TR Interview: Brain Games Host Jason Silva
“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 clich? 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.
LYT: What’s the biggest misperception you think that people have about the brain?
JS: I think the biggest misperception is that people think their experience of the world is somewhat empirical; that they see the world as it is, but they really don’t. I was shocked to find out that we actually take in low-resolution, flat, 2-D images through our eyes, and that our brain takes that raw, incomplete information and literally creates a matrix of the high-definition, 3-D reality that we call “the world” or our experience. How shocking is that? The fact that our brain creates a 3-D world for us. It’s really a guess-timation.
LYT: I was going to ask what the thing was that you were the most surprised by during the course of the show. Was that it?
JS: That was definitely one of the most surprising things. Also, attentional blindness is always hysterical to exploit. To realize that you can have something right in front of you and not see it because you’re primed to focus on something else is insane. And we talk about having a multi-tasking society, but multi-tasking is a myth. You can’t actually multi-task. You can switch rapidly between tasks, but you can’t actually multi-task. In fact, if you try, it gives you bandwidth anxiety and what Douglas Rushkoff called digiphrenia.
LYT: Do you think that 3-D movies are the kind of artificial thing that some people’s brains will never fully get into?
JS: I think with 3-D movies, we haven’t perfected the technology yet. That’s why there are still flaws in it. But even 2-D movies, those we perfected. We figured out that if you put 24 still images per second in a row, in succession, your brain will see motion where there is none. So the fact that a regular film is an illusion that feels absolutely real is astonishing.
LYT: Have you seen the 48 frames per second stuff?
JS: I was going to see The Hobbit in 48 fps, but I did not. Did you?
LYT: I did.
LYT: It’s very interesting. I loved it, and it’s only in 3-D. It sort of feels like watching video, almost. I think people think that when they see something that looks like a daytime soap opera, that they’re used to seeing film as reality, and their minds can’t process that this actually feels closer to “real” real. But the CG in it is so perfect; it looks a bit more like you’re there, but it doesn’t look like what we’re used to thinking of as reality on film.
JS: Yeah, I think reality on film is meant to feel like a dream, and I think that if we try to make it to sharp, it stops looking like a dream. Interesting stuff.
LYT: You used to work for Current TV. What sort of stuff did you used to do?
JS: Yeah, I was a film student. I went to school for film and philosophy at University of Miami, then Current hired me as a host to basically be one of their “omnipresent” VJ’s, so to speak. I got to curate an hour, a show every night that was called “Still Up,” where I basically featured citizen journalism around the world. My role was to contextualize it, to explain what was going on, tell you about the producer that made the film, and kind of break it down. It was a lot of fun, because it was alternative media, and it was a really fun place to get my feet wet. Current never really broke through, never really had much viewership, so it was more of a practice run for me than anything else.
LYT: I was also a film major in college, and it was interesting when you said your major becoming obsolete, I was in one of the last classes at USC to learn how to edit VHS and Super-8. Was it like that for you?
JS: Yeah, totally. I remember learning how to stop to light a feed and how to load a film, and I was always much more of a fan of video. Now you have video cameras that can shoot 24p, and it’s like, forget about film.
LYT: Are you interested in making movies after this? It seems like you’ve done a lot of TV.
JS: Yes. I’m definitely interested in documentary, experimental content. I would probably be interested in directing something. Ron Howard has actually become a big fan of my short videos on the web. You can look them up on my video page if you want. I actually had a meeting with Ron Howard, and he was talking to me about maybe collaborating on something, and he was asking me about my creative process. It was totally surreal for me, because my short videos are kind of like technology/brain/beat poetry, which I try to bring that energy to Brain Games as well. It’s always kind of surreal or flattering when one of your heroes says it’s resonated with them.
LYT: Then I have to ask, what did you think of A Beautiful Mind, and how that represented John Nash’s thought process?
JS: I thought it was absolutely brilliant! I loved A Beautiful Mind, and I told him that. I think it did a good job of showing pattern recognition as a source of intelligence, but also showing that too much pattern recognition is a problem, patternicity. So in the case of this guy, when he started to see patterns that weren’t there, that’s a problem. You cross that threshold, you go from being a genius to being a schizophrenic.
LYT: So let’s close with a plug for the show – tell me where and when we can see it.
JS: Brain Games airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, and we’d love for people to go and check out the website, where there’s additional content, at braingames.nationalgeographic.com, with extra interviews, brain teasers, mind puzzles, the whole thing. I’m also on Twitter @jasonsilva and I love getting messages from people, I answer all the questions, so hit me up with anything!