Human Potential at Work

Each year, TEDMED features stories and individuals that challenge our perceptions of limits and encourage us to imagine what’s possible. This November, two Speakers and two Hive Innovators will take the TEDMED stage and reveal how a better understanding of human nature may hold the clues to unlocking each individual’s unique potential.

Frans de Waal

For Frans de Waal, a primatologist and ethologist at Emory University, exploring human potential is directly linked to exploring the behavior of primates. By studying the ways primates behave under stress and how they make decisions, Frans adds context to our understanding of what it means to be an “alpha” female or male. Popular culture uses this term to refer to people who are controlling or sometimes even those who act as bullies; but in nature, an “alpha” is the highest ranking member of one’s sex and the animal that often assumes a leadership role by demonstrating qualities of solidarity, community, and experience. Frans’ observations on how human social structure mirrors primate social structure yield rich insights into our own society, what we value, and how we choose our leaders.

Whether you’re an elected official or the captain of your soccer team, becoming a leader often requires performing at your highest potential. But sometimes, when we feel pressure to perform at our peak, we falter. Barnard College President Sian Leah Beilock studies how people perform under stress and asks: why do we blunder when the stakes are high? Sian identifies how anxiety and stressful situations can actually create physical changes in our brains and rob us of our ability to perform our best. From students taking math exams to NBA players making free throws, Sian explores how we can adapt to perform under pressure. By channeling our focus, we can set ourselves up for success and enable ourselves to reach our potential.

Next, we shift our focus from individual performance to the abilities of large groups. Two Innovators from our Hive Program are focused on finding ways to improve overall health by creating tools that tap into the innate human potential to nurture and care for others.

Jo Schneier leads Cognotion and is working to improve the way we train caregivers, nurses, and nursing assistants to care for our rapidly aging population. To fix the shortage of qualified frontline healthcare workers, Jo believes that we must provide better training methods that empower workers and get them to work quickly. Cognotion’s unique program operates on the premise that there is narrative inherent in any teachable subject. Crafting this narrative into an immersive storyline, Cognotion’s story-based training tools feature high quality, high-production videos that engage learners using a medium that’s entertaining and familiar. And by connecting through story, learning happens on an emotional level that deepens understanding and maximizes impact. Through training programs that tap into the power of story, Jo’s goal is to not only transfer cognitive and physical skills, but to also instill dedication, confidence, and pride within our future healthcare workforce.

Mudit Garg is focused on improving healthcare operations to maximize medical professionals’ impact. Using an AI platform to monitor hospital data in real-time, the Qventus platform acts as a virtual air traffic controller for hospitals, helping to remove decision-making overhead from staff so that they can spend more time focusing on the patient experience and providing care. The software learns over time and is able to predict issues before they occur, recommend immediate actions, coordinate across teams, and engage the best team members for response. Hospitals using Qventus are seeing benefits across a wide range of outcomes, such as reductions in patient falls, length of stay, unnecessary lab tests. These benefits are having a clear positive impact on medical costs; and even better, doctors and nurses are focusing more time on providing care and improving patient outcomes and experience.

From examining our social structures and improving our personal responses to stress, to instilling caregiver training with a sense of meaning and leveraging the impact of health care providers through AI, these TEDMED 2017 thought leaders are helping us to be better equipped to activate our full potential. Furthermore, whether it’s through the lens of accomplishing personal goals or tackling problems in teams, these perceptive Speakers and Innovators are deepening our understanding of what it means to be human.

The art of healing across cultures: Q&A with Laurie Rubin

Laurie Rubin works to promote healing across cultures.

Laurie Rubin

Performance artist and TEDMED 2015 speaker Laurie Rubin and her wife Jenny Taira founded Ohana Arts in 2014, a non-profit whose mission is to promote peace and world friendship through the universal language of the arts. They recently performed at a special ceremony in Hawai’i in memory of the recent 70th anniversary of the tragic Hiroshima nuclear bomb calamity. We caught up with Laurie to learn more about her and Jenny’s work to promote cross-cultural understanding and healing.

TEDMED: How did you first become interested in focusing on cross-cultural healing in your work?

LAURIE: From the time I was seven years old, I was in Hebrew School learning about the Holocaust, and the devastating loss of six million Jewish people that happened less than half a century before I sat in the classroom. The Holocaust made several appearances in my history classes throughout my elementary, middle, and high school education. I learned then what war and hate could do to human beings, and how mutual understanding and the necessity to heal was part of the universal human experience. Therefore when my wife Jenny, who is Japanese American, told me the effect the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum had on her, as well as Sadako Sasaki’s story, I had many mixed emotions. I first thought, “Why have I never heard about Sadako and her international peace movement?” My second thought was about the message that was consistent throughout my Hebrew School education, “Never again!” It was of the utmost importance to hear from Holocaust survivors about the kinds of things human beings are capable of doing to other human beings so that future generations don’t repeat the same behaviors and make the same grave mistakes. Yet, the only unit I remember doing on Hiroshima was in the 8th grade, and it was just luck that I had that particular teacher put John Hersey’s book, “Hiroshima” in his syllabus at our progressive school where teachers had leeway to create their own curricula. I realized that as a Jewish artist, it is my responsibility to keep enforcing the message of “Never again” by telling more stories beyond those of my people. “Peace On Your Wings,” is a musical Jenny and I wrote about Sadako Sasaki, a 12 year old girl who died of Leukemia resulting from radiation caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and who became famous for starting an international peace movement through her thousand origami cranes. It is an example of how one’s universal story can help to heal others who suffer from the atrocities caused by war, and an educational step toward preventing history from repeating itself. I realized that if you educate the world about one piece of history, it would simply get placed into a box that people would take less and less seriously over the decades. However, if you make people realize that human cruelty has happened to many people and nations, it drives the point home that it could happen again, and to us. Jenny and I have been trained as classical musicians, and have realized over time that we could use art, music, and theater to make a difference. It is our life’s work and mission to make sure we accomplish this in our unique way by telling as many poignant stories as possible and providing a sounding board for underrepresented voices.

TEDMED: Could you share any experiences you’ve had that have shaped your drive to play an active role in cross-cultural healing?

LAURIE: As a blind student mainstreamed in regular schools, I received a great education, but often felt isolated, and at times bullied. My braille books and adaptive equipment often made me feel like the alien that had unceremoniously waltzed into the lives of sighted children, disrupting their sense of normalcy. It wasn’t until high school when I joined summer programs for advanced musical study that I started making the kinds of friendships I felt deprived of in my school setting. Music was the level playing field for all of us in spite of our differences. Jenny had also gone to similar summer programs. Music brought us closer to youth from other countries, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. When we moved to Hawaii, where Jenny was born and raised, we decided to start Ohana Arts to provide a similar kind of formative experience for the youth here, and the rewards we see are so incredible. We see ourselves through the eyes of the students we work with. We see how the performing arts fosters acceptance, self expression, and a safe haven for those who have felt “different.”

Music as Medicine: Q&A with Gypsy Sound Revolution

Gypsy Sound Revolution, led by drummer Cédric Leonardi and fellow Gipsy Kings alumni, mixes rumba with Indian raga. They play a unique fusion of Indo-Gypsy music that is both meditative and joyful. We followed up with them to learn more about their project.

"Music is borderless. It is the ultimate expression of love." Gypsy Sound Revolution at TEDMED 2014.

“Music is borderless. It is the ultimate expression of love.” Gypsy Sound Revolution at TEDMED 2014.

 What motivated you to perform at TEDMED?

As a performer, you want to reach as many people as possible with your art form. Music is increasingly accessible digitally and also thrives using many methods of delivery.
Somewhere along the way, it became a business. A big business. Performing at TEDMED was our way of delivering a message and access to the healing power of music. Music came out of the caves of India as medicine. Invoking the divine, but with a modern vernacular, we have seen lives transformed through the joy of our music. TEDMED was a potent forum to express this and continue the medicinal conversation globally, reaching as many people as possible.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

We hope our legacy shows the way for our children to live authentic lives, fully expressed and joyful using the path we have forged with our music. To touch the hearts of people and share the joy of living together on this planet. Music is borderless. It is the ultimate expression of love.

We cherish the poem, “What will matter,” by Michael Josephson, as a reminder of the fragility of life and the speed with which it passes:

Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end. There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours, or days. All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame, and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.
So, too, your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought, but what you built; not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success, but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned, but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage, or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence, but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom, and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not a matter of circumstance, but of choice. Choose to live a life that matters.

What’s next for you?

Taking our music and message around the world in 2015. We are also finally going into the studio. We are very much a live band– we believe live interaction with people is the true purpose of music. However as TEDMED live-streaming proves, there are many more people that live streaming can reach in all kinds of obscure pockets of the world. The internet has brought us all closer so its time we stopped resisting and we have started to the process with the conundrum: how do you bottle magic? We will have at least three tracks recorded soon.

Any action items for viewers interested to get involved in the kind of work you do? How do they join the revolution?

We are starting a philanthropic initiative to support the communities of our Rajasthani musicians with a US based Indian company, HP Investments. The project will include music camps for children to keep the music traditions of this original gypsy tribe alive, as well as taking care of the necessities like water and power in their villages. Its a humbling and glorious experience working with musicians who go home to their villages without water and power after they have travelled the world with us. We are one– we have a responsibility to help each other beyond.

A terrifying tale about over-prescribing: Q&A with Elizabeth Kenny

Actor and playwright Elizabeth Kenny performs an excerpt from her play dramatizing a horrifying journey through the American medical system during which she was over-prescribed psychiatric medications. We asked her a few questions to learn more about her experience and work.

A terrifying tale about over-prescribing: A performance by Elizabeth Kenny
Actor & playwright Elizabeth Kenny performs at TEDMED 2014. [Photo: Jerod Harris for TEDMED.]

Why does this talk matter now and what impact do you hope it will have?

In 2014, the top selling drug in America was an anti-psychotic called Abilify. Are there really that many people in need of anti-psychotics? I want an answer to this question. The pressure of marketing and the lack of time and true collaboration between patients and doctors are leading to a crisis of over-prescribing and medicalizing suffering of all kinds. I hear people talk about how great it is that more people have access to mental health care now more than ever before – how wonderful it is we have these “silver bullet” medications for debilitating states like depression. I want to be happy, too… but I’m scared. It seems to me that the help being offered is not always helpful. I’m afraid that if we don’t start a more rigorous and nuanced conversation about the health of our mental health system, in the long run, many more people will be harmed than helped. I hope this talk can be a starting place for some to enter the conversation. I think a great place to start would be with simple transparency about what we truly know and don’t know about the brain, and about how psychotropic medications work on it.

Is there anything else you wish you could have included in your talk?

My original play, Sick, was 70 minutes long, and editing it down to a 12 minute talk was an enormous intellectual and artistic challenge. Early on, I realized I would have to leave out the entire second half of the play which was all about withdrawal from the medications – a grueling process, and one that I almost didn’t survive. We were operating under a controversial hypothesis (that the medications I was taking might be making me sick) and we found tremendous resistance from inside the psychiatric community. Coming off psych meds is a deeply personal decision and not one that should be entered into lightly. Tapering very slowly made it possible for me. I suffered tremendously during the protracted eight months in which I tapered off of all my medications. I was very lucky to have my family’s support – physically, emotionally and financially. Getting off my meds became my full-time job; helping me became my mother’s full-time job.

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

I had been performing and touring with my play Sick for a couple years when I received the invitation to speak at TEDMED; the experience of making and taking the play on tour was so surprising. While I was living through the story, I was certain that what was happening to me was extreme, that I was one in a million, and that nobody else could possibly be going through the same thing. Once I started to perform and engage with audiences I was shocked by how many people wanted to talk after the show to share their stories. I have lost count of how many times I heard, “I think this is happening to my sister,” or mother, or aunt, or boyfriend. It has become clear to me that what I, my family, and my doctors thought was a rare occurrence may be far more common than any of us can fathom. I feel an obligation as both a writer/performer, and as a person who came through an iatrogenic mental illness, to raise questions. How many more people like me are there? How are people’s lives being subtly or not so subtly diminished by their treatment? Are we really operating within a system that allows for informed consent if all our drug information is coming from those who stand to profit from its sale? My role in transforming the mental health system is to ask questions and tell stories, and the TEDMED stage seemed like a perfect fit.

Check out the archive of our lively Facebook chat with Elizabeth where we dove deeper into her story and reflected on audience members’ similar experiences. 

Beautifying Darkness: Q&A with Zsolt Bognár

Critically acclaimed concert pianist Zsolt Bognár, frequently featured on NPR, performed two pieces by Schubert and shared his story about how a special connection to Schubert brought him healing solace in part by beautifying darkness. For the TEDMED blog, Zsolt gave us insight into his process, his time at TEDMED and what’s next for him.

Beautifying Darkness - Concert Pianist Zsolt Bognar

Concert pianist Zsolt Bognár on the TEDMED 2014 stage. Photo: Jerod Harris for TEDMED.

What motivated you to perform at TEDMED?  

The TEDMED team contacted me and showed me instantly that this event would be about a gathering of many brilliant and inspiring minds, sharing many stories of innovation and courage. I wanted to share a story through my life and music that was very personal to me.

Why does performance/talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

Lots of awareness is being raised these days about the importance of addressing mental health issues, including depression. My story concerns the way that I proactively dealt with my own depression through the inspirational story of Franz Shubert’s final year before his death at the age of 31.

What top three TEDMED 2014 talks or performances that left an impression with you, and why?

Kitra Cahana moved me to tears. She told a story of courage and finding freedom in the face of incredible adversity, and shared her story through images of striking beauty. My other favorite was Tiffany Shlain. Her multimedia presentation capturing the interaction of people and minds was stunning. Elizabeth Kenny‘s performance was dynamic and gripping.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

People from all around the world came to me telling me their love of music had been reignited, and that some even plan to restart piano lessons.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

My life has been enriched by being open about the challenges I have faced, and connecting with others about how I overcame them was a personal liberation. I hope that with my music, I can encourage others to find hope by doing the same.

What’s next for you?

I’m in Europe giving recitals around the holidays. In February, 2015, I will give a performance in Cleveland with the Verb Ballet in a set of pieces composed for the occasion by a local composer friend of mine, Philip Cucchiara. I have always loved to combine art forms. My tours in the upcoming year will take me several times to Europe. I will also continue creating episodes for my film series Living the Classical Life with many famous classical musicians from around the world. It’s a very beautiful experience and a wonderful privilege to share music.