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National Geographic Channel

Brain Games Asks: Are You Smarter Than a London Cabbie?

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National Geographic Channel

Brain Games, National Geographic Channel’s hit series which seeks to answer some of the most fascinating questions regarding one of our most perplexing organs, made a triumphant return last night. For its fifth season premiere, host Jason Silva took the show on the road to London, where participants helped to demonstrate a variety of functions related to the brain, including how to control one’s startle response and the importance the hippocampus plays in memory.

For the latter experiment, mental_floss was on the set at Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn in Kent, where three individuals—a 10-year-old puzzle enthusiast, a Ph.D. math student, and a longtime London taxi driver—were tasked with running through a 100-year-old Yew Maze, following the exact path mapped out by the show, without making a mistake.

In the end, it was the cabbie, Mark, who emerged victorious. Which was hardly surprising to Dr. Rebecca Knight, who studies memory at the University of Hertfordshire, and was on hand to oversee the maze run.

“If you’re trying to remember what you did last weekend or how you celebrated your last birthday, [those memories] will always have two components to them,” Knight explained. “One is a time component and one is a spatial component. And that memory requires a part of the brain called the hippocampus.”

The hippocampus, which Silva described as the place “where your brain processes memory,” is of particular importance to London taxi drivers. “In order to become a London cabbie, you need to pass a test called The Knowledge, which would require a cabbie to memorize the location of over 25,000 streets [and landmarks] in London,” Knight said. “So they’re excellent navigators.”

Officially known as the Knowledge of London Examination System, the world’s toughest geography test requires years of study and often takes as many as a dozen attempts to pass. (Even then, only about 50 percent of people actually pass it.) It’s a long and difficult process, but one that has piqued the interest of neuroscientists.

In 2000, researchers at the University of London determined that studying for The Knowledge caused the cab drivers’ gray matter to enlarge in order to store a full map of the city. “There seems to be a definite relationship between the navigating they do as a taxi driver and the brain changes,” lead researcher Dr. Eleanor Maguire told the BBC. “The hippocampus has changed its structure to accommodate their huge amount of navigating experience.”

Maguire continued to study the link between navigating London’s labyrinthine streets and brain structure over the next decade. In 2011, she and Dr. Katherine Woollett published a study in Current Biology, which suggested that learning, even in later life, can alter one’s brain structure.

“By following [79] trainee taxi drivers over time as they acquired—or failed to acquire—The Knowledge, a uniquely challenging spatial memory task, we have seen directly and within individuals how the structure of the hippocampus can change with external stimulation,” Maguire said. “This offers encouragement for adults who want to learn new skills later in life. What is not clear is whether those trainees who became fully-fledged taxi drivers had some biological advantage over those who failed. Could it be, for example, that they have a genetic predisposition towards having a more adaptable, ‘plastic’ brain? In other words, the perennial question of 'nature versus nurture' is still open.”

One only hopes that Maguire and her colleagues have time to determine that. In late 2015, the Greater London Authority Conservatives suggested that The Knowledge be done away with altogether, calling the test "archaic" in the age of GPS. In response, a representative for London’s black-cab drivers said that they were “stunned and shocked” by the suggestion.

"I drive a London taxi,” Brian Nayar, a cabbie and Knowledge instructor, told NPR. “But I'm also an ambassador for this great city that we work and live in, and you can't get that from a GPS."

Brain Games airs on National Geographic Channel on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT.

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Shout! Factory
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entertainment
The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day Marathon Is Back
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Shout! Factory

For many fans, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is as beloved a Thanksgiving tradition as mashed potatoes and gravy (except funnier). It seems appropriate, given that the show celebrates the turkeys of the movie world. And that it made its debut on Thanksgiving Day in 1988 (on KTMA, a local station in Minneapolis). In 1991, to celebrate its third anniversary, Comedy Central hosted a Thanksgiving Day marathon of the series—and in the more than 25 years since, that tradition has continued.

Beginning at 12 p.m. ET on Thursday, Shout! Factory will host yet another Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day marathon, hosted by series creator Joel Hodgson and stars Jonah Ray and Felicia Day. Taking place online at ShoutFactoryTV.com, or via the Shout! Factory TV app on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire and select smart TVs, the trio will share six classic MST3K episodes that have never been screened as part of a Shout! Factory Turkey Day Marathon. Here’s hoping your favorite episode makes it (cough, Hobgoblins, cough.)

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CableTV.com
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Pop Culture
America's Favorite Reality Shows, By State
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CableTV.com

From aspiring crooners to housewives looking to settle scores, there are plenty of reality shows out there for every interest. But which ones are currently the most popular? To answer this question, CableTV.com mined Google Trends data to measure the most-watched “real-life” programs in each state. They broke their findings down in the map below.

The results: Residents of sunny California and Arizona are still Keeping Up With the Kardashians, while Texans love Little Women: Dallas. Louisianans can’t get enough of Duck Dynasty and in Utah, viewers are tuning in to Sister Wives.

See which other shows made the cut below, and afterwards, check out CableTV.com’s deep data dive from 2016 to see how our viewing preferences have changed over a year.

A map breaking down each state's favorite reality show, created by the CableTV.com team.
CableTV.com

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