NEUROSCIENCE / Major developments within neuroscience have led to incredible progress in treating illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease and severe depression. But what future lies ahead for the human mind when we start tampering with our brain and emotions?
Country: Denmark, 2019. 80min

This year’s science section at the CPH:DOX festival kicks off with the world premiere of Danish director Pernille Rose Grønkjær’s documentary Hunting for Hedonia. The uplifting and skilfully produced documentary is a collection of interviews with leading neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.

And according to the interviewees’ statements in Grønkjær’s film, the future looks bright when it comes to curing many of the illnesses characterising our modern societies such as depression, Parkinson’s syndrome, obesity and addiction disorders.

The positive effects of Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)

Hunting for Hedonia explores the effects of a revolutionary technique employed by leading neuroscientists called Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). The technique involves the implementation of a medical device in the brain – a so-called «neurostimulator» – that sends out electric impulses in order to manipulate specific parts of the brain.

«Hedonia tells you what is good for you.»

Hedonia – the location where happiness resides in our brain (hence the title) – is of particular importance in treating patients that suffer from severe and suicidal depressive disorders. As one of the interviewees puts it: «Hedonia tells you what is good for you.»

In the documentary we meet a 54-year-old woman who has suffered from severe depression all her life. We follow her before and after her surgery and treatment with DBS, and, judging by the images, the difference in her appearance and outlook on life is astonishing. «I feel like I have been 54 years in coma,» she says after the operation.

Hunting for Hedonia. Director: Pernille Rose Grønkjær

Next to the positive effects of treating depression, DBS has also proven to be effective in healing Parkinson’s syndrome. At the beginning of the film, a middle-aged man suffering from Parkinson’s is to receive a DBS operation by a number of neurosurgeons. His right hand is severely trembling at this point. The difference when we meet him later on in the film, now at home, is startling. His hands are completely calm, and he tells us how he feels like himself again.

Post-traumatic stress disorders are also on this film’s menu of all the various disorders that can be healed by DBS and brain modulation. Grønkjær’s voice, narrating in the background throughout the film, poses the question: «What if you could take away the pain of traumatic memories with an electrode?»

Psychiatric stigmas: It’s the politics, stupid!

Although Hunting for Hedonia is an examination of modern neuroscience practices and dilemmas, the film also takes us back to past neuroscience practices in the United States. We hear the testimonies of current psychiatrists and the students of one of the United States’ once leading, but also controversial, psychiatrists, Robert Heath. In fact, almost half of the film is dedicated to the experimental and pioneering psychiatrist, who, as early as the 1950s, experimented with DBS in his psychiatric practice. The documentary shows that the results were overly positive in many of the instances – both in treating depressive disorders and also schizophrenia.

Films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) were part of a new social-political era that questioned current psychiatric practices.

The retrospective scenes serve as a parallel to contemporary debates on neuroscience. Due to the countercultural movements in the ’70s, which rallied against any kind of authorities and institutions, Heath and his equals got heavily criticised. Films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) serve as an example of the new social-political era that came to question the psychiatric practices of the time. The political and popular opposition to psychiatry put a temporary end to Heath’s experimentation and progress within neuroscience.

Hunting for Hedonia. Director: Pernille Rose Grønkjær

«People had the idea that he [Heath] stuck electrodes in everybody’s head,» says a neurosurgeon and former colleague of Heath. The acceptation of Heath and his experimental practices that later turned into disapproval is – as one doctor in biological psychology comments in the film – an example of how important socio-politics is: «Not just in the way societies are run, but the way science is done.»

The stigmas in the ’70s, when Ted Kennedy questioned whether neuroscience was in fact mind control, are applicable in contemporary debates. What are the implications of tampering with our brain and emotions?

Eternal sunshine in a spotless mind?

«Given that what we have is safe, available and is working – I’ll take it,» says a female professor in neuroscience.

Indeed, when watching Hunting for Hedonia you get the impression that neuroscience has a lot to offer people in need of efficient treatment of their disorders. With the psychiatric debate in the ’70s serving as a backdrop, it seems that the limitations to advancement rest more on human perception, values and norms than in the possibilities within the neuroscience discipline.

«Given that what we have is safe, available and is working – I’ll take it.» – Professor in neuroscience

But there are some ethical questions to consider. One of the neurosurgeons interviewed in the film reflects on the ethical issues regarding DBS, saying that it is not a question of if but when people without any serious health disorder will seek treatment for trivial conditions – similar to the popularisation of plastic surgery. Perhaps in the future removal of unpleasant memories or feelings will be practised, like the scenario in Michel Gondry’s film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

But even though Hunting for Hedonia touches on some of the ethical considerations in relation to brain manipulation, the documentary’s outlook on DBS is by and large positive. There’s little discussion on the negative side effects of DBS. We’re also not introduced to any patients where the effects of this treatment have been unsuccessful or confronted with any strong voices against the practice. This is a bit unfortunate, as the viewer is left wondering whether it is all too good to be true. Hunting for Hedonia could have taken a firmer step into this debate.

On the other side, Grønkjær’s film is a professional and solid production that sheds light on a fundamentally important practice within modern medicine that leaves the viewer optimistic for the future. Her film stands as a testimony to modern science and gives voice to the many patients and dependants that are struggling due to mental disorders. And if we are to believe Hunting for Hedonia, there is a light in the end of the tunnel.