The incredibly ambitious goal of the addictive Brain Games

“We’re creating a televised encyclopedia of the human brain.”

That’s the ambitious goal of an incredibly addictive series returning tonight on National Geographic: Brain Games.

The 20 new episodes follow a first season that became the network’s highest-rated new series ever. Its success has led the network to create a somewhat similar show, Duck Echoes Don’t Quack, on which Michael Ian Black, Tom Papa, and Seth Herzog test hypothesis, like whether or not it’s possible to eat six saltine crackers in a minute (it is not, because I tried at a National Geographic press conference for the show, and it is really weird and disturbing–try it, you’ll see).

The man whose goal it is to create that encyclopedia is executive producer Jerry Kolber, a producer perhaps previously best known for producing Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. “What we’re really creating here now isn’t just a cool opportunity to learn about your brain. We’ve really taken on this idea that we’re creating a televised encyclopedia of the human brain, done in a way that’s completely interactive that pulls you in,” he told me a few days ago. Kolber said that, whenever the series may end, “whether it’s 35, 55, 100 episodes, if you watch Brain Games consistently, you will have such a more profound understanding of how your brain works–how you behave, how other people behave.”

That’s already happening. It’s both visual and interactive, and also ridiculously engrossing–for me, that’s because of the interactivity, which disguises the learning. The games, like the one below, let us demonstrate these principles while we’re watching. Up this season: trust, risk, addiction, and attraction, among other subjects.

Kolber and producers “absolutely, we were surprised at how big the appeal was,” especially because “adults of every age watch this show with kids.” This season, because “we just heard over and over that people just love the games,” he promises “bigger games, better games, games that you’ve never seen before,” and says the show “really got a lot bigger and bolder.”

He says “forget the ratings, forget the Emmy nomination”–he’s just glad that the show can perhaps reach kids who are passionate about the subject but not stimulated by their classes. “I always thought, wouldn’t it be great to come up with a new way to teach science and make it entertaining? Brain Games is, in some ways, the show that someone had made for me when I was in junior high or high school,” Kolber said.

Jason Silva, the show’s host, is familiar with guiding people through complex or mind-bending ideas in an visually stimulating environment; just watch his Shots of Awe videos, such as the one that went viral, Existential Bummer.

“My greatest hope is that always people would enjoy that content that is smart and cool. There’s been a trend of stupefying audiences with dumb reality content … there was a fear that, ‘Can smart ever really be big?'” But he says that, besides things such as TED Talks, the success of Brain Games shows “there’s an audience that wants knowledge, that wants ideas, that wants to learn, so to be able to deliver that in a package that was entertaining and kids love, but their parents love it too.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.