October 3, 2013
Sydney Morning Herald
Giles Hardie

Todd Sampson is a changed man. The advertising boss and star of the Gruen series and The Project has had a brain makeover.

To get it, he was burnt, shocked and almost killed, all while the cameras rolled, but instead of looking back at the experience with horror, he speaks with the zealous conviction of the newly converted.

”It has changed my life in many ways,” Sampson says of Redesign My Brain, the three-part series in which he volunteered himself as a lab rat to test the new science of brain plasticity.

”Science has told us for 70 years that you are born with the brain you have and you follow a natural mental decline through life. This revolution, real plasticity, has proven that is absolutely false.

”It’s down to training. It’s not self-help. There’s no fire walking or chanting or excessive hugging. It’s practical science.

”We’ve had particle physics, we’ve had the human genome project and now we’re in brain plasticity. It has the capacity to change us medically. Obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar, dementia – all of these things, we can correct them in a good direction.”

Sampson sounds like the character in a comic-book movie that we suspect will be a half-man, half-lizard terrorising the city within the hour, so it’s fitting the series turned to a real-world fantastical character – Houdini – to devise a test to see whether they could train his brain.

At the end of the series, they lock Sampson in 40 kilograms of chain and throw him to the bottom of a diving pool, blindfolded.

”The idea came from the scientists,” explains Sampson.

”They are evil geniuses. They wanted some challenge that would incorporate everything. Houdini was the master of controlling his mind and body. The hitch was – which they didn’t know until I signed on – I can’t swim.”

Yet when he almost drowned, Sampson didn’t blame the production, or a Canadian upbringing that focused more on mountaineering than doggy paddle.

”I blame it on Celebrity Splash,” he said. ”Two weeks out from the event, I went to do my first time in a three-metre pool. The only pool I could do it in was the one where they did Celebrity Splash.

”I jump in and I hit the bottom, but I didn’t land well. I tried to get my hands free and I realised I couldn’t. I remember thinking to myself: ‘This is a problem.’ If I can’t free my hands, I can’t free anything and I can’t surface because I’ve got 40 kilos of chains on. What am I going to do? I thought: ‘OK, I’m not going to die this way.’ I’m probably underwater for two minutes and then I remember feeling someone coming up from underneath me.

”I pop up and I spit out the water and I’m hanging on the edge of the pool. I look to my left and there’s Peter [from the Australian Institute of Sport] who dived in to rescue me. And I look to my right and the mouths of the safety regulators with their clipboards was an image I will never forget.

”I just started laughing. They had to saw off the locks because they had frozen and we realised we had an issue with locks. Then I put the things back on and jumped back in, because I was too scared to not do it again. They tried to get the CCTV [footage], but I’m sort of glad they didn’t because it freaked everyone out.”

The show gave Sampson highs to match the lows, however, particularly one stimulating training method.

”It’s called TMS: Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. They basically hook these wires up to my head and they zapped my brain to inhibit the left side of my brain and encourage the right side, the more creative side. It was amazing.

”I suddenly got all sorts of weird sensations. My visual colour sensation was enhanced enormously. It was very trippy.

”I kept [saying]: ‘This is legal, scientific drugs I’m using here’.

”I don’t know how much of that got in.”

In addition to lock-picking and tripping, Sampson also had to take up juggling. ”It’s a very good way for people to warm up before presentations or big events. You’re using an incredible amount of brain power to juggle.”

A complete novice but an experienced creative, he insisted he learn how to juggle fire.

Sampson trained himself in the backyard with his children Coco and Jet. ”My daughter’s a little bit crazy as well, so she was right into it,” he says. ”I burnt myself so many times.”

He found a juggling partner at work. ”I juggle before every Gruen recording. Russell [Howcroft] is so competitive that, whenever I juggle, he grabs the balls and he has to figure it out himself. He’s getting quite good at it.”

On top of the crazy stunts, there were plenty of brain scans. One of them threw Sampson a curve ball.

”Michael Merzenich, who is arguably the founder of brain plasticity … said: ‘Todd I need to talk to you about the findings. You may or may not know this, but you have issues with impulse control. You have a pretty extreme version of this and you share that trait with serial killers and drug addicts.”’

Sampson responded in trademark fashion. ”That spurred me for a series two.”