The most important lesson from 83,000 brain scans: Daniel Amen

Speaker

Daniel Gregory Amen is an American psychiatrist, a brain disorder specialist, director of the Amen Clinics, and a New York Times bestselling author.

Summary

Dr. Daniel Amen speaks about the intersection of medical imaging and psychiatry. He and his colleagues have been using brain SPECT imaging: A tool used to help psychiatrists understand more about imaging. For the past 22 years they’ve built the largest database of brain scans related to behavior. Shockingly, psychiatrists are the only medical specialists that don’t look at the organ they treat. Consider head trauma, which can have the symptoms like insomnia and temper problems, but show different brain activity. These patients often get misdiagnosed and unnecessarily medicated. Basing treatment on clusters of symptoms instead of individual brains is simply dangerous.

When Daniel scanned the brains of over 500 convicted felons, he discovered that people who do bad things, often have troubled brains. But more surprisingly, he learned that these brains can be rehabilitated. What would happen if we treated these brains instead of warehousing them in a toxic environment? Instead of just crime and punishment, we should be thinking about crime, evaluation, and treatment.

The most important Daniel has learned is that you can literally change people’s brains and when you do, you change their lives. On a study on NFL players, players showing poor brain function were put on a Brain Smart program. After the program 80% of the players improved their memory, mood, and blood flow. It is possible to reverse brain damage. He mentions several other studies including Andrew, a 9 year old boy, who was extremely violent and would draw pictures of himself shooting other kids. He was a tragedy waiting to happen, but instead of blindly medicating him Daniel used brain scans to identify a golf ball sized cyst in his brain. After the cyst was removed, all of his behavioral problems went away. Daniel reveals that Andrew is his own nephew and ends his talk with a picture of Andrew at 18 years.

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Allan Adams: The discovery that could rewrite physics

Speaker

Allan Adams: MIT Associate Professor with focus on Theoretical Physics.

(Illustrated by Randall Monroe, of http://www.xkcd.com fame, a former NASA employee who now writes a science-themed webcomic)

Summary

If you look at the sky you see stars, but if you look further and further you see nothing. Beyond that nothingness is the afterglow of the Big Bang. This afterglow is nearly completely uniform at 2.7 degrees, but has cooled slightly in small patches (20 ppm). These tiny discontinuities are caused by Quantum Mechanical ‘wiggles’ during the Big Bang, that have been stretched across the universe.

Before the Big Bang, our universe was extremely dense like a metal bell. On March 17 something new was discovered. Like a metal bell, this original universe could be ‘rung’ by quantum mechanics, then it could produce gravitational waves (like the sound from a bell). Nowadays these gravitational waves have faded, but early on the waves caused small twists in the structure of light that we see. By searching the sky from the South Pole, researchers recently discovered these wiggles in the light coming from distant stars.

What this implies is that our universe is in a ‘bubble’. It is then possible that our ‘bubble’ is just one of many, even though we may never see the others.

further reading here: http://www.space.com/25100-multiverse-cosmic-inflation-gravitational-waves.html . The big key here was that in the first fractions of a second, the universe was expanding faster than the speed of light, with our ‘uniform’ universe an expansion of a very tiny point in the original tiny dense mass. Gravitational waves were an important feature of this model, but could never be identified until recently. If our universe condensed around one region and expanded outwards, it is likely others did likewise, hence the ‘bubble’ analogy.

Think Small: Alastair Humphreys

Speaker

Alastair Humphreys is an adventurer, blogger, author and motivational speaker. Alastair was named as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for his pioneering work on the concept of microadventures. http://www.alastairhumphreys.com/

Summary

Alastair is still a little shocked that he decided to bike across the world at age 24. He wasn’t much of an athlete and didn’t have much money, but he just wanted to get going. He didn’t actually think he was going to be able to make, he says. But having to stop along the way was a lot better to him than not trying at all. He started in England and biked down to South Africa, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to South America, then rode up to Alaska, flew across the Pacific Ocean, rode across Sibera and Asia and ended back in England 720,000km later. He was on the road for 4 years and 3 months and spent about 7000 pounds, usually sleeping in a tent and eating banana sandwiches.

When he returned home, Alastair was unsure of what he would do for the next 60 years. His strategy in life had been find what you love and do lots of it, so he decided he would continue these trips. He has since rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, walked across India, and is planning some other very ambitious adventures.

But Alastair says that adventure has little to do with the activity itself. Adventure is only a state of mind. It’s important to do something you’ve never done and to do it with enthusiasm and passion. To show that adventure can be found everywhere, he has spent the last year doing Microadventures. Spend a night sleeping on top of a hill, swim down a river, whatever you can fit into your schedule. You might work from 9-5, but there’s still another 16 hours in a day. You don’t have to think big. It’s ok to start small – but do start.

Angela Lee Duckworth: The key to success? Grit

Speaker

Angela Lee Duckworth, an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, studies intangible concepts such as self-control and grit to determine how they might predict both academic and professional success

Summary

At age 27, Angela quit her management consulting job to become a math teacher in the NYC public school system. After a while she noticed that her best performing students were not always the smartest ones. She asked herself “what if doing well in school in life depends on much more than [students’] ability to learn quickly and easily?”

Angela went to graduate school and tried to find out who succeeds and who does not. She conducted research at West Point Military Academy, schools, private companies, and from these very different contexts concluded that one characteristic was more indicative of success than the rest. And that was grit: having passion and perseverance for long term goals.

The shocking thing, she says, is how little about grit we know. What we do know is that grit is unrelated, and sometimes inversely related, to talent. We also know the effect of the Growth Mindset, understanding that the ability to learn is not fixed and can change with your effort. When kids read about the brain and understand that failure is not a permanent condition, they are more likely to persevere where they usually fail. Promising ideas like this are what we should be testing and measuring. “We need to be gritty about getting our kids grittier.”

Jennifer Golbeck: The curly fry conundrum: Why social media “likes” say more than you might think

Speaker

Jennifer Golbeck is the director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. Her work focuses on how to enhance and improve the way that people interact with their own information online.

Summary

About two year ago, a story about Target spread through the news. The retail giant’s mailing system had sent pregnancy related discounts to a 15 year old girl and received some backlash from her father. It turned out that girl was in fact pregnant, but hadn’t even told her parents yet. By looking at little patterns of behavior, like buying extra vitamins or bigger handbags, Target was is able to make very accurate predictions about its customers.

Jennifer’s lab does similar work and can predict things like political preference, intelligence, age, just by using Facebook. One study was done just using people’s Facebook likes (looking at which pages they liked). A list of the top 5 likes indicative of high intelligence showed that one of those likes was actually for the “curly fries” page.  Why? Because the action of liking reflects back to the attributes of the other people who liked it. If someone intelligent created the page, than their friends who like the page are probably smart as well.

The  problem is that people don’t really have any power over how this data is used. Jennifer says that if she wanted to, she could quit her job and start a new company, selling reports to H.R. companies that predict how well you work in teams or if you use drugs or not. This is certainly something you would want control over. A solution she proposes is to develop mechanisms that tell users how risky certain online actions are. “By sharing this piece of personal information, you’ve improved my ability to predict if you use drugs”.

Although the work she does depends on using that very information, she would rather see a user base that is educated and informed. Her goal is not to infer information about users, it’s to improve the way people interact online.

Lawrence Lessig: The unstoppable walk to political reform

Speakers: Lawrence Lessig – Lawrence is an academic of law and political activist, a proponent of reduced restrictions on copyright and trademark.

Summary

Lawrence talks passionately on behalf of Aaron Swartz, a programmer and software freedom activist who died a year before the talk. The focus of the talk is on the financial influence on politics.

When Intel discovered a problem with the early Pentium chips, that caused a miscalculation 1 in 360 billion times, they spent $475 billion to fix it. However, when politics is currently ‘broken’ in a way that influences every single decision, no one responds. When Aaron Swartz asked Lawrence why he doesn’t respond, he said it wasn’t his field as an academic.

in 1999, at the age of 88, Granny D walked from Los Angeles to Washington DC carrying a sign labelled “Granny D for Campaign Finance Reform”. 18 months later, Granny arrived in Washington, with hundreds of followers. Most people don’t have the time to devote that long to walking 32,000 miles, but Lawrence instead organised a 185mile walk across New Hampshire with 200 passionate people. During his walk Lawrence conducted a poll, and found that 96% of Americans want to remove the influence of money from politics, but 91% believe there is nothing they can do about it. There is a politics of resignation about the issue.

Lawrence wants to keep the hope alive that something can be done.

  • He wants to organise a 1,000 person walk in 2015, and 10,000 people in 2016 to influence primaries in 2016. He has designed an open platform to the walks to allow other states to replicate the New Hampshire walk.
  • A list is being circulated to inform voters where candidates stand on the issue of finance reform.
  • Organising a Super PAC (a political action group, that collects funds to influence politics on an issue) to end all Super PACs. They will coordinate with experts to work out how much money it would take to influence this issue, then arrange a kickstarter-style funding model to make it happen.

Lawrence calls on you to join this movement not because you are a politician, not because you are an expert, not because it is your field, but because you are a citizen.

Anant Agarwal: Why massive open online courses (still) matter

Speaker

Anant Agarwal is the CEO of edX, an online learning destination founded by Harvard and MIT. As a  professor of electrical engineering and computer science, Anant taught the first edX course on circuits and electronics from MIT, which drew 155,000 students from 162 countries.

Summary

MOOCs  (massive open online courses) have become increasingly popular, but Anant Agarwal wants to create a blended model of learning. But education hasn’t changed much in the last 500 years. He equates the change needed  to transitioning from ox carts to airplanes; education must be reimagined.

With the younger millennial generation so dependent on technology, it doesn’t make sense to try to keep technology out of schools. He gives the example of two high school teachers in Mongolia who had flipped the classroom. They would assign watching lectures as homework and work more interactively during the school day. A similar pilot program was run at San Jose State University and the failure rate of the class fell from 41% to 9%.

So what are the key ideas that make blended learning effective?

  • Active Learning: Students learn much better when they are interacting with the material
  • Self Pacing: Hitting pause, or rewinding can be very useful to catering
  • Instant feedback: By grading with a computer, students can learn what they did wrong and find the correct solution on the spot.
  • Gamification: Gamifying work can be much more effective in engaging students
  • Pure Learning: Discussions are used a tool to help students learn from each other

The blended model has another benefit and that solves the practical problem of MOOCS: profitability. By licensing MOOCs to other universities, a new revenue model is created. MOOCs can become the next generation textbook.  “We have to move from bricks-and-mortar school buildings to digital dormitories.”