An Interview with Jason Silva of Nat Geo’s “Brain Games”
By| January 31, 2014
One of the most addictive (and interactive) cable series to hit the airwaves lately is National Geographic Channel’s “Brain Games,” which combines the latest brain research with a bit of, uh… mindless fun to prove a point: Our brains are pretty darned freaky. Whether it’s the limitations of our peripheral vision, how magicians deceive us or how our memories are less reliable than we think, Brain Games suggests that our perception of the world isn’t always what it seems. With this mind-bending show just kicking off its 3rd season on Jan. 13, we sat down with host and chief instigator/brainiac/visionary Jason Silva to find out why he keeps messing with us.
Brain science is so in vogue now. Why are we so fascinated with the brain these days?
Europe is spending a billion dollars to reverse engineer the brain and create an artificial brain. [President] Obama is putting all of this money into the brain mapping initiative… We’re getting to the point of starting to model the mind and really understand how it works and to really create a non-biological brain, which would be the Holy Grail of technologists because then we would transcend the human condition. But I think the success of publishing platforms like TED, which I’m obsessed with, shows that there’s a legitimate hunger out there for science and technology and knowledge. People don’t want to consume just garbage, you know? We’re tired of being stupefied by bad media. We want rich media.
I think millennials in particular want authentic, compelling, knowledge-rich content—and even the success of my viral videos that explore the evolution of humans and tech and how we use tech to exceed the boundaries of our brains [proves the point]. These are just passion projects that I was doing, and they blew up. That was how I got Brain Games to begin with. I think the success of Brain Games just closes the loop. It means it’s not just the web. It’s also the TV audiences that are responding to this material. For me, it’s great because it’s hard for me to dumb things down. I can’t do it. I’m too much of a geek. So it’s nice to be able to do content that’s informative and inspiring, and doesn’t have to be overly diluted.
How do you decide on the experiments you’ll feature in the episodes?
The creators of the show—Jerry Kolber and his partner Adam [Davis]—are really into brain science. And they’re both writers as well. We have a whole team of writers, and we’ll look at different topics—science and lab experiments that have to do with this stuff, and then we’ll work with the brain experts to see if we can adapt the experiments in a fun, visual way… so people at home can participate too. That’s a big component. When you learn by doing and have the experience as the viewer of the science happening to you. You want to transcend the been theres and done that’s of the adult mind and give people that new experience that awakens their inner child.
So they’ll come up with topic lists. We did risk. We did attraction. We did color. All these things and how they relate to the brain this season. Trust is another one we did. We create the set-ups accordingly to highlight how we deal with trust, or how we deal with addiction, or how we deal with competition. I want to do altered states of consciousness. I think that would be fascinating.
Each episode focuses on a theme like attention or memory or speed. How do you decide on those themes?
Start finding the science, trying to figure out what can be adapted into game form. That’s one of the challenges. We don’t want to keep doing the same thing. We want to figure out what topics and games can we do before someone says, “They’re repeating themselves.” That’s the ongoing challenge.
What resources do you use to find all of these studies and papers and experiments?
We live in the world of Google, so we have a team of researchers, a team of writers and people we consult with who are brain experts. Some of them are from last season. Some of them are new ones. These are the top notch people… We have legit scientists working with us.
And in terms of promotion and awareness of the show, there seems to be a significant social media component. You’ve been active on social media for a long time. How important is that aspect to the show’s success?
It’s great to have Nat Geo’s support behind it. Certainly the ad buys have been great. We have a huge Times Square billboard now for this season, which is awesome. Fox is airing our commercial. The network is behind it, which is important to reach the general mainstream. And then the niche audiences on the Internet—those who follow me are obviously aware of the show. They’ll watch my videos and discover the show. People watch the show and discover my videos. I have an active community of people online who are into the ideas, but it certainly helps to take that to the next level and have the resources of the network behind us.
What’s your long-term plan here? Beyond the show, what new areas do you want to explore as someone interested in the brain?
I basically want to blow my own mind. It’s like what can I do that can blow my mind? I’m terrified of getting bored. The idea of somehow losing my curiosity by being overexposed to something, so I’m always looking for the next thing to blow my mind. I did a couple of videos lately with AOL called “The Future of Us” where they interviewed me about different topics like biotechnology and nanotechnology and so forth—and they make for great interstitial content related to Brain Games because it’s still me talking about crazy stuff, which is what the fans like. So it’s cool to be doing that on the side. I like to be doing.
What other kinds of shows would you like to tackle?
I could do a fun talk show thing. If it was really loose. You see the success of Joe Rogan with his podcast, just on the Web. Just on uStream. He’s got such a rabid following, but it’s just him talking to interesting people. At the end of the day, someone said, interesting people just talking is always going to be compelling. And certainly something in which I could sit down with some of the people who have spoken at the TED conferences and just have a mind jam with them would be so cool… I just like mind jamming and speculating and thinking…
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX. You can follow him on Twitter at @michaelgrebb).