Here’s the thing about Jason Silva, host of National Geographic Channel’s Brain Games: Off-camera, he’s exactly like you want him to be. (Disclaimer: I appeared on the unrelated Nat Geo series The 80’s: The Decade That Made Us. I also taped a short segment for Brain Games that I doubt will ever air.)
There’s a hyper-animated, almost comically enthusiastic persona that comes across on his show and online videos—where Silva first carved out his niche as the Web’s go-to distiller of Big Science. This is the kind of guy who, in the tradition of Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson; makes massive universe-spanning ideas about science understandable, relatable, and really exciting.
And it ain’t an act.
Sitting down for dinner or drinks, Silva almost explodes with excitement as he goes deeper and deeper into the philosophical weeds of neuroscience, sensory experience, artificial intelligence, and the very nature of what makes us human. He’s exceptionally tall, and his long, flailing arms frequently add emphasis to the ideas he’s most excited about. He peppers his sentences with attributions such “Ray Kurtzwell once said that..” or “What Leary called…”.
Seriously: Who talks like this?
“I have an insatiable curiosity about how consciousness works: How our reality is constructed by our brain using the limited signals we get from our senses,” Silva tells me. “Reality is a coproduction, we bring to our experience mental templates, expectations, and biases.”
This appears to be his obsession. The idea that the way we perceive the world: The colors, scents, sounds, touches that coalesce into our first-person experience are basically simulations rendered in real-time by our brain. The color red is a construct of our grey matter. When we “touch” an object, our atoms never actually connect. Music is just the way we interpret vibrations in the air.
“Reality is in the eye of the beholder in more ways than we imagine,” he says.
Unlike Silva’s Web videos—some of which have earned millions of views—Brain Games doesn’t spend too much time delving into The Singularity or similarly heady philosophical issues. Instead, the show takes this idea that our sense of reality is subjective and malleable, and unravels it into specific games, tricks, illusions, and challenges that leave viewers with the ah-hah realization that they aren’t quite as in control of their brains and bodies as they might have thought. Lean-in programming that encourages viewers to play along at home.
“I think people are naturally curious, and Brain Games has tapped into that curiosity,” Silva says. “Having your mind messed with can be fun. Brain Games is trippy. It unsettles your conventions of reality, and that’s a good thing.”
Silva isn’t a researcher himself. But as an ambassador for other people’s big ideas (and one that seems awfully careful to give credit to the minds he most admires), he’s the kind of person that may cause at least a few more kids to get into science. And I don’t think I’m alone in saying that that’s pretty awesome.