"Futurist, filmmaker, ecstatic truth lover, techno optimist, infinity in all directions." That's how Jason Silva describes himself on Twitter. And while he has a highly eclectic career as a filmmaker, journalist, producer and public speaker, he is undoubtedly best known as the host of National Geographic's Brain Games, a show all about classic brain teasers and why your mind responds to them in the way that it does. You may think when you're watching the show that you're getting a Penn and Teller-style lesson in how magic is performed, but the not-so-stealthy agenda of the show is to subtly give the viewer a crash course in the basics of neuroscience, without being boring or jargon-heavy.
Silva's always happy to talk about the brain, so I decided to pick his. It was fun.
Luke Y. Thompson: Tell me about how your interest in brain tricks came about.
Jason Silva: Brain Games is pop science theories, and we use these perceptual illusions and interactive experiments to kind of "hack" your brain, essentially. And in doing so, reveal the shortcomings - the limitations inherent in the brain, and it's fascinating! On the one hand, the brain is the most complicated object in the universe, yet it's surprisingly easy to hack. We think that's a very fun, viscerally way of getting people interested in learning about the brain. We get to teach people neuroscience through these games, and then of course we explain them.
NatGeo got me on board because I was producing a series of short documentaries on the web that explore the role of technology as a means to extend the boundaries of the human brain. I call myself a technical optimist; I'm a big fan of Ray Kurzweil, the futurist, as well as Kevin Kelly, who thought about technology as the seventh kingdom of life, technology as an extension of the human brain, an extension of the human mind. And my videos had gone viral, so I speak a lot at keynotes around the world. I spoke with TED - basically, I was getting some traction for these docs, and NatGeo thought "this guy would have a kind of passion and voice to bring to Brain Games," which they were turning into a full series. They brought me on board, and I got to host the show, and it's been a blast! We had the highest rated new series launch in NatGeo's history.
LYT: So did the show begin without you? You said they brought you on board.
JS: The series is based on a three-part special that they did on the brain in 2011.
LYT: I remembered Neil Patrick Harris being the host.
JS: He was the voice-over; he was not actually on camera. That was in 2011, it was just a three-part special, and it did really well, and from there came the desire to turn it into a full series, 12 episodes, bring an on-camera host, and that's how I got involved.
LYT: So Apollo Robbins was already part of it at that point?
JS: Yes, Apollo Robbins, the deception specialist, appeared in a lot of the experiments in the first iteration, and he was brought back. What he does with misdirecting attention is obviously a brilliant demonstration of a lot of the stuff we talk about in the show, so he appears in almost every episode, doing at least one experiment. And then we have the game, as well as the man on the street stuff.
LYT: Had you known him before, or was that a meeting where you hit it off right away?
JS: Yeah, we met, and we both shared a love of the whole issue of how attention works. One of my favorite quotes about attention, which he loved as well, was by Charles Darwin. He said, "Attention, if sudden and close, graduates into surprise, and this into astonishment and this into stupefied amazement." So really, if you can control attention, you can really do a lot, and that's what he's all about. He's speaking at TED Global this summer, which is where I spoke last year, so we're both finding ourselves a lot on the speaking circuit, which is great. We really hit it off.
LYT: A lot of your press compares you to Timothy Leary. Is that a comparison you like?
JS: Yes, I love Timothy Leary! He had a great line that he said, "In the information age, you don't teach philosophy as they did after feudalism, you perform it. If Aristotle were alive today, he'd have a talk show." That's where I first learned of the term "performing philosophy"' and my short videos on the web were referred to as "performing philosophy" and in my work I've been referred to as a "performance philosopher" because I take these big ideas and I distill them and I perform them theatrically and visually, in an almost psychedelic fashion, and it makes you feel like, "Whoa, what just happened?"
Also, Timothy Leary - a lot of people don't know this - in his later years, he came out as a big advocate of technology and computers. He said that computers were the literalization of the psychedelic promise of extending our minds, of extending the boundaries of our minds. He used to say computers are the new LSD, and I thought that was kind of a fascinating idea, this notion of computers as a means by which we extend human imagination and human cognition, beyond all previous limits.
LYT: So how close do you think we are to getting a computer that can replicate the brain?
JS: I think we're a lot closer than people think. Information technology emerges or evolves at an exponential rate. Most people don't understand that, because our brains are wired to think linearly, and if you take 30 linear steps, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, you'll get to 30. If you take 30 exponential steps, you'll get to a billion in the same amount of steps. You go 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 - 30 steps later, you're at a billion.
So when you think about the fact that computers evolve at an exponential rate, you come to understand how the smart phone in your pocket today is actually a million times cheaper, a million times smaller, and a thousand times more powerful, than what used to be a $60 million super-computer that was half a building in size 40 years ago. In the next 25 years, we'll make another billion-fold increase in price and performance, and the computer will be the size of blood cells, augmenting us from the inside out.
I think we're not that far from a singularity. I think Obama's $100 million brain-mapping initiative is only a testament to the fact that we're chasing the holy grail here, and we're almost there.
LYT: If you had to bet when we get there, to use geek references, is it going to be closer to Johnny 5, or Skynet?
JS: I want to say Johnny 5! I think people keep talking about computers being AI to them, but it's going to be us, extending ourselves, extending our cognition. Just like the world post-language would have been inconceivable to early hominids on the other side of that line, if you tried to explain to an early monkey-like human what Shakespeare is, or what the nuances of Shakespearean language are, and it's impossible to understand. I think for us it's difficult to comprehend what it will be like when we create a human-level brain on a computer that can upgrade itself forever. It will change everything.
LYT: Do you think as a society we're anti-science, which is kind of the rap we sometimes get in the U.S.?
JS: I think it's kind of depressing when you hear the anti-science rhetoric in America, but I think that people are just afraid of change, and I think they're afraid of disruption, and I think they're afraid of the feeling that the rug is being pulled from underneath their feet. People are used to things changing maybe over many generations, but they're not used to seeing things change within their own lifetime. The problem is people are going to college and graduating, and realizing that their major is obsolete.
But that's just the case with these exponential technologies; our brains, they struggle with it. Again, we live in a world that is global and exponential, and our brains evolved in a world that was linear and local. I think knowledge is power. We need to explain to people what is happening so that they can be better equipped for it.
LYT: Are our brains going to start adapting faster?
JS: You know, I think that human beings have gotten as far as we've gotten because of our adaptability, our ability to adapt, and our ability to dovetail our technologies - our brains to our tools. With the Industrial Revolution, we transcended the limits of our muscles. With the digital revolution, we transcend the limits of our minds.
LYT: There's that old cliché that we only use a tiny percentage of our brains at any given time, and if we could use all of it, maybe we'd have psychic powers, or stuff like that. How much of that is nonsense, and how much of that is true?
JS: It's nonsense. It's a myth. I used to believe that as well. We actually are using all of our brain, all of the time; all of it is in use. However, you could probably argue that we don't use it effectively. Some of us are not trained to use our brains to their full potential. But definitely, all of it is there.