Wolfson Neuroscientist stars in popular Chinese game show "Super Brain"

Super Brain promotional poster

PhD student in Neuroscience, Scott Wilson, represents the UK in one of the world's most watched TV game shows: 最强大脑/ Zùiqiáng Dànǎo, commonly known in English as Super Brain.

Scott Wilson is no stranger to high-profile quiz shows after representing Cambridge on the BBC's University Challenge in 2023. However, as Scott himself says, Super Brain is a "whole different beast", streamed to hundreds of millions of viewers across China. 

The show originated in Germany, but has found mainstream popularity in China and is currently in its 11th season. Seeking out exceptional minds, the show involves a range of intense mental challenges, testing participants in skills such as calculation, observation, puzzling, and spatial navigation.

The reality show is engineered to test the limits of human intelligence and the winner of each season is crowned the "King or Queen of Brainpower". We spoke with Scott about his experience of the show, and what led him to compete. 

Can you tell me a bit about your experience of Super Brain prior to filming the show? How were you recruited for it?

I actually found out originally via the Porters, who had received an unusual phone call out-of-the-blue asking for my details.

My first thought was whether it was actually real or not, as it’s not every afternoon at the lab you receive an email like that! I then found out I’d been scouted among a number of prospective candidates, and after interviews and tests this culminated in an invitation to take part in the show as the UK representative. 

Had you heard of or seen the show before? 

I’d never heard of the Super Brain before, but after speaking to friends from China, I realised it was very popular - and that I should be wary of the potential for humiliation in front of hundreds of millions of viewers! 

I was happy with my performance though. Coming into filming, I was completely in the dark about the show’s format and competing against some of China’s smartest students - many of whom had dreamt of going on the show since they were young and had been training for it.

I know your challenge was about diverse intelligence, and involved six different areas of skill. Tell me about it. 

Each season has a few special episodes, where select international contestants act as the finalists - almost like a boss battle. My topic was known as 六维赛道, or six-sided circuit warrior. 

Whilst other challenges involve very specific skills that contestants would be well-trained in (e.g., memorising many playing cards, speed-solving Rubik’s cubes), in their own words this topic looks for  “normal people”, who are all-rounders and untrained for the topic. 

The six components were calculation, creativity, deduction, memory, observation, and 3D spatial awareness. I really enjoyed this topic as it allowed for some fun challenges within the theme, with each having a slightly different flavour across the six components and requiring different strategies to approach.

Have you always liked a variety of ways of thinking, or was this a new challenge for you?

I guess in school I also was always an “all-rounder”. I originally had wanted to study a Humanities subject like History or Classics at university, but later decided on Neuroscience as I really liked the experimental creativity and logic it required. I also have always enjoyed puzzles, so despite the pressure I actually had a lot of fun with the challenge!

Last year, you represented Wolfson on the BBC’s University Challenge. How did you prepare for Super Brain in comparison with preparing for University Challenge

It definitely was a very different experience! There, we had lots of past questions you can go over and the format of each episode is the same - whereas for Super Brain I had no idea of what my challenge would be until right before filming started. 

Moreover, this show is not ‘knowledge-based’ like University Challenge: where if you don’t get a question, it’s ultimately (in theory at least!) because you didn’t study enough. Here, there isn’t any studying or practice that would really help you. That’s the point of this six-sided challenge - it gives an even playing field. 

Was it different competing as an individual instead of as part of a team? 

There was definitely more pressure, as I was a single individual and serving as the international finalist who takes on the Chinese team. 

This means plenty of expectation on your shoulders - not only was I alone and essentially an adversary, but I was representing both Cambridge and the whole UK!

However, I would say I was definitely more nervous for University Challenge. I had never heard of Super Brain until 6 weeks before filming, and with it also being in a foreign language and country it was such a surreal, once-in-a-lifetime experience that I just enjoyed it!

To me, the show feels quite unique; competitors don’t go on it for monetary prizes as they might with other game shows. What do you think the show is aiming to do and why did you decide to compete?

You’re right that it’s unique. I certainly don’t think there is an accurate comparison in the UK. University Challenge is close, but Super Brain – as a ‘scientific reality’ game show that gets hundreds of millions of viewers – is a whole different beast.

The aim of the show is to promote intelligence as something cool to the public (in fact, the show's slogan is "Making Science Popular"), and many children and students will dream of being on it. For me, it just seemed too unique of an experience to turn down - even if it did mean a few weeks of distractions from my PhD!

Given that your episode recently came out in January 2024, have you had any reaction so far?

The first surprise was waking up on the morning after it was broadcast to see I'd had over 200 LinkedIn requests overnight! It’s also been funny to read over the - mostly pleasant - comments from Chinese social media. I hope that I’ll be able to go back there in the future for other media opportunities, but it’s also been nice to return to reality in the UK and get back to my PhD!

Watch the episode

You can watch the full episode in Chinese here. Scott is first introduced at 3 minutes, and then he takes on his challenge at 1 hour 4 minutes.