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August 27th, 2008
Spark Blog: Inside Alan Alda's Brain
Alan Alda and neuroscientist Scott Frey   

Filming conversation between Alan and neuroscientist Scott Frey. Note the grabbing tool on the table… can Alan successfully grasp the paper cup with it?
Photo © Maggie Villiger 2008

The first few days of shooting with Alan have nicely confirmed one of the key inspirations for the series: that many very different sciences — and scientists — are out there looking for the Spark — even if they don’t know it. A couple of days ago we were in Oregon, peering with both an MRI and a brain wave monitor into Alan’s brain to find out how he employs it for two of the most distinctively human traits, language and tool use.

Alan Alda models the EEG cap   

Alan models the EEG cap that will measure Event Related Potentials through his skull as he listens to spoken language.
Photo © Larry Engel 2008

It turns out that the places in his brain involved in both talking and planning how to use a tool are physically quite close together. Is there an evolutionary connection? We’ll see…

These days with Alan have also confirmed how key he is to the project.

He patiently endured perhaps an hour in the claustrophobic and noisy MRI scanner imagining how he would use a tool, and another hour in what looks like a swimmer’s rubber hat studded with electrodes watching animated penguins talking gibberish (but grammatically correct gibberish).

Then he conducted lively and probing conversations with the scientists doing the studies — and also made them laugh, something you don’t see too much of in the average science documentary.

— Graham Chedd







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