The Mind Behind "The Mind, Explained" on the Making of the Limited Series: A talk with Adam Cole
It’s a series that started with the not-so-simple question: Why does the mind behave the way that it does? The Mind, Explained (2019), a documentary-style production, takes the viewer on a mixed-media journey that explores phenomena, such as why we forget what’s in the fridge, or dream about our teeth falling out, or remember things that didn’t actually happen.
Narrated by Emma Stone, the five-part mini-series — an offshoot of the Explained series on Netflix — is the brainchild of Adam Cole, the Senior Producer & Art Director of Vox Media. To examine memory, dreams, mindfulness, anxiety, and psychedelics, the science storyteller wrote and directed the show, as well as sought out and interviewed all of the featured talent.
Although Cole studied biology as an undergrad, he eventually segued into journalism, creating a science YouTube channel at NPR before moving to Vox, where he worked with a small but efficient team of animators and editors to make The Mind, Explained.
ARTpublika Magazine interviewed Adam Cole to learn more about his career and the creative process behind the making of the show.
After Explained first aired, how did the idea for The Mind, Explained come about?
[So, the idea behind Explained] was that the first season would have a bunch of episodes, all of which would be on different topics and not interrelated at all, except aesthetically. [After it aired, the creators thought:] Maybe it’d be fun or more efficient to have a couple of miniseries that would dive deeper into larger topics.
One of the miniseries was slated to be about sex; another was about the mind, or how our minds create our personal realities. There were eight different subtopics that were being played around with. When I came onboard, I sort of whittled that down to the five that I ended up writing and producing.
Which one was the most interesting to you?
I think memory — the way we proposed to think about memory as the mirror image of imagination. So, [when you imagine the future,] your mind creates a model of it, and that same machinery is used to construct and reconstruct your memories. I think that is a powerful concept, one that I found fascinating.
Your work often combines science and storytelling. What did you study in school?
I grew up in Oregon, about an hour from the ocean. I wasn't really a beach kid — I mean, I went to the beach probably a few times a year — but I did a lot of backpacking when I was finishing my undergrad degree.
As an undergrad, I studied biology and worked in a lab that studied wave forces in the intertidal zone, where [the ocean meets the land between high and low tides;] it was all about the little creatures that live in that zone. [I also started writing for the school newspaper.]
Then, I went on to do a master’s in Biological Sciences. When I finished my master’s, it was right in the middle of the financial crisis fallout and I was unsure of what I wanted to do. So, I got an internship at a little newspaper in Northern California through this cool program that was designed to support local journalists and help fledgling students.
It's very hard to get your first journalism job; everyone wants to see your previous work. So, this was an opportunity to get experience. The program paid my salary and the newspaper got someone to work with stories.
When you began working on The Mind, Explained, was your goal for the series?
To be entertaining and challenging enough for people to want to learn [and actually do so. I am constantly asking myself:] How can we give people a new understanding of a topic that is real and not superficial.
So, how do you do that?
It's a combination of a lot of different things: bringing in emotion and [elements] of surprise, trying to convey a sense of wonder through the writing, finding good and engaging speakers. And, aesthetically, making the show look fun, so that you want to watch it. I write scripts; when writing for video it's important to flesh out the visuals at the same time.
What are your visual references?
To me "visual references" are sources of inspiration that inform the style and aesthetic of an episode. I take visual inspiration from artists I follow on Instagram and Vimeo.
Aside from creating graphics for the show, do you use archival sources?
We often use snippets of old, vintage films in our episodes — lots of public domain educational films and government PSAs.
What do you use to keep up with the latest research?
I do a lot of poking around on Google Scholar, as well as read a lot of books and other publications.
How do you organize your research?
The organizational system I use is Google Sheets. I have a tab that's full of information about people — who they are, where they work, and what their hot takes are on different subjects — who I think would be interesting to talk to; and another, full of a bunch of links to different papers, articles, and visual references.
What is your creative process in coming up with topics and interviews, etc.?
I try to find two or three really well-researched books that take a look at the topic from a few different perspectives as well as have a ton of annotations and citations, so that I can see the authors’ primary sources. Then I try to synthesize that into a coherent narrative. But, the basic principles of storytelling are consistent.
How do you approach interviews?
For our show, and video in general, the most interesting interviews to watch are the ones where the person being interviewed kind of forgets that they’re being interviewed. This is when a typical Q&A becomes more of a conversation, and the interviewee is talking fluidly about their own experiences with a sense of ease and confidence. And, I think that being awkward and a nerd can actually help put people at ease.
Note* All images are the creative and intellectual property of Vox & Netflix, used with permission.