‘Brain Games’ returns in February with new look, new length

Three painted models walk through a Colorado ghost town in "Brain Games." | NG Studios/Lee Johnson

Emmy-nominated “Brain Games” returns to National Geographic Channel on Valentine’s Day and this time, there’s even more of it to love.

The series that explores the science behind how we think returns to its roots for its fifth season, when episodes will go back to being an hour long instead of the more recent 30-minute installments.

“I’m excited because we have more time per episode, which means more time per theme,” host Jason Silva said. “It’s like going from 2D to 3D, or standard def to high def. We’ve giving people a more immersive experience.”

The show also hit the road this season, filming episodes farther afield in Israel and England, where I had the chance to visit the set while the team was shooting the season premiere last summer.

The London episode includes an experiment in the shadow of Tower Bridge, where people off the street were asked to react to two stimuli: the sound of a horn and the sight of Silva waving a Union Jack flag. The game was designed to see what part of the brain responds faster, the visual or auditory cortex. (No spoilers. You’ll have to see for yourself.)

"Brain Games" host Jason Silva tests a woman's reflexes in London in the season premiere. | Lori Rackl

“Brain Games” host Jason Silva tests a woman’s reaction time in London for the season premiere. | Lori Rackl

“Brain Games” also headed south to Kent for a visit at 13th century Hever Castle, a childhood home of Anne Boleyn. That segment involved a race through a hedge maze to illustrate how memory works.

READ MORE: Get lost at Hever Castle, an entertaining side trip from London

Back in the States, Silva and his team shot installments in Colorado Springs, New Orleans, New York City and the Jersey Shore.

New executive producer and showrunner Geoffrey Sharp made some tweaks to the series with the aim of broadening the audience.

“The show has been super successful, especially with younger people,” Sharp said. “National Geographic wanted to get the parents back in the room watching the show, too, so we designed it to be a little more of a grown-up version. [Hence a segment on lust, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, in the New Orleans episode.]

“It feels a little less produced than it used to, a little more verite,” Sharp added. “The show still has games and there’s still that interactive quality that people like. But Jason is much less of a host and a lot more immersed in the games. There’s more of a feeling that Jason is on a journey to discover something.”

Here’s a look at what — and where — Jason’s discoveries will take viewers in the half-dozen new episodes, airing at 8 p.m. (Central) Sundays, starting Feb. 14. Episode descriptions come from National Geographic Channel:

“Meet the Brain”

Feb. 14

You probably think you’ve got one mind that makes you, you. But our brains are home to many distinct structures, regions and neighborhoods in constant conference with each other that guide our behavior. Join host Jason Silva on an unforgettable tour through London, England, where groundbreaking scientists team with taxi drivers, pub waitresses and musicians to illustrate how all this incredible wetware works together. This episode explores the Hever Castle with Dr. Rebecca Knight of the University of Hertfordshire and a memory game, and a paint-by-numbers exercise at Butler’s Wharf with the University of Oxford’s Dr. Steven Hicks and inversion eyewear. Get ready to meet your brain. It will engage you, amaze you and help you understand yourself like never before. After all, it’s the one physical system on earth capable of looking at itself.

“The God Brain”

Feb. 21

Host Jason Silva travels to Jerusalem, Israel, to explore “The God Brain.” Fascinating new research has uncovered the possibility that believing in God may be hardwired in our brains. Is this because a divine power greater than us installed this software? Or is it possible that the believing part of the brain has evolved over thousands of years as an evolutionary adaptation that helps us succeed as a species? Physician and neuroscientist Andrew Newberg of Jefferson University Hospital has spent decades exploring the neurophysiology of religious and spiritual practice. Dr. Trevor Cox from the University of Salford, an expert on sound perception, explains how you respond to different musical keys and music played in churches. Dr. Jennifer Whitson of UCLA focuses on the psychological experience of control and sheds light on how to make sense of the environment and inexplicable events. Dr. Bruce Hood, an experimental psychologist at the University of Bristol, will demonstrate that even the most nonbelieving brain can have unconscious biases, which are fundamental characteristics for supernatural thinking. Also, award-winning science journalist Cara Santa Maria runs an experiment that puts morals to the test. Explore the nature of believing and why this deep-rooted instinct is found across every civilization and culture.

Silva marvels at the Dead Sea in Israel. | NG Studios/Andy Fram

Silva marvels at the Dead Sea in Israel. | NG Studios/Andy Fram

“The Survivor Brain”

Feb. 28

In this episode, host Jason Silva meets several people in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who personify the word “survivor,” and puts their brains to the test in a battery of challenges engineered to demonstrate what it takes to be a super survivor. The group gathers to deconstruct the brain science behind human survival: how we evolve to survive and what role our ancient instincts play today in keeping us alive … or getting in the way. Neuroscientist Dr. Bart Russell from Lockheed Martin tests one group’s cognitive performance under stress. Dr. John Huth of Harvard University, who wrote a book on how to find our way when we are lost, tests the brain’s ability to remember details. Dr. Alex Jordan of the University of Texas puts the survivors to the ultimate test, but they’ll have to accept that the key to surviving may be a collective effort. We learn common characteristics of survivors — whether hardy or fragile — and discover what can be done to tap into the brain’s built-in survival instinct.

“Brains Behaving Badly”

March 6

Host Jason Silva visits New Orleans, Louisiana, to explore the brain and bad behavior. A series of games and experiments demonstrate how the brain has an evolutionary predilection toward doing the wrong thing. Dr. Piers Steele from the University of Calgary shows how sloth affects the brain. Dr. Carrie Wieland from Tulane University puts the evolutionary origins of envy to the test. From guilty pleasures to vicious vices, you’ll learn why we’re drawn to behaviors that ruin us, how to fight back against enticing evils and why some negative emotions are actually critical for survival. Behavioral expert Dr. Alex Cohen of Louisiana University shows us how the brain can switch to anger even when it should be perfectly happy. Magician Jamy Ian Swiss tricks a group of gamblers into being greedy, and Dr. Abigail Baird, associate professor of psychology at Vassar College, explores lust and what drives the brain wild. Get ready to be bad.

A Mardi Gras-style parade featuring the Kinfolk Band on "Brain Games." |NG Studios/Chris Van Cleef

A Mardi Gras-style parade featuring the Kinfolk Band on “Brain Games.” |NG Studios/Chris Van Cleef

“Life of the Brain”

March 13

Everyone’s brain changes throughout life, expanding and contracting, shifting points of views, adjusting perspectives — you wake up every day with a brand new brain. Host Jason Silva heads to the New Jersey Shore to show how the mind’s point of view shifts over a lifetimeDr. April Benasich at Rutgers University conducts a brain game designed for babies against an adult, and the results are surprising. Dr. Abigail Baird of Vassar College hits the boardwalk to examine the “tween” brain, while Dr. Jason Chein of Temple University shows how risk-taking behaviors vary between teenagers and adults. If you learn something about the life of the brain, you may find you have a renewed patience for those at a different stop on the brain’s journey. Associate Professor Cindy Lustig from the University of Michigan tests how the changing brain affects our cognitive recognition and tracking. Get ready to see where your brain started as a baby, how it evolves through tween-hood and adolescence and where it is going as an adult and into old age. Who knows, with new technological innovations in neuroscience, one day your brain might live forever.

“Super Senses”

March 20

There’s no better place than New York City to mess with your mind. Host Jason Silva leads viewers through a series of games and experiments designed to show that the brain has far more than just five senses, and how each of these work together to influence interactions with the world. Is mind reading just a footnote in science fiction? With the help of an unsuspecting crowd in Times Square, mentalist Marc Salem — in an interactive mind-bending illusion — will try to convince us that it’s not. Dr. Andy Murray from Columbia University will test the neural networks that control motor skills as participants try to ride a bike with one gear. Dr. Allison Okamura of the University of California proves that cognitive perception can affect the way we accept what our motor senses actually feel. Get ready to have some super-sense knocked into you.

If this video of Silva doesn’t get you pumped up about the next season, nothing will. Check it out:

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