The Science Behind Britain’s Brightest

Professor Vincent Walsh attempts to explain the science behind the challenges on Britain’s Brightest.

Why are some people good at some things but not others? Is it possible to be good at everything? Why do some people do better/worse under pressure? Is it too late to learn maths? Do I really use only 10% of my brain?

We all have questions about the workings of our minds and we rarely get any answers, or at least answers we can understand. Britain's Brightest has set out to produce a contest/game show based on modern knowledge about the brain. It also tries to answer some of those questions we all have, and to answer them in plain English.

If modern brain science has succeeded in one thing, it is finding out which bits of the brain are specialized for different functions. There actually are areas of the brain that are specialized for language, reading, maths, recognizing faces, making guesses, social skills, planning, concentrating, remembering, emotions, seeing, hearing and touch. By devising games that probe a skill in its purest form, Britain's Brightest is testing the functions of those brain areas to their limits.

How do the games in the show relate to the brain?

The game where words appear in the air around the contestants is a good example of how to test a brain area. In an area called the temporal lobe, there is a region specialized for recognizing words. Helpfully, scientists have called this "the Visual Word Form Area or VWFA." When you see a word, this VWFA is more active. So when the contestants see four words, they don't need to be sure how to spell them, their VWFA will not be as active for the wrong word and this can give them the signal about which are right and wrong. In fact, it may be better for the contestants to go with their instincts. Instincts are, after all, signals from the brain that we haven't quite thought through yet (and thinking isn't always the best solution to a problem).

We can see the problem with thinking in the challenge where contestants have identify famous people from picture clues. To be good at this game the contestants need to access the sounds of words. The pictures they see will activate several brain representations of objects, people, words and sounds. When you play this game along with the show you will do better if you concentrate on syllables in words. The regions of the brain interested in these sounds are in the left half of your brain in the frontal and temporal lobes. The game also shows how important it is to think of brain areas as interacting. When the contestants see a picture, it activates words, ideas, other visual pictures, names and even memories of events. The contestants have to suppress most of these and concentrate on the phonology - the sounds - which will give them the best chance of reaching the answer because the sounds will activate other sounds that go with the first one. You will see how this works when some of the contestants, amazingly, guess the right answer after one picture. Suppressing information brings us to another brain game and my personal favourite incidentally.

Stop The Clock is about as good as it gets in demonstrating brain functions. The contestants have to concentrate on getting points in the word puzzle. Concentrating on letters in this way needs an area called the parietal cortex. The problem for the contestants is that the parietal cortex is also needed to experience the passage of time. And brain areas don't like to have to do two jobs at the same time. So when the contestants concentrate on the words, they lose track of time, and when they concentrate on time, they can't solve the word puzzle. You will be amazed at how much some people lose track of time in this game.

Not everyone likes maths. There's a good reason for this.

It takes a lot of brain areas to do maths. If you have to calculate, say 251 x 11 you need a full brain toolkit. You have to recognize and understand numbers, which requires a part of the parietal lobe (the parietal lob is important and gets involved in lots of different things because it is where our senses get transformed into actions). You need a form of memory called working memory.

This is the memory that keeps things in mind while you are working on something. Your working memory is your mental juggler. In the maths challenges you need to juggle 251 and 11 and the rule for multiplying and which number you have got so far and which ones to insert and the answer. That's spinning a lot of mental plates. You also need to be able to plan and apply the rule and this, like working memory, needs the frontal lobes of the brain. When you add the pressure of time and competition to all this it's no wonder that some contestants will crumble.

The BIG question for Britain's Brightest is how contestants hold it together under pressure.

You can think of being able to concentrate on something and shutting off external distractions as a skill for BB, but the contestants also have to deal with internal distractions, and shutting off these internal voices is MUCH harder. In the studio, contestants have to be able to keep thinking about all aspects of the game, or how to play the game, so they can reach the answer. Keeping your mind open to all solutions is called "divergent thinking."

Under pressure we tend to focus on the most obvious things or on whatever we first focused on. You will notice this way of thinking, called "convergent thinking" when you play along with a game and keep arriving at the SAME wrong answer. Pressure of time, competition or consequences will drive you towards convergent thinking. And that is going to cost you the title of Britain's Brightest. Britain's Brightest has to be Britain's Coolest too.

How do scientists find this stuff out? There are 4 main ways of finding things out about the human brain.

1. Brain damage: People who have had a stroke or some other brain injury have been a great source of knowledge about the brain. People with damage to the front and left of the brain may not be able to speak, which is why we know about language areas in the brain. People with damage to the parietal cortex in the right half of the brain won't be able to concentrate very well or estimate time. The damage and knowledge can come from unexpected quarters. Soldiers returning from the First World War with shrapnel damage to the back of their brains (the visual cortex) were the beginnings of our understanding of how our eyes map onto our brain. Find out more about brain lesion analysis here.

2. Behavioral Experiments: If you want to know how closely connected two brain processes are then try to do two things at once. Scientists call this dual tasking (but they just mean doing two things at once). The closer the two things are, the harder they will be to do. So, you can listen to music and write at the same time but you can't do a crossword and keep track of time. If you think about it, it's not obvious that time and concentration should be connected while writing and music are less connected. Dual task experiments can be simple but they are a very important tool for neuroscientists.

3. Brain Imaging Experiments: We are all now familiar with fMRI and pictures of the human brain. By looking at which brain areas might be more active when you do something, scientists can build a picture of where things go on in the brain. This is why we know that there is an area for recognizing words and an area for recognizing faces and an area for working memory. See these links for more information.

4. Brain Stimulation Experiments: We need another map of the brain. A map of when things happen to match the map of where things happen. Brain processes take place on a scale of 1000ths of a second. To find out what is happening when, scientists need to be able to “catch” brain signals in flight. One way of doing this is to us magnetic pulses which can interfere with the brain at exactly a fixed number of milliseconds after you start doing something. The method is called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). More can be learned here.