My brain may be handsome, but it has a few things to learn about tribal loyalties By Joel Stein

OF THE FIVE ORGANS I CAN NAME, MY BRAIN IS MY THIRD favorite, ahead of kidneys and spleen and just behind liver. But I know almost nothing about my brain other than that it is located in my head and hurts when my parents talk. So I learned a lot from neuroscientist David Eagleman’s fascinat­ing new six-part PBS special, The Brain. My brain, I discov­ered while watching, is only mildly interested in important discoveries and really just wants to hear about itself.

When I saw, in Episode 5, that Eagleman was finishing a study using brain scans to determine how empathetic we are to people different from us, I asked if he would put me in an MRI machine and measure my biases. He got me an appoint­ment with his collaborator Don Vaughn, a neuroscience Ph.D. student at UCLA. Vaughn entered the lab on skateboard, with ripped jeans, flip flops and a fauxhawk, apologizing for being tired since he just flew in from Houston, where he was deejay- ing. Within ah hour, Vaughn both shot a selfie with me and asked if he could post a photo of my brain on social media.

I’m guessing an MRI of his brain would just show the word MILLENNIAL.

vaughn measured blood flow in my brain while I looked at videos of hands being touched by a cotton swab or stabbed by a syringe. This allowed him to look at the regions of the brain that respond when viewing another person in pain—the so-called empathy network. Each hand was labeled “Christian,” “Jewish,” “Hindu,” “Muslim,” “Scientologist” or “Atheist.” I felt like I was empathetic to each hand, though about halfway through I briefly fell asleep while looking at a Christian hand. I do not know how to tell my Christian friends about this other than to be honest and say I will try to com­pensate by giving special attention to their hands’ feelings.

After I finished, Vaughn told me that Alexandra Karacozoff, his attractive neuroscience research assistant, saw my scan and said, “Wow, I never see a good-looking brain.” Apparently, if I were on Tinder, my brain scan would be my first photo.

I have near perfect lobal symmetry and very distinct folds. Then Vaughn quietly pointed out to me that I have a freak­ishly small cerebellum. The cerebellum, I was not surprised to learn, controls motor skills, or what nonscientists call “abil­ity to play sports.” It’s the kind of thing that isn’t a turnoff to a neuroscience research assistant but is to every other woman.

A few days later, Eagleman called me with my results.

First, he told me that though some of the 135 other people he tested for his study were equally empathetic to all hands, many others care deeply about their in-group hands and a lot less about other hands. Then he explained that the test involves identifying a small signal within a lot of noise, so no individual result is accurate. Which, I well knew, is what you say before telling a guy that his empathy for others is so
minimal he’s an outlier. Which, he said, I am—feeling for the Jewish hands and barely at all for the gentile ones. When I wondered if I had gone into the wrong profession, since I have to write about other people’s feelings and situations, he reassured me. “No. Psy­chopaths don’t care about other people, but they’re perfectly good at watching and observing and learn­ing other people’s motivations. I’m just throwing it out there,” he said. I started to wonder if Eagleman’s empathy scores were any better than mine.

1 was trying to figure out how to overcompensate for my apparent disregard of non-Jews, since mar­rying a gentile evidently hadn’t done it. But just as I was making a list of ways to stop myself from enact­ing genocide (“Step 1: Avoid any involvement in pa­rade planning”), Eagleman emailed to inform me that after checking the settings on the scanner, he had re­analyzed the data, and my in-group prejudice is to­tally average. He ended this information with a smiley emoticon which, to me, looked Jewish.

Eagleman refused to rank the religions in the order of my hatred, though we both knew Christians would be at the top. Regardless, he believes that my brain does not condemn me to perpetrating a hand-stabbing genocide. “Let’s imagine there was some public outcry after this paper is published, saying ‘We want all our presidential candidates to go through this process,’ ” he said, imagining an experiment where we persuade all the candidates to get tested so Donald Trump doesn’t realize we’re measuring only him. “They could be over­riding these basic impulses.” He hopes, in fact, that by becoming aware of how much some of us enjoy seeing Christians stabbed in the hand—which, if you think about it, is kind of an homage to their Savior—we can conduct a process of rehumanization to counteract the propaganda our in-group leaders give us to stay loyal to our tribe. If anyone is going to be able to deliver that world-altering message, it’s going to be someone with super-sexy brain.

ART A show of Dutch masters shines light on the ordinary By Richard Lacayo

EVEN WHEN YOU’RE SURE AN OLD MASTER PAINTING means something to you, it’s hard to know what it meant to those who first saw it. Over time nuances get lost, references become obscure, fashions stop signifying. What makes the new show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts so entertaining, beyond its marquee names, is that it restores some of that so­cial context that time has leached away. “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer,” which runs through Jan. 18 and was organized by Ronni Baer, almost literally fills in the pictures.

By the late 17th century, the Dutch were highly urbanized, living in cities that were cauldrons of change, with the old order undermined by new social mobility. Rich brewers and cloth traders could have themselves painted on horseback, a pose once reserved for kings and aristocrats. Pamphleteers called for laws to forbid mere tradesmen from wearing silk and vel­vet. Though the housemaids in the work of Vermeer are mod­estly dressed, his Girl With a Pearl Earring—a picture not in this show—will always look different once you know that Dutch moralists asked how servant girls could be spending more than

they made on stylish clothes and jewelry. Where did they get the money if not from a sideline in prostitution?

So this was a society in motion, but one happy to sit for its picture. More than any other European people, the Dutch loved and owned paintings. Everyone but the poor filled their homes with canvases. The dwindling no­bility favored portraits, pref­erably of themselves, as if to confirm their survival. So did the new-money merchants, but to announce their ascen­dancy. The middling classes went in for still lifes and his­tory paintings. Wealthy col­lectors also loved landscapes, which Dutch painters had launched into the sublime.

But Dutch painting of the era was irresistible in all departments. Sought-after artists like Gerrit Dou and Nicolaes Maes could produce both impossibly subtle at­mospheres and high-def illu­sions of silk, lace and metal. And far more than peers else­where they turned out genre pictures, scenes of notaries at their desks, bakers in their shops, milkmaids with their livestock, paintings in which ordinary people are vividly real. For that matter, so are the cows. Gerard ter Borch did for cows what Titian did for Venus.

Still, Dutch artists were never more at home than at home, producing domestic tableaux. In Interior With Women Beside a Linen Cup­board, Pieter de Hooch offers an almost sanctified take on household order. Beside the tabernacle of her linen cabi­net, a woman prepares to put away the pressed laundry that her well-dressed daugh­ter holds like an apprentice— which we now realize she is, in the solemn rituals of Dutch homemaking

Brie Larson finds a Room of her own By Nolan Feeney

ONE OF THE MOST HAUNT- ing scenes in Room isn’t something audiences even see. Five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has spent his whole life in a 10-by-io-ft. shed where his kidnapped mother has been imprisoned for the past seven years— only he doesn’t know they’re trapped. Each day his mom (Brie Larson) tries to make his childhood normal with exercises and games, and each night she hides him in the wardrobe to shield him from seeing the sexual as­sault she endures from her captor. Viewers are right there with Jack, peering through the cracks, hearing only the bed creak, which is more than evocative enough. “None of us needed to come with our trauma paint­brushes and add extra colors to it,” Larson says.

It’s one of the many ways that Room, the film adapta­tion of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel of the same name, plays with perspec­tive to great effect. Directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson and written by Donoghue herself, Room alternates between shaky camera work at Tremblay’s height and still shots from Larson’s to create competing senses of childlike wonder and grownup claustrophobia. It’s also the rare film to shine a light on the aftermath kid­napping survivors face once their ordeal is over.

Stories like those of Aus­trian woman Elisabeth Fritzl (who was imprisoned by her father for 24 years and bore


For Room’s Jack (Jacob

Tremblay), the shed where he’s held captive is the only home he’s ever known

him seven children) or Ohio man Ariel Castro (who kept three women in his house for about a decade) often become media sensations. But more than half of Boom’s running time explores what happens after they return home. The escape scene, suspenseful even for those who’ve read the book, isn’t a plot point to be spoiled. Instead, it’s the moment when the film cracks open and a mother’s struggle to reintegrate becomes the movie’s emotional core.

“This woman that seems to have it together, given the circumstances, falls apart,” Larson says. “[When] things are scary, your brain goes into superhero mode. That’s not the moment when you
cry—it’s afterwards, when the brain has time to reflect.” Larson, 26, had a break­out role on the Showtime se­ries United States of Tara and appeared as Amy Schumer’s sister in this summer’s Train- wreck, but it was her starring turn as a counselor for at- risk teens in the 2013 indie hit Short Term 12 that made her a critics’ darling. Room may bring her more acclaim still; the film won the Peo­ple’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, a solid predic­tor of a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

To prepare for the role, Larson avoided sunlight for months and worked with a nutritionist and a trainer to understand the physi­cal impacts of captivity. She also spoke at length with a trauma expert to understand how the brain functions dur­ing crisis, knowledge she draws on while explaining how the role nearly con­sumed her. “Your brain so badly wants to help you—it wants to constantly conserve energy,” she says. “You’re playing somebody else for 12 hours a day, so the only time I’m me is when I sleep.

If you’re doing that for days and days, your brain starts to rewire itself.”

But instead of breaking her spirit, the heavy material instilled in Larson a renewed sense of gratitude. Every few days during filming, she’d call her mother, apologizing for the ways she misbehaved as a teen. She suspects Room will give viewers a similar feeling. “This isn’t a torture story.

This isn’t a crime story. It’s about something that’s big­ger than that,” Larson says.

“It’s not people crying be­cause the movie’s so sad—it’s s because they feel so in love with the world again.” □ s

MOVIES One woman’s Truth about dropping a network anchor

IN TRUTH, CATE BLANCHETT ISN’T OUT TO WIN HEARTS— just minds. As Mary Mapes, the 6o Minutes producer be­hind the calamitous 2004 investigation of George W. Bush’s nonservice in the Texas Air National Guard, she’s a raw nerve, an abrasive, driven journalist who broke the Abu Ghraib scandal and thrives in the crucible of network news. When a source serves up a “juicy piece of brisket,” i.e., al­legations about Bush’s draft-dodging/no-show Guard years, she knows it’s a story that can sway a presidential election.

Mapes is so convinced of her talent for accurate scoops that when deep flaws in her reporting spark a backlash- fueled by right-wing forces and CBS executives eager to wash their hands—she never sees it coming. It might have been written by the Greeks, but in this case it was Mapes herself, in a 2005 memoir, Truth and Duty, on which the film is based.

Debuting director James Vanderbilt (who wrote Zodiac) has a great sense of forward motion and wrings suspense from an idea-driven story. As the screenwriter, he also con­cocts some pretty inert dialogue. His Truth is all about po­larities and dichotomies. It’s a thriller about the news, it’s a lament about the news. It examines the devotion of CBS re­porters and the blithely ruthless way politicians divert atten­tion from Bush and onto the integrity of questionable docu­ments. It’s about the age-old editorial dilemma—the need to be right, and first.

Mapes worries only slightly more about her story than about not embarrassing Dan Rather (an understated but con­vincing Robert Redford). Yet Redford prompts a question: What would Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men) have done with this material? The results would have had more gravitas. But back in 1976, so did the news biz.

—JOHN ANDERSON

Truth is both a thriller and a lament about the news and its age-old editorial dilemma—the need to be right, and first

Spielberg’s Bridge to the Cold War

Now that the movie is completed, Fukunaga’s struggle is far from over. Several theater chains, like Regal and AMC, are boycotting the film since it will simultaneously be available on Net- flix. Still, Fukunaga is emphatic that audiences should try to see it on the big screen. “The impact and power of this film comes from experiencing it all the way through,” he says. “At home, you get a text—you slip out of the experience.” Then there’s the issue of convincing people to stay seated through the car­nage. One of the film’s more gruesome scenes shows Agu killing his first victim by swinging a machete into the top of the man’s skull.

“I know inevitably there will be people who can’t make it through the film,” Fukunaga says. “But I also couldn’t diminish it so much that it didn’t feel authentic.” He hopes that infusing the first 20 minutes with humor and introducing the audi­ence to Agu’s family will cre­ate a bond that carries them through. “I’ll read a terrible headline, and then move on with my life,” he says. “But you can’t erase the emotional memory you have after expe­riencing this movie. It will al­ways stay inside you.”

Early reviews from the Toronto and Venice film fes­tivals laud Fukunaga’s strik­ing cinematography and suggest Elba could finally get an Oscar nod after being overlooked for his lead role in 2013’s Man­dela: Long Walk to Free­dom. The plot remains a punch to the gut. But crafting a lighthearted romp isn’t on Fukunaga’s ambitious agenda. “I’d rather be a documenter of our time,” he says, “than pretend none of this is happening.”  □

MOVIES

Spielberg’s Bridge to the Cold War

LIKE A GRAY FLANNEL SUIT in a hall of mirrors, Steven Spielberg’s taut, assured thriller Bridge of Spies takes a grownup approach to an en­thralling, true-life espionage tale. James Donovan isn’t a spy; he’s a decent everyman. In other words, Tom Hanks, in a deceptively wry turn. A stolid Brooklyn insurance lawyer, Donovan is chosen in 1957 by the U.S. govern­ment to defend captured Soviet mole Rudolf Abel (a soulful Mark Rylance). Abel is imprisoned but becomes useful years later when Air Force U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union while taking in­telligence photographs. Don­ovan heads to East Germany to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers, winding up at the Glienicke Bridge, where secret East-West pass- offs occurred.

This covertly brawny film, with a script by Matt Char- man and Joel and Ethan Coen, has plot points that click like pegs under Spielberg’s tight direction. In his fourth pair­ing with Hanks, Spielberg again examines the furtive face of justice and issues an­other masterful ruling.

—JOE NEUMAIER

 

Hanks plays James Donovan, negotiator of a spy exchange