Dr. Michael Merzenich is close to the last person you’d expect to find on a reality show.
The neuroscientist has contributed to more than 225 publications, led one of the teams that developed the first commercial cochlear implants and spent nearly 40 years as a respected faculty member at UCSF.
But his passion for the concept of brain plasticity — the idea that the brain can rewire itself long after formative years are done — includes a willingness to be a bit of a proselytizer.
“People don’t understand it. They don’t realize that they’ve been given this great gift. That they could be better and stronger next month as compared to now,” Merzenich says. “It’s not just a downhill passage in life. You’re not stuck. It’s just so pessimistic and so far from the reality, because we’ve actually been constructed in a way that allows for continuous self-improvement.”
Merzenich will appear Friday night on “Hack My Brain,” a three-part documentary airing Friday on the Science Channel. The program follows Australian entrepreneur Todd Sampson as he conducts a number of experiments, tests and stunts (including a Houdini-style escape) in an attempt to quickly “better” himself, by making his mind a more efficient instrument. Merzenich acts as sort of a mentor in the first shows, an Obi-Wan to Sampson’s brainpower Luke Skywalker.
Merzenich had his concerns about doing the show for the Australian Broadcasting Co. but quickly learned that Sampson and his collaborators weren’t interested in fakery. While channels such as TLC and Bravo have embraced more scripted reality, most of Science Channel’s shows remain grounded in education.
“One thing I loved about these guys is that they were scientifically rigorous,” Merzenich says. “They were serious about doing this in an honest way. They continually reminded everybody that it wasn’t about exaggeration. It was about illustrating things that would really happen.”
Merzenich, 72, studied at University of Portland and Johns Hopkins before moving to UCSF in 1971. He was interested in the concept of brain plasticity early on, but few scientists believed in it.
“It was unpalatable,” Merzenich says. “The overwhelming view was that the human brain was plastic when you were a baby, and then it was like the computer on your desk.”
The 1970s research for cochlear implants, electronic devices that rebuild the sense of sound for deaf patients, included breakthroughs that gave much more credence to brain plasticity. Merzenich retired from UCSF in 2010 and is the chief scientific officer of San Francisco-based Posit Science, which runs the brain-training website Brain HQ. (Two of the brain-building exercises — the ones Sampson used on the show — are offered on the site for free.)
Much of Merzenich’s efforts now involve finding an audience that will listen to his findings, which are detailed in the 2013 book “Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.” In the book, he advocates short intensive personalized brain-training exercises to help young people with learning disabilities, the elderly and middle-aged go-getters who just want to keep their edge.
Sampson turned out to be a perfect partner. In the first hour of “Hack My Brain,” Sampson takes an idea from “Soft-Wired” a step further, and builds an actual gym for his brain training.
Sampson, who runs a successful advertising agency in Australia, says he’s been a Merzenich fan since his college years. San Francisco was used as a home base for the show.
“He is like a big kid that saw me both as a live science experiment and an adopted son,” Sampson wrote during an e-mail interview from Australia. “I have spent more time looking into his eyes (doing multiple takes) than I have in my wife’s. It’s fun being around a brainiac that doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
Sitting in his bright Posit Science conference room that overlooks a particularly cinematic street corner near Union Square, Merzenich frequently segues quickly from complex scientific discussion to dry and witty — occasionally sarcastic — asides. He trains his own brain on a daily basis, by frequently taking on new hobbies in his home a block from UC Medical Center and a country retreat near Santa Rosa.
Merzenich has three daughters in their 40s, and the Santa Rosa property includes several hundred grape vines. Family and friends make wine during a few festive weekends each year around this time, yielding about 800 bottles.
“Everyone has to take away their share, even if it’s horrible,” Merzenich says. “Generally, it’s pretty good.”
He is game for new adventures and says “Hack My Brain” turned out to be a pretty good one. He says Sampson is a good friend now, and he’s grateful that a new audience can understand the potential in their brains that is ready to be unlocked.
“It’s the reason why I would do something as loony as a scientist as participating in a reality show about transforming a person,” Merzenich jokes. “Why do we act the way we do? What are the bases of our powers and our limitations? … What’s more important than that, really? I submit nothing.”