"Brain Games," the Emmy-nominated Nat Geo show that returns for its second season tonight (Mon. Jan. 13 at 9:00 p.m.) promises more blow-your-mind revelations courtesy of host Jason Silva. Just as you'd expect from enthusiastic "wonder junkie" Silva, this is a TV series that is both smart and great fun (hey, Emmy nomination, people), and the second season explores a new array of topics on how we see, process and think about the world around us - with episodes devoted to attraction, trust, competition, colors, stress and more. Really, everything you need to know? "Brain Games." Okay, everything that's fun to know, at least. Watch this clip from the premiere to get a sense of it.
I got a chance to hang out with the self-proclaimed "wonder junkie" during filming of the show in the Las Vegas desert. Amazingly, Silva is able to deliver long passages of complex ideas with an enthusiasm that's nothing short of infectious (see below if you don't believe me) with a camera running (and for take after take) and keep going until late evening when lesser mortals (like me) had started to droop. Over a group dinner, I discovered that, even after a few drinks, Silva is still smarter than everyone else in the room. He riffed on everything from film (he's a devoted movie buff) to existentialism to big ideas that boggled the mind. Want to be a wonder junkie, too? It's possible! Maybe!
Silva, whose non-commercial micro-documentaries-turned viral video juggernauts (His latest "Shots of Awe" short, "Existential Bummer" has more than 2 million views to date, and you can watch it below), has help. While you may not be able to pick up all of the many references Silva makes to technology, literature and philosophy in his short films, he was able to give me a short list of his favorite books. If you want to sound like a smart cookie at your next cocktail party, you've just received your required reading. You're welcome.
Ernest Becker's "Denial of Death," Pulitzer prize-winning book from 1974. It distills the human condition down to three basic elements. We are faced with the unbearable reality of the fact that we're mortal, we think and obsess about that, and we've come up with psychological devices to address that situation -- the religious impulse, the romantic impulse and the creative impulse. These are our responses to the mortal coil, and the book goes through them brilliantly. I think that anybody who wants to understand themselves and their motivations would benefit from reading that book.
Other book I love is "The Singularity is Near" by Ray Kurzweil. It talks about exponentially merging technologies that are going to radically transform our sphere of possibilities. It talks about curing aging, downloading our brains to the computer, transforming the physical world with nanotechnology that transforms matter into a programmable medium, Talk about mind spilling over into the world. This is when we impregnate the universe with intelligence. That's a singularity. Love that book.
Another great book is by Erik Davis called "TechGnosis." It talks about the mystical undertones of technology, and how beneath our technologies is the human impulse for magic and for finding alchemy in ways that transcend our limits using these magical tools. Fabulous book.
The last one would be "Hamlet on the Holodeck" by Janet H. Murray, which is about how new technologies create new forms of narrative, and it's all about the desire of human beings to be immersed, the power of story, the power of rhetoric, it's a fabulous book. I'd say those four are up there, right now.
Check out "Existential Bummer" and "Awe" below: