My Brilliant Brain
documentary is a valuable thing. You learn something, you’re
entertained, and if you’re lucky you get some pretty pictures. You meet
interesting creatures, you see some unusual things, and you’re given
plenty to talk about amongst friends. If you’re really lucky, it takes
things at a civilised pace, giving you a nice respite from the
breakneck, ADHD-compliant pace of most other media.
My Brilliant Brain does all of these things. The first episode is
entitled Born Genius. It introduces us to seven year old piano
prodigy Marc Yu, and I won’t embarrass myself by deploying numerous
adjectives to describe his skill and just how it stuns and shocks the
viewer. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. And if you don’t,
you need to spend a little more time on YouTube. Surprisingly, Marc is
an otherwise normal, delightful child, and as such the interviews with
him are charming.
But the episode isn’t just a Marc Yu showpiece. Marc is the window
through which we explore questions about the importance of early (and
very early) learning, the neurological correlates of musical expertise,
and the degree to which prodigious talents are innate. Yes, I know, the
whole “nature or nurture” thing has been done to death, but trust me
when I tell you this episode handles it in a measured and sensible
fashion. The documentary uses the case of “Genie” - a child who was
physically restrained and isolated for the first 13 years of her life -
to illustrate the importance of childhood development.
With episode two, the focus shifts from childhood to adult life.
Accidental Genius is the title, and we meet autistic savants (the
popular example that I have to mention is “Rain Man”, in case that
cultural reference is still relevant), and some interesting characters
whose mental faculties have been drastically altered by trauma. The
principal case is an English builder who, after his brain haemorrhage,
is consumed by an obsessive need to paint.
Another “old chestnut” is explored in the second episode: that of the
difference between left and right brain function. Presumably you’ve
heard about this, but I doubt you’re familiar with everything this
episode has to offer. For instance, have you heard the one about the
autistic girl who could sketch brilliantly right up until she learnt
language? Or have you seen video footage of individuals who are
temporarily given savant-like powers by having their brains magnetically
Episode three, Make Me a Genius, focuses on the world’s first
female chess grandmaster. Susan Polgár was, as a child, the beneficiary
of two things: a burgeoning interest in chess, and a father committed to
helping that interest grow into something incredible. As such, she’s a
great subject for an episode that explores whether extreme mental
capabilities (such as those possessed by chess grandmasters) can be
learned. Yes, this is a bit of a re-cap of “nature or nurture” yet
again, but the angle is different and it didn’t strike me as stale.
Perhaps that’s because it was mixed in with interesting material about
gender differences and pattern recognition. The pattern recognition
segment in particular is fascinating, as we meet a woman who suffers
from the inability to recognise faces – even ones she sees every day.
You might notice that I’ve not said a lot about how My Brilliant
Brain is actually produced – how it’s narrated, how it’s shot etc.
That’s because the style of this documentary is, like the best
documentaries, invisible. There’s nothing abrupt or jarring about it,
and although there are more CGI sequences of flashing neurons than seem
strictly necessary, they don’t detract from the substance of the
documentary. This is a particularly welcome surprise, as National
Geographic productions have a bit of a reputation for being
sensationalist, overly Americanised, offensively flashy and superficial.
In that context, this documentary was a pleasant surprise.
The fourth and final episode, The Musical Brain, drops the ball a
little. Firstly, it’s immediately obvious that it wasn’t intended as
part of the series, and may have been tacked on just for the purposes of
the DVD. The narrator is different, and the material is a little
uncomfortably close to the material covered in the first episode. This
episode focuses on a musical tour of Sting’s brain, with accompanying
interviews. How does Sting’s brain handle music? How does he consciously
analyse music? How does he write music? Sting is the “musical genius”
used to highlight the issues explored in this episode; whatever your
opinion of him, he’s indisputably musically competent. What I can’t for
the life of me figure out is where Michael Bublé fits in.
Even this final episode isn’t really substandard – it just doesn’t
measure up to the other episodes in depth and originality. And it
contains Michael Bublé.
But don’t let that put you off. Brains, geniuses, chess, music,
painting, memory, emotion, pattern recognition, and reason are all
featured in this collection, and you’ll be thinking and talking about
them for at least a while afterwards. More of this please, Nat Geo.