A brainy TV show comes to the Franklin Institute

Camiel Warren-Taylor, 7, estimates the number of gum balls in the jar during recording of the National Geographic Channel's "Brain Games" at the Franklin Institute. The series examines neuroscience and everyday life. Scenes will be filmed at Independence Mall on Thursday. Story, B5.
Camiel Warren-Taylor, 7, estimates the number of gum balls in the jar during recording of the National Geographic Channel's "Brain Games" at the Franklin Institute. The series examines neuroscience and everyday life. Scenes will be filmed at Independence Mall on Thursday. Story, B5. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 24, 2014

The game started like the one everyone has played at least once: Guess how many jelly beans are in the jar, how many pennies in the canister. This time it was gum balls in a gum-ball machine at the Franklin Institute.

Twenty participants shouted out their guesses: 1,620! 337! 430! 100! All wrong. But when Aidan McCluskey, 10, from Philadelphia, used a bright yellow calculator to average the guesses, he found that, collectively, the group guessed only 22 less than the true number: 2,447.

This "wisdom of the crowd" effect is just one of many concepts examined by the National Geographic Channel's Brain Games show, which came to the Franklin Institute on Tuesday to film science games that will air in early 2015.

The brain "is responsible for everything," said Brain Games host Jason Silva. The show, now in its second season, explores neuroscience as it relates to everyday life, dissecting the science that drives how we experience hunger, fear, addiction, sleep, gum-ball estimating.

Executive producer Jerry Kolber didn't like science in high school; he said he wanted to create the science show he wished he'd seen in 11th grade. In 2011, Brain Games aired as a three-part special. When the series launched in 2013, it was the highest rated new show in National Geographic Channel's history, and it earned an Emmy nomination.

"We really touched a nerve here," said Kolber, who says viewers are drawn to the show because of its interactive, experiential nature. Every episode has at least one game in which volunteers - or, often, paid actors, like all those at the Philadelphia filming - can take part, along with viewers at home.

The gum-ball game demonstrates "crowd wisdom" as the 20 participants, their estimates averaged together, are able to guess nearly the correct number of gum balls. The more people who guess, the greater the chance the average of their guesses will be right. It turns out that "20 brains are better than one," Silva said.

Kolber and his best friend from college, Adam Davis, executive producer and head writer, pick each other's brains for ideas for future shows and read academic journals for inspiration.

Recently, Kolber was struck by epigenetics, a mechanism that allows environmental experiences to be passed from generation to generation, altering the way genes are expressed.

"If it blows our minds, we know it has to be on the show," Kolber said.

Kolber and the Brain Games writers develop games or experiments that reflect complex ideas, such as memory, and expose potential misconceptions that viewers might have about them. The games are tested for accuracy and tweaked in consultation with experts in the field.

On the show, Silva, who calls himself a "wonder junkie" like Carl Sagan, runs the games and enthusiastically explains the science behind them. He said he seeks to inspire the sense of "cognitive ecstasy" that comes with learning something new.

"We're peering into the mystery of the brain more than ever now," said Silva, who hopes viewers will learn more about what it is to be human through the show.

Shooting an episode of Brain Games at the Franklin Institute "makes perfect sense," said Larry Dubinski, the museum's president and chief executive. The institute's $10 million "Your Brain" exhibit, which opened last month, is the largest long-term exhibit about the brain in the country, he said.

The Brain Games team will be filming scenes and people at Independence Mall on Thursday afternoon, but no fun games are planned. This outing will just be for fun . . . scenes of the city.


Brain Games airs Mondays at 9pm ET/PT on National Geographic Channel.

RZamzow@phillynews.com

215-854-2587

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