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Focus Features

The Science of Self/Less

Focus Features
Focus Features

When business tycoon Damien Hale (played by Ben Kingsley) faces death from cancer in Self/Less, in theaters today, he doesn’t go gently into that good night. Instead, he undergoes a radical underground medical procedure called “shedding” that allows him to transfer his mind into another, younger, healthier, lab-grown body (Ryan Reynolds’s body, to be exact) and start a whole new life with a new identity.

For now, this is science fiction—but, says Charles Higgins, a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona, it could one day happen. “We cannot yet conceive of a machine that could scan the brain to the extent required to do what is in the movie,” he tells mental_floss. “But 100 years ago we could not conceive that in our pockets we would carry what are, essentially, supercomputers and communicators that we can talk to anyone on the planet with.”

Studying the brain is Higgins's business. “I’m interested in the interface between the mind and the brain and quantifying things that are normally unquantifiable, like depression, mood, consciousness, and self,” he says. Among the things he and his team are working on in his lab: grabbing electrical signals from insect brains to build high-tech robots with excellent vision; figuring out how cognition works by creating a simulated, computerized rat that wanders around a digital maze; and gathering data on human sleep with a device he built. So though he didn’t consult on Self/Less during production—the studio brought him on afterward—he’s an excellent source to talk to about the film’s science.

According to Higgins, there are huge hurdles to jump before we transfer consciousness from one body to another. For one, there’s a lot we don’t understand about how the brain—and consciousness in particular—work. “If you ask 100 different experts to list what the brain does, you’ll get 100 different answers,” Higgins says. “The brain definitely regulates your life support. Sometimes we use the word cognition—is that what the brain does? It’s a memory system as well. You could go on and on.”

Once we understand the brain in the same way we understand the heart or a computer, Higgins says, “we’ll be able to see how brains are related and understand what the important details we need to get out of the brain are.”

Another challenge: Computers have software, but the brain isn’t quite so simple. “The software and the hardware are all [together],” Higgins says. “So what details of the brain structure do I need to read out?”

Some people, he says, think we need to go down to a quantum level. Others think it might be unnecessary to go subatomic to scan consciousness: “You could go just to the level of of neurons and other connections,” Higgins says. “But we don’t really know.”

Even if we did know where consciousness was found, we don’t have the technology to transfer it. In Self/Less, the company Phoenix Biogenic uses what looks like a souped-up fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to access and transfer consciousness from one body to another. Higgins says this is “the right idea, although at this point fMRI technology does not allow us to get down to sub-neuron resolution.”

And then there are the thorny ethical issues. When Hale discovers that he hasn’t been given a lab-grown body after all, but the body of a man who once had a life of his own, he’s disgusted and outraged and not entirely sure what to do.

“Scanning somebody’s brain and putting it into another body—you have to wonder, did you destroy someone’s self to do that?” Higgins says. “Let’s say you cloned me and grew me until I was 20 years of age, and then you transferred [my consciousness] into my new, younger body. Was the 20-year-old clone a person of its own? Did it have a self, a soul, an inherent value of its own? Did I kill someone?”

Uploading a consciousness to a computer will likely come first, “because the ethical issues are almost nonexistent,” he continues. “Scanning something into a computer isn’t going to hurt anybody.”

Of course, whether you’re talking about computerized consciousness or body hopping, it’s all hypothetical for the moment. But if and when we do get there, there’s more could do more than merely swap older bodies for younger models. Higgins foresees a future where we can talk to computer copies of the greatest scientists who ever lived, or instantly upload to our brains an education that would otherwise take 10 years to complete.

“If you could actually do this, what impact would it have on society?” he asks. “What if everybody understood world history? Could American citizens be better informed—make better decisions, work together, support our congress and our president rather than having a bunch of different uninformed opinions? What if everyone was an expert engineer and knew how to work their newfangled TV sets? Life would be different. Would it be more pleasant? Maybe you’d spend less time being frustrated by politics and electronics and anything else you’d want to learn about. Or maybe it would create an even worse have and have not situation. It’s a very difficult thing to say.”

We may be very, very far from the future as imagined by Self/Less, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop looking for it. Humans have been searching for immortality for as long as we’ve been around. “We’ve all felt that when somebody died that something was lost, either just to us or to the world,” Higgins says. “That’s been around as long as humankind, and I don’t see that going away. That will drive technological development for however long it takes until this is possible.”

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7 Things You Might Not Know About Audrey Hepburn
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Though she’ll always be known as the little-black-dress-wearing big-screen incarnation of Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about Audrey Hepburn, who passed away in Switzerland on January 20, 1993.

1. HER FIRST ROLE WAS IN AN EDUCATIONAL FILM.

Though 1948’s Dutch in Seven Lessons is classified as a “documentary” on IMDb, it’s really more of an educational travel film, in which Hepburn appears as an airline attendant. If you don’t speak Dutch, it might not make a whole lot of sense to you, but you can watch it above anyway.

2. GREGORY PECK WAS AFRAID SHE’D MAKE HIM LOOK LIKE A JERK.

Hepburn was an unknown actress when she was handed the starring role of Princess Ann opposite Gregory Peck in 1953’s Roman Holiday. As such, Peck was going to be the only star listed, with Hepburn relegated to a smaller font and an “introducing” credit. But Peck insisted, “You've got to change that because she'll be a big star and I'll look like a big jerk.” Hepburn ended up winning her first and only Oscar for the role (Peck wasn’t even nominated).

3. SHE’S AN EGOT.

In 1954, the same year she won the Oscar for Roman Holiday, Hepburn accepted a Tony Award for her title role in Ondine on Broadway. Hepburn is one of only 12 EGOTs, meaning that she has won all of the four major creative awards: an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. Unfortunately, the honor came to Hepburn posthumously; her 1994 Grammy for the children’s album Audrey Hepburn’s Enchanted Tales and her 1993 Emmy for Gardens of the World with Audrey Hepburn were both awarded following her passing in early 1993.

4. TRUMAN CAPOTE HATED HER AS HOLLY GOLIGHTLY.

Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s may be one of the most iconic films in Hollywood history, but it’s a miracle that the film ever got made at all. Particularly if you listened to Truman Capote, who wrote the novella upon which it was based, and saw only one actress in the lead: Marilyn Monroe. When asked what he thought was wrong with the film, which downplayed the more tawdry aspects of the fact that Ms. Golightly makes her living as a call girl (Hepburn had told the producers, “I can’t play a hooker”), Capote replied, “Oh, God, just everything. It was the most miscast film I’ve ever seen. It made me want to throw up.”

5. HOLLY GOLIGHTLY’S LITTLE BLACK DRESS SOLD FOR NEARLY $1 MILLION.

Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'
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In 2006, Christie’s auctioned off the iconic Givenchy-designed little black dress that Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s for a whopping $923,187 (pre-auction numbers estimated that it would go for between $98,800 and $138,320). It was a record-setting amount at the time, until Marilyn Monroe’s white “subway dress” from The Seven Year Itch sold for $5.6 million in 2006.

6. SHE SANG “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” TO JFK IN 1963.

One year after Marilyn Monroe’s sultry birthday serenade to John F. Kennedy in 1962, Hepburn paid a musical tribute to the President at a private party in 1963, on what would be his final birthday.

7. THERE’S A RARE TULIP NAMED AFTER HER.

Photo of Audrey Hepburn
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1990, a rare white tulip hybrid was named after the actress and humanitarian, and dedicated to her at her family’s former estate in Holland.

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Why the Film You're Watching on HBO Might Not Be the Whole Movie
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iStock

In the days before widescreen televisions, most of the movies you watched on VHS or on cable looked a little different than their big-screen versions. The sides of the image had to be cropped out so that you could watch a movie made for a rectangular screen on the small screen. Today, those little black bars on the top and bottom of the screen that allow you to watch the same movie scaled to any shape of screen are everywhere. But it turns out, cropping for aspect ratios is alive and well—on HBO, as YouTube film vlogger Patrick Willems explains.

In his latest video, which we spotted on Digg, Willems explains why aspect ratios matter, and how the commonly used aspect ratios can fundamentally change a movie.

Most old-school televisions have 4:3 aspect ratios, meaning movies had to be significantly cropped to fit wide-screen films on the small screen. Now, most computers and televisions use 16:9 aspect ratios, which is approximately the same as the one used for movies, typically 1.85:1, so many movies expand to fit TV screens perfectly. The catch: Some Hollywood movies are shot with even wider angles to show even more of an image at once. And even though viewers are familiar with the sight of those black bars, it seems the streaming sites are determined to limit their use, even for movies that don’t fit on a normal screen. As a result, you may only be seeing the central part of the image, not the whole thing. You could be missing characters, action, and landscape that’s happening on the far sides of the screen.

Since 1993, the Motion Picture Association of America has mandated that any film that’s been altered in a way that changes the original vision of its creators—say, to edit out swear words, adjust the run time, or to make it fit a certain screen—run with a disclaimer that says as much. That’s why before movies run on TV, they usually show a note that says something like “This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen.” But this doesn’t seem to apply to streaming.

In 2013, Netflix was accused of cropping films, too, showing wide-angle movies to fit the standard 16:9 screen instead of running the original version with black bars. The streaming giant claimed it was a mistake due to distributors sending them the cropped version, and those films would be replaced with the originals. However, as of 2015, users were still complaining of the problem. According to Willems, it’s a problem that still plagues not just HBO, but Starz and Hulu, too, and there isn’t any clear rationale for it other than that perhaps people don’t like looking at black bars. But frankly, that seems better than seeing a version of a film that the director never intended.

You can get all the details in the video below:

[h/t Digg]

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