Moran Cerf's career as a neuroscientist began at a computer keyboard. Years ago he was hacker. That unusual career arc actually makes sense once you understand what makes Cerf (PopTech 2012) tick.
When we turn on a computer, the limits of what we can do and see are dictated by device manufacturers, programmers and website developers. Most of us don't think much about the digital bubble we are in online.
But those digital confines frustrated Cerf — and piqued his curiosity. He wanted to explore what was happening on the other side of those seemingly arbitrary boundaries. He sought to pull back the curtain and see how it all works; see what is behind that online reality. (This adventurous spirit also led to Cerf's stint as a bank robber.)
Moran has now brought his brand of curiosity to his exploration of the human brain. "How often does it happen to us in life when things we are supposedly in control of are actually happening by themselves?" he asked the Camden audience.
People are not computers, however. You can't just open up people's skulls and try to figure out what is going on behind their thoughts and emotions. Or can you?
Cerf teamed up with a Los Angeles neurosurgeon who works with patients suffering severe brain problems. The neurosurgeon opens up the patients' skulls and inserts electrodes into their brains to help identify problem areas that require treatment or surgery. "He keeps those wires in their brain for a few days while they are sitting there, awake, looking at TV and talking to their families," Cerf explained.
This was Cerf's chance. After all, the patients already had their skulls opened up. He asked those patients if he, too, could monitor their brain activity using electrodes. "The patients are happy to participate and let me see how the brain functions from inside," he said. "So now I can look at the brain while they think and see how thoughts look."
Cerf is able to identify brain cells that respond to specific images. One brain cell, for example, might become active when a patient sees a digital image of Marilyn Monroe, while another lights up at an image of Homer Simpson. "What is interesting about these cells is that they don't just get active when you see something," he added. "They get active when you think about something."
This discovery has led to some remarkable experiments. Patients have been able to teach themselves to activate one cell and deactivate another to make one image appear and another disappear simply by concentrating on one or the other. The patients are actually manipulating images in the outside world using only their minds.
This raises some stunning possibilities. "If we can connect cells to a computer and move images, we can actually replace that with a robotic arm and help people who have lost the ability to move their hands," Cerf explains.
All of us may one day benefit from the kind of curiosity that once led Cerf to wonder more about what made computers tick. And banks.
Bad things are likely to happen to us in our lives. Very bad things. Traumatic things. Sadly, as much as we like to deny it, statistics prove this to be the case.
The way we will each respond and recover to those tragedies and setbacks, however, will differ dramatically. Some of us will sink into deep depression, even long-term dsyfunction. Some of us will skate through seemingly unscathed.
That strange phenomenon is what Dr. Sandro Galea (PopTech 2012) studies. He is an epidemiologist who examines why some people mentally bounce back after trauma while others continue to suffer, or even get worse. Among other things, his lab performed significant research into mental problems among witnesses to the 9-11 attacks.
In his 2012 PopTech talk, Galea started by shocking us out of denial. "It is ingrained in our minds that bad things happen to other people and sometimes they happen to good people," Galea said. The data Galea shared, however, shows that 9 out of 10 of us will suffer at least one traumatic event in our lifetime.
It gets worse: That frightening number seems likely to only go up. "The number of disasters in the world is increasing and it has been increasing for the past 30 years," he added.
Galea's research plumbs the sometimes-murky relationship between our genetic make up, how our parents behaved, and how the number of exposures to traumatic events can all interact. Those factors help determine how likely we are to seem resilient after disasters, or slip into serious mental problems like post-traumatic stress disorder.
He also explores the slippery nature of our memory when it comes to trauma. "These events happen," he said. "They are large events. We talk about them and then we forget about them, which is of course a problem if we are going to understand the consequences of bad stuff."
Galea's talk is part of a rich vein of PopTech content about recovering from mental trauma. For example, George Bonanno, (PopTech 2012) a psychology professor at Columbia University, also studies data that show how human beings cope with loss and extreme adversity. And Retired Army Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, MD (PopTech 2012) and clinical trainer Laurie Leitch, Ph.D. (PopTech 2012) work on neurobiological approaches to social resilience. This line of inquiry seems likely to become more and more relevant with each passing year, as much as we like to deny it.
David Eagleman (PopTech 2012) is a pioneer exploring the last great frontier of the human brain. He is particularly interested in the unconscious brain, how it drives our morality and decision making, and how what we know about those processes informs our thinking about crime and punishment in America.
The complexity of the brain is dizzying. The human brain weighs only three pounds. But Eagleman notes that it contains tens of billions of neurons. Between those neurons are hundreds of trillions of connections. There are as many neuron connections in a cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way.
Many of us probably think about the brain as being us: our personality and thoughts. But in fact only a small fraction of those neurons are dedicated to our consciousness — the mind. The large majority of that vast network is actually dedicated to the work of the unconscious brain, which is completely invisible to us. The conscious mind, Eagleman says, is the "broom closet in the mansion of the brain."
Eagleman shared some vivid examples to show how the unconscious brain affects some of our most important life choices. "If your name is Dennis or Denise you are statistically more likely to become a dentist," Eagleman explained. And we are all statistically more likely to choose a spouse with a name that starts with the same letter as our own. That unconscious drive to like things that remind us of ourselves is called "implicit egotism." Other examples were more subtle, but still surprising. If you are holding a mug of hot coffee, for example, you will describe your relationship with your mother as closer than if you are holding an ice coffee.
But Eagleman also explored some more startling case studies, like how a brain tumor drove Charles Whitman in 1966 to climb to the top of the tower at the University of Texas in Austin and gun down more than a dozen people. Whitman, a previously sane man, knew something was the matter and in his suicide note requested a brain autopsy. Eagleman also showed how another brain tumor turned a man with a previously normal sexual appetite into a pedophile. "When the brain changes, you can change also," Eagleman said. "You are tied to your biology and there is no way you can escape that."
The growing body of knowledge about the power of the unconscious brain provokes some interesting philosophical questions about the human condition. "Are we free to choose how we act? Is the mind equal to the brain?" Eagleman asked. "What seems clear is that if free will exists, it is a small player in the system."
Eagleman is also interested in more practical matters, like how what we are learning about the brain can teach us about American crime and punishment. "Nowadays, when we are talking about morality and decision making, what we are really talking about is the neural basis of this," Eagleman said.
He established the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at Baylor College of Medicine to bring together neuroscientists, judges and policy makers to wrestle with these difficult issues. The work there calls into question the current assumptions at the very heart of the U.S. justice and penal system. These assumptions include the belief that we fundamentally choose how we act, and that all brains are basically equal. "It is a very charitable assumption," Eagleman said. "But it is demonstrably false."
The implications of that are startling. "The problem with these assumptions is that it has led us to treat incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution," Eagleman said. As a result, America has highest percentage of citizens behind bars in the world, and 30 percent of inmates have mental illness, making American prisons the country's "de facto mental health care system."
"This does not exculpate anybody," Eagleman said. "What this gives us instead is the capacity to do rational sentencing, to do customized rehabilitation, and to do realistic incentive structuring instead of imagining that everybody respons the same to the same sort of deterrent."
It used to be that in business, bigger was better. Large-scale production required vast resources and a large organization to back it up and make it run. "Over the last 150 years, the primary way to organize economic activity has been through a bureaucratic hierarchy," said Brad Burnham, (PopTech 2012) a managing partner at Union Square Ventures.
As a result, big companies amassed a lot of power. Record companies ruled music. Newspapers had huge control over information. Brick and mortar universities largely monopolized education. That's how it has been for decades.
The Internet changed all that. Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey didn't need much more than a laptop to launch Facebook and Twitter, which are now business behemoths. The power of their products comes from the network of individuals who use those social media tools. "Within that model, you can have a creator and a consumer collaborating together to create economic value," Burnham said.
Many large companies are threatened by that trend. They attempt to "slow the threat," as Burnham puts it. They sue the upstarts or exercise their significant influence to lobby for regulations to protect their turf. Think about the record industry's response to Napster, for example. While that kind of reaction is understandable, it creates an atmosphere that inevitably stifles some innovation that would otherwise blossom. Those innovations might help solve some of the world's most pressing challenges.
That's why Burnham is collaborating with Ari Jónsson, (PopTech 2012) rector of Reykjavik University, Iceland’s leading university in technology, business and law. They want to create a laboratory for Internet freedom and innovation in Iceland.
Why Iceland? Iceland is an independent democracy. The economy has grown mostly on the basis of natural resources like geothermal energy and fisheries. Industry based on information technology, however, is relatively new. "What that also means is that there is not a lot of regulation in the way in terms of information technology," Jónsson said.
In Iceland, universities, industries and political parties are coming together through the Internet Policy Institute. That group will be analyzing issues as diverse as intellectual property and cybersecurity in an effort to establish a Internet business ecosystem that fosters innovation. The idea is to create the ideal policy framework for innovation on the Internet. "We believe that it is one of a number of tools that are critically important to ensuring that the network and the economy that is crated on the Internet has an opportunity to solve these really, really difficult problems," Burnam said.
Rose Goslinga (PopTech 2011) runs Kilimo Salama, a revolutionary micro-insurance product available to farmers who work relatively small plots of land in Kenya and Rwanda. Traditional crop insurance typically requires farm visits to verify claims. But it is not economically viable for an insurer to visit the many small, far-fetched farms scattered across Kenya and Rwanda.
Kilimo Salama (which means "safe farming" in Swahili) uses weather stations to remotely monitor weather conditions, including damaging droughts and excess rain that sometimes wipe out a farmer's entire harvest. This means that farm visits are not necessary. Payments and crop production advice are distributed just as inexpensively through mobile phones.
Goslinga was a PopTech 2011 Social Innovation fellow. When she spoke at PopTech back then, her organization was insuring around 20,000 farmers in Africa.
Within the past several weeks, Kilimo Salama made a huge achievement: More than 100,000 farmers are now insured.
Congratulations to Rose Goslinga and Kilimo Salama on that exciting milestone for an important, impactful innovation.
The theme of this year's PopTech conference will be "Sparks of Brilliance," an exploration of the nature of creativity.
Creativity is expressed in business, the sciences, society and in art. But we seldom share, compare and contrast the lessons from these different arenas. PopTech's annual conference in Camden, Maine, scheduled for this coming Oct. 24 - 26, will do just that.
The conference will convene imaginative visionaries from a variety of fields to see what they can learn from each other about creativity, where it comes from, and whether it can be taught or amplified. The format will include presentations and discussions about what the latest science tells us about the creative mind and how the most recent technology creates new platforms for connection that change the creative process.
PopTech conferences grapple with pressing global trends and cutting edge innovations. Sparks of Brilliance will follow through on that tradition.
But PopTech 2013 will also feature a joyful experience of jaw-dropping creativity in all its forms. Join us and experience inspiration like never before at Sparks of Brilliance.
Adrian Anantawan was born without a right hand. But that did not stop him from becoming a violin virtuoso.
At PopTech 2012, Anantawan shared his own story of resilience; how starting at age nine he managed to conquer an instrument that seems to require two fully operational hands.
But Anantawan is also an educator and technologist who is interested in a more fundamental question: "What happens when a person meets a musical instrument?" he asked.
Anantawan helped establish the Virtual Chamber Music Initiative at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehab Centre. It is a collaborative project that develops adaptive musical instruments for kids with disabilities. He said the idea is that, "Children all have the right to explore the world more meaningfully and explore their imagination through this phenomenon we call music."
He shared video of children with severe disabilities who were able to create music with the aid of a computer, camera and simulated colored shapes on a screen. A paralyzed former violinist is even able to accompany Anantawan and other musicians as they perform "Pachabel's Canon."
"The violin itself is a 16th-century piece of technology. It was created to extend the range of the human voice," Anantawan said. "At its best, technology serves to extend the range of human capability."
Photos by PopTech
"Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed." - UNESCO's Constitution, 1945
Today millions of Kenyans are casting their votes in an election that is being closely watched worldwide. PeaceTXT, a collaborative initiative of PopTech and renowned global technology, violence interruption and peacekeeping experts is piloting a unique approach that promotes peace and solidarity through SMS messaging. The following post by PeaceTXT partner, Patrick Meier, captures the spirit and promise of this unique project.
- Leetha Filderman, PopTech President
In Kenya, PeaceTXT is building the defenses of peace out of text messages (SMS). As The New York Times explains, PeaceTXT is developing a “text messaging service that sends out blasts of pro-peace messages to specific areas when trouble is brewing.” Launched by PopTech and in partnership with the Kenyan NGO Sisi ni Amani (We are Peace), the Kenyan implementation of PeaceTXT uses mobile advertising to market peace and change men's minds adn behaviors.
Conflicts are often grounded in the stories and narratives that people tell themselves and in the emotions that these stories evoke. Narratives shape identity and the social construct of reality — we interpret our lives through stories. These have the power to transform or infect relationships and communities. As U.S.-based PeaceTXT partner CureViolence (formerly CeaseFire) has clearly shown, violence propagates in much the same way as infectious diseases. The good news is that we already know how to treat the latter: by blocking transmission and treating the infected. This is precisely the approach taken by CureViolence to successfully prevent violence on the streets of Chicago, Baghdad and elsewhere.
The challenge? CureViolence cannot be everywhere at the same time. But the "Crowd" is always there and where the crowd goes, mobile phones often follow. PeaceTXT leverages this new reality by threading a social narrative of peace using mobile messages. Empirical research in public health (and mobile advertising) clearly demonstrates that mobile messages and reminders can change behaviors. Given that conflicts are often grounded in the narratives that people tell themselves, we believe that mobile messaging may also influence conflict behavior and possibly prevent the widespread transmission of violent mindsets.
To test this hypothesis, PopTech partnered with Sisi ni Amani (SNA-K) in 2011 to pilot and assess the use of mobile messaging for violence interruption and prevention since SNA-K had already been using mobile messaging for almost three years to promote peace, raise awareness about civic rights and encourage recourse to legal instruments for dispute resolution. During the 12 months leading up to today's presidential elections, the Kenyan NGO SNA-K has worked with PopTech and PeaceTXT partners (Medic Mobile, QCRI, Ushahidi and CureViolence) to identify the causes of peace in some of the country's most conflict-prone communities. Since wars begin in the minds of men, SNA-K has held dozens of focus groups in many local communities to better understand the kinds of messaging that might make would-be perpetrators think twice before committing violence. Focus group participants also discussed the kinds of messaging needed to counter rumors. Working with Ogilvy, a global public relations agency with expertise in social marketing, SNA-K subsequently codified the hundreds of messages developed by the local communities to produce a set of guidelines for SNA-K staff to follow. These guidelines describe what types of messages to send to whom, where and when depending on the kinds of tensions being reported.
In addition to organizing these important focus groups, SNA-K literally went door-to-door in Kenya’s most conflict-prone communities to talk with residents about PeaceTXT and invite them to subscribe to SNA-Ks free SMS service. Today, SNA-K boasts over 60,000 SMS subscribers across the country. Thanks to Safaricom, the region's largest mobile operator, SNA-K will be able to send out 50 million text messages completely for free, which will significantly boost the NGO's mobile reach during today's elections. And thanks to SNA-K's customized mobile messaging platform built by the Praekelt Foundation, the Kenyan NGO can target specific SMS's to individual subscribers based on their location, gender and demographics. In sum, as CNN explains, “the intervention combines targeted SMS with intensive on-the-ground work by existing peace builders and community leaders to target potential flashpoints of violence.”
The partnership with PopTech enabled SNA-K to scale thanks to the new funding and strategic partnerships provided by PopTech. Today, PeaceTXT and SNA-K have already had positive impact in the lead up to today's important elections. For example, a volatile situation in Dandora recently led to the stabbing of several individuals, which could have resulted in a serious escalation of violence. So SNA-K sent the following SMS:
"Tu dumisha amani!" means "Lets keep the peace!" SNA-K's local coordinator in Dandore spoke with a number of emotionally distraught and (initially) very angry individuals in the area who said they had been ready to mobilizing and take revenge. But, as they later explained, the SMS sent out by SNA-K made them think twice. They discussed the situation and decided that more violence wouldn’t bring their friend back and would only bring more violence. They chose to resolve the volatile situation through mediation instead.
In Sagamian, recent tensions over land issues resulted in an outbreak of violence. So SNA-K sent the following message:
Those involved in the fighting subsequently left the area, telling SNA-K that they had decided not to fight after receiving the SMS. What's more, they even requested that additional messages be sent. SNA-K has collected dozens of such testimonials, which suggest that PeaceTXT is indeed having an impact on the minds of men.
Historian Geoffrey Blainey once wrote that "for every thousand pages on the causes of war, there is less than one page directly on the causes of peace.” Today, the PeaceTXT Kenya and SNA-K partnership are making sure that for every one SMS that may incite violence, a thousand messages of peace, calm and solidarity will follow to change the minds of men. Tudumishe amani!
Icelanders are a famously hearty lot. Norwegian Vikings trying to escape the rule and taxation of Norway’s king first inhabited the land that is now Iceland in the 9th century. So they had pluck from the start. But you simply have to be resilient to survive in such frozen, forbidding territory.
Margrét Pála (PopTech 2012) is a groundbreaking educator from that rugged country. Starting back in 1989 she was first somewhat infamous, and later more famous, for developing her own rigorous pedagogical model for educating young Icelandic kids. Pála emphasizes resilience, in part, because it is a key component to surviving and thriving in a challenging world.
It's all very Icelandic, and her ideas can seem a bit rugged to the uninitiated. But that makes sense, given that since the Vikings arrived on that isolated island in the North Atlantic, Iceland's history has been marked by wrenching poverty, volcanic eruptions, poor farming conditions, avalanches that wiped out entire villages, and repeated economic collapses.
"We are hard-wired in our resilience," Pála said in her 2012 PopTech talk, which is now available online. "'We have seen it worse,' we always say."
In practice, this means emphasizing decision-making and creativity. Rather than traditional toys, classrooms are populated with open-ended, natural materials that require children to improvise. Exercises include instructions about breaking norms and rules: "Go through the window," Pála exclaims. "Why are you always using the door?" And her kids get a bit of tough love. "Go out with your bare feet," she says to them. "Maybe it hurts a little bit. That's great."
Classrooms are also segregated by sex, children are required to wear uniforms to encourage discipline, and the curriculum includes exercises in jumping off cushions to help very young children learn the value of a little courage in life. That's something every Icelander has needed since at least the 9th century.
Statistics prove that when it comes to positive education outcomes, teen pregnancy is something akin to a death knell. The data show that whatever chance a girl had to graduate high school and go on to higher education evaporates significantly when she gets pregnant.
But it's instructive to look at people and institutions that turn those numbers on their head. Consider the Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit, founded and run by Asenath Andrews (PopTech 2012). It is an alternative high school for teen mothers that also provides early education services for their children.
"Our job is to make sure that our girls graduate from high school and are accepted to a 2 or 4 year college before they leave," Andrews said in her 2012 PopTech talk that is now available online. Here is the thing: Andrews' school typically reaches that goal 100 percent of the time.
How impressive is that? Consider the math. Studies show that out of 14,000 American school districts, 25 of the lowest-achieving districts account for 20 percent of high school dropouts and 16 percent of teen births. Problems also get handed down from generation to generation. Only about two-thirds of those girls' children will graduate from high school.
An innovative curriculum explains some of Andrews' success. Students are heavily involved in urban farming and raising livestock. One graduation requirement, for example, is that each student must plant, pick, cook and eat a meal from her own garden. Students are in the midst of planning, designing and building a real sustainable community near the school. They have also travelled to South Africa to teach urban farming.
Another reason Andrews' school performs so well is due to the professionalism of the staff and their high expectations for each student. "If I expect that you are going to have a future, then you expect it," Andrews said. "Smart is what you get, not what you are."