Brain Power

Monday 19 May, 9.30pm

In this episode, Brain Power examines the age-old battle of the sexes. Using the latest scientific research and specially designed experiments, the programme will investigate what it means to be a man or a woman and how these differences affect our brains and behaviour.

From the moment we’re born, our gender is central to our view of ourselves. The physical differences are clear, but what about those within the brain? Men’s brains are bigger than women’s – on average by about 30 per cent – but this difference doesn’t translate into a higher IQ. The reason the male brain is larger is because men, as a rule, have bigger bodies. Simply put, more body to control means more brain to control it.
Dr Ian Kirk, a neuroscientist from Auckland University, is studying other physical and physiological brain differences. In some ground-breaking work in collaboration with a lab in Germany, they have tracked the differences in female brain function due to the menstrual cycle. “Early in the menstrual cycle when the [female] hormones are low, the brain might be man-like and so a woman is indistinguishable in many tasks from a man. Later on in the cycle, around the time a women is more likely to become pregnant, it might be argued she thinks in a more general or dynamic type of way,” he says.

So males and females can resemble each other at certain times of the month, but often the opposite sex can appear to be a different species. Jodi and Murry Pretscherer are your average Kiwi couple who volunteered to go under the gender microscope. Their task was to look at the differences between men’s and women’s brains with a navigation task. It’s now been proven that when men and women read maps, different parts of each of their brains are activated. Men tend to use abstract terms like compass points and distance – “Go 100 metres and then turn north”. Women tend to use landmarks – “At the school turn towards the mountains”. Interestingly, recent research has revealed gay men use both male and female strategies.

The ‘Lab Rats’ also take the gender challenge. Armed with clickers to count their sexual thoughts, they tackle the idea that men think about sex much more often than women. Dr Rachel Morrison, Brain Power’s behavioural scientist, ran the experiment. “A lot of research suggests men do have more sexual thoughts. In the past, the evolutionary drive to spread their genetic material as widely as possible meant frequent sexual thoughts ensured they were primed to not miss any opportunity to mate. But the results we got were really interesting – and not what you would necessarily expect.”

Presenter Gus Roxburgh also got in on the act. Never shy of a challenge he looked to science for help to make him appealing to women and then to test it out he went speed-dating. “It’s not something I’ve done before, so it was a little daunting. With all the tips I’d picked up in the making of the programme I felt the pressure was on to get a good result.”

Monday 12 May, 9.30pm

Using the latest scientific research and specially designed experiments, this week’s episode of Brain Power will investigate how mind control can work in positive and negative ways.

By understanding the balance between conscious and unconscious control, it’s possible to take more command of our bodies and our brains. Top scoring ex-All Black Grant Fox tells Brain Power he knows only too well what happens when you try to take conscious control of your brain’s autopilot. He had a routine he performed every time he kicked for goal. Normally he didn’t think about it, it just happened automatically, but when he took conscious control, it was a very different story. He says, “I had one prolonged period in 1985 for six weeks, where I really struggled; I tried to consciously plot my run up. I just lost it.” Luckily for Fox, and New Zealand, the over-thinking didn’t last for long and he got his form back.
But this mind control isn’t just for the elite sportsman. Five ordinary New Zealanders, known affectionately as ‘Lab Rats’, undergo Brain Power experiments to see how far their subconscious can be pushed. In this episode, the team tests hypnosis. Dr Rachel Morrison, a behavioural scientist who supervised the experiments, says: “About 20 per cent of people are more difficult to hypnotise than others; but I was surprised at how strongly the Lab Rats who were hypnotised did respond.”

There are several theories to explain hypnosis; one is hyper-suggestibility – the idea that the hypnotist’s words are accepted with less discretion than would normally be the case by the subject. It has also been speculated that hypnotised subjects simply behave in a way they expect hypnotised people to behave – this is called the social compliance theory. However, more and more experiments suggest hypnosis may have a physical basis. To test this, the Brain Power team decide to see what is actually happening inside a hypnotised brain. Stacey, one of the Lab Rats, volunteers for an fMRI brain scan to investigate if hypnosis can change your brain activity.

Brain Power’s ‘Joe Average’ Jon Reeves also undertakes to learn to be a convincing liar. He’s interrogated by two seasoned private detectives and must learn to control his unconscious giveaways as his brain processes a lie. Gus Roxburgh says, “Agencies like the FBI, CIA and KGB spend years teaching their operatives to lie successfully and sometimes even they get it wrong. So this was a big challenge for Jon.”

And, not to be outdone, presenter Gus Roxburgh takes on the challenge to condition his brain to fear something as harmless as a banana. He says “We linked pain to bananas in an attempt to see how easily my brain could be manipulated. It wasn’t the most pleasant part of the television-making process, but I was surprised by the results.”

Monday 5 May, 9.30pm

Brain Power is a new local series from the makers of the critically-acclaimed Human Potential.

In Brain Power, presenter Gus Roxburgh delves into the mysteries of the most complicated organ of the body – the human brain.
Roxburgh will explore how memory creates who we are but is also prone to manipulation. In the investigation of sleep, he will meet possibly the worst snorer in New Zealand – his snoring is as loud as a V8 engine – and come up with the top tips for a perfect night of shut-eye. Brain Power will also explore what it is to be a man – and a woman – and how our brains make all the difference.

All the way through, a group of ‘lab rats’ will sacrifice themselves on the altar of science to prove a point or bust a myth. Sniffing sweaty t-shirts, counting their sexual thoughts and witnessing a crime – nothing is too much or too weird.

In the first episode of Brain Power, memory is under the spotlight. Kate Dye, a 28-year-old office administrator notorious for forgetting names, is put to the test. She meets 15 people at a party in one hour then facing a grilling of ‘who’s who’. “I knew I was bad at this, but I had no idea how bad until I was tested on the show. It was really embarrassing,” she says. But Dye is rescued by a memory expert who claims that with a little work and a few memory tips, she can conquer her failing.

The ‘lab rats’ witness a crime in order to test the reliability of eye-witness testimony and Roxburgh also takes on the memory challenge. He attempts to train himself to memorise the order of a shuffled deck of card in less than an hour. “I think I was initially quite confident, but then as I got further into the task I realised what a massive undertaking it was. What is really amazing is the world record for remembering a deck of cards is just 31.03 seconds.”

There is hope for all of us though. “What I thought was really positive was the research and experiments we did in the course of making Brain Power. really showed that with the right tips and a bit of hard work anyone can improve their memory,” says Roxburgh.