Talent On Tap – Vanessa Dylyn Explores The Divided Brain

There is still so much we don’t know about the brain. It’s pretty much the only part of the body they can’t replace by a donor. With the many many years and the many many scientists, doctors, psychiatrists and other experts on the subject we still have a long way to go. I know what you’re thinking; what’s this ‘we’ stuff? We are all guilty by association. Society requires a population to work. Science says that our brains are modified/changed/affected by our environment, including culture. That might seem obvious to some and to some, not so much. Regardless, the science and theories on brains should interest us all. Heaven forbid that we lose the option to use our minds at freewill. I’ve met people that live with extreme paralysis and still maintain a positive life because their mind is free.


There is the science of the operation of the brain and then there is the psychology of the two hemispheres. We now have the technology to marry both science and psychology to explore so much deeper. I have the great fortune of speaking with Feature Documentary Producer Vanessa Dylyn. From her home in Toronto she was able to explain her latest amazing and mind-blowing documentary, The Divided Brain.   


“This is the third documentary you’ve made on the brain. Do you keep choosing to investigate it out of personal interest or is it coincidence?”

“It’s a little bit of both. It’s not a coincidence that I’m in this space, as I do a variety of films. I do current events, social impact and whatever else I think a smart audience is going to be interested in. For me, right now it’s more of a personal quest and it really comes from an impulse on trying to educate and inform an audience by presenting any current big ideas in an accessible way. I’m always motivated to share what I’ve come across that’s new if I feel its going to significantly change how people perceive something that’s important to them; and what’s more important than your brain? It’s really the last mystery and we keep discovering so much about it. The first film that I made for CBC was Fixing My Brain. That was about a brain enhancement system that was originated by a Canadian woman, Barbara Arrowsmith about 30 years ago.  She was helping learning disabled kids increase their cognitive levels. Simply put, it helps kids raise their IQ. This idea that the brain is flaccid and that it can be changed really shocked me. I read about it back in 2001. When I read about her system I made a promise to myself, if I ever started my own film company, that would be the first film I would make. This was important to me because I used to be a high school English teacher and I’d have learning disabled children in my class. Special Ed teachers would always tell me I needed to make adjustments in my marking for learning disabled kids and I often wondered if we were doing them any favours. Along came this brain system that could actually change how the brain functioned, so these kids could be helped in a direct way. It just amazed me, so I took the project to CBC, they thought I was talking Voodoo but then a book came out by Norman Doidge called The Brain that Changes Itself. I took it to CBC and showed them chapter 2. They finally came on board with some money and it was the highest rated film of that year in that particular documentary strand. I knew there was an audience that was hungry for this.”


“That really brings me to my next question, can you tell me more about the results of the therapy for the first three boys?”

“One of them ended up doing quite well after a few years. One dropped out, I don’t know what happened to him and I’m not certain what happened to the third but the actual boot-camp itself (Arrowsmith System) is going very strong in Toronto and it’s now in other schools throughout Canada, the US and it’s also in Australia.  The founder, Barbara Arrowsmith published her story with Simon and Schuster after our film came out. Her system is in a number of different countries. She’s a real Canadian hero. Once you’re in that brain space you start being aware of other research that’s coming up. That led to a film that I did with Sting, called The Musical Brain. I knew that there was some amazing research going on in Montreal and that there was a group of scientists there that were highly specialized in this area and finding out what the brain can tell us about why music is so important to us as a human species and what can music tell us about how our brain works. At the same time I was thinking about this scientist by the name of Dan Levitin who wrote this book that became a best seller, called This Is Your Brain on Music. As soon as I read the review in The Globe and Mail my heart almost stopped, I knew I had to get it. I arm wrestled him, so to speak and he came on board. The director was Christina Pochmursky and she and I discussed the idea of getting a major musician on board. We needed a pop musician but someone that was really serious. I got in touch with Stings people and after a number of months of talking they said okay, he’s onboard. Sting flew into Montreal where they have a very sophisticated brain scan there, at the Montreal Neurological Institute. We spent a day with him underneath this brain scan and Dan and I had planned an entire series of songs from Britney Spears up to Bach to play to him to see how his brain would react.  Later on we did a follow up with Sting when he was in Toronto performing a concert. It was very satisfying but at the same time very hair raising. On these things, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. You can plan like a Nasa space launch but something’s going to go wrong. That took me to 2012 and Lain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary.”


“In your film, The Divided Brain, Lain McGilchrist meets with many brain experts that don’t necessarily share his opinion on his theory. I’m curious what your opinion is about his book.”

“After everything I’ve read, I knew of the books reputation by the time I had gotten it, so I prepared for something that was difficult but pretty interesting. I was a third of the way through when I thought this is a masterwork. This really links how we live in our western society to an imbalance in our brain hemispheres. My opinion is, and a lot of people that have read the book might agree with me, that in the end McGilchrist may not have gotten it 100% right but neither did Freud or Darwin but like them, what McGilchrist has done is, open up this new road to understanding the relationship between the brain and society. I also know that his work resonates with people across many disciplines. For example, he was invited to address the Australian Supreme Court because it was found that the book had started a major discussion amongst Australian lawyers. I stuck with this film to get this message across through more curses than touch to because I do believe in the value of Iain’s work. It crosses many disciplines and as we point out in the film you can relate it to our attitude toward the environment, to the economic crash and our educational system; not just intellectually but visually, to give that viewer that stroke of insight at how they live. Ideally, the film will inspire others to take action to improve their lives.”


“Did you have a target audience in mind when you set out to produce this film?”

“Like most of my documentaries, it’s meant for a curious mind between the ages of 15-95. If it’s done right, it will resonate with people that are hungry for this kind of information. What I try to do is make great ideas accessible without dumbing them down and I hope that’s what happened in this film. We did a combination of live shooting, sit down interviews and animations.”


“What was the process like?”

“It was probably one of the most difficult films I’ve ever made. There was an onslaught of problems, financial and creative. Financially we had a lot of issues because our main broadcaster, Superchannel declared bankruptcy when we were in the middle of production, so we lost a huge amount of money. It really left me scrambling for funds. They had let go of millions of dollars in contracts right across Canada. Creatively I had a good team.  Manfred Becker was our director and Stephen Milton was the writer and TV researcher. All of us worked very closely together as a team with Iain. Stephen wanted to know who the people were that had influenced Iain. Who were the people who had, upon his research had helped to build his thesis? We tracked them all down and some of them appear in the film. We then had to look at modern day influence. What are the clues for Iain’s thesis in our modern day? Another entire level of research had to be done so we looked at an anthropologist, Joseph Henrich at Harvard who was able to show the audience that we don’t have the same brains as the ancient Romans. It’s not a machine and it’s not the same as our ancestors because most of the population doesn’t live in an urban environment. People that live in primitive settings do not have the same brains as us and see reality in a very different way, making it another level of research. That was all extremely difficult. How do you take this adult science film and turn it into a social impact film; something that will resonate with people and allow them to see the world very differently by something that is underpinned by serious science. It was a huge challenge in this film.”


“When you started filming the documentary, did it take another direction from it’s initial focus?”

“Yes, we had many different iterations and many different cuts of this film over a number of years and I realized that even though it was taking a long time and we were having a lot of financial problems I knew I had to finish this film and I had to do it right. In the end I started cutting entire sections that had never been in the first, second or third cut and I think it made for a richer film. We were able to introduce modern themes such as political correctness in language, which I think is a big problem right now and it’s very much a left hemisphere that likes to control and narrow things and shut things down. The left hemisphere does not like context, it’s not comfortable with ambiguity and it’s not comfortable with free flowing information. It wants an answer and it wants it now. I think more and more in our society we’re getting into these very narrow loops. We’ve all been online or filled out a gov. form and we’ve ticked off the wrong box and we go into this entire bureaucratic nightmare.  As we demonstrate in the film, that left hemisphere loves bureaucracy, it loves systems, it loves classifying things and we’re seeing it more in our everyday lives. If you ask a professional in any field; could be a police officer, a teacher or a doctor, one thing that they’ve complained about is the level of bureaucracy that is making it more and more difficult to do their job. Everybody is having to document things, teachers are having to document everything they do. If there was a problem student in a class, you would’ve dealt with it years ago. Now principals are saying document, document, document. Doctors are even doing too much paperwork, so all of this keeps us away from dealing with the problems that are out there and need a more embodied/personal connection with people, not paperwork. I think it comes down to a fear of litigation. Everyone is lawyered up and all contracts are lawyered up, its insane.”

“It does seem that more and more professionals are under the microscope. It’s easy to see the social impact.”

“In China, people have a social profile now where everything is measured. If you’re out at a bar and you have a few too many drinks, it goes against you in your social profile. If you’re jaywalking, it goes against you. They’re instituting a system of control that is extremely inhuman and that’s all left hemisphere influence.”


“In your documentary you visit many experts on the subject of the brain. Was that at the request of Iain or were they chosen by you and the team?”

“That decision came from myself, the director and the writer with some input from Iain. Iain knew the people that knew his work. They were people that agreed with him and disagreed. With his consultation we came up with a list of many people that could support his thesis and who would go against his thesis because he understood that we had to make a neutral objective film. With the writer, director and myself, we had to decide who we were going to choose because they all had to play a role. They either illuminate Iain’s work or they tell us, in their opinion why its wrong. We had to be sure that whoever we chose had the International reputation to be able to counter what Iain was saying. Those are the decisions our team made. We couldn’t get a hold of everyone and we had some great people that we just couldn’t use, there was no room for them. If we think an interview is going to be too difficult and that the audience wont understand it then we can’t use it.”


“Was it your intention to then present it from a neutral standpoint and let the audience form their own opinion on his theory?”

“You’re quite right. The intention was to present McGilchrist’s theory as an important new hypothesis and to explore it completely but not to endorse it. I’m not a scientist, I am a documentary filmmaker, so every broadcaster out there is going to be looking for any bias on my part.  We have to be sure to walk that line where we present an important new thesis to the public. We have a responsibility to present it accurately but to introduce dissenting opinions from his peers. I really hope people get that from watching it. In order for his thesis to have any credibility you need to have his peers weigh in and say, ‘I get the science/support this part of it but I just don’t see that leap into the cultural thesis.’ We had a great time talking to all of them. It’s one of the great rewards and was really a great honour to work with even though I was not on set for most of it. We planned it as a team but it was the director and cinematographer that I would talk to everyday, as to what has gone well/what hasn’t gone well, and how was the access? We also had a production manager working on gaining access to places like The Great Museum of London to open up for us? We also managed to get John Cleese, which was a lot of fun. I came across the fact that he was a fan of Iain’s and often does seminars for corporate clients about creativity and he will recommend Iain’s book. We thought it would be a great idea to have John and Iain meet in the museum. It’s a collection of skeletons and brains in jars, so it seemed like the perfect environment where they can talk seriously but they can also poke fun at what they’re looking at.”


“From start to finish, how long did it take to make this film?”

“I started talking to Iain in 2012. We were in pre-production for about a year. I took this to broadcasters in Canada, US, the UK and Europe; no broadcaster wanted to take the risk. It was too brainy and too hard to understand. It’s a difficult subject to pitch but finally the Superchannel came in with a license that got me some other Canadian funding, so I thought I’d finally get to move ahead in 2015 but I still didn’t have all the financing and then a year later the Superchannel financing fell apart and left me in debt. It got worse and I had to make a hard decision to keep going because I was too far into it. It took a year in pre-production and then another two years in production including a hiatus. Normally it would take 18 months for me to start pre-production and finish the film and for this one it took about 3 years. It’s the most difficult project I’ve ever done… hopefully.”    


“How has the audience reaction been to the film?”

“We’ve only had one major screening in London and it was full of people from all disciplines. We had Nicholas Shakespeare, who is a great historian. We had people in the mental health field, there were prominent lawyers, economists and it was sponsored by Ogleby in the UK. It was probably one of the toughest audiences the film will ever have. After the film had showed, Iain was on stage with the Creative head of Ogleby. They asked really interesting intelligent questions and it was really fantastic, so I’m hoping we will have an equally engaged audience on April 9th at the Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto when we have our next screening. Lain will be there linked to the UK and Norman Doidge (best selling author of books on the brain) will also be there. We’ll also have our own George Peterson, who has interviewed Iain and understands his work, so it will be a great panel, as well it should be a great discussion with questions from the audience. I will also be there.”     


“Is there going to be a sequel?”

“We’ve had some interest from the UK. There is a group of people that really like the film and would like to raise money for parts II and III, so we’re in very early discussions on what that might look like.”


“What is the relationship between the subject of the brain that seems to compel you to keep making films about it?”

“I think based on everything I’ve been reading over the last few years I’m just endlessly fascinated. It also appears to be true that we can make positive changes in our own brain and that we’re not stuck with the brain that we’re born with.  Knowing how our brain functions, gives us great insight into other human beings. For example, I was fascinated by his book when he says how schizophrenia and other disorders have certain structural indicators in the brain. It’s all the neural imaging and being able to see inside the brain that’s really going to help us deal with some areas of mental illness. I find it very fascinating. I hope this will become a series of some kind. In Canada we really punch way above our weight in neuroscience. We have a tremendous number of neuroscientists across Canada who are world leaders in their fields, so I would like to do a series on the brain and really be able to bring in some really talented people within our own country.”


“What is your biggest reward in being able to show this film to an audience?”

“It’s a great honour to be able to work with some great minds of our age and to be able to explore and present, especially in the case of Iain’s theory to a mass audience. The other reward is that I always get smarter. After working on a number of films, I think I have a better brain.  I also get to see a lot of gifted people that are working for the betterment of mankind. Another reward is that, I believe in the value of Iain’s work and that it crosses disciplines and that it appeals to a wide variety of people. I think it’s much needed in this very polarized world that we’re living in. My objective was to make a film that would engage people viscerally as well as intellectually and to give the viewer that stroke of insight about how they live. It will be very rewarding if people walk away from this film having their perspective shifted. Not just regarding their own mind/brain but about how human kind functions in a larger society.”


If you are intrigued on this subject and want to explore the film more, please visit  the link www.thedividedbrain.com


I sincerely enjoyed speaking to Vanessa Dylyn on the subject of her film. We hope a sequel is to follow in the near future. If you are in the area, please go watch this film. It just might have a profound and lasting impression.

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