, asking, "Would you still be conscious there, in the same way, that you are there?" Tononi told them the answer must be yes, because our brains actually recycle matter over the course of a night. Within two weeks it's a totally new set of molecules in your brain. "It's the organization that matters, more than the pieces," he explained.

The World Science Festival is over, but you can see video of some panels here.