Part nerd, part thinking woman’s sexy symbol, part daredevil -whatever tag you put on Todd Sampson he just hopes you get the message: it’s about the brain, stupid.
“A reviewer last season said if Brian Cox had a child with Bear Grylls it would be me. That kind of nailed it. I wanted to be adventurous, strenuous and exciting but also intellectual and hopeful,” he says.
His second season of ABC’s Redesign my Brain is certainly all that as he takes to the high-wire in a death-defying skyscraper walk 21 stories above Sydney. Most daredevils train for years before attempting such a feat, but the the t-shirt loving ad-guy from Gruen attempts it after just 4 months, thanks to a rigorous training of his muscles and senses.
Without giving too much away, Sampson hints, “It doesn’t go according to plan.
“It’s not an heroic pump-in-the-air ending…
“One of the producers hid in the corner and couldn’t watch. So it’s real and it has to be real to put me in a genuinely stressful, anxious state –which is what I was testing,” he insists.
“But it’s not about getting people to skywalk, it’s about getting people to face their fears regardless of what they are. It might be fear of closed spaces, public speaking or a fear of change.”
Across three episodes Sampson learns how to manage pain, fear, sharpen his vision, hearing and touch and learn how to make better decisions. More experts put him through a string of tests and challenges, gruelling, painful and intellectual (the latter are the ones viewers can attempt from the relative safety of their couch).
“It’s a very exposing series. I jokingly say I was naked from the shoulders up. Scientists in America say I now have one of the most-examined brains on the planet,” he suggests.
“So there’s no hiding, really.
“The mission was for it to be smart and entertaining, and often science documentaries err on one side.
“I want people to feel some of the risks and dangers and laugh at some of the funny things that happen to me. I want them to be involved.
“There’s an interactive element to the series too, so hopefully you play along with me.”
At the heart of the series is Brain Plasticity with Sampson demonstrating that muscles can be trained to meet the challenges and stresses of modern life. His first season, which won the 2014 AACTA Award for Documentary of the Year, came at the behest of the ABC.
“The ABC said ‘We’ve got this idea on brain science, would you be interested in hosting it?’ I read the principle around Brain Plasticity, which is a very hopeful concept, so being a science nerd I said ‘As long as I can be part of its creation.’
“My mission was to make it a science-adventure series.”
But with science-adventure comes risk. In the first episode he is in Utah climbing a 120 metre high rockface -blindfolded.
“I can tell you I was in serious jeopardy and risk. You can’t control these situations. Amid all the insurers and legals you can control it to a certain point, but when you’re standing 120 metres with a blindfold on, they don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s ‘Live,'” he stresses.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen, that’s the danger of the series.”
Yet while the intrepid host is squaring off against gravity, the take-out lessons are much more humble.
“I’m just the guinea pig. The series is meant to be about how we can all improve our brain, not me. I’m just the one who goes through all the events and testing. But we want people to try (at home),” says Sampson.
“The great thing about Brain Plasticity is –without overstating the claim- it’s very hopeful. It says that regardless of who you are you can make your brain better. That’s pretty cool. It’s science, not self-help.”
It’s a long way from the advertising world, at least physically if not metaphorically, and a toned Sampson has even been spotted shirtless on the cover of Men’s Health. The Canadian-born Aussie appears to take it all in his stride and leaves the fandom for others to get excited about.
“I don’t take any of that stuff seriously. I’m just happy people enjoy the work that I do. They’re not fans of me, they’re fans of the work, which is cool.
“I’m trying to create content that people find interesting and get something out of it for themselves. That’s the mission.”
Redesign My Brain airs 8:30pm Thursday on ABC.