'Brain Games': They'll Blow Your Mind

April 22, 2013
"Brain Games" on National Geographic Channel

For those who think science experiments stopped being fun after seventh grade, National Geographic Channel begs to differ.

The network's new weekly series "Brain Games" uses pop science to showcase the power of the human brain, meaning, if you love those Internet optical illusion games, this show's for you.

"The experiments themselves at first come across as almost simple," says "Brain Games" host Jason Silva, whose enthusiasm proves to be one of the most infectious aspects of the series. "It's like, 'Wow, so all I have to do is stare at these footballs [and count them]? Or, 'All I have to do is look at this face and focus? Are they playing a trick on me?' That's almost what makes it more interesting -- it shows that the brain is so sophisticated [that] it seems simple.

Silva explains "Brain Games":

"It's been brilliantly designed to literally hack your brain, and it's interesting for the whole audience. Little kids can play along, and the adults can be like, 'Wow, this is fascinating.' And then I come in and explain it, or one of the brain experts tells you what's actually happening in your lateral prefrontal cortex. Or why inattentional blindness works. Then there are all these interesting takeaways. That's why I think the show is so all encompassing -- it's fun, it's interactive, it's entertaining, and profound at the same time."

Speaking of those experts, NGC has lined up an impressive group to help explain things like inattentional blindness, visual perception, sound, creativity, lying, attractiveness, and persuasion, including professors from MIT, Princeton, and Yale; Shankar Vedantam, the author of "The Hidden Brain"; and Janine Driver, a body language and lie detector expert who works with the FBI and CIA.

Silva, a speaker and filmmaker dubbed "a Timothy Leary of the viral video age," whose short films about the coevolution of humans and technology have earned him nicknames like "Idea DJ," will be joined by "Gentleman Thief" Apollo Robbins. A sleight-of-hand expert who once successfully pickpocketed a Secret Service agent while performing for President Jimmy Carter, Robbins will use his skills to demonstrate proximity manipulation, diversion techniques, and attention control.

Robbins on how your brain focuses: 

"We're using the brain to understand the brain," Silva says. "The brain is the most densely complicated thing that we've identified in the entire cosmos so far. At the same time, we can create a special written sentence that can instantly show you that the brain is a machine that looks for patterns, and it can be tricked so easily. How could the most complicated object in the universe be tricked so easily? Because it's still an object. It's still basically a biological computer. It's not magical. It's dazzling, but it's a machine, and machines can be hacked. So that's a big takeaway, too."

Silva says he thinks viewers will get a confidence boost after playing along with the experiments at home -- he calls out one involving a 3D Einstein mask as his favorite -- and adds that, like exercise for the body, brain games are a great way to work out the mind.

See Robbins in action:

"One of our episodes is called 'Use It or Lose It,'" he says. "That's a play on the idea that, just like muscles in your body, if you don't engage your brain in these specific ways, you lose certain cognitive capacities. Your brain can atrophy, so to speak. We have these neural pathways that get 'carved in' over time, based on behavioral patterns, based on thinking patterns. But we've also learned that there's this neuro plasticity to the brain. If you change the path you take to work every day, change the people you hang out with, take a vacation, go somewhere new, do crossword puzzles, engage in challenging situations … These condition your thinking. This pulls you out of context and creates new neural pathways.

"Of course, that's the origin of all creativity, when you start making unexpected connections, when you start to cross your wires in different ways. That's huge. That episode (which airs on June 10) has a bunch of stuff that people can do at home, which is great."

"Brain Games" premieres Monday, 4/22 at 9 PM on the National Geographic Channel.

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