Television Graeme Blundell tunes in to some brain food from Todd Sampson
he idea was to make an adventure science show and have strong adventure, which is entertaining, and strong science, which in some ways is educational and practical,” Todd Sampson says. You may recall that the popular star of The Gruen Transfer, a guy who can make the cerebral not only entertaining but sexy, returned to television with a top-shelf science show of his own two years ago, again wearing many of his now famous mind-altering T-shirts.
In Redesign My Brain he underwent a radical mind makeover in a series investigating the revolutionary new science of brain plasticity. Also known as neuroplasticity, or cortical remapping, it refers to the brain’s ability to adapt as a result of experience. The resolute Sampson discovered that his already rather large brain could in fact form fresh pathways by training it so that new unique patterns of neural cells could fire together and change his life.
The series followed him as he spent 12 weeks learning to train his brain to improve his cognition, his creativity and the connection between mind and body, and disprove, with some expert assistance, the age-old notion that as we age the brain’s networks become fixed.
Not without effort he mastered a range of skills that improved his mental speed, attention span, memory and creativity. He even endured his noggin being zapped with electrical current to help unlock the raw creativity in his right temporal lobe. It wasn’t easy, even for the accomplished Sampson, who pushed his format to within an inch of its life — and his own.
In the final episode the non-swimmer faced his greatest fear: being chained, handcuffed and blindfolded under water — with only his radically improved brain to help him escape. He nearly drowned but, helped by escape artist and modern-day Houdini, Alexanderia the Great, he was able to relax, control his fear and resist the impulse to draw breath underwater just long enough. It was great TV but I wasn’t sure I was ready for what Sampson put us through.
This season, directed by Jeff Siberry and produced by Paul Scott and Isabel Perez from Mindful Media as well as Sampson, who wrote the series, takes us even further into the world of adventure science, again pushing it to the extreme. “I’ve always been super attracted to the edges for some reasons,” Sampson says, a man who is not only chief executive of successful advertising agency Leo Burnett but has climbed Mount Everest unaided.
Again he takes a variety of invasive tests, this time undergoing more scientifically endorsed brain training to prepare for his ultimate challenge in the final episode: a high-wire walk between two skyscrapers in Sydney.
All I can tell you about this event, arguably the most challenging and certainly dangerous any TV presenter has attempted and almost impossible to watch, is that all does not go according to plan.
“Because I was writing the show as well I kind of felt I really needed to get myself in the scare zone, for real and not for fake, not the kind of extreme TV that’s just made up in post-production,” he says. “I need to prove the science to myself and to an audience by putting myself in an environment where I was genuinely at risk.”
So he’s on a crash course — and the expression is direly appropriate — to learn nine new mental skills using brain science.
To prove it’s possible, at the end of the first episode he risks his life by climbing blindfolded up a 120m rock-face in Utah’s Moab desert. To achieve the climb he needs to work on building mental endurance, flexibility, fluid intelligence — using logic and problem-solving to deal with unforeseen challenges — and pain management skills.
He’s also invasively tested, wired up and intimately photographed, and endures terrible physical privation, with numerous cameras locked in position to capture every detail. “That’s the thing about adventure shows — it’s only one go,” he says with his disarming charm.
He also discovers he scores scarily highly on something known as “optimum bias”. It’s the tendency of individuals to underestimate the likelihood they will experience adverse events, such as skin cancer or car accidents or dying while doing a TV science show.
As a consequence of this bias, some individuals may disregard precautions to curb these risks. They may not, for example, wear seatbelts or a safely harness when they try to walk across a thin wire between two buildings while filming the aforementioned TV science show.
In the series he’s usually haggard, gaunt and his eyes reveal the sleeplessness he endured during training. “I was beaten up and chucked around a lot too but I used the techniques that I was given — visualisation, habituation, virtual reality and meditation, everything that people taught me I took and ran with it.” His wife still hasn’t seen it. “When she does,” he says, “she’ll have a heart attack and I’ll never live it down.”
The rock climb is excruciating to watch, his crew hundreds of metres below. The frightening adventure is captured largely on GoPro action cameras worn on his clothing and helmet and that of his guide, Stephanie “Steph” Davis, the American BASE jumper, wingsuit flyer and one of the world’s leading female climbers. She treats her charge with, shall we say, cavalier abandon, as you will see.
Sampson has done us all a great favour by showing how we can retrain our tired brains through repetitious, challenging activity. He genially demonstrates most of us are mentally in decline, or “functionally fixed”; most of what we do in everyday life we have already mastered and we do it without thought.
“Without being Pollyanna,
being overly optimistic, my hope is exactly that — this is a series about hope, that we can all improve the brain we have, and we can all do more than we think,” he says. “It’s not self-help, it’s science. It’s not like saying, ‘Yes you too can walk on fire.’ It’s telling you there are techniques that exist right now in the world of brain plasticity that can help you achieve things in your life that you never thought possible.” Crime writers sometimes call it “the call to adventure” or “the inciting incident’’ when describing the moment that starts a story. It grabs our attention and is the reason we persevere with a narrative and its characters.
Dig has one of the great opening chapters. Persuasive, baffling, full of action and credible characters, it’s a big-budget adventure worth settling in for, if the hustling first episode is any indication of what will follow.
From Tim Kring, who created Heroes, and Gideon Raff, who gave us the Israeli Prisoners of War and its American version Homeland, Dig seems to be a delectable concoction of suspense and psychological drama, fantasy, and doomsday-clock-ticking-down thriller with touches of crime and espionage fiction tossed stylishly into the melting pot. (As an aside, it also has one of the clumsiest titles of recent times, rivalling perhaps Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s brilliant The Leftovers — set in the aftermath of a mysterious Rapture-like disappearance of 2 per cent of the world’s population.)
Set mainly in Jerusalem but spanning three continents, Dig follows American FBI agent Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs), who uncovers a far-reaching conspiracy while accidentally involved in the killing of a beautiful red-haired American archeologist called Emma (Alison Sudol). He does it while also tracking a highlevel fugitive from the US with local detective Golan Cohen (Ori Pfeffer) and occasionally sleeping with his boss Lynn (Anne Heche), as he deals with a death in his family that shattered his life and forced him to Israel.
“This isn’t your father’s TV show, this is a whole other kind of thing,” Kring said of Heroes. “We’re trying to do a roller-coaster ride so people always come away with new questions, even generated by our answers.”
The same is true here. Kring and Raff take the conventional triple plot of genre fiction, which deceives us while inconspicuously planting the clues that make a solution possible, and transform it into in a self-consciously aware, wonderfully artificial form of narrative.
Jason Isaacs plays FBI agent Peter Connelly in