Brain Games

Brain Games debuts tonight on National Geographic Channel at 8 p.m. Eastern.

We don't know what we think we know, see how we think we think, or even think how we think we think. Though many people don't believe this, or don't believe that it applies to them, it is a core tenet of most forms of psychology going back to Freud, who for all his myriad other problems, is most famous for describing how people have irrational, non-conscious motivations. Don't believe me? Well, imagine that Neil Patrick Harris is the one who just said “Don't believe me?” and then launched a cute experiment on the screen, and you have a good idea of what Brain Games is about.

Brain Games probably fits into the category of “edutainment” - it's half educational documentary, half interactive fun. In the documentary sections of it, psychologists and the narrator get into the way the brain behaves. The physical aspect is represented by an animated brain, with the relevant sections labeled, and while this may be fairly useful for getting a decent idea of the proper terminology and placement of the parts of the brain, it rarely moves beyond that into why the brain behaves that way, other than occasional general concepts like how the brain has difficulty when different components are called upon to process different things at the same time. This is filled in by a collection of scientists who do get into more detail in terms of what these things mean for everyone who has to deal with them.

While that is occasionally fairly dry, it's supplemented by a set of games and demonstrations that consistently keep the viewer interacting with the program in a fashion that's usually fun, although sometimes a little bit too forced. The first episode opens with a simple card trick designed to test your attention – pick a card from six face cards, memorize it, and the show pulls that card from the five. It works initially, but then notes that it actually switched out every single card from the initial batch. And sometimes it's a bit of fun that can't translate to the viewer directly, like when a hypnotist seems to convince a woman that the number (and word) “four” doesn't actually exist.

The parts that can only show up on-screen are the weakest sections of Brain Games, because they demonstrate the core tension in the show: it's dedicated to proving its viewers' rational assumptions wrong. As long as it keeps doing that, even for a few seconds, it can keep its apparently irrational conclusions coming, forcing astonished laughter from its confused subjects. If it gets outside of that realm, and lets skepticism in, then it doesn't work. If you're anything like me, you'll see the hypnotist and say “Maybe that works on her, and maybe it doesn't, but no way that works on me.” But in illusion after illusion, those tricks do work. It's not 100% of the time – I was especially interested in how quickly I, personally, “heard through” the aural tricks after the majority of the visual tricks worked on me.

And when those illusions are both working and entertaining, the show works really well. I watched two episodes, “Pay Attention!” and “Watch This!” The former was much more entertaining due to its use of Las Vegas entertainers, including a sleight-of-hand magician who robbed people blind while charming them, and the famous dance crew Jabbawockeez, putting on a performance with an obvious/hidden illusion in the middle.

“Watch This!” is slightly drier, but still reasonably interesting. It picks up a lot in the middle when it starts discussing “mirror neurons”, a theory that explains the effect of why sympathize with/project themselves into people or things in ways that don't make much sense. The heart of this is a psychological experiment built around a rubber hand, were people become (easily) convinced that the hand is their own and can feel pain.

The continued set of experiments on the subject hammer home the point: we project ourselves into all kinds of different things. I was reminded of a conversation I once had about video games that I'd played long enough they affected our perceptions. I started by saying that, after playing Dynasty Warriors long enough, I started looking for health bars above people I saw in the fog. Someone replied by saying that after playing fighting games for a while, they were startled by someone in a post office and immediately prepared to do a snap-kick. Another countered by saying that that was impossible, surely the only reaction would be for the muscle memory to have them press the buttons, right? And while the rebuttal was logical...it wasn't how I perceived games. And everyone who leans along with car chases in movies and games and television would have to agree – something more is going on. The “mirror neuron” theory doesn't exactly explain why this is, but it does get into the details of how it is, and it's quite compelling.

Yet even if the science doesn't convince with specificity and detail, the games/experiments combine with the narration to demonstrate that our perception is based on shortcuts and filling in the blanks. That may work for us most of the time, but it's also something that can fail or even be exploited. Brain Games does well to show that everyone struggles with perception and reality, and that everyone does, in fact, include you. Sorry.

Stray Observations:

  • Neil Patrick Harris is a perfectly fine narrator, but with all the discussion of illusions, I can't help but wish it were Will Arnett.
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