What I Learned at TED: What It Means to be Human

It was 5 amazing days in Palm Springs. It was my first TED conference, TEDActive. And, as one would expect, it was a revelation. You leave TED with a cranium crammed with disparate ideas, all jockeying for position. On Saturday, at the poolside farewell party, we were all intellectually shell shocked, either sitting numbly in the Palm Spring sun or grabbing a watergun and reverting to childhood. I started talking to one Bing engineer and soon we were sucked back into a conversation that was much too intellectual for either of our idea-soaked brains to contend with. As he said – “I thought I had had my last TED-conversation. I gotta go veg somewhere!”

So, what exactly did I learn at TED? Well, it’s hard to pack over 50 minor and major explosions of revelation into one blog post, but there were some highlights and from them, one major theme. That I can share.

Don’t Judge a Book by It’s Cover

If one went by appearances alone, one would walk away from a TED conference horribly impoverished. The riches here are found in the most unlikely places. Take Temple Grandin. I grew up in a cow town in Alberta called Sundre. Sweats and rubber boots are perfectly acceptable on the main street of Sundre and jeans, a baseball cap and cowboy boots are considered formal wear (if the jeans are clean). Temple would be right at home. She came on stage, no nonsense cow girl that she is, looking every bit the part. Temple was terribly out of place, but Temple has been out of place her whole life. She is, as she explained, an anthropologist on Mars.

grandinTemple is a high functioning autistic, with Asperger’s. She has a PhD and is possibly the best known autistic in the world. She is THE leading expert in livestock handling and has written over 100 academic papers, both on her chosen area of expertise and on autism. Temple has given the world a great gift, a glimpse inside the fascinating and baffling mind of autism. The problem with autism is that it often comes with a highly developed skill in one area, in Grandin’s case, empathizing with animals, but little skill in communicating that to others. Temple Grandin has been our guide and interpreter into autism. And on the TED stage, she was amazing. We soon forgot her outside appearance and gave ourselves wholly over to her message.

RaghavaAnother was Raghava KK – a young Indian artist. Raghava first appears to be an immature, giggling and slightly nervous teenager that is about a deep as a wading pool. But that impression lasts about 25 seconds. Then you dive into a bottomless ocean of passion, insight, emotion and, above all, compassion. Raghava held us spellbound for 18 minutes as he led us through his short but amazing life, including no less than 4 phoenix like artistic deaths and rebirths, each precipitated by a major life event.

These were just two examples. There were many more: Dan Barber, a chef, who is one of the best communicators I have ever had the pleasure of seeing on stage,  and Adora Svitak, a 12 year old from Tacoma who caused us to completely rethink our notion of “childishness.”

The Dualism of Humans

So, those were some of the highlights. There were many. I particularly liked Robert Scoble’s recap. He was, of course, at TED in Long Beach and I was in Palm Springs, but the content was the same (by the way, don’t feel that TEDActive is a step down from TED, it’s a step in a different direction, more informal, more casual and, according to many, more fun).

But what was the overall theme of TED? For me, it brought to light an idea I’ve been wrestling with for some time – the dualism of human nature.

When I say dualism, you may think of a Cartesian sort of dualism, a divide between the physical and the spiritual, between mind and matter. But my dualism is more rooted in evolutionary psychology and brain function. This dualism splits the nature of humans into two levels of neural function, cortical and sub-cortical. It’s the difference between “Blink” and “Think”. And that dualism was the thread that run through almost every session at TED 2010.

It started right from the opening talk, given by one of the iconic figures in helping uncover this human dualism – Daniel Kahnemann, the inventor of behavioral economics. Kahnemann explored the difference between experiential happiness and remembered happiness. You see, our happiness is usually based not on what we did, but what we remembered doing. And that is altered by our subconscious biases. For example, the end of our experience often determines how we feel about the whole thing. Hence the logic of the big finale. And remembered happiness doesn’t account for duration. Now, rationally this makes no sense. That’s one half of the dualism. But ration doesn’t live in the other half. That is ruled by emotion. So, our happiness is whittled out somewhat arbitrarily by our emotional biases.

I suppose if we accept that, we could go on accepting our rational short comings. But here’s the other part about dualism. Our irrationality is hidden from us. In fact, we take our irrationality and thinly disguise it with a layer of supposed rationality. Again, let’s return to our happiness. Our future decisions are dictated not by what we actually experienced as happiness, but by what we remember as happiness, which is filtered through our irrational emotions. This means that all this irrationality is baked right into what we believe is ration without our being any the wiser. We build our houses of logic on the shaky ground of emotional bias. This is the essence of behavioral economics.

This is essential to understand in looking at this dualism. It’s not two separate halves, it’s more like two different strings tied into a complex Gordian knot. Logic and emotion are intertwined and interlinked. Even when we think we’re standing on the purely rational side, every decision we make is being influenced by emotion, lurking just below the cortical surface.

Sarah SilvermanThe yin and yang of emotion and logic is not a bad thing. In this union lies love, idealism, art and the essence of our humanity. But we also have to accept that in it lies hate, fear, prejudice and the essence of our animalism. We have to accept and understand who we are and, more importantly, the limitations of our logic. We have to call a spade a spade. And this, to me, what the theme that ran through TED. It started with Kahnemann, but it tied Michael Specter’s talk about how fear and irrationality can bring science to a standstill, Michael Shermer’s presentation about how we are biased towards decisions that minimize risk but also minimize opportunity, Sam Harris’s view that morality can no longer be artificially divorced from the rigors of the scientific method and even chef Jamie Oliver’s plea for us to stop eating ourselves into oblivion. But our duality came into it’s sharpest focus during the controversial presentation by comedian Sarah Silverman. Here, in the most intellectual of arenas, Silverman tested our ability to divorce our minds from our emotions by delivering a gut punch to our sense of propriety. It was impossible to remain intellectually detached from Silverman’s satirical attack on taste and political correctness. Even TED curator Chris Anderson couldn’t help himself, twittering that Silverman was “god-awful” and afterwards realizing he too had been caught in a visceral trap, forcing him to offer the most passive aggressive apology I have ever heard the next morning. The collective intellect of TED struggled with our reaction, which could find no redemption in logic. Some laughed (I did), some were disgusted (I had twinges of this). But it was what it was. We are human, as Silverman brilliantly revealed, and we reacted in a human way. Let’s accept that. Let’s embrace that.It is time to uncover the irrational roots of our logic and make decisions with a full and complete understanding of what really drives us.

For me, after all the talks and presentations, that was what stuck. The question posed by Chris Anderson at the beginning of TED was, what does the world need now? For me, the answer was – The world needs a better understanding of what it means to be human, to be gloriously imperfect and irrational. The world needs us to not be hindered by our irrationality but be driven by our passion. The same things that can hold us back, if we choose not to understand them, can drive us forward, if we accept and accelerate them.

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