About the Show

We're going to blow your mind.

National Geographic Channel's Emmy-nominated series Brain Games returns this summer with 10 new mind-blowing episodes! Host Jason Silva gets inside your head and shows you what's really going on in there with an intricate series of interactive experiments designed to mess with your mind and reveal the inner-workings of your brain. Hailed by critics as "tremendous fun" that "makes science entertaining," Brain Games turns your mind's eye inwards for a fascinating journey into the three and a half pounds of tissue that makes you... you.

The Host Jason Silva

Described as a "Timothy Leary for the viral video age," Jason Silva is a self-proclaimed "wonder junkie" whose series of noncommercial videos exploring inspiration, science, technology, and imagination have been seen more than 2 million times online.

Host Jason Silva
previous next

Find out how much you know when it comes to the old vs. the young. Complete all episode challenges to grade your brain.

Start the challenge


Question 1 of 3
If a psychic told you tomorrow’s seven winning lottery numbers, how long would you have to write them down before they vanished from memory forever?

Question 2 of 3
Who’s likely to have the most accurate count of “falling stars” at the end of a meteor shower?
Question 3 of 3
Which of these groups does not contain a pattern?
Explore the episode
An old dog can still learn new tricks.
While it's long been believed that both your body and your brain deteriorate over time, recent studies show that may not always be the case. Some brain functions improve as we get older, while others don’t fully develop until later in life. In this episode, we explore your brain and how it doesn’t always act its age. Through a series of games and experiments, you'll discover how your daily routines might be aging your brain, and how you can actually slow down the clock.

Why Your Brain Doesn't Always Act Its Age

Keeping your mental muscle in shape.

When it comes to video games or multitasking, you wouldn’t expect that a septuagenarian would be able to beat a twenty-something. But in a study recently published in the journal Nature, University of California-San Francisco neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and colleagues found just that. The scientists got adults in their sixties, seventies and eighties to play a specially-created video game, NeuroRacer, in which players have to identify signs that pop up as they are driving. With enough training, the older adults became so proficient that they could beat untrained subjects who were decades younger. Even more surprisingly, the older gamers also performed better at memory and attention tests than their younger counterparts.

"We made the activity in older adults’ prefrontal cortex look like the activity in younger adults’ prefrontal cortex," Gazzaley explained in a New York Times interview.

So much for the old saw that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, huh? It was once widely assumed that aging eventually enfeebled the brain and senses due to senescence, (the molecular and cellular changes that we undergo as we get older).

But in recent years, researchers have discovered that while younger brains do perform better at some things, our minds are remarkably resilient, and that we actually get better at certain cognitive abilities as we get older. Beyond that, to a surprising degree, our brains are able to adjust to aging and find ways to compensate for what we don’t do as well. Here’s a look at the state of knowledge in aging-related neuroscience, and what it means to our lives.

How the Brain Changes Over Time

Throughout your life, your brain arguably undergoes more changes than any other part of your body. It started developing four weeks after you were conceived, when a few layers of cells began to form into a tube that gradually bent and sprouted the various regions of your brain, turning into a mass that eventually would amount to roughly 100 billion cells.By the time you were six, your brain had reached 95 percent of its adult weight, and your brain was exploding with new neural connections, enabling you to apply logic to solving problems. In adolescence, your brain abruptly underwent a major overhaul, jettisoning connections formed in childhood that were no longer needed, even as it continued to build onto other structures, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the area that influences impulse control, judgment and decision-making.

By the time that you’ve reached your mid-twenties, in many ways you’re at the peak of your mental game. Enjoy it while it lasts, because after about age 27, people typically begin a long, slow decline. Art Kramer, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychologist, has found that on a 30-point test of basic arithmetic, language and motor skills, we typically lose about one point per decade. It takes three-to-four points to show a significant decline that has real-life consequences, though, so you won’t notice it for a while. By the time that you’re age 65, though, you’ll find yourself steadily losing brain cells in areas such as the hippocampus, where memories are processed. As a result, you may start having trouble remembering people’s names, and you’re more likely to misplace things.

Age-related deterioration is something that people have fretted about for, well, ages—you’ve probably read early 20th Century poet Dylan Thomas’ exhortation that we should "rage, rage against the dying of the light." But it wasn’t until recently that scientists really began to uncover the extent to which age-related changes in our brains are determined by genetics. In a 2011 Nature article, researchers from Scotland’s Roslin Institute reported that brain cells—unlike the rest of your body--contain special genes called retrotransposons, which continually make tiny alterations in the DNA in your brain’s tissues. As a result, your brain’s cells change thousands of times in the course of your lifetime. (And you thought those incessant Microsoft Windows updates were annoying.)

Moreover, big changes can come from a single gene that throws a molecular switch. In a paper published in the journal Neuron in 2013, Yale University neuroscientists reported that the Nogo Receptor 1 gene regulates your evolution from an impressionable teenager to a relatively stable adult, by slowing the formation of connections between brain cells.

What Younger Brains Do Better

When it comes to sensory perception, the younger brain has an unfair advantage, because it gets better input to work with. The anatomical equipment from which it gets its information—eyes, ears, the fingertips and taste buds—is still performing at its peak. Kids and young adults can hear higher frequencies that older folks can’t perceive, for example, because the microscopic hair cells inside the human ear, which pick up vibrations from the air.

"As we age, those cells start to deteriorate, and we lose the ability to hear those frequencies," explains Brian Scholl, a Yale University psychology professor who directs the school’s Perception and Cognition Laboratory.

But let’s give credit where it is due. Just as 28-year-old LeBron James undoubtedly can jump a lot higher than 50-year-old Michael Jordan at this point in their lives, the typical younger brain just out-performs a typical older one when it comes to certain important activities. In addition to a twenty-something’s sharper eyes, the visual-processing areas in his or her brain can work with more information from a wider field of vision, and do it more quickly, than someone who is several decades older. "Even if your vision is just as good as you age, your brain still has trouble putting all of that information together as quickly," explains Yale psychologist Scholl. That’s one reason why older adults are more at risk to fall down and to have traffic accidents, he says.

If you’ve ever watched a teen or twenty-something play Grand Theft Auto 5 while simultaneously watching a cell-phone video and yakking on Skype, you already know that younger minds tend to be much more adept at multi-tasking than their parents, who need to take a deep breath and focus just to figure out the controls on the DVR. Younger brains are superior at keeping track of multiple things, because as we age, our ability to access specific information on demand decreases. "This can lead to those ‘senior moments’ of forgetfulness where we lose track of where that information is," Scholl says.

The young brain also has greater capacity to retain just-perceived information in short-term memory. That enables a 21-year-old to hear someone’s phone number and repeat it from memory with relative ease, while an older person might have to write it down.

Age Also Improves Your Brain in Some Ways

After reading the previous section, you may be feeling a bit depressed your inevitable future decline. But don’t be. While it’s true that some
of your brain’s abilities decrease with age, in recent years neuroscientists have discovered that other abilities are unaffected, and some actually even improve.

Some skills not only seem to be resistant to age, but actually improve as a person grows older. "While many other abilities are declining, our vocabulary increases," Scholl notes. That’s one reason why older people often can out-perform younger ones at solving crossword puzzles and other word games. In a published in 2012 in the journal PLOS ONE, Chinese neuroscientists who scanned the brains of subjects ranging from age 8 to 79 found that as you move from youth to old age, your brain shows a linear increase in functional connections between brain cells that are related to the emotional system, even as your sensory and motor connections decrease in the same fashion. That may explain why in a 2007 study published in Journal of Gerontology, older adults showed more ability to solve hypothetical interpersonal dilemmas than younger people. "As we get older, our social intelligence keeps expanding," University of Southern California gerontologist Margaret Gatz explained to Time in 2013. "We get better at sizing up people, at understanding how relationships work—and at not getting into an argument unless we mean to."

The aging brain also has some tricks that may enable it to keep up with a younger competitor when it comes to problem-solving. In a 2001 study, University of Michigan researchers discovered that while young people can take in more information with their senses and keep it in their memories more readily, when it comes to actually performing intellectual tasks, they tend to only use one side of their brain at a time. Older people, in contrast, are more likely to activate both hemispheres, a phenomenon known as bi-lateralization. That in turn gives older brains assist in connecting pieces of information and figuring out patterns. "Recruiting additional regions of the brain seems to assist older adults in basic memory storage tasks," UM cognitive neuroscientist Patricia Reuter-Lorenz explained at the time. "But when it comes to more complex processing tasks, this strategy isn't as successful."

And experience counts for something. Older people not only have amassed more information about the world in their brains than younger ones, but they also are more adept at utilizing that knowledge to solve problems, a skill known as crystallized intelligence.

Finally, older brains may make up for declining performance with more consistency. A 2013 study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin found that older subjects actually showed less day-to-day variability in performance at cognitive tasks than younger ones—a result that co-author Florian Schmiedek ascribes to "learnt strategies to solve the task, a constantly high motivation level as well as a balanced daily routine and stable mood."

How Your Brain Avoids Obsolescence

The aging brain has another thing going for it. You’ve probably heard the old saw that you’re born with a certain number of neurons that gradually wear out over time, and every time that you drink alcohol or watch a banal sitcom, you lose a few more of them. There was a time when scientists believed that, too. But it’s not really so. But in the 1980s, researchers who studied the brains of canaries discovered that as they learned new songs, they actually developed new neurons. Similarly, other scientists found that rats’ brain weight actually increased after they had been trained to run mazes. Eventually, they discovered that rodents not only could grow new neurons, but that those cells could form functional links to existing neurons.

Similarly, an older human’s brain can actually grow with the right amount of stimulation. In a study published in 2008, University of Hamburg neuroscientist Janika Boyle tried to teach novice subjects between the ages of 50 and 67 to juggle. While none of them became adept jugglers, scans showed that just like younger subjects, the older brains developed increased grey matter, the material that’s the major component of the central nervous system.

Ohio State University researchers reported in a study published in Child Development in 2011 that with enough training, older adults could speed up their response time at decision-making tasks, to the point where 70-year-olds could perform as well as 25-year-olds. As OSU psychology professor Roger Ratcliff, a co-author, explains: "Many people think that it is just natural for older people’s brains to slow down as they age, but we’re finding that isn’t always true."

High Frequency Alert!
Who’s more likely to get up to investigate the shrill cry of an infant?
Of course, both people would likely check on a crying infant, but the young man has a better chance of actually hearing a higher-frequency cry from a newborn and reacting. As you get older, the tiny hair cells in your ear that work as vibration receptors and facilitate hearing begin to decay, hindering the process of converting sounds into brain waves. Older brains also have more difficulty translating high-frequency signals, although many people don’t notice it until around age 60.
Surprisingly, No.
Of course, both people would likely check on a crying infant, but the young man has a better chance of actually hearing a higher-frequency cry from a newborn and reacting. As you get older, the tiny hair cells in your ear that work as vibration receptors and facilitate hearing begin to decay, hindering the process of converting sounds into brain waves. Older brains also have more difficulty translating high-frequency signals, although many people don’t notice it until around age 60.

How an Old Dog Learns New Tricks

Maintaining your brain's youthful vigor.

In the Brain Games episode “Battle of the Ages,” we learned that many of our mental abilities decrease with age, but others are unaffected, or even may improve. Just as important, however, the human brain retains a remarkable amount of plasticity—that is, the capacity to adapt and learn new information and skills—even as we reach middle age and beyond. But to get the most out of our aging brains, we may have to make some lifestyle changes and do some training. Here are a few ways that you can help your grey matter to realize its potential.

Go for regular walks. In a study published in 2011 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers reported that older people who walked around a track for 40 minutes three times a week actually increased the size of their hippocampus—a brain area crucial to memory and spatial navigation—by a few percent over the course of a year. The aerobic exercisers also performed better on spatial memory tests and showed higher blood levels of a chemical involved in learning and memory, compared with another group who did strength training and stretching.

Try doing everyday things differently. Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center, has created Neurobics, a system of brain exercises that can be integrated into your daily routine. One of the core concepts is slightly altering your activities to get your brain to work a little harder. For example, trying getting dressed in the morning with your eyes closed, brushing your teeth with the opposite hand, or taking a different route to work.

Practice creative multitasking. Another Neurobics technique is to stimulate your brain by combining two unrelated activities to utilize multiple senses in a new way. For example, try smelling flowers while you’re listening to music, or watching clouds in the sky while you’re sculpting something from modeling clay.

Read the newspaper, write letters and play board games.
A 2012 study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America found that stimulating activities such as reading a newspaper, writing letters, or playing games such as chess and checkers apparently have a positive effect on the functioning of white matter, the nerve fibers that transmit information throughout the brain.

Buy the DVD

Own the last season of Brain Games on DVD!

next-episode next-episode