Dr. Marian Diamond, the oldest professor at U.C. Berkeley, speaks on the brain's power to grow at any age.

Weimberg, Ryan Pick Berkeley ‘Brain’

Michael Fox September 21, 2011

Two Berkeley filmmakers tap vitality of 84-year-old neuroscientist Dr. Marian Diamond.

The passports of Bay Area documentary makers are famously crammed with stamps from faraway lands and out-of-the-way border crossings. But there’s an advantage to filming close to home, even beyond the absence of time pressures, language barriers or risky conditions. As Berkeley filmmakers Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan develop their portrait of pioneering brain scientist Dr. Marian Diamond, they have the luxury of working without a preordained agenda. “We’re finding the film one shoot at a time,” Weimberg says.

In an unusual but not atypical example, Dr. Diamond phoned one day to say she was working in her kitchen, and would the filmmakers be interested in coming over. “We’ve never had such a willing collaborator,” Weimberg effuses. “Twenty minutes later I’m filming her making pies and talking about the role of women in science.”

The 84-year-old professor isn’t the star of a reality show on the Food Network—though that might lie a couple of decades in the future, when the good doctor slows down—but the oldest full-time faculty at U.C. Berkeley. More than two million viewers have studied anatomy through her YouTube lectures. She gets letters on a daily basis from Australia, Mongolia and the Soviet Union. Dr. Diamond’s vitality and enthusiasm (and the Internet) certainly have something to do with her widening fan base, but mostly it’s her innovative thinking about the brain.

“In 1960, when she started doing enrichment studies with rats, [the prevailing view] was that the human brain grows for the first 20 years and then it’s all downhill from there,” Ryan explains. “Dr. Diamond discovered that if you created an enriched environment for rats, their brain grew and continued to grow throughout the life span.”

It took a while, but that revelation has profoundly altered the way that adults (especially Baby Boomers) think about, and exercise, their brains. Dr. Diamond went even further in a subsequent experiment, testing whether factors other than diet could encourage rats to live longer.

“She added to enrichment the idea of love and attention,” Ryan says. “Each day, the rats were taken out and talked to and stroked to and given attention. Those rats’ lives were extended from 600 to 900 days. With love as a motivator, the brain can keep on going.”

Given Dr. Diamond’s age, there’s a temptation to expect My Love Affair with the Brain: The Life and Science of Marian C. Diamond to be an inspiring profile of a highly productive octogenarian—a model senior, if you will. But that’s a big mistake, Weimberg says.

“The essence of her research, and the film, is about the entire human life span and using your brain to maximum capacity at any age,” he declares. With a chuckle, he adds, “That’s what we’re selling. We’re selling maximum neural capacity.”

For her part, Ryan sees Dr. Diamond as not just a pioneer but an anomaly. But not in a way that should be celebrated.

“That is one of the themes that has emerged as we studied her story,” Ryan says. “What women in science have been noted? Women who achieve in science are basically invisible. If they put their heads up, I guess they get shot off. There’s not even a category of “women in science” in the Women Make Movies catalog.”
The one thing that Ryan and Weimberg know for sure about the style of My Love Affair with the Brain: The Life and Science of Marian C. Diamond is that it won’t look like a “Nova” show. Weimberg recalls one day last winter when he filmed Dr. Diamond wandering around a neighborhood house decked out for the holidays.

“Later we realized there was a more or less visual correspondence between a colorized MRI of the hypothalamus and these Christmas lights that Marian walks through with an expression of curiosity and delight. It’s the kind of aesthetic you don’t get the chance to develop with a standard, professional, tight schedule.

“What’s nice about the story is it’s so local to us that we’re developing the aesthetics as we go, in collaboration with Marian,” Weimberg muses. “It might end up looking like The Thin Scientific Line, but we’re thinking something gentle and beautiful and moody. The essential [goal] for any audience with this film is to feel your own scientific curiosity waking up. So the aesthetics need to reach each of us.”

For more information about My Love Affair with the Brain: The Life and Science of Marian C. Diamond, check out

Notes From the Underground
Jon Shenk’s The Island President won the audience award in the documentary category at the Toronto International Film Festival. … Abby Ginzberg’s Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice airs Sat., Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. and Tues., Sept. 27 at 11 p.m on KQED-Channel 9.

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