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.