DVD: Redesign My Brain: Series 2, Universal Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, run time: 3 x 57 minutes
In 2013, advertising executive Todd Sampson set out on a quest to expand his brain by tapping into new brain plasticity research.
That three-part series explored how the human brain can be retrained and improved – to turbocharge cognition, thinking speed and memory, and to make it more creative, innovative and able to think laterally.
In the finale, Mind over Matter, he investigated how the brain can be retrained to overcome fear and operate better under stress. To prove the point, Sampson, a non-swimmer, was chained, handcuffed, blindfolded and thrown underwater.
Now he’s back in a second series, pushing the boundaries even further, but this time examining how the brain can be trained to adapt to changed conditions, to daily trials and those specific to modern life.
The results are remarkable, if sometimes alarming.
In the course of his research, Sampson was tested by scientists who determined he had an “extreme optimism bias”, that made him look at danger not as a risk to be avoided, but as a challenge.
That “optimism bias” led him to scale a 120-metre rock face in Utah's Moab Desert – blindfolded. For most of us, the “pessimism bias” would suggest how that would turn out. But Sampson’s journey shows that it is possible – for optimist and pessimist alike – to sharpen senses, enhance mental endurance and flexibility and learn how to manage pain.
He also shows it is possible to manage fear and reduce stress as he prepares for his final challenge – a tightrope walk on a three-centimetre wire, 21 stories above central Sydney.
Along the way, we meet some remarkable scientists and engineers, sports physiologists and neuroscientists who are experts in mental endurance, brain flexibility, problem solving and the calming benefits of meditation. And we meet Olympic table tennis players, experts at the game that offers the best visual processing speed training there is.
We also catch up again with Michael Merzenich, the professor emeritus in neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco, to whom Sampson turned in the first series.
Merzenich is one of world’s leading researchers into brain plasticity. He has been studying the brain’s remarkable ability to remake itself for nearly 50 years.
He has also done much to bring the science out of the lab and to the public. Merzenich has co-founded three therapeutic software companies that have developed neuroscience-based, computer-delivered rehabilitation training programs – they have now been applied to more than four million people with impairments of one kind or another.
The new series is a fascinating extension of the first. It is also inspiring, showing that with effort and training we can use our brain to its full potential.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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