How cognitive science helps you win “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”

Here’s another one I’m coming late to, but it’s so cool I can’t pass it up: Ogi Ogas, a cognitive neuroscientist, won $500,000 on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” — and he did so by employing a handful of mind-hacking tricks he derived from his knowledge of the brain.

For example, for his $16,000 question, he relied on the technique of “priming”. Because memories are stored in many different parts of the brain, if you can manage to recall any single part of a pattern, your brain can often fill in missing, related parts. In a superb piece about the experience in Seed magazine, Ogas explains how priming helped him out:

Since the producers allow contestants unlimited time to work out answers (as long as they’re not just stalling), I knew that I could employ the most basic of priming tactics: talking about the question, posing scenarios, throwing out wild speculations, even just babbling — trying to cajole my prefrontal neurons onto any cue that could trigger the buried neocortical circuits holding the key to the answer.

I used priming on my $16,000 question: “This past spring, which country first published inflammatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammed?” I did not know the answer. But I did know I had a long conversation with my friend Gena about the cartoons. So I chatted with [Who Wants To Be A Millionaire host] Meredith about Gena. I tried to remember where we discussed the cartoons and the way Gena flutters his hands. As I pictured how he rolls his eyes to express disdain, Gena’s remark popped into my mind: “What else would you expect from Denmark?”

I personally am all in favor of the trend towards using brain-hacking and mind-hacking tricks in everyday life. It’s like a sort of fine-grained version of cognitive behavioral therapy — observing yourself and your mind’s odd, curious spastic gestures to help navigate life.

(Thanks to the Corante Brain Waves blog for this one!)

blog comments powered by Disqus

Search This Site


I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

More of Me


Recent Comments

Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson