Brain Games: Season 3
Undoubtedly, television is one of the most powerful innovations in communications literally in the history of mankind. We are all familiar with his ability to entertain but there is still untapped potential in utilizing this medium to educate. Ever since cable television has made niche programming possible, there are networks that specialize in the dissemination of information for the edification of the audience. All of us may remember the use television sets as used in grade school. They would pull oversized TVs into our classrooms in order to show some televised piece of news typically the launch of one of the Mercury program’s launches or in one memorable instance the assignation of our President. Audiovisual material steadily became integral to the educational curriculum. While many of the filmstrips or didactic short films were either interminably boring or ridiculous, this cannot be said for much of the programming currently present on such networks as The History Channel, the Science Channel and the Discovery Channel. One of the most innovative and outright entertaining series on the Discovery Channel is ‘Brain Games’. His third season has now been released on DVD and it is well worth not only adding to your collection of watching every episode is a family event.
The premise of the series is to investigate exactly how our brains work. As most episodes demonstrate not only is some of the functioning of our brain counterintuitive, but also, in many cases outright confusing. Each episode the host, Jason Silva, takes the audience on the examination of a specific aspect of the complex functions of that 8 pounds of gelatinous tissue sitting on top of our bodies safely encased within our skull; the brain. One of the most ingenious aspects of the series lies in its intriguing format. The episodes topic is explored through a series of games, hence the title, that are tried on unsuspecting participants typically found in such places as shopping malls or public parks. The truly entertaining part is that the way they are set up the audience is encouraged to play at home and in almost every case will be as flabbergasted at the results as the people pulled into the real-life experiment. The series is well-suited for the entire family and the younger members watching certainly enjoy watching adults, and in some cases, of the children, be fooled by the seemingly simplistic games. When it comes time to explain the reason why the brain acts as it does the host goes into some of the evolutionary and neurophysiological rationales that neuroscientists have come up with by means of an explanation. This may be over the heads of the kids, and some the terms are rather technical, but the explanations are presented in such a fashion that they do not the rail the entertainment factor, even while sneaking in a touch of advanced science.
Many of the episodes examine aspects of neurophysiology that are rather complex by nature but they are always something that we deal with routinely in our everyday lives. Season three quickly establishes this ongoing trend with an episode called ‘In Living Color’. Unless you have the genetic variation that results in a condition referred to as colorblindness, the perception of color is crucial to navigating through the world around you. One of the games is particularly effective group participants and the audience asked to stay at a simple picture. Initially, it seems to be little more than a block of calls, but then it is switched to a scene at the beach. Initially, you can make out the blue of the water in the azure sky. After a couple of seconds the picture suddenly turns black and white as the host poses the question; "where did the colors go?" The answer is surprising; the picture of the beachfront was always in black and white. It was your mind that imposed the illusion of color onto the scene. Mr. Silva explains that the initial blob of color with a complementary colors to the ones you eventually perceived when you saw a full-color photograph. This does then move on to the neuroscience behind the phenomenon with the cones, the receptors on your retina that perceive color become overloaded by the initial burst that preceded the photograph. With the black and white picture was presented the complementary colors, the vivid blues and greens you observed, will manifested. This initial episode is just one example of how this entire series was constructed. They move on from a somewhat startling and perplexing example through to a simple explanation for it, and finally a glimpse at the science behind it.
The next episode in this season explores the topic that is rather important to most people; why we are attracted to other people. Using the format of the game show this episode explores three couples in various stages of relationship. The first couple has just met and been on a few dates, the second w newlyweds while the third have been married for most of their adult life. The questions asked explored not only how well they knew each other, but provided insight into the factors that led to their attraction. It should come as no surprise that the most powerful aspect of initial attraction is physical. This is explained by the biological imperative to find a healthy mate that will provide healthy offspring to propagate your genes. While that works in the short run, humans tend to retain relationships far beyond producing the next generation and for many of us long pastel childbearing years.
In another episode, neurological impact of aging is considered. Several tests are administered that although playfully nature are actually carefully constructed scientific experiments to ascertain the effect of age and experience on various elements of cognitive function. In one particularly ingenious test that was also quite enjoyable to watch two groups, one in their 20s, the second of more mature years, are taken to a room with there are three switches on the wall. They are told that each switch that controls a light bulb located, unseen, in the next room. The task assigned to them was to ascertain which switch controls each bulb. The catch is, they can only check the status of the bulbs once and are informed that the initial status for each bulb is off. In this test shop youthful minds were no match for the life experience of the older group. Of course there were also test that had the reverse results with the younger group coming out on top.
One particular episode that was particularly hopeful for those of my generation was the one that explored the concept of neuroplasticity. Contrary to what was commonly believed most brains can be retrained often through a series of game like puzzles and situations that expedite eye hand coordination. Every other topic used to drive an episode but equally fascinating ranging from how we react to stress to help charisma and his into how we accept a person in a leadership position. Several of the episodes have a tendency to be interrelated. The one on how and why we trust others relates nicely to the examination of why we are driven to win. In most instances, many of these functions for the brain are involved with our survival as individuals, and more importantly, as a species. With this series National Geographic has provided a very entertaining show that demonstrates the interrelationship and impacts our biology and neurological imperatives impact most aspects of our everyday lives. This series quickly became one of my favorites combining something I’ve always been interested in, how our bodies work and relate to our environments and something that is fascinating eminently entertaining to view.