What does it mean to be conscious? by Molly Robinson

If you’re feeling a little too sure of yourself, I suggest a trip to a basement classroom in the Psychology building to watch a screening of Being John Malkovich. Not knowing what to expect from the evening ahead, I did just that.

The film, besides starring an unrecognisable Cameron Diaz and a bizarre Charlie Sheen cameo, questions what consciousness is, what it means to be conscious, and where our sense of self comes from. It pulls you into a world of half-height ceilings, portals into other people’s minds, and monkeys with suppressed childhood traumas. Being John Malkovich is almost a nonsense poem in film form.

Having said that, it deals with some fascinating psychological and philosophical questions. Puppetry acts as a central metaphor for the relationship between mind and body, and there is a beautiful mirroring of the dance that the protagonist performs with his wooden dolls, and the dance he performs while occupying Malkovich.

The characters’ occupation of John Malkovich’s body, and the way that this dual identity in a single body is dealt with, raises questions as to where our individuality comes from – our physical form, or something else? I am not a film critic or a psychologist, so look it up – it’s worth a watch if you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be in someone else’s skin.

We used the film less as a base for discussion, but rather as a springboard. Staying well past our advertised end-time, we talked about how subjective consciousness is, how difficult it is to analyse. We discussed the implications of artificial intelligence, whether we are completely in control of ourselves, and my childhood preoccupation with the idea that everyone sees in different colours. I didn’t come out with any answers, but my mind wouldn’t stop buzzing all the way home.


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