Wave your brain in the air like you just don’t care.
Since 2008, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City has hosted a series called Brainwave. These live discussions have become a hot ticket. Now everyone can get in on the science-ish action, thanks to this three-disc set.
The idea behind Brainwave is that a celebrity (of sorts) sits down with a scientist for an unscripted conversation. As the celebrity discusses what makes him or her tick, the scientist then builds on that with a look at the neuroscience involved. Just who are these brainy celebrities?
• Eric Weiner, journalist, who has traveled the world studying the culture and science of the world’s happiest people.
• Laurie Anderson, musician and performance artist, who was the first and, to date, only NASA artist in residence.
• Lewis Black, standup comedian and a regular on The Daily Show, also a successful playwright.
• R.L. Stine, bestselling children’s book author, creator of the long-running Goosebumps and Fear Street series.
• Mario Batali, celebrity chef and a regular on Iron Chef America.
• Loch Kelly, expert on Buddhist meditation and founder of the Natural Wakefulness Center.
• Mark Morris, choreographer of over 100 ballets and leader of his own dance troupe in Brooklyn, New York.
• Henry Rollins, former punk rocker who has since branched out into publishing, spoken word, and acting.
• Debra Winger, actress who has appeared in Terms of Endearment, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Rachel Getting Married.
• Amy Tan, bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club and several other acclaimed works.
Brainwave promises pseudo-celebrities talking with scientists, and on that note, it delivers. Each celeb is paired with a scientist who has done research similar to that person’s shtick, so the conversations mostly follow a single theme. For example, Lewis Black’s episode is about the neuroscience of rage, which lets Black slip in and out of his “angry blowhard” standup act during the discussion. Other topics are the mind’s response to danger (Stine), the science of memory (Winger), dreams (Tan), and perception of time (Rollins). In the obviousness category, the chef’s episode is about food, the choreographer’s episode is about dance, and the meditation expert’s episode is about meditation.
This is not your run-of-the-mill celebrity chat show—we’re deep into the world of highbrow academia. Despite the mix of personalities on display, the goal of Brainwave is to educate more than it is to entertain. It’s all interesting food for thought, and I certainly learned a lot about neuroscience, but the tone is nonetheless dry—scratchy, chalky, sandpapery dry, even when the interviewees are cracking jokes. Plus, there are several times when the celebs become the interviewers, merely lobbing questions at the scientists, making the scientists the “stars” of the show. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the science really is intriguing, but it has me wondering just who the target audience is.
Now the really bad news: The picture quality on this three-disc set is downright dreadful. It’s grainy, blurry, overly soft, and just plain hard to look at. If you’ve ever been nerdy enough to watch a university lecture on YouTube (not that I’ve ever done such a thing), what you saw probably looked better than this. This is parents-in-the-audience-recording-their-kid’s-piano-recital cinematography. The stereo sound doesn’t fare much better. You can make out the all-important dialogue, but the audio is nonetheless flat and tinny. The only extra is an included booklet that contains an essay on the history of neuroscience and biographies of the celebs and their scientist pals.
Brainwave isn’t bad—it can even be great at times—but it has a very, very limited audience. It’s for those who think a science lecture is way more exciting and awesome than a movie in which a guy jumps a motorcycle through the air while firing a machine gun as something explodes behind him.