#HAWMC: The Human Brain & TEDMED2012—A Creative Explosion

TEDMED conference

Today’s post continues the month-long series called the Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge (#HAWMC) created by WEGO Health.   Open a Book. Choose a book and open it to a random page and point to a phrase. Use that phrase to get you writing today. Free write for 15-20 without stopping.

“The final step was the formation of the modern Homo sapiens brain, which produced the creative explosion we continue today.” The immense capacity and the diverse capabilities of the human brain never cease to amaze me.  Never was this more the case while I attended the TEDMED conference last week.  I wrote a quick and raw post just before the conference ended as I began to pull together my impressions of all that I had seen and heard.  Here, I will began to discuss some broad themes.  It was a showcase and exploration of excellence in technology, entertainment, and design as it relates to health and medicine today. The conference did not disappoint even though as a first-time attendee, I did not know what to expect.

The Genius of Movement

The gravity-defying acrobatics of Traces made me rethinks the idea that humans we’re meant to fly since each acrobat of this dance troupe actually did fly. StepAfrika demonstrated how the body, not just the voice can be an instrument and by using their feet, hands, and voice each dancer transformed herself into a human drum. Stephen Petronio used his body and voice to eloquently share a narrative about censorship while hooked up to an IV.  A metaphor for the invasiveness of censorship presented a physical barrier that highlighted the skill of the dancer and deepened the beauty of the performance.  Of course, there is not only beauty in movement but also the wonder of power and endurance.  Talks presented by the athletes Scott JurekGabby ReeceLaird Hamilton all reminded us through conditioning and repetition, we can all train our bodies and build endurance.  Hamilton, a big wave surfer painted a more vivid image when he said, “if you do thousands of 2 foot waves, then 3 footers, and so on soon that 80 foot isn’t such a big deal” and he goes on to say, “being scared is a good place to be because it makes you hyper aware. It makes you perform better.” Indeed, our modern brain is wonderful in its capabilities, the genius of movement is but one example of its creativity.

The Power of Play

Even as we play, our brains are working overtime to experiment, meet challenges and solve problems and in the process yielding innovation and creativity. Seth Cooper, a computer scientist with the Center for Game Science at University of Washington has harnessed all of these attributes into a powerful undertaking. He turned protein structure prediction algorithms on their head with his scientific discovery game. FoldIt has provided the environment for gamers world-wide to work collaboratively to define the folding structure of important proteins being studied by research scientists in the real world.  A early game puzzle was based upon research into HIV.  Winners of the HIV puzzle identified the structure of a key protein that scientist had been working to define. The current game puzzle is based on research into the flu virus.

BioDigital Human Demo in the TEDMED Social Hub after their presentation.

The power of visual learning appeared in several places throughout the conference but perhaps the most powerful example was presented by John Qualter, a biomedical visualization expert and Marc Triola, a physician who work together at the NYU School of Medicine in the development of the BioDigital Human to better understand anatomy and disease. In essence, they have resurrected the cadaver in the virtual world (yes, it does come with 3-D glasses).  The application has effective application in medical education but may also become an effective tool for Patient Education.  As a visual learner, I am completely biased. We have come a long way from the drawings and cartoons that I used to create as an undergrad studying biology to the powerful three dimensional animations that today’s technology can create.  We are now afforded the benefit of learning from all the information captured visually without needing any drawing skills whatsoever.  Navigating through the BioDigital human felt a bit like a video game, once again unleashing that power of play.  But we have struggled for decades with motivating behavior change, a new and better picture, movie or model will not necessarily move patients to act.  We shall see.

The Miracle That Is Resilience

Ed Gavagan is owner of Praxis and successful design build firm but the magic he brought to the TEDMED stage was deeply personal.  While I had no idea where Gavagan was going as he began to discuss 3 individuals tying knots as he rode the subway in NYC, the drama and suspense he was building were palpable.  He continued and began to address the confluence of chance and malice.  In the 70’s we was the victim of a violent gang initiation and was stabbed repeatedly, with the most serious wound inflicted upon his inferior vena cava.  The prognosis was grave and he was given just a 2% chance of survival.  Gavagan’s insight is testament to the power of the patient narrative.  Only a patient can relay what goes through one’s mind as they are bleeding out on a New York City sidewalk or awaking from anesthesia after complex life-saving surgery: “It was like breaking through the ice of a frozen lake of pain.” In sum, Gavagan’s story was emotional and powerful in part because his use of imagery and humor were so masterful.  Ultimately, he brought us to our feet as tears welled up in our eyes. ( I know they welled up in mine!)  He thanked and payed tribute, “with training, and skill, and luck, we can push back against chaos.”  But there is so much value in his story for physicians and healthcare providers.  Humorously, he likens the surgeons discussion of his case (in his presence) to mechanics discussing the engine of a ’57 Chevy.  There’s always a little truth in all humor. I was struck on a deeply personal level as Gavagan revealed turning to his surgeon in the face of his post trauma nightmares and his surgeon giving him a look that said, “kid, I saved your life but its yours now to go do something.” And indeed, Gavagan has done something! In telling his story he shows us the intricate systems of the brain to protect and to cope with trauma and injury.  He is a miracle and one exemplary model of how we can heal and the resilience that makes it happen.

These are just a few highlights from my  TEDMED experience. An experience full of creativity and collaboration.  Our (modern) brains are not only extraordinarily creative but incredibly social.  We were designed to interact with others.  TEDMED beautifully serves as an incubator for collaboration and a successful model of lateral thought. Creativity is an essential part of our humanity and in remembering our humanity, I think we can best find ways to harness science, technology and design for good. An important balance that TEDMED attempts to make. No question, “the formation of the modern Homo sapiens brain [has] produced the creative explosion we continue today.” An explosion that finds problem solutions through play, continues to expand its capacity for learning, and thrives through adaptation and resilience.  I am enjoying the view from the front row!

Special Notes:
The book passage that inspired today’s post came from p.165 of The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson, Professor Emeritus, Harvard University and another brilliant presenter at TEDMED.
I attended TEDMED as a Front Line Scholar through the generous sponsorship of Mars Incorporated.

Read posts inspired by book passages from other health activists at the WEGO Health Facebook Page.

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