The Hollywood Medical Reporter – The Mind Behind “Brain Games”

This Emmy-nominated series tests the ultimate supercomputer – your brain. Back for its fifth season, Brain Games uses a host of interactive games, experiments and, yes, even magic tricks to expose and explain some of the most complex regions of the brain. We sat down with Executive Producer, Michael J. Kovnat, to discuss the truly mind-altering show.

BB: Can you share one thing you knew about the brain that made you want to work on this show, and one thing you’ve learned about the brain since you began work on it?

MK: I had heard that the brain is the most complex known structure in the universe – which had seemed hyperbolic. As I’ve dived into working on the show, I’ve come to appreciate what that means – and all the surprising ways our awareness arises from this three pound organ. As one example, our episode on color gets into how your subjective experience of red, green, etc. has to do with how your photoreceptors interact with other brain cells, and that system can be easily fooled and confused.

 BB: What can you tell us about the inception of Brain Games?

MK: The idea was to create a show that would invite the audience to play along with a series of perception experiments. Over time, that concept was refined by a number of very talented producers, writers, and executives.

BB: Can you share a bit about your background and how you eventually began working on this show?

MK: I’d been producing non-fiction television for about 20 years, and had developed a sub-specialty in science programming. When I was hired as a staff executive producer at Nat Geo Channel, Brain Games was already in its second season. It was the first project I lobbied to work on when I was hired.

BB: More than mindless entertainment, this show demands an interactive viewing experience. That being said, what is the ultimate goal you wish to achieve through people watching this show?

MK: We want to inspire viewers to get curious about how their brains work, and hopefully change their perceptions on everyday actions. We’re making the processes of the brain come to life through interactive experiments that will keep viewers guessing and wanting more.

BB: How do you go about choosing both the human subjects for the interactive experiments on the show, as well as the experts/guest(s)?

MK: The team reaches out to people in a variety of ways. Experts are usually sought out based on their published work in the subject area of an episode. Other participants are solicited online or approached on the street.

BB: Has the show changed and/or developed in any obvious or not-so-obvious ways over the seasons?

MK: The show has actually gone through many changes over the seasons. It premiered as unhosted, hour-long specials. Then it became half hours and Jason Silva was brought in as a host. The tone and style has shifted slightly season to season. And more changes are coming soon!

BB: Can you share any details with us about what viewers can expect to see in the rest of Season 5

MK: This summer, you’ll see new episodes covering topics such as scams, positive thinking, and the surprising differences and similarities between human and animal brains. We want to ask big questions, always seen through the lens of how the brain works.

BB: Is Brain Games meant for a particular audience or viewer, and has that changed at all over the seasons?

MK: The ideal viewer is really any curious person. We’ve found that people in just about every demographic have found something they love about Brain Games. Viewers play along and get interested in the “why” behind the “wow.”

The following questions refer to episodes featuring Magician, Eric LeClerc:

BB: How would  you compare the two worlds of science and magic?

MK: Magic, done honestly, can provide an excellent guide to gaps in human attention. These tricks show how easily the brain can be fooled. Many magicians, like scientists, are first-rate skeptics.

BB: What is your favorite magic-trick?

MK: Any trick where my mind appears to have been read. Gets me every time.

BB: How do you decide what insights about the brain as well as the corresponding magic-tricks and interactive brainteasers to feature on a given episode? Does one typically come before the other? How much collaboration is required and does that collaboration ever involve outside consultation?

MK: Typically, we start with a show topic or theme. Then we work with magicians to come up with related illusions.

BB: How do you find ways to distill all the complex scientific insights you discuss on the show into viewer-friendly material that is not simply related in understandable terms, but can resonate as well? How, if any, do the “magical” aspects employed play a role in this?

MK: Just as a good magician never reveals his or her tricks, I don’t want to give away all our secrets. But when we use illusions in the show, they function as a fun way to call attention to the gap between what you expect and what’s really happening. That can be an entertaining way into a complex scientific idea.

BB: In that same vein, how do you balance the incredibly complex element of science with the goal of entertainment? Does one ever get in the way of the other?

MK: This is really an entertainment-driven show. The science comes along for the ride, but if we can’t entertain, viewers won’t watch.

Image via Linda Bucklin / Shutterstock.

Daliah Leslie

Daliah Leslie is a professional writer, media and brand strategist, specializing in the film and television industry. Before moving to Los Angeles, Daliah worked in project development for Oscar winners Michael Lynne and Bob Shaye at Unique Features. Her interdisciplinary background includes collaborating with Pulitzer Prize winning author, Joseph J. Ellis (on a screen treatment for his award-winning book) and has shared her know-how on initiatives such as The Fox Writers Intensive and various other screenwriting competitions and festivals. Daliah's work on an innovative, original TV medical pilot is what led her to meet Brain Blogger founder, Dr. Shaheen Lakhan and begin their many collaborative endeavors. She now lends her expansive knowledge of the art and business of the film and television industry as a freelance journalist and has come to be known as "The Hollywood Medical Reporter," for her precision and passion for ethically accurate entertainment.
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