Tele­vi­sion Graeme Blun­dell tunes in to some brain food from Todd Samp­son

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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,

with­out

Dig

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

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