Brain Games’ Host, Jason Silva, On Understanding The Science Behind The Brain
Education and Advocacy Jason Silva, host of National Geographic’s Brain Games, shares his knowledge of the human mind and encourages Canadians to challenge theirs.
Mediaplanet had the chance to talk to Jason Silva, the host of National Geographic’s hit series, Brain Games. Here’s what he had to say about human creativity, futurism and how we can extend the boundaries of our minds.
Mediaplanet In 2011, you became host of National Geographic’s award-winning show Brain Games. What is the premise of the show?
Jason Silva Brain Games is kind of a pop-science reality series that uses interactive experiences — cognitive optical illusions and participatory games — to teach people about their brains. The games function as devices that highlight the shortcomings in how we perceive reality. Every time you play along as you watch, you’re experiencing these holes, these lapses in your perception.
Most people take their perceptions of reality for granted. People think they have some kind of tangible experience of the world. But the reality is that they don’t. So essentially the show uses these games to teach that to people.
MP How do the games highlight our shortcomings in perception?
JS The games are meant to induce curiosity in people. And the first way to induce curiosity is to give people a sense of wonder. We make people question the things they take for granted — particularly their perception of the world. Every episode looks at a different theme and how that theme plays out in the brain. We look at things like fear, creativity and imagination.
I always tell people that the first step towards re-engaging your brain is to step out of your traditional pattern of thought. And instead, expose yourself to new novel stimuli. Experience something new. This is the way to engage the brain.
MP You often talk about actualizing human potential. How can we access that potential?
JS I think that for a lot of us, the only thing standing in our way is ourselves. That’s why I’m really interested in flow states — moments of pure virtuosity.
Creative flow states are associated with elite athletes when they exceed their potential, and with jazz musicians and freestyle rappers when they’re in the zone. When you get into these creative flow states the part of the brain that’s responsible for self-consciousness goes silent.
This is just a reminder that a lot of the time, our limitations are self-imposed. And so a way of challenging our limitations is to put ourselves into situations that induce these flow states and silence our inner critic.
“The first step towards re-engaging your brain is to step out of your traditional pattern of thought. Expose yourself to new novel stimuli. Experience something new. This is the way to engage the brain.”
MP How do you exercise your brain personally?
JS I try to expose myself to novel experiences: meet new people, read new books, travel when I can, go to museums, expose myself to challenging and different things. I flood my body and mind with new experiences. Give me new stuff to process. Give me a hit of bewilderment; of wonderment. That’s what gets me excited.
MP What got you interested in understanding the science behind the brain?
JS Knowledge is addicting. Humans get a hit of dopamine in the brain whenever we’re exposed to novel stimuli. It’s why human beings are such adventurous creatures. We have an insatiable urge to understand, to question, to deconstruct what is fascinating. And I really feel that. I wake up in the morning and I want to find something new or different that will get me excited.
I suppose that’s where my interest comes from. As long as I’m growing, I’m not ending. As long as I’m expanding my horizons, I’m not diminishing them.
MP What is the goal behind your MS Visionaries initiative?
JS MS Visionaries, created by Biogen Idec with Yahoo Health, is a campaign that celebrates passionate innovative visionary individuals who are working to make people living with MS lead better lives. They’re trying to help and alleviate some of the difficulties associated with MS out of the kindness of their hearts.
Basically the campaign is meant to be a celebration of those who are lending their creativity and efforts to helping others who are facing certain difficulties living with MS. It’s a celebration of the human spirit and human capacity to overcome boundaries.
MP What is the story behind your video series, Shots of Awe?
JS Shots of Awe is a passion project. It started as a desire to get into the internet video space, doing short-form content that would be entertaining for people with increasingly small attention spans; for people to watch content on their smart phones. So I started making these short videos and these “philosophical espresso shots” that distill big ideas into short bursts of information that could easily be shared and consumed.
The topic of the videos vary in focus. I look at everything from futurism, creativity, and innovation to how human beings use technology to extend the boundaries of their minds and brains.
MP You have been called a “media artist.” Can you explain how your use of media differs from others?
JS I think that with Shots of Awe, media acts as an antidote to existential banality. The media mostly gives us negative news. But there's a lot to be excited about. There are a lot positive things going on in the world right now. Violence is at the lowest its ever been. Innovations are happening all of the time. Poverty has been reduced more in the last 25 years than in any other time in history. Shots of Awe is about putting these counter-intuitive facts out into the world in an expressive, fun way. It trades in the currency of inspiration. These little videos are nomadic content that hopefully incept people's brains and get them thinking differently.
I think of it as an antidote that dissolves boundaries and makes you question your limits and your prior belief systems.
MP You often talk about transcending the biological shackles that limit us. How do we do that?
JS A lot of the times people think of technology as unnatural, which is a total cognitive error. If you start with the Earth as a single system, everything that's coming out of the Earth is organic. Even everything we build technologically is still organic. So when I say “biological shackles,” I'm saying that the materials that make up our biology have fixed limits. But we overcome those limits. The microscope, the telescope; these things extend our capacity beyond our biologically designed limits.
I think eventually even biology itself is going to come under our creativity and design. The biotechnology revolution means we can manipulate biology like software. Biology is a language and we're going to start scripting that language, rewriting that language, playing with that language and overcoming any kind of design limits.