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Neuroscientist Examines the Brain of Jason Bourne at World Science Festival

The Bourne Identity poster.jpg

It’s not easy being Jason Bourne: He can tell you the license plate numbers of all six vehicles in the parking lot but he can’t tell you his name. Can a man really forget his own past but retain such special skills? And what would cause such memory loss? In the trilogy, Bourne didn’t have time to go to the doctor for a proper diagnosis, but at the inaugural World Science Festival, his brain was examined at last.

Doug Liman, director of The Bourne Identity , joined psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Giulio Tononi, for a panel discussion, The Brain and Bourne: Neuroscience in the Bourne Trilogy. Bourne’s condition, it turns out, is more than just a movie fiction: It’s rare, but it’s real.

Tononi recounted first-hand experience with a patient much like
Bourne. “This man woke up and he didn’t recognize who he was in bed with,” said Tononi. “Every moment felt as if he was
entering a room where a party was going on, a strange place full of new
people, none of whom he knew, and when he turned back to see where he
was coming from, it was completely black.” Like Bourne, the patient
couldn’t recall his own history, but remembered things that were work
related. The cause of his trauma was psychological and eventually his
memories came back. The main difference between Tononi’s patient and
Bourne? The patient turned out to be a geography teacher.

The
accuracy of Bourne’s condition surprised Liman who said, “I just sort
of made it up.” When working on the film, Liman was told such a case
wasn’t possible, so he decided that, in the fictional world of
Treadstone, where one undergoes such intense psychological
conditioning, there would be this new kind of breakdown.
“This was
not a movie that was meant for people who might be suffering from
amnesia,” he explained. “It was meant as mass entertainment.” The film
proved successful at the box office, but Liman joked, “This is first
time the movie’s actually been taken seriously.”

“I
think the reason why the movie is so effective is we all fear losing our own identity,” said Tononi. He
explained that brain functioning is separated into various sections (so
you can lose one part without losing others), but that the story of
someone’s life might be the most important part. As the
ability to document brain activity improves, doctors are learning more
about how it really works. “You can, to some extent, recognize
different patterns of activity in the brain,” said Tonini, who also
suggested there might be a time in the future where doctors, literally,
can read your mind. For now, he left the audience with this advice, “We
have to make friends with our brain and treat it very, very carefully
because everything leaves an impression on it — and that impression
becomes us.”

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