Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘TED’

19 JULY, 2010

7 Must-Read Books by TED Global Speakers


Design imperialism, what gender equality has to do with military spending, and where 185 pig parts go.

Last week, reported from this year’s TEDGlobalfour grueling days of cerebral stimulation and idea orgy spectatorship. Today, we spotlight 7 must-read books by some of this year’s speakers, litmus-tested for brilliance in the world’s most reliable quality-control lab: the TED stage.

PIG O5049

Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma set out to explore the increasing difficulty with which we can trace the origin of the products we consume in this age of globalization, labor specialization and outsourcing.

In PIG O5049, she hunts down the astounding number of different products — 185, to be exact — made from parts of a specific pig, owned by a farmer friend and tagged with the identification number 05049.

The book is a photographic anthology of these items — ranging from — complete with infographic charts and diagrams outlining the production destiny of the various pig parts.

Beautifully bound and visually stunning, the book takes an unusual, non-preachy approach to an issue of ever-growing importance, leaving you the reader to draw your own conclusions — a task more challenging than it sounds in an age of information overload and prescriptive ideology.


We’ve had a longtime brain crush on cultural theorist and author Steven Johnson, one of the sharpest thinkers and most compelling writers in the broader world of creative culture and intellectual property. His latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, explores exactly what the title promises — and, based on his instant-hit TED talk, it does so in a brilliant way that treks across anthropology, sociology, philosophy, behavioral psychology, cognitive science and copyright law, breezing through the cross-pollination of these diverse disciplines with an ease and humor that promise a read not fit for putting down.

The book comes out in October and is now available for pre-order.


The Visual Miscellaneum, which we reviewed in full last October, is one of our all-time favorite books, so we were delighted to see its author, David McCandless take the TED stage. (And even more delighted to chat with him about infoviz and Britishness over wine.)

If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and grab a copy of this visualization gem, a brilliantly curated anthology of infographic whimsy on anything from military spending to the most pleasurable guilty pleasures.


Chef and entrepreneur Arthur Potts Dawson has set out to revolutionize the restaurant industry, the world’s most wasteful, second only to war. His Waterhouse restaurant, for instance, is the world’s first fully non-carbon eatery, running entirely on hydroelectricity from kitchen to table — a true walk-the-walk manifestation of his principles.

In The Acorn House Cookbook: Good Food from Field to Fork, with a foreword by TEDPrize winner and food activism celebrity Jamie Oliver, Dawson intersects great food with environmental sensibility in a recipe arsenal that makes for the most refined kind of moral and gustatory palate.


At TED, women’s rights crusader Sheryl WuDunn made a convincing case for the idea that gender inequality is the greatest moral challenge of the 21st century.

Her bestselling book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, is as much a necessary course in cultural anthropology and gender politics as it is a manifesto for intercepting a vicious cycle of raging abuse and quiet oppression. She points to local women as the most powerful change agents without which it is impossible for a country to raise itself from poverty.


In The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak weaves a fascinating story-within-a-story involving a Bostonian suburban housewife, literary infatuation, and 13th-century mysticism.

The novel exudes Shafak’s characteristic East-West narrative, a cross-cultural bridge of eloquence and captivating storytelling, and links nicely to her excellent TED talk about how fiction can overcome identity politics.

Stories help us get a glimpse of each other and, sometimes, maybe even like what we see.”


Last year, we reviewed Emily Pilloton‘s fantastic humanitarian design anthology, Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People. Since then, Pilloton and her partner have moved the Project H Design headquarters to Bernie County, North Carolina — one of rural America’s poorest areas, where 13% of children live below the poverty line. There, Pilloton has set out to revolutionize a broken education system from the ground up, founding the country’s first high school design/building program. She lives and breathes the Project H Design manifesto: There is no design without action; design WITH, not FOR; document, share and measure; start locally and scale globally; design systems, not stuff.

Design Revolution remains a powerful reminder of why humanitarian design matters — not to egos but to communities, not to award committees but to human ecosystems. It’s a particularly interesting read in the context of the recent epic kerfuffle in the design community, initiated by Bruce Nussbaum as he called designers the new imperialists, unleashing a deluge of responses by some of today’s most arduous in-the-field humanitarian designers, including Architecture for Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair, FrogDesign’s Robert Fabricant, and Pilloton herself.

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15 JULY, 2010

Dreaming of Lucid Living: Enchanted Entertainment


Touching pixels, or how digital animation and analog performance converge into magic.

As we continue covering TEDGlobal 2010 for GOOD, another short-and-sweet today — Dreaming of Lucid Living, an enchanted performance-animation by California-based multimedia artist Miwa Matreyek.

Matreyek performed an excerpt from this piece at the opening of Session 6, Different by Design, of TED — which you can follow via our live Twitter stream this week.

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11 JUNE, 2010

This Is Your Brain on Love


Why love is not an emotion and how obsessive thinking begets romantic joy.

Love is a complicated beast. And despite the ownership with which centuries of literature and art and music have claimed romance, there’s actually quite a bit of science of in it. Love, in fact, is as much a product of the heart as it is of the brain — a combination of neurochemistry and storytelling, the hormones and neurotransmitters that make us feel certain emotions, and the stories we choose to tell ourselves about those emotions.

Today, we turn to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies the evolution of human emotions and the intricacies of the brain in — and on — love. Fisher explores the science of love without losing a sense of romance, shedding light on some of the complex ways in which the brain and the heart diverge.

If you can stomach the geekines, there’s actually a wealth of insight in this talk Dr. Fisher gave at the American Psychiatric Association’s Sex, Sexuality and Serotonin conference in 2004, brilliantly synthesized here, in which she argues — with solid scientific evidence and from a rich interdisciplinary perspective — that antidepressants may jeopardize romantic love.

Why? Love, Fisher points out, is not an emotion — it’s “a motivation system, it’s a drive, it’s part of the reward system of the brain.” It’s typically characterized by high dopamine and norepinephrine, but also by low serotonin, which is responsible for the obsessive thinking attached to romantic love — something Fisher confirmed in her fMRI studies. But serotonin-enhancing antidepressants blunt the emotions, including that precious elation of romance that is necessary to the growth and perseverance of romantic love.

Serotonin-enhancing antidepressants also suppress obsessive thinking, which is a very central component of romantic love.” ~ Helen Fisher

Dr. Fisher offers three key components of love, involving different but connected brain systems:

  • Lust — driven by androgens and estrogens, the craving for sexual gratification
  • Attraction — driven by high dopamine and norepinephrine levels and low serotonin, romantic or passionate love, characterized by euphoria when things are going well, terrible mood swings when they’re not, focused attention, obsessive thinking, and intense craving for the individual
  • Attachment — driven by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, the sense of calm, peace, and stability one feels with a long-term partner

She goes on to point out that serotonin-enhancing antidepressants also inhibit other evolutionary adaptive mechanisms for mate selection, such as orgasm.

With orgasm, one of the main things that happens is that levels of oxytocin and vasopressin go up enormously in the brain. These are feel-good chemicals. They’re associated with social bonding, pair formation, and pair maintenance. So when men and women take serotonin-enhancing medications and fail to achieve orgasm, they can fail to stimulate not only themselves, but their partners as well. This neural mechanism, associated with partner attachment, becomes a failed trigger.” ~ Helen Fisher

Fisher cites a case study of a 35-year-old married woman who had recurrent depression and anxiety disorder. When on serotonin-enhancing medication, she found her libido diminished, which made her unable to orgasm. Incapable to think critically, she made an emotional leap to assume that this meant she no longer loved her husband, deciding to divorce him. When cycled off the medication, the woman slowly regained her normal sex drive and her ability to connect with her husband, leaving behind not him but the idea of the divorce.

Like drugs that blur your vision, serotonin-enhancing medications can potentially blur a woman’s ability to evaluate mating partners, to fall in love, and to sustain an enduring partnership.” ~ Helen Fisher

To be sure, Fisher is careful to point out that she is not discouraging serotonin-enhancing medication for severely depressed patients who are a threat to their own lives. But she does point to a cost-benefit ratio that skews in disfavor of love in all but the most severe of cases — the few cases in which the choice is between love and life itself.

I’m going to say it again: we are not recommending that patients who are seriously psychologically ill refrain from taking serotonin-enhancing antidepressants. What we’re trying to say is that these medications affect the threshold of other biologic mechanisms and at times can jeopardize unconscious evolutionary mechanisms for mate selection, for romantic love, and for attachment.” ~ Helen Fisher

The irony, of course, is that in our quest to manage pain, we often end up denying ourselves joy, medicating away the unsettling and in the process washing away the very aliveness in which love lives. Which begs the question, if love is not really what our brain dictates or our body demands, then what is it?

For more fascinating insight on the subject, we highly recommend two of Fisher’s books: Anatomy of Love and Why We Love.

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22 APRIL, 2010

Earth Day the TED Way


Oceans, omnivores, and what babies have to do with design manifestos.

It’s Earth Day, so what better time to spotlight some of the smartest, most compelling thinking in sustainability from the past few years, and what better place for these ideas to manifest themselves than the TED stage? Today, we’re curating our five favorite sustainability-related TED talks of the past five years — from eye-opening revelations to ideological landmarks.


We’re longtime fans of photographic artist Chris Jordan, whose work captures otherwise alienating and thus meaningless numbers and statistics in incredibly powerful and emotionally impactful collages. His first TED talk is compelling introduction to his extraordinary work and the vision behind it.

Jordan’s most recent work focuses specifically on marine sustainability, which is a nice segue to…


Winner of the 2009 TED Prize, legendary ocean researcher Sylvia Earle reveals a gripping look at what we’ve lost in the last 50 years and why that matters.

Last week, Earle’s TED Prize Wish came to life in the form of Mission Blue Voyage, the world’s first seaborne conference aboard the National Geographic Endeavor, focusing exclusively on water sustainability through a speaker lineup featuring the world’s most renowned ocean experts — marine scientists, deep sea explorers, technology innovators, policy makers, business leaders, environmentalists, activists and artists.

Many of the Mission Blue talks have been made available in the past week — we highly recommend all of them.


A few months ago, we raved about AskNature, a new biomimicry portal harnessing the power of this discipline as a potent cross-pollinator of design, engineering and science. This TED talk by founder Janine Benyus makes a strong and bold case for what biomimicry can do and where it is going.

Be sure to also watch Benyus’s first TED talk, if only to trace the incredible evolution of this sub-science over the past three years as more and more companies and inventors are embracing biomimicry as a real-world design solution and efficiency booster.


The notion of cradle-to-cradle design may be staple of every industrial designer’s manifesto today, but it wasn’t always a must-have catchphrase. Five years ago, it was more likely to raise an eyebrow than a fist. It was eco-minded architect and designer William McDonough that first coined the phrase and began . His 2005 TED talk laid the groundwork for what has become one of the most essential cultural conversations of our time.

For me, design is the first signal of human intentions. So what are our intentions? ~ William McDonough

Today, this sort of holistic thinking about the design process is encouragingly widespread — something chronicled in another excellent piece of advocacy on the subject, Emily Pilloton’s Design Revolution: 100 Product That Empower People.


In early 2007, when the relationship between food and sustainability was as evident to mainstream America as that between particle energy and the velocity of light was to early humans, Michael Pollan began a conversation that was to shape our common understanding of health — in the broadest sense, human and environmental — for years to come. A few months before his Omnivore’s Dilemma became a national bestseller, Pollan gave a groundbreaking TED talk that launched the issue into the public conversation. Though the talk’s central arguments are common sense to anyone even marginally socially attuned today, it’s still worth watching if only for its status as a historical landmark of cultural dialogue, one that made an entire generation never look at food the same way again.

Pollan’s name has since become synonymous with sustainable agriculture, unleashing a slew of books, documentaries and other social commentary on the subject, including the excellent PBS series The Botany of Desire, starring Pollan himself. Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.