Brain Games is back on the National Geographic Channel and better than ever! NatGeo has brought back the series that takes us on a fun, wild ride through the human brain—with neuroscientist Cara Santa Maria helping to explain it all.

What drew her to becoming the field correspondent for the new Brain Games? How fun is it to work with Keegan-Michael Key and Lior Suchard? How does she balance entertainment with educating us about the human brain? And why is she particularly excited about tonight’s new episode?

Get the answers to those questions and others in our interview with Cara Santa Maria below. Then be sure not to miss a new Brain Games, featuring Anthony Anderson and Marsai Martin, tonight at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NatGeo!

Nerdophiles: How did you join the cast of Brain Games?

Cara Santa Maria: I had been working with National Geographic for several years on different television shows…A year or two ago I was a correspondent on their flagship show Explorer. I’ve done some one-offs with them like Brain Surgery Live, Eclipse Live, Mars Live and so I’ve just been working with National Geographic for a really long time. When they started to develop the refresh of Brain Games, it seemed like a really good spin, especially because my background is in neuroscience.

NP: Is TV something your work led you to or were you always interested in bringing your science expertise to TV?

CSM: Absolutely not. I just stumbled in that. I was born and raised in Texas, and that’s where I went to school for my undergrad and my Masters. I was working as a lab scientist there and teaching classes, and then I moved to New York for one year to start a Ph.D. and it just wasn’t a really good fit. The research wasn’t really the right lab for me and definitely the structure of New York City, [for] someone struggling from depression and having come from a really sunny place like Texas, was really tough. So I ultimately decided through a lot of random personal reasons to come out to California and just continue working as a lab scientist.

But for whatever reason, I was asked to go on television as an expert guest. It wasn’t so much in a hosting capacity; there would be a new interesting science news story and they would invite me on to describe it or explain it. I found that I really enjoyed that aspect of work because it wasn’t that far removed from teaching, honestly. Translating scientific concepts to the public, it’s about the same level and same approach. And the more I did it, the more people would ask me on, and eventually, it just started turning into a career. But it was definitely not something I ever expected!

NP: What makes Brain Games so amazing is how entertaining it is—from the interactive elements to just the incredible energy of the show. How do you strike the balance between teaching the viewers and also keeping them entertained?

CSM: I generally follow the idea that when it comes to television, it has to be entertaining first. Everything needs to be in service [of] the television show being entertaining. It has to capture your imagination. Everything about it needs to keep you there. It needs to be fast-moving. If we can squeeze in some interesting science along the way, and if we can make sure people are walking away knowing something they didn’t know before—whether it’s a fun thing for them to bring into a dinner conversation or it really does increase the depth of their knowledge—that’s a massive win. 

On the flip side of that, when we’re teaching science, I think that the thing we often forget is that the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Education and Math) are in and of themselves fundamentally interesting. Tapping into what makes them so interesting is the job of an educator. You have to grasp and cling to people’s interest, because otherwise they’re going to check out. 

And I think that sometimes we make mistakes with early STEM education; we teach it as if it’s a series of facts. Learn this fact, learn that fact, shove it down people’s throats—instead of helping people understand that science is a method and it’s a process. Once you understand some of the interesting rules about that method and process, you can apply it to everything and anything, and it sheds new light on every single experience you have.

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BRAIN GAMES Host Keegan-Michael Key with field correspondent and science communicator Cara Santa Maria. (National Geographic/Eric McCandless)

NP: Your Brain Games experiments are pretty thorough. In last week’s “Performance” episode, you did a study with basketball players that lasted for weeks. So how are you able to put together your segments within the hectic schedule of a TV show?

CSM: My role as the field correspondent required a lot of work early on. The producers and all the individuals who were kind of the architects of the show did a lot of the pre-production work, and then we went out into the field and shot a lot of these field segments long before any of us got into the studio. Most of the field segments were in the can before we did the live studio audience portion of the show with the celebrity guests. 

The themes, the topics, the stories, the takeaways that each episode was really focused on were decided early on, and then the show kind of organically came together from there. We did end up shooting [one] field segment after the fact, to kind of fill in the gaps, but most of my filming was done before we got together to film the stage show. I had been working for months up until that point.

NP: How fun is it to shoot those studio segments? Between Keegan-Michael Key, Lior Suchard and the celebrities, Brain Games seems like a great place to go to work.

CSM: It’s so much fun between Keegan, Lior and then, of course, all the incredible celebrity guests. Each new episode brought really fun new people to the show. There’s one coming up with Anthony Anderson and Marsai Martin; they were amazing. They were so funny, they were so sweet, [and] I have to say Marsai Martin is my style icon, even though she’s like half my age, maybe even less. She was the sweetest thing on set and so much fun; just lit up the room. 

There’s a real energy to doing this in front of a live studio audience that is really hard to capture otherwise. The energy was really up because there were so many people there that were being wowed at the same time., like with Lior’s really cool magic trick or [they] were flabbergasted when they would play one of the at-home brain games and realize their brains were playing total tricks on them. It’s just so much more fun when you have a full audience involved.

NP: What one thing do you want TV viewers to take away from Brain Games? Or is there anything you’d want to say to them about science in general?

CSM: There’s a depth to it that people may not be aware of, but I do think it’s sort of in the background working its magic, and that is it’s increasing what experts call metacognition—it’s just a fancy word for thinking about thinking…Actually taking the time to think about why our thoughts are going this way instead of that way. Think about why I want to react this way, but if I think a little bit deeper my response or action might change. 

That’s what Brain Games does so beautifully, is that it increases our metacognition. It helps us take a second to stop and think a little more deeply about the way that we approach the world, and start to introspect, which is something we don’t always have the time to do. And in becoming a bit more introspective as human beings I think we’re improving our relationship not only with ourselves but everyone else on this planet.

New Brain Games episodes air Mondays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NatGeo.

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