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July 21, 2016

Filling the Think Tank

NatGeo's Brain Games puts thinking to the test.

Paula Hendrickson
  • Andy Fram/NG Studios

While watching most reality shows involves relatively little brain work, National Geographic's Brain Games is all about understanding our human hard drive, exploring its functions through games, experiments and puzzles.

"It's really collaborative," host Jason Silva says of the production process that seeks to answer such questions as, "Why are we manipulated by marketers?" and "What, really, is intuition?"

Along with the producers and writing staff, Silva consults with brain experts — like neuroscientists — in replicating actual experiments for TV. Then, he says, it's a matter of, "How do we stage this? How do we visualize this? How can it be edited so the audience has a sense of participation?"

Among many topics, the games test social conformity, competitiveness, positive thinking; the effects of sleep deprivation, survival mode, even sensory perception. (Last year's social-media dust-up over the blue dress versus the gold dress is a real-life example of differences in visual perception.)

This past season, Brain Games (available on Hulu) expanded from 30 minutes to an hour and was shot on location in cities that served thematically. "I'm most excited about the episode we shot in Jerusalem, 'The God Brain,'" Silva reports. "It's about the neuroscience of religious experience. What's really going on in our brains when we feel we've tapped into the Divine?"

The host especially enjoys simple experiments with profound take-aways. "Like a riddle that reveals how quickly your brain jumps to conclusions without really evaluating information. It's a humbling experience to realize that what you see is not what you get."

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