Q&A: Jason Silva, Host of Brain Games
Jason Silva is the host of National Geographic Channel’s hit series, Brain Games. We got a chance to talk to him about the show and ended up totally geeking out. Here’s what he had to say about our minds, the “rapture of the nerds,” and the future—and why we’re already there.
You’ve got a degree in philosophy and film, and you’ve worked for TV networks. That’s a diverse background, but it’s not psychology or neuroscience. What drew you to the science of the brain?
It sort of evolved because of my interest in dense philosophical ideas. When you engage with philosophy, you’re engaging your brain. When I left Current, I started to create short films on the web, and the short films explored the co-evolution of humans and technology, which is really the relationship between brains and technology. I believe technology is actually the embodiment of the mind out in the world ... I’m interested in how we use instruments to extend the boundaries of the mind.
There is a school of cognitive philosophers, Andy Clark and David Chalmers, and they wrote the “extended mind thesis.” They talked about the fact that the mind resides in the feedback loops between brains, tools, and environments. So the whole idea of "Where am I?" is up for grabs. When I talk to you over the telephone, where am I? Is my consciousness seeded in my brain? Yeah, to a degree. But it’s also electrified and traveling across space and time and being pumped into your brain.
Brain Games makes science accessible and fun to a wide audience. That’s obvious. But what else does the show do?
Brain Games, on one hand, is the ABCs of perception. It’s the ABCs of how your brain works. It’s pop science for the everyman. But, it has meat! So I’m the wild card here. We have a lot of ancillary content that we’re making on the web that’s meant to look a little bit more like my videos. It’s been a nice match.
What do you try to bring to the show?
I think people appreciate the insights of an outsider. Sometimes it’s the non-academics that give us the most interesting perspectives on scientific ideas. I try to impregnate it with a sense of wonder and curiosity … It’s practiced bewilderment. It’s just insatiable curiosity.
It’s that stasis of awe you talk about, right?
Exactly! Which is something I’m very interested in. The show has had such a dramatic success arc. It’s the most successful series in the history of National Geographic in terms of ratings. It’s been nominated for an Emmy, and now we’re doing 20 more episodes … Its success speaks to the fact that whatever formula we’ve come up with, it seems to be working.
You do lots of crazy experiments on the show. Which one blew your mind the most?
I remember when I first learned that our eyes can only process low resolution, two-dimensional images. We take that limited information, and our brain makes inferences and estimations about reality. It renders what we experience as a high-def, 3-D world out of that low-res 2-D perception. It’s amazing. All you see is low-res. The rest is just a matrix. It’s a construction of your brain. I love that.
So reality is not something your brain absorbs, but it’s something that your brain creates?
Yeah! It’s a wonderfully empowering idea. It means you can be an active co-participant, right? You can be a scripter. If you look at the man-made world, it’s all congealed by intent. It’s built by intention and agency. It’s part of the human mind. It’s mind etched as a topographical statement on the planet. When you look at New York City, you’re actually looking at the mind; you’re looking at brain! Sorry, I’m geeking out.
I remember you arguing that cities are like organisms.
They are! Geoffrey West at the Santa Fe Institute is known for his treatises on the fact that cities have metabolic rates. Cities, he says, are similar to biological creatures. It’s insane. But at the same time, how could you expect less? … It’s interesting how these patterns persist on different scales, from the nano to the galactic. There’s a grand continuity that connects the born and the made.
It’s like the singularity, the idea that man and machine are becoming one.
You know, the singularity is referred to as the rapture of the nerds. It’s the way technologists and secular people have found a way to fulfill their aspirations to transcend outside of religion. We’re literally using our creativity to overcome our biological limitations . . . We’re already living in a singularity, as far as I’m concerned.
You think we’re already there?
Yeah, but we’ll never be close enough. We’re so quick to assimilate with technology. But, you know, our ancestors would look at aircrafts, and they’d be pretty certain that we were gods. We have machines that can fly across oceans! We’re 100 percent gods as far as our ancestors are concerned. And they’d be right. We’re omniscient, in a way. The Internet gives us access to all knowledge and information. And, with technology, we transcend space and time because our minds can be all over the place. I can make a YouTube video seen by millions of people, and it’s like my mind has transcended my body. I’m using metaphors here, but you understand the idea. Most of us walk around and complain when the signal drops. And in the future, when we transcend even more of our biological origins, people will probably still be complaining about the signal dropping. It’ll never quite feel like a singularity.
With technology improving, is there anything you see coming that you’re really excited about?
I’m very excited about interplanetary exploration. When human beings go to Mars, it’ll be a game changer. Although, in a way, we’re already there. If technology is an extension of our mind, then the mind is already on Mars. We have a robot there. We have an extension of our neo-cortex exploring the surface of the planet already. That’s mankind’s signature, and it’s already there!
What about progress on planet Earth?
I’m excited particularly by the biotechnology revolution. I think we’re going see a revolution in healthcare. It’s going to be like what Information technology did in the last 30 years. I see a world where we’re going to be downloading new apps for our biology. We’re going to have apps that download genome into our bodies directly, just like how we download new IOS’s everyday. I think we’ll be able to reprogram our genes. We’ll arrest the aging process. I think notions of what is old are going to be transformed . . . Gene sequencing, you know, is progressing three times faster than exponential! The progress we’re making in this world is amazing. You see it everyday in the science headlines. Science is really the only news.
We at mental_floss love trivia, so let’s say you’re at a party and need to start a conversation. What’s your go-to fact?
How’s this one: There is more energy per second—per gram—flowing through the corridors of the chip in your computer than there is on the surface of the sun! Now, that’s concentrated energy that’s flowing through this particular space in a microchip. The engineering challenge of our smaller computers is to keep them from exploding.
That’s crazy. Although I don’t know if it’s a conversation starter or stopper.
Another one I like to tell people is that a study out of Stanford recently found that experiences of wonder and awe—experiences that force us to rethink what’s possible—are therapeutic. The momentary explosion of awe can leave you with residual feelings of altruism, well-being, and compassion. Basically, blowing your own mind makes you a nicer person.
We always knew amazing facts were good for you! People have called you a futurist, a walking-talking TED talk, a wonder junkie, a shot of "philosophical espresso." Which do you prefer?
I tend to tell people I'm a media artist, because it’s a nice umbrella term. Media artist, philosopher, and filmmaker are all nice generic terms. But I really like “Idea DJ.” I remix ideas and regroup them in a way DJs remix music samples. I’ve always been like a sapiosexual. I get turned on by ideas. I love to revel in big ideas. It’s an addiction in a way. I like the dopamine hit, I guess.
You’re a film and philosophy guy. Which ancient philosopher would make the best film director?
Wow. There’s a great line by Sophocles, he said, “Manifolds of wonder, and nothing towers more wondrous than man.” I always liked that line. It kind of puts man in a proper context. We are the most impressive species in the universe, and it might sound a bit narcissistic, but I think that’s how man should see himself. I’d like to see what Sophocles would come up with.
Watch Jason Silva on the season premiere of Brain Games Monday at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.