September 18, 2014
Mother Nature Network
Gerri Miller

With the help of a human guinea pig, ‘Hack My Brain’ delves into the most complicated human organ.

Like an athlete preparing for a triathlon, Australian TV host Todd Sampson spent three months in intensive training mode for his latest assignment: improving his brain. Meeting with experts in neuroscience research, he was measured and tested repeatedly, given brain-training homework, and tested again. The startling results unfold in the three-part special “Hack My Brain,” which has its U.S. premiere on Sept. 19 on the Science Channel.

The winner of the ACCTA Award for Best TV Documentary in Australia (and a TV hit around the globe), “Hack My Brain” explores the science of brain plasticity, which is the premise that anyone at any age can become smarter, can improve their memory and can even reverse mental aging with proper training.

Sampson, an adventurer and entrepreneur with degrees in biology, economics and an MBA who has climbed Mount Everest, was eager to play guinea pig. The show follows Sampson, the Canadian-born CEO of communications company Leo Burnett Australia, as he travels the world, learning to improve his brain’s attention, thinking speed, memory, creativity and innovation. In the final hour, Sampson’s “body intelligence” is assessed, and he learns to use biofeedback techniques to control his emotional and physical responses to complete a daunting final task: an underwater escape while shackled, chained and blindfolded.

He shared some of the highlights of his experience with MNN.

MNN: What was it like to participate in this brain makeover?
Todd Sampson: I am a self-confessed science nerd and studied the brain at university, but there is a big difference between theory and practice. For this series, I was the host and “lab rat” and basically handed my brain over to the best scientists in the world and said have a look. It was like being naked from the shoulders up. Pre-training, I spent nearly seven hours in an fMRI and MEG machine establishing my baseline scores. I felt as though I was trapped in a mechanical cave with dozens of tests flashed quickly across my eyes. I then had to redo all these tests nearly three months later. The post-training scores stunned me. I nearly doubled my thinking speed and dramatically improved my memory. I even competed in the World Memory Championships in London. I memorized a deck of 52 cards in under 10 minutes and could recall them forward and two hours later the entire deck backwards. Prior to training, I couldn’t even memorize six cards.

Why is juggling so good for the brain? How difficult was it to learn?
Juggling is great for the brain because it is a complex multi-object tracking brain activity that anyone can do. It focuses your mind, increases your brain speed, sharpens your vision and tests your sense of balance. For added fun, try juggling on one foot, then with your eyes closed. It’s great fitness for the brain.

What other tests or tasks were most difficult?
I have now discovered that I have a problem with “impulse control” — I share that characteristic with serial killers and drug addicts. So all the games that required me to control my impulses were hard and I tried to avoid them. Of course, once Dr. Michael Merzenich discovered this the amount of impulse games seemed to dramatically increase. He monitored and adapted the training so that I stayed at the edge of my mental capability. (Merzenich is a pioneer in brain plasticity research and author of “Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.” He is the scientific consultant for the show.)

Todd Sampson prepares for an underwater escape on Hack My BrainWhat were most surprising things you learned from the experience?
When I was attempting to do the underwater Houdini escape without knowing how to swim, I reached the edge of what I thought was possible. The first real attempt I nearly drowned and had to be emergency rescued from the bottom of the three-meter pool. That did make me think twice about what I was doing. But I really wanted to do this documentary because I thought it had meaning — it could help others. I found it strange that this brain science revolution was happening right below our eyes and most people knew nothing about it. Brain plasticity will eventually affect everyone, and we all deserve to know more about it.

Is it necessary to keep doing exercises if you want to keep your sharpness level up? Will it fall if you don’t?
Brain training is like physical training: you must do it regularly — not at the intensity I had to do it at during the filming, but regularly.

What simple suggestions do you have for people who want to improve their brains?
There are a lot of things you can do that don’t involve technology. For example, all the scientists agreed that 25 minutes of brisk walking a day (if you can add strategy, like memorizing locations or license plates) is excellent for your brain. I also recommend finding ways to incorporate it into everyday life. Try and remember all the names of the people at the next dinner party. Stop using your phone as a surrogate brain and memorize some of the numbers yourself, and the next time you need to do a calculation do it in your head

What did you take away from the experience, and what will the audience?
Everyone, regardless of your station in life, has the ability to improve his or her brain. That is very empowering and it can change lives. This is not self-help, positive psychology or fire walking related — it’s science and that’s really exciting. And what’s even more mind-blowing is that we are still only at the foothills of our understanding.

What can brain training do to help reverse or prevent disorders such as dementia? Which things have been proven most helpful?
I am really excited by the work happening around dementia and Alzheimer’s. While there is no cure at the moment, what we do know is that through training and good health, you can build up a “cognitive reserve,” which will allow you to push the symptoms out to much later in your life. This will become increasing important considering that one third of all children born today will live to over 100 years of age. The brain is the most adaptable and complex matter in the universe. We will eventually find a cure.