I’m at a castle outside of London, and I’m watching King Henry VIII (and his suspiciously large, but historically accurate, codpiece) counsel three people in matching sweaters. One of the three is a genius. And celebrity smartie Jason Silva is there. But this isn’t a dream — this is Brain Games, and I’ve been invited along as the NGC series shoots Season 5, and further explores the 3 pounds of gray stuff that resides inside our skulls.
Our adventure for today is Hever Castle, the childhood home of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn and also home to an impressive hedge maze. We’ve traveled here to replicate an astounding study in which scientists discovered that the brain’s posterior hippocampus (which controls spatial memory) tends to be larger in London black-cab drivers, the result of studying for the cab driver’s qualification exam known as “The Knowledge.” The exam — for which 25,000 of London’s streets and thousands of its landmarks must be memorized, and drivers must be able to recite turn-by-turn directions between any two points in the city — is widely recognized as the world’s hardest.
“We are changing the backdrop, changing the context, changing the experience for the viewer,” says Silva, the show’s host. “I think it will be cool.” And changing that backdrop means traveling to locations like Jerusalem, London and New Orleans, places that become characters in each of their respective episode’s narratives. “Where we go [will] be a reflection of what we’re talking about,” says the series’ new showrunner and executive producer, Geoffrey Sharp. That means in the episode we’re witnessing, “Meet the Brain,” London serves as a visual metaphor for the human brain. As the show’s investigation moves from our primitive proto-reptilian brain, which is responsible for basic life functions, to our modern prefrontal cortex, the episode travels from London’s ancient Roman Wall past palaces, Parliament and Tower Bridge to the city’s symbol of modernity, the London Eye.
Silva is excited that lengthening each episode to 60 minutes will allow the series to go deeper into the marvels of our mind. “I like these bigger themes that we are doing; these hourlong shows have a little more meat in them,” he says. Silva’s curious enthusiasm is matched only by his love of sharing knowledge with others. “I always say that the games are highly entertaining and highly engaging ways to get you interested, and then I get to actually blow your mind with the facts.” But never fear, Brain Games will still employ the clever games that viewers can try at home, which have made the series well-loved in the 171 countries where it airs.
The goal of Silva and neuroscience experts holding salon-like discussions about the inner workings of the mind is that they will encourage viewers to “lean in” and become engaged with the conversation. It’s heady stuff, but thankfully Brain Games employs simple-to-understand and easy-to-replicate observational games — or social proofs — that reiterate and reinforce the show’s high-level science. Otherwise, says Silva, “it can be scary” when science sheds insight into who we are and what we understand about ourselves. Silva likens some of this season’s experiments to “an ontological awakening” and tempers the series’ profound revelations with theory-reinforcing games that we laypeople can wrap our heads around.
Back to Hever Castle, to our three contestants and the game they’re about to play. Silva explains that each contestant will be led through the maze along a specific path past five numbered flags. After 20 minutes, each contestant will race through the maze retrieving the flags in order; whoever navigates the maze the quickest is the winner. The three contestants are a London cabbie, a Ph.D. student and an exceptionally bright child. After the experiment was filmed for the show (you’ll have to watch the Feb. 14 episode to see the results), I tried the challenge and was amazed at my brain’s ability to recall the path after walking through the maze only once. It was incredibly challenging and I have a newfound respect for the memories and navigational skills of cab drivers. Geoffrey Sharp marvels, “I thought it was cool that the hardest memory test in the world is not something that is done by a physicist or a math person; it’s done by a cab driver in London.” Silva adds, “Those guys deserve some serious respect.”
Brain Games > National Geographic Channel > Sundays beginning Feb. 14 at 9pm ET/8pm CT