National Geographic Channel
National Geographic Channel

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

National Geographic Channel
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.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Star Trek Theme Song Has Lyrics
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Star Trek theme song is familiar to pretty much anyone who lived in the free world (and probably elsewhere, too) in the late 20th century. The tune is played during the show's opening credits; a slightly longer version is played, accompanied by stills from various episodes, during the closing credits. The opening song is preceded by William Shatner (as Captain Kirk) doing his now-legendary monologue recitation, which begins: "Space, the final frontier ..."

The show's familiar melody was written by respected film and TV composer Alexander Courage, who said the Star Trek theme's main inspiration was the Richard Whiting song "Beyond the Blue Horizon." In Courage's contract it was stipulated that, as the composer, he would receive royalties every time the show was aired and the theme song played. If, somehow, Star Trek made it into syndication—which, of course, it ultimately did—Courage stood to make a lot of money. And so did the person who wrote the lyrics.


Gene Roddenberry, the show's creator, wrote lyrics to the theme song.

"Beyond the rim of the star-light,
my love is wand'ring in star-flight!"

Why would Roddenberry even bother?

The lyrics were never even meant to be heard on the show, but not because the network (NBC) nixed them. Roddenberry nixed them himself. Roddenberry wanted a piece of the composing profits, so he wrote the hokey lyrics solely to receive a "co-writer" credit.

"I know he'll find in star-clustered reaches
Love, strange love a star woman teaches."

As one of the composers, Roddenberry received 50 percent of the royalties ... cutting Alexander Courage's share in half. Not surprisingly, Courage was furious about the deal. Though it was legal, he admitted, it was unethical because Roddenberry had contributed nothing to why the music was successful.

Roddenberry was unapologetic. According to Snopes, he once declared, "I have to get some money somewhere. I'm sure not gonna get it out of the profits of Star Trek."

In 1969, after Star Trek officially got the ax, no one (Courage and Roddenberry included) could possibly have imagined the show's great popularity and staying power.

Courage, who only worked on two shows in Star Trek's opening season because he was busy working on the 1967 Dr. Doolittle movie, vowed he would never return to Star Trek.

He never did.


If you're looking for an offbeat karaoke number, here are Roddenberry's lyrics, as provided by Snopes:

The rim of the star-light
My love
Is wand'ring in star-flight
I know
He'll find in star-clustered reaches
Strange love a star woman teaches.
I know
His journey ends never
His star trek
Will go on forever.
But tell him
While he wanders his starry sea
Remember, remember me.

Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC

At its best, San Diego Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.


In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.


Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’s Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."


John Sciulli/Getty Images for Xbox

Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”


The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of 2016 and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Just a few months later, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.


Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.


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