Jason Silva Plays Games with Our Brains
By Kyle Anderson on April 22, 2013
Jason Silva spends a lot of his time thinking. More than that, he thinks about how we as people think and process the world around us. He parlayed his love of deep thought and his love of film into a series of visually-stunning, brain melting videos which present huge ideas in bite-size morsels that people can digest and mull over for the next several hours. One of these videos, “Radical Openness,” premiered at TEDGlobal in June of 2012, and since then he’s continued his streak of dazzling and thought-provoking forays into the brain and our relationship to technology. Premiering tonight at 9 pm (ET) on The National Geographic Channel, Silva hosts the new series Brain Games, which endeavors to explain, through fun tricks and experiments, how exactly that gray matter in our skulls functions and why. He was nice enough to talk to us about thinking, and it was a mind-expanding conversation.
NERDIST: You’ve been described as a “wonder junkie” by yourself and others; what does that mean to you?
JASON SILVA: I love that term. I first read it in Carl Sagan’s book, Contact. He coined the term “Wonder Junkie” to describe the Ellie Arroway character, to describe her insatiable curiosity, that existential itch that just won’t let go, particularly given that she’s a secular scientist, so she doesn’t get that existential comfort from religion or faith. In order to satiate that hunger, she looks to the stars. She wants aliens, she wants answers, she wants something, and I just think that I just kind of relate to that character as just obsession for meaning, for understanding, for hallucinatory revelation. I just feel like, to be in a state of wonder, to be in a state of awe, can in itself be the ultimate way of scratching that existential itch. I feel like it’s the antidote to banality. For me, “banality” equals depression; for me banality means to be unengaged with the world, to be unstimulated by it. I’m just addicted to stimulation, to engagement.
N: Do you think too few people have that itch, that yearning to wonder about the world?
JS: On the one hand, we like to explore and probe the perimeters for the possibility that we’ll go farther than we ever have before, but at the same time we like to nest and we like to get comfortable and we like to satiate our physical comforts, and I think the problem with a lot of people is, you kind of fall into these habits, these mental routines that are comfortable and safe, whether it’s the house, the car, the job. It’s like, “When I get this big screen TV and this cable package and that perfect couch and this video game thing, I can endlessly entertain myself into an almost stupefied state and I can stop being engaged with anything.” I have nothing against being comfortable. I like a nice hotel and a big screen TV as much as anybody else, but what I love best is actually when those things put me in a state of exaltation. I want to have a big screen TV and a nice hotel so I can get excited by it. I think the problem is, the more comfortable most people get, the less excited their own comforts make them.
N: Do you think technology has added to that, since we can learn things so quickly that the time between the desire for knowledge and the knowledge is shorter than it used to be?
JS: You know, I think it actually has to do with the wiring of the brain; I think it saves energy. If you show me something I’ve never seen before, like the rings around Saturn, the first twenty minutes is gonna blow my mind, it’s gonna capture my imagination, it’s gonna take 100% of my attention, and I’m gonna be completely immersed in the awe of those rings around Saturn. Until my brain has assimilated the reality of those rings, I’ve created a mental model in my head. My brain has categorized it, put labels on it, and that’s it. Now that I have the mental model, I no longer need to have those sensations and have all those feelings and have that fatigue on my head contemplating the rings of Saturn, because I have an evenly categorized image of my mental model stored, and I think that saves energy.
If our brain was continually and perpetually astonished, we could never get anything done, right? We couldn’t even cross the street; we’d get run over by a car. So, I think we pay attention to things at first to see if they’re A) a novelty, or B) a danger. If they’re a danger, we neutralize it; if they’re a novelty, we quickly categorize it and store it in a drawer and say “been there, done that, what’s next?” I think that’s just how the brain works; it’s on to the next thing.
There’s a great line by Charles Darwin; he said that “attention, if sudden and close, graduates into surprise, and this into astonishment, and this into stupefied amazement.” So, if we give all of our attention to any of the infinite amount of wonder that’s around us, we’d be in a state of stupefied amazement. As much as I love being in that state, I just don’t know how productive that is. So, for me it’s the constant battle between being productive, being efficient, getting things done and being in a state of awe and wondering and learning and contemplating. Without that regular hit of inspiration and awe, just being efficient and getting things done makes me feel like a robot. It’s an interesting battle, right? Because I don’t think we can have one without the other.
N: What inspired you to start making the videos you make?
JS: When I left Current TV and started doing these videos, they were a return to my most impassioned sensibilities. These things that I was most interested in were these big, beautiful ideas that captured my imagination but were often fleeting encounters. Maybe your love affairs with these ideas only lasted so many minutes. I was in a state of exaltation, of ecstasy, thinking of the power of ideas that can transform the world thinking about synthetic biology, thinking about the self-mirroring capacities of the brain and then thirty minutes later it was like, “okay, I’m hungry,” or “okay, I’m tired,” or “okay, I’ve got to send some emails,” and the moment is gone. So making these videos was a way to bottle my own fleeting inspiration and turn it into something tangible and taking my own mental ecstasy and turning it into a visual format that can be shared with others.
On the web, things that inspire really travel. People want to share things that inspire them because it’s a celebration of what we think matters the most. Having those things go viral led to Nat Geo saying, “We love your interest in the brain and consciousness; how about doing the Brain Games series for us and actually get into the nitty-gritty of how your perceptual apparatus works?” And I said, “That’d be great! A sort of how-to on the brain.”
N: What have you learned about the brain from doing Brain Games that you didn’t know or hadn’t thought about before?
JS: I’m a pretty heady guy, so I think it was very valuable for me to go back to basics. Here I am making these crazy videos about self-perception and the mirroring mind and how ideas can leap from brain to brain, but then at the same time I didn’t know that we don’t see the world in 3D. The 3D world is a construct of low-resolution, two-dimensional constructs that go into each of our eyes and then our brain has a stereoscopic effect that basically renders a 3D world into existence in real time for us. For example, so many of the things that we take for granted are basically a construct of the perceptual apparatus of the human brain, like movies. We’re actually seeing 24 frames per second, but through our brain’s perceptual apparatus, it appears that we’re seeing motion and once you perceive motion, you can go to the next level of the film which is to perceive story and perceive ideas and these deeper hierarchical levels of complexity from something that starts as a basic perceptual optical effect. So, that’s been really interesting to kind of go back-to-basics of the brain; (it) has been really useful for me.
N: The episode you did about fear was particularly interesting, talking about how, even though we’re these higher, sentient beings, we still have this base impulse that occurs when a demon pops up in front of us.
JS: Completely! The thing is, when you’ve inherited these brains that still have features that evolved from a world that was very different, it was biologically advantageous to be oriented towards anything that was moving in the bushes behind you could be a predator. We have overactive amygdales that are ready to sound off an alarm and switch to fight-or-flight at any given moment, and you might argue that any of us that have inherited those qualities in a very intense way are the most neurotic and the most strung-out among us in society, but we’ve inherited that for a reason. We walk around popping Xanaxes for these anxieties that really have no basis in objective reality. What I think is the most interesting is actually how we hack our own fight-or-flight responses for purposes of entertainment. Our brain has a meta-awareness of itself, so our brain knows how our brain works. Imagine that: a brain that can perceive itself to the point where it can do something about it. I know that I have a fight-or-flight mode, so I can create a horror film or a haunted house in which I can experience genuine adrenaline rushes from fight-or-flight responses, but on a meta level I know I’m fine. So, I’m gonna pay money to sit comfortably in a theater and be terrified, but at the same time know that I’m fine. We’ve turned something that was basically an alarm system for survival into entertainment. We’re subverting our own wiring for purposes of entertainment. I think that’s fascinating.
N: You went to film school. What are some of the films that inspire you?
JS: I love movies more than anything in the world. I think directors are like secular gods, and they lead us to places of ecstatic illumination. The ability of a movie to direct tension to direct awareness to certain specific places and to be able to so perfectly calibrate subjective experience is like the ultimate psychedelic journey. A film really does manifest the mind and take you places.
I’m a big fan of Danny Boyle as a director. Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, his new film Trance, which I can’t wait to see, his movie The Beach, which I loved growing up; I think he’s one of the most visceral directors. I love Cameron Crowe; I love the way he uses music. I’m a big fan of Vanilla Sky. A lot of people didn’t like that movie, but I think it had everything I love in a film: it was sci-fi, it was super romantic, it was obsessed with technologically-engineered immortality, it was thinking about dreams. I love Christopher Nolan; Speaking of dreams, Inception is one of my favorite movies. Basically, I love films that fall into the “False Reality” subgenre, so that would include David Fincher’s The Game, that would include The Truman Show, that would include The Matrix. I’m interested in those movies, probably, because I love all those meta levels. On the one hand, a film itself is a construct, a film itself is a false reality, so then when you’re watching a film in which the film itself is drawing into question whether the character’s reality is real or not, then you have a sort of dream-within-a-dream situation. The film is a dream and then the dream is asking whether it itself is a dream of the character or whether it itself is supposed to be a real reality, and I like those layers and I like that sort of fractured reality thing that occurs there because I find it really thrilling.