Q&A with Todd Sampson

Todd SampsonIn a piece that first appeared in Encore, Todd Sampson talks about his show ReDesign My Brain, a three-part documentary series on the science of brain plasticity. 

How did you get involved with the show?

The ABC had been looking at a number of ideas for me and I’d been considering lots of different things to do next. As a climber, I was really keen on doing an adventure series but I’m also a total science nerd. When they came to me, I felt this could be an adventure science series so I thought, “Well, that’s perfect.” It didn’t take much brain power for me to say, “Let’s do it.”

How long did it take to bring it all together?

The main challenge for them is that they had to work around my schedule. The crew used to refer to me as the ‘weekend killer’ because they had to do it on my holidays and on the weekend. It’s not as difficult as it seems, it’s just about balancing it and making sure you get enough time at home with your family – that’s the most important thing.

What have you learned from the series?

I learnt how brilliant it is to make a documentary – I didn’t know if it was going to be fun or if it was going to be interesting, but it was brilliant.

Not only was I fortunate enough to be able to tell a story which is really a revolution in science, I also got to experience it, and that was a privilege.

I’d known a lot about neuroplasticity, I read a lot about it, I studied it, but it was all theory until this series and then it just became real – it all happened to me. I learned about what I am good at, what I’m not good at. I learned about my issues with compulsiveness and potential addiction – that was stuff I didn’t really think about before but I was forced to face that stuff during the series.

What happened to your brain?

The biggest change was around memory and speed of thinking. The fact that they could double my thinking speed was completely surprising to me. It would be fair to say that the show definitively proves that the brain is plastic and anyone at any age can make their brain better which is a good story in its own right.

Now you have done your first solo TV series, are audiences likely to see more of you on the box?

Yes, definitely. I’ve been looking at doing more documentaries with the ABC and the BBC. There are various things happening now that I am looking at and some are very far advanced, some have been in the works for a while. I’m in no rush. I just need a little bit of a break then we’ll choose the next project.

How has this experience been different from working on Gruen?

It’s very different from Gruen. I loved the Gruen Transfer as well, it’s brilliant but it’s very different to be lost out there in the world and just experiencing it as opposed to sitting at a desk. I’ve never had an ambition to be on TV so it’s not something I’ve planned.

So what do you consider to be your day job these days – TV host or boss of ad agency Leo Burnett?

I love this company and I have to be careful with the balance and make sure that I get it right. It’s very difficult to have a television career in a market that is relatively small and I love this country – I’m a very proud Australian – so I have no intention of leaving. But on the other hand, I look at people like Louis Theroux and think, man…

I jokingly said to the ABC that if Bear Grylls and Brian Cox had a child, that would be the positioning I would like in documentary making.


Encore issue 35This piece first appeared in EncoreDownload it now on iPad, iPhone and Android tablet devices.



  1. Vern
    25 Oct 13
    2:08 pm

  2. This was a great series – thanks for making it.
    Having also had a long interest in the brain, this was an awesome job at facing and conquering your fears and proving the brain’s full potential – something that’s now being scientifically proven every day.
    I’ve got no affiliation at all (honest!), but sign up to http://www.lumosity.com to try some of these brain games for free.
    Subconscious brain is definitely running the show, but can be changed if you’re not getting the right results!
    Derren Brown’s Faith or Fear was very interesting last night too….

  3. Belinda
    25 Oct 13
    2:36 pm

  4. I came across one of the shows the other night (by accident while channel surfing – sorry Todd) and was totally engrossed from the get go, especially when Todd let them turn part of your brain off, albeit temporarily! Neuroplasticity – a crazy exciting new frontier from advertising to medicine.

  5. Thom
    25 Oct 13
    2:39 pm

  6. I used to work for todd and he is a top bloke. Great to have a chinwag with.

  7. Geraldine Oldrey
    26 Oct 13
    1:34 am

  8. Loved the programme. It did not tackle pain which to many “experts/professionals” can also be managed by the mind. I do not expect or want you to experience pain to prove the premise but I would be interested in knowing where/how pain boundaries have been stretched and in what circumstances. Pain – is it only a physical experience?

  9. Seb
    30 Oct 13
    4:46 am

  10. Massive Sampson fanboy, and this was a bit of fun. But as someone who has actually studied neuroscience (not that much of it, but enough!) I have to say that the show did annoy me ever so slightly. Measurement issues… very loose constructs… generalisability of results to actual real life performance… Still a very cool show, but you gotta know that neuroscience is plagued by hype at the moment and is even more susceptible to popularisation because it is so intimately applicable to all of us.

    PS. @Vern – lumosity is a fucking scam. After being annoyed by their sidebar ads I decided to delve into it at some point. Any long term Gruen fans would know the power of the lab coat and clip board, and lumosity is a case in point. Try to find the research they keep touting? Well after digging really deep into the site they finally give a list of the studies. Most findings are preliminary, non-significant, or not all that impressive if you look at what they were actually measuring. If you really want to boost the performance of your brain then keep your money and instead eat healthy, avoid stress, sleep well, do cardio and weight-baring activities regularly and remain socially and mentally active :)

  11. Seb
    30 Oct 13
    8:49 am

  12. *bearing

  13. AC
    31 Oct 13
    2:32 pm

  14. And who said Ad guys don’t get PR! :)

  15. Birchyk
    14 Nov 13
    4:17 pm

  16. Good for you Todd, an enjoyable watch, and great to see industry folks breaking the glass ceiling and having it all!