Theatre Review — The Hard Problem

You don’t usually read a theatre review in the Numenta blog, but I saw a play last weekend that was about brains, so I figured it was worth telling you about.

Tom Stoppard’s new play, The Hard Problem, poses the following question: are brains just collections of cells that can be explained in a scientific fashion, or is there something separate called the “mind” that explains consciousness? As followers of brain science know, this question has been debated for many years, both among scientists and between scientists and the broader community.

The play poses this question through its main character, Hilary, who is a scientist but also a religious person, and who feels that there is more to the brain than the cells. Her boyfriend/tutor, Spike, represents the opposing viewpoint. Spike argues that the brain is composed of cells that we can analyze and understand, and is dismissive of the bigger question.

The play itself is quite wordy and struggles to build some action around this central question. There is a romance, but it’s not much of a romance. There is a scandal about test results, but it’s not much of a scandal. There are other characters, but they don’t have much character. There is a mystery, the result of which was obvious to me right away. I wondered whether Stoppard might have been better off just writing an essay to explore this question rather than a play.

I will admit that as a Numenta employee, I found my sympathies to be with Spike’s view – we can understand the brain as an organ that is a collection of cells. The question of how a brain gets populated with memories, and then processes them into beliefs and actions, is a quite interesting question that we can answer. It is possible that identical brains with identical inputs might still end up with different behaviors and beliefs. Whether brains are deterministic or not, understanding the mechanisms of the brain will help us enormously in more greatly understanding human behavior.

At the end of the play, Hilary decides to turn to philosophy rather than science to answer her question. I liked this result. It struck me as fair to separate the two questions. The problem of how the brain works – our central focus at Numenta – is a scientific quest that can, and will, have a result. The problem of the consequences of that result can be partly understood through the biology, but also explored through fields such as psychology and philosophy.

The Hard Problem does a good job of posing this question. I would recommend seeing the play if you are intrigued by the central theme. However, as drama and theater I didn’t think it was one of Stoppard’s best.

Donna Dubinsky • CEO & Co-Founder