Noise is Affecting our Health in More Ways Than We Think

Mathias Basner, MD, PhD, MSc is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. His primary research interests concern the effects of sleep loss on neurobehavioral and cognitive functions, population studies on sleep time and waking activities, the effects of traffic noise on sleep and health, and Astronaut behavioral health on long-duration space missions. These research areas overlap widely. Mathias has published 80+ journal articles and reviewed articles for 80+ scientific journals. He is currently on the editorial board of the journals Sleep Health and Frontiers in Physiology. Mathias spoke on the TEDMED Stage in 2018 and you can watch his Talk here.


Noise is a strange animal because it affects our health in many different ways, and we don’t even realize it. Short-term loud noise exposure damages our inner ear and is the reason for noise-induced hearing loss. As mentioned in my TEDMED talk: Whenever you have that ringing in your ear after you leave a concert or a bar, you can be certain that you have done some damage to your hearing, likely permanent. The problem is that we are only paying the price when we are older, in the form of tinnitus and hearing loss. Unfortunately, we are very bad at changing our current behavior based on something that we may experience in the future. Regardless, protecting yourself and your children from high noise levels should be a priority. Always ask yourself: “Is this (concert, fireworks, leaf blower) really worth destroying the hair cells of my inner ear?” As my colleague Daniel Fink recently pointed out, a safe exposure level that does not put our hearing at risk is likely 70 dBA, which is more than 30 times less the sound intensity than the 85 dB typically considered safe for the 8-hour workday.

However, noise affects our health in many different ways beyond hearing. The so-called non-auditory effects of noise include sleep disturbance, increased risk for cardiovascular disease, and disturbed communication. The latter has been shown to affect academic performance of school children, but it can also have catastrophic consequences, e.g. if something is misunderstood in a hospital setting. I believe there are several reasons why environmental noise doesn’t receive the attention it deserves in public health politics. First, humans habituate to their environment. If you are constantly exposed to noise, you may not realize it any more. It can nevertheless very much affect your physiology and psyche. For example, I only realized how loud my every day environment was after I spent some time in a very quiet environment. Second, many of the health effects require long-term exposure to relevant noise levels before they manifest. As mentioned above, humans often have problems making the connection between a present exposure or behavior and future effects. Third, many of the activities that generate noise also generate a societal benefit and/or revenue. For example, an outdoor concert venue can be greatly enjoyable for the patrons, but it can be a torture for those living next to the venue without a realistic opportunity to evade the nightly noise. Likewise, it is very convenient to live close to major transportation infrastructure like a highway or a rail station. However, if you are living too close to rail tracks or roads, this convenience can be offset by the noise and pollution associated with the traffic. Finally, we definitely have a noise equity issue, and those exposed to high noise levels often neither have the means to live somewhere less noisy nor are they influential enough to push the policy envelope.

We always should think of ourselves both as noise recipients and as noise generators. There are things we can do individually to reduce noise levels. For example, we can decide to buy and use products that produce less noise (think of a rake instead of a leaf blower). Or we can postpone activities that generate noise to times considered less sensitive: If you don’t have to, don’t start mowing your lawn a 7 AM on a Saturday morning, your neighbors will thank you. In more general terms: be considerate. However, this will only take us so far. We still need strong noise regulation that is properly enforced to prevent health consequences. And even though the increases in health risks induced by noise may be relatively minor compared to other environmental or behavioral factors, this still constitutes a major public health problem, as noise is so ubiquitous, and so many people are exposed to relevant noise levels. Our research tells regulatory bodies at what noise level certain health effect can be expected, and that helps inform better noise policy.

Further reading:

Basner, M., Babisch, W., Davis, A., Brink, M., Clark, C., Janssen, S., Stansfeld, S.: Auditory and non-auditory effects of noise on health. The Lancet, 383(9925): 1325-1332, 2014.

Basner M.: Much ado about noise: health risks of traffic noise. Dtsch Arztebl Int 2016; 113(24): 405-6; DOI: 10.3238/arztebl.2016.0405

WHO Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European Region, 2018

Q&A with Greg Asbed and Gerardo Reyes Chavez

Greg Asbed is a fierce advocate fighting against forced labor, sexual violence, and other gross human rights violations. He was awarded the 2015 Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts in Combating Human Trafficking at the White House on behalf of the Fair Food Program (FFP). As a co-founder, Greg leads the development of innovative market-based enforcement mechanisms, rights standards, and worker education processes. Through this program he coordinates relations among many agriculture stakeholders, including corporate buyers, industry suppliers, and farm workers. He has consulted both nationally and internationally on the adaption of the FFP to other contexts. He is the co-founder of the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model, which has been recognized for its unique effectiveness in combating the above-mentioned human rights violations in agriculture. Greg has won numerous awards, including the 2014 Clinton Global Citizen Award and the 2016 James Beard Leadership Award. He was also named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. He is an advisory board member of the EU’s Horizon 2020 project to end forced labor in supply chains.

Gerardo Reyes Chavez is a key leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW), mobilizing communities across the world to advocate for the rights of exploited workers. Through CIW’s Fair Food Program, Gerardo has facilitated unique partnerships among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies to ensure humane wages and working conditions for the workers on the participating farms. Gerardo leads workers’ rights education programs, as well as managing the complexities of complaints of abuses in the fields, wage theft claims, and investigating cases of modern-day slavery. He has spoken publicly about the Fair Food Program at events such as Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program Convening on Farm Labor Challenges and the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility’s Multi-stakeholder Roundtable on Ethical Recruitment. Gerardo is a 2018 Aspen Institute Ricardo Salinas Scholar.


TEDMED: As you two mentioned in your TEDMED Talk, the Fair Food Program (FFP) model is being used in different industries and in different countries. Tell us more about how it’s being used outside of the American agricultural industry.

Greg & Gerardo: The Fair Food Program was the first, fully operational example of the new paradigm for protecting workers fundamental human rights in global supply chains known as Worker-driven Social Responsibility, or WSR. One of the other foundational examples of the new WSR model is the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety in the Bangladesh apparel industry. The Accord came together following the horrific Rana Plaza building collapse that led to the deaths of more than 1,100 people in 2013, and it employs the same key mechanisms as the Fair Food Program — binding legal agreements between brands and worker and/or human rights organizations, worker voice throughout the monitoring and enforcement process, and the suspension of sales to participating brands when its standards are violated by suppliers— to ensure that no worker need fear that the building where he or she works will be their tomb due to easily preventable fire and structural hazards. The Accord has been a great success and has saved countless workers lives by preventing the tragic accidents that previously killed workers in the apparel industry by the hundreds every year.

Likewise, workers in many other industries — from the poultry plants of Arkansas to the movie sets of Hollywood — have taken note of the model’s unique power to prevent abuses and are working today to establish enforceable standards in their own workplaces.

TM: The FFP model has successfully interrupted deep-rooted patterns of violence and modern-day slavery in the agricultural industry. What do you think makes the program so effective?

G&G: The Program’s success is due to two key elements: 1) the participation of workers, from start to finish, in the standards-setting, monitoring, and enforcement process and, 2) its ability to harness the purchasing power of the billion dollar brands as both carrot and stick to encourage growers to participate and to enforce Program’s standards when they are violated. Workers not only know exactly how, when and where abuses take place in the fields, they also happen to be there when the vast majority of abuses take place. That makes them ideally suited to both set the standards for the Program and to be the front-line monitors of their own rights. But no matter how strong a set of standards may be, or even how well monitored, if the power to enforce those standards is missing, then it is all for naught. The purchasing power of the multi-billion dollar brands at the top of the food industry — companies like Whole Foods and McDonald’s — is the power that drives compliance in the Fair Food Program. And the incentive their purchases represent to the growers in the Program is so great that it not only fixes violations when they occur, it brings about the gold standard of enforcement — prevention — making a world without victims, the best possible outcome, possible.

TM: Tell us about the upcoming “4 for Fair Food Tour.” Who is involved and what are you hoping to achieve with the program?

G&G: The 4 for Fair Food Tour is a continuation of the CIW’s ongoing national boycott against the fast food giant, Wendy’s. Along with students, people of faith, and community leaders, farmworkers and their families will be traveling across the country to four of the nation’s top public institutions with Wendy’s restaurants on campus – Ohio State University, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Michigan and University of Florida – to call on the administration at each university to end business relations with Wendy’s.

As the sole major fast food company that has yet to join the Fair Food Program, Wendy’s has been offering stock public relations answers in response to what is a very real, very troubling human rights crisis in agriculture. This tour is about making it clear to Wendy’s that consumers are clear-eyed and deeply committed to real, tangible change for farmworkers, and that Wendy’s refusal to join the most successful supply chain monitoring program in the country has consequences for the company’s brand and business relationships. Because these universities have very clearly stated values and mission statements that support human rights in their suppliers’ operations — for example, in the apparel companies that produce their university logo sportswear — and because the students at these schools clearly support the idea of exploitation-free consumption when possible, we have already seen strong support for the campaign in both the student communities and the cities where the universities are located. We expect that we will see Wendy’s restaurants removed from campus, as were Taco Bell restaurants on 28 campuses around the country during the Taco Bell boycott fifteen years ago, as the students ramp up the pressure on their administrations to live up to the schools’ stated values. That pressure was ultimately successful in prompting Taco Bell to be the first fast-food giant to join the Fair Food Program, and we are confident that it will have the same impact in making Wendy’s the last major fast-food company to join.

TM:  What’s next for CIW?

G&G: As we grow and expand, we will continue to advance every level of our work: We will help convey the lessons and potential of the WSR model to new industries and regions across the globe. We will fortify the gains we’ve made in the current seven states of the Fair Food Program, and expand those protections to more states and crops. We will travel the country and the world to educate public figures, academics, leaders, and everyday consumers about the challenges faced by farmworkers, and the responsibility of consumers to get involved in transforming the food system so that it is more humane and more just. We will win new partnerships with corporate buyers to drive expansion of the Program – Wendy’s, for example, in the not so distant future. And, of course, we will continue to do everything we can to ensure that the people harvesting our food, sewing our clothes, assembling our phones, building our homes, and doing so many more of the crucial jobs at the bottom of global corporate supply chains are empowered to be the frontline monitors of their own human rights.

Designing habitats for humans

Award-winning architect Amanda Sturgeon leads the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), an organization that focuses on the transformation to a world that is socially just, culturally rich, and ecologically restorative. She is also the founder and driving force behind the organization’s Biophilic Design Initiative, which aims to connect people and nature within our built environments and communities. Prior to ILFI, Amanda enjoyed a successful 15-year architectural career working on projects such as Islandwood on Washington’s Bainbridge Island. In 2013, Amanda was elected as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects for her extensive advocacy and volunteer service to the green building movement, and in 2015, she received the Women in Sustainability Leadership Award, honoring her as one of the top ten most powerful women in sustainability. Amanda is the author of Creating Biophilic Buildings (2017). You can watch her 2018 TEDMED Talk here.


My career has been dedicated to advocating for architecture that connects people and nature, resulting in healthy communities and healthy eco-systems. For example:

A simple window in a hospital room has been proven to reduce hospital stays, and the amount of pain medication a patient needs compared to a room without a view.

Test scores have been shown to increase dramatically when kids have natural light in the classroom.

A study in the City of Portland, Oregon shows that there is a significant reduction in violent crimes in neighborhoods as the tree size and density increases.

Yet, our buildings are not shaped with nature in sight—literally, 45% of global office workers can not see a window from their desk. At TEDMED last November I explored how we got here. From how the incorporation of electricity relegated cooling breezes and natural heat to the backseat of design, to how our buildings became commodities, rather than a shelter that expressed unique cultures and climates. I asked the audience, “Why have we become inside creatures? Why have we passively accepted buildings that have separated us from nature?”

To answer this question—and to create a world full of buildings that are ‘habitats for humans’—I believe we need to turn to a concept of biophilic design, which translates literally to love of life. Biophilic design takes biophilia and applies it to the built environment, while specifically looking at the relationship between people and nature in our buildings and cities. When utilized, biophilic design creates spaces that are healthier and happier for people to be in.

At the International Living Future Institute, where I am privileged to serve as CEO, we decided to make biophilic design a core strategy for our flagship challenge program, the Living Building Challenge. Our work at the Institute is dedicated to creating a world full of living buildings and living communities, understanding that first, we must fundamentally shift the approach that people have toward nature and restore the relationship between the two.

Our buildings can be designed with that in mind. Designed to create spaces inspired by natural forms, spaces where we can feel the textures change under our feet, hear the sounds carried on the wind outside, where we can see the clouds move in the sky and smell the rain.

Watching my TEDMED talk, you will hear case studies of how biophilic design is changing schools, hospitals, and offices around the world, and see how it can re-establish a connection between people and land, with each other and all other living species.

Celebrating the Gift of Community

The following post was written by the TEDMED Team.


Civil rights leader Coretta Scott King once said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.”

As we reflect on the past year at TEDMED and the annual gathering that took place this November, King’s words resonate powerfully with us and the way we feel about our own community. From the Partners and Delegates whose thought leadership and creativity inspired us in Palm Springs, to the global audience that engaged in dynamic conversation via TEDMED Live, to the Speakers and Hive Innovators who shared their stories from the Stage, to the Research Scholars and volunteers who supported us with their expertise and enthusiasm, to the Editorial Advisory Board members who helped shape the Stage Program and provided us with guidance throughout the year—we are truly grateful to each and every member of our Community and the unique gifts they have contributed to TEDMED this year.

Clockwise from top left: Delegates in the Theater, an early morning group hike; the TEDMED 2018 Editorial Advisory Board; Stories Under the Stars evening event, hosted by RWJF.

Although this is the season of gift-giving,  TEDMED exchanges a slightly different kind of gift year round. A TEDMED gift is a unique idea or personal perspective connected to health and medicine that, when shared with others, can inspire their thinking and profoundly influence their lives. Each TEDMED Speaker shares a gift from the Stage, for example, at TEDMED this year, Carl June gifted the audience with the story of his journey to pioneering the revolutionary leukemia treatment, CAR-T cell therapy. Rabiaa El Garani helped us to see how hope and love are at the core of her work to help heal survivors of sexual violence. And Queen Dube shared how innovative and inexpensive solutions are saving the lives of thousands of infants every year in Malawi. The list of profound gifts that were shared by this year’s Speakers goes on and on, and we are looking forward to sharing their Talks with you starting in early 2019.

Rabiaa El Garani on stage at TEDMED 2018.

In addition to the gifts that are shared from the Stage, we believe that the greatness of our community is built upon the individual contributions of each member of the TEDMED Community. We’re proud to be a platform where people of all different backgrounds can come together, hold varied points of view, and participate in important conversations that contribute to our shared goal of improving the health of all humanity. This year’s volunteers and Research Scholars are prime examples of how bringing together people with compelling individual gifts to share helps to shape the community at large. For example, volunteer Pratik Chhetri brought his expertise in global health and biomedical research—contributions which have gained him recognition as an individual of ‘Extraordinary Ability’ by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Meg Barron, a 2018 Research Scholar and Director of Digital Health Strategy at the AMA, brought her insight into ways we can improve patient and physician satisfaction.

TEDMED 2018 Speaker and Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams with TEDMED Volunteers.

Taken together, it’s abundantly clear to us that the insight, generosity, and compassion of each individual is what makes the TEDMED Community truly great. We are excited to begin 2019 with a renewed commitment to the importance of fostering community. As you enter the new year, we encourage you to do so with the conviction that the most generous gift you can give is that of yourself.

So, what gift will you share with your community this year? Share your gift with us on social media using #TEDMED.

A Culture of Health captured in fiction

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) works with organizations across the United States to build a healthy future where everyone has the opportunity to live their healthiest life possible. RWJF calls that vision: a Culture of Health. Each year, through our partnership with RWJF, TEDMED has been able to share with the TEDMED Community some of the ways in which that Culture of Health vision is building momentum and influencing change.

This year at TEDMED, the Foundation is giving the TEDMED Community a sneak peak of a forthcoming anthology of short stories by some of today’s most thought-provoking futurist and fiction writers. This inventive book, titled Take Us to a Better Place: Stories of Health, Hope, and Healing, offers a creative way for readers to imagine what a healthy future might look like. The stories explore some of the opportunities and risks that reside in that future.  As Michael Painter from RWJF observed, “The invitation to these amazing writers was a broad one, without real requirements. Well, just one: use your imaginations and make us think. Help us imagine what a Culture of Health might be.”

We are excited that the Foundation is sharing a glimpse into this imaginative look at a future Culture of Health. Not only will we learn more about six of the stories, but we will meet five of the short story authors. The five authors will be with us this year to provoke conversation about the topics and themes of their stories. Below, we’re teasing you with just a bit about each of the stories we will share at TEDMED this year – we hope they spark some inspiration about a Culture of Health! If you’re joining us at TEDMED this year, we can’t wait for you to meet the authors, engage in conversation about their work and visions, and read a preview of their story.

Take Us to a Better Place: Stories of Health, Hope, and Healing will be released Spring 2019. Sign up to explore this collection of new, original stories: https://rwjf.ws/2S0STb0

“The Flotilla at Bird Island,” Mike McClelland
“The Flotilla at Bird Island” is set in near-future Atlanta, a city plagued by rising temperatures and large racial and financial divides. The ice caps have melted, leaving Atlanta as the most significant city in the Eastern United States and the capital of the “New Coast.” Every Atlantan carries an inhaler, wears protective jumpsuits and surgical masks, and requires a monthly cocktail of injections to fight the waves of new, aggressive diseases that have appeared as a result of the hotter, wetter world. But, on nearby Bird Island, life of all kinds is thriving, showing what is possible.

“Brief Exercises in Mindfulness,” Calvin Baker
“Brief Exercises in Mindfulness” is the story
of a group of recent college graduates
who have moved to Brooklyn and the
long-term residents they have displaced.
The story revolves around an apartment occupied by Dean, a fledgling technology entrepreneur, consumed by the ambition
to succeed at all costs, including his own
well-being, and his roommate Harry, a
public school teacher torn between the
desire to be of service to the world and his own neuroses.

“Return to Omelas,” Nayomi Munaweera
“Return to Omelas” is Nayomi Munaweera’s response to the questions raised in the legendary writer, Ursula K LeGuin’s famous short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” LeGuin’s story imagines a utopian society in an unspecified country. Every citizen lives free of the slightest sorrow; their lives are without sadness. Yet each of them knows that this perfect happiness is based upon the absolute suffering of one of their own. A child has been locked up in a dark room. The child is meant to suffer, and it is the reason for the city state’s perfect happiness. How long can it continue?

“Paradise,” Hannah Lillith Assadi
“Paradise” is a story about Rita, a
Syrian refugee, who lives in a low-income housing complex in Phoenix, Arizona with
her father and older brother. Before the story begins, Rita’s mother was killed in Aleppo
and Rita is plagued by troubling visions at night. Before going to bed, Rita often tries
to visualize paradise, following from a
proverb her mother often said to her about paradise residing beneath the feet of
mothers, but rather than paradise, Rita sees visions of the war.

“Viral Content,” Madeline Ashby
When Tacoma, Washington’s local high school football star, Tyrone Weathers, dies of an unknown illness, Glory, a young reporter, is determined to identify the cause of his death and inform the community. In her mission to report the story, Glory finds herself competing with special interests – the local sports culture, monopolistic media outlets, and capital – to cover this potentially deadly disease before it spreads any further. Glory persists in her investigation despite the challenges she faces, and she discovers that the source of the illness that took Tyrone’s life is a secret darker than any she could ever imagine.

“The Sweet Spot,” Achy Obejas
As if managing the day-to-day responsibilities of work and two young kids isn’t stressful enough for married couple Isa and Louise, a lover appears on the scene, Esther. Told from Isa’s point of view, “The Sweet Spot” by Achy Obejas traces the erosion of a once strong romantic relationship in a way that mirrors Isa’s gradual loss of hearing.

Social Experiences at TEDMED, Powered by Our Partners

At TEDMED this year, join our Partners in uniquely designed experiences and conversations that highlight the powerful and impactful ways they are pushing boundaries and improving the health of individuals, communities, and nations around the world.

Each of our Partners embraces the role that Chaos+Clarity has in driving innovation, advancing science, and creating healthier communities, and we are excited that they share their cutting-edge ideas and devotion to a healthier world with the TEDMED Community. Below, learn more about their experiences at TEDMED this year – and register today to join them on-site at TEDMED 2018: Chaos+Clarity.

This year, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, through a collection of new, original stories about an emerging future Culture of Health, will feature the work of some of today’s most thought-provoking futurists and fiction authors. Five authors will join us and share how they imagine a healthier world. The TEDMED Community is invited to read each author’s story and engage with them directly in the RWJF Hive Lounge, and at a special Stories Under the Stars evening event. We’re excited to explore how fiction can help inspire a healthier future with RWJF and the TEDMED Community.

  Ensuring that all have the basics to be as healthy as possible.

AMA HealthBytes, a new game, will be launched at TEDMED this year. Are you up for the challenge? Put your knowledge to the test with “Mission Possible: Normal Blood Pressure” and “Practice Master”. Whether you’re a patient or physician, you’re bound to learn something new! After testing your knowledge with HealthBytes, join AMA leadership for Fireside Chats in the Hive about topics ranging from A.I.’s potential in healthcare to how digital tools can improve patient care and enable lifestyle change.

 Attacking the dysfunction in health care by removing obstacles and burdens that interfere with patient care—that’s the work of today’s American Medical Association.

We’re excited to have Joule, a Canadian Medical Association company, create different health care environments in the Hive, showcasing how virtual care tools can assist in improving access to health care. Experience an aging community on Wednesday, an at-risk community on Thursday, and, a remote community on Friday. Each day, you’ll learn about innovative initiatives and see practical, hands-on examples of physician-led innovation. Interact with cutting-edge innovations, and envision the potential impact these initiatives could have in your own local health care setting and how they can help solve current health care delivery challenges.

 Driving breakthroughs in health care innovation and system change.

Do YOU give a care? The SCAN Foundation is asking the TEDMED Community to add their voice to this important campaign that highlights the role Millennials play as caregivers while helping them create communities of support. They’ll also be hosting a live podcast recording hosted by their CEO, Dr. Bruce Chernof, about supporting younger caregivers to create community and find clarity. You can join the conversation on social media before you get to TEDMED, and share your personal story of providing care for an older relative or loved one, explaining why and how #YouGiveACare.

 Empowering Millennial caregivers across America with knowledge, resources, and supportive communities.

What really matters in health today? This question, along with the role you can play, is what Geisinger will explore with the TEDMED Community this year. Join Geisinger leadership, including President and CEO Dr. David Feinberg, as they tackle some of the biggest questions we face in health today: What is the responsibility of a health system to support the social determinants of health? What is the main barrier to bringing lifestyle medicine into routine clinical care? Can, and should, we have an opioid-free world?

 Providing clear vision on how to change health care nationally, from treatment to prevention.

What is the role that social, economic, and environmental factors play in our health and health outcomes? Join Humana at TEDMED to explore these questions and inspire solutions.

 Collaborating to untangle the complex web of social and environmental factors to design a comprehensive, integrated approach to improve health.


We’re thankful to have such amazing leaders joining us in our mission to help shape a healthier future. We hope you’ll join us and them at TEDMED 2018 to explore big issues and discover new solutions.

How Ethics and Morals Bring Clarity to a Chaotic World

The terms “ethics” and “morals” are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences between the two. Ethics require a group consensus of some form, whether formal or informal, whereas morals is for the individual to decide. Of course, one impacts the other, with a sort of chicken-and-egg effect, and both have an enormous impact on how we approach difficult subjects and navigate complex problems. TEDMED 2018 Speakers Adam Waytz, Rabiaa El Garani, Sherry Johnson, and Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin are each tackling moral and ethical dilemmas and sharing their wisdom from the Stage this November. Whether through research or lived experience, these Speakers will share stories of exploring, grappling with, and resolving health-related moral and ethical dilemmas on both individual and societal levels.

Adam Waytz, a psychologist and associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, is interested in uncovering what motivates a whistle-blower, or a person who decides to come forward to report someone else’s unethical behavior. Adam and his colleagues have conducted research to discover the psychological determinants of whistle-blowing in order to shed light on the factors that either encourage or discourage a potential whistle-blower to come forward. Their findings revealed that there are two basic moral values at odds when someone decides whether or not they will speak out about an offense: fairness and loyalty. People who prioritize fairness over loyalty tend to show a greater willingness to be a whistleblower, while those who prioritize loyalty show more hesitation to speak out. Through his work, Adam is lending new insight into how the guiding principles of ethics and morals can vary so much from person to person and contribute to drastically different decisions.

There are some issues around which morality and ethics are seemingly clear-cut. For instance, Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) is widely recognized as a serious crime and human rights violation. Unfortunately, SGBV is still a common occurrence in far too many places in the world. As an international investigator of SGBV and a member of the Justice Rapid Response-UN Women SGBV Justice Experts Roster, Rabiaa El Garani has traveled to places that are experiencing deep moral and ethical conflict surrounding SGBV—including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Central African Republic. In the JRR-UN Women documentary Evidence of Hope, a survivor who shared her traumatic experiences with Rabiaa underscored the importance of Rabiaa’s SGBV investigative work, saying “After I met [her] I realized that there are some people in the world that care about us.” Rabiaa’s work is bringing justice to survivors of SGBV, voicing their stories, and laying the groundwork for a new code of ethics in parts of the world where SGBV is often ignored or even accepted. 

While SGBV is considered a crime in every state across America, many people would be surprised to learn that child marriage is not. Sherry Johnson is a survivor of child marriage who was forced to marry her rapist at age 11, and by age 27, she was a mother of 9. Today, Sherry advocates for the fair treatment of children and fights for the abolishment of child marriage in the United States. After spending the past several years lobbying the Florida legislature on the issue of child marriage, Sherry recently achieved a major victory with the signing of SB 140 into law, which restricts marriage in the state to those who are at least 17 years old. However, the fight is far from over—almost all states still have some legal variation for children to marry.  

Another ethical debate that concerns America’s young people surrounds the practice of vaping, which is the inhaling and exhaling of aerosol (also referred to as vapor) through an e-cigarette or similar device. Vaping and e-cigarettes were initially considered to be a less harmful alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes, however recent studies have shown their effects to be much more deleterious than originally thought. Furthermore, with advertising that appears to target youth, candy-like flavors like mango and fruit medley, and devices that pack an alarmingly high nicotine content, the vaping industry has become the subject of extensive ethical scrutiny in recent years. Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin is a biobehavioral scientist and a professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine whose research focuses on the bio-behavioral understanding of vaping and substance use behaviors in young people. By digging deeper into teen vaping behavior, Suchitra is uncovering important information that can be used by policymakers as they look to regulate the e-cigarette industry in an effort to help keep children away from the highly addictive and harmful habit.

From health and wellbeing to human rights and policy, we look to ethics and morals to help bring clarity to our often chaotic world. Although the lines between right and wrong may seem clear to many, such as in the cases of child marriage, SGBV, and teen vaping, the fact is, these are not universal truths. Furthermore, given the individualized psychology behind how we establish our morals, we may never be able to see eye to eye on some things. We’re excited to continue exploring the complexities of ethics, morality, science, and behavior from the Stage this year and to gain a deeper understanding of these concepts from TEDMED 2018 Speakers Adam, Rabiaa, Sherry, and Suchitra. We hope to see you there!

The Creative Potential of Data

When you think of the word “data,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Maybe statistics, graphs, or evidence? How about creativity? Probably not. In fact, many people think of creativity and data as polar opposites. However, what if that wasn’t necessarily the case? Just think about it: analyzing data requires imagination, finding hidden patterns, and translating information into relatable and digestible stories. Today’s Speaker Spotlight focuses on three TEDMED 2018 Speakers who are approaching data creatively and translating their findings to yield new insights in their areas of expertise. Whether it’s hacking the human genome, revealing how data informs behavior, or creating art from MRIs, these Speakers are telling fascinating stories through data in unique and exciting ways.

Data privacy is a hot topic today, but discussions of the issue are rarely focused on the importance of protecting our genetic data. However, genealogy expert Yaniv Erlich and his team made a shocking discovery when they found a privacy loophole that enabled the re-identification of allegedly anonymous male research participants using just internet searches and their Y chromosome. Dubbed the “Genome Hacker” by Nature, Yaniv’s work has pushed the science community to think about genealogy privacy from different angles and to find new ways to utilize our genetic data to inspire positive scientific progress. Yaniv is also responsible for assembling the world’s largest crowdsourced family tree, which includes information from 13 million people, as well as developing the website DNA.land, which has gathered the genotypes of over 100,000 individual donors. With this complex layering of data, Yaniv is paving a path toward establishing a digitized genetic connection between every human alive.

Yaniv Erlich- Whitehead Institute from PMWC Intl on Vimeo.

In today’s digital world, health data isn’t being used exclusively by doctors and scientists. There are apps, devices, and home tests that enable the anyone to collect, monitor, and track their personal health data. David Asch, a behavioral economist at the University of Pennsylvania, warns that we should not look to these “quantified self” datasets as primary drivers of health behavior change, but instead we should view them as promising facilitators. In a 2015 JAMA piece, Asch and his co-authors noted that while wearable health tracking devices “are increasing in popularity, little evidence suggests that they are bridging that gap” between simply “recording and reporting information about behaviors such as physical activity or sleep patterns” and actually “educat[ing] and motivat[ing] individuals toward better habits and better health.” By diving deeper into the realities of quantified self data outcomes, David is working to move past the hype and to communicate what is most effective in inspiring positive health changes.

Of course, gaining insight into our health often requires more intensive measures than self-tracking, and many people undergo diagnostic tests such as CT scans or MRIs to see what’s going on inside of their body. While many people find getting one of these tests to be an unsettling experience, artist Marilène Oliver finds beauty and opportunity in diagnostic scans. Inspired by Hans Moravec’s idea that the Digital Age could one day enable us to download our consciousness, Marilène took the concept one step further and asked, “what about our bodies?” Finding that this question couldn’t be answered solely in virtual sculptures or fully physical structures, Marilène now creates work that strives to bring digitized bodies to life. Marilène’s art not only spotlights new and explosive ways to interpret our medical data, but it also helps us to more deeply explore questions surrounding our health, wellbeing, and physical body.

Marilene Oliver. Portfolio of Selected Work 2003-2013 from Marilene Oliver on Vimeo.

Data collection and interpretation has become a dynamic and creative process. With the power of a search engine, a smartwatch, or a PET scan, we are now able to glean insights into health and medicine that were previously unimaginable. For Yaniv, David, and Marilène, data has been the fuel that helped them to establish important new connections and to reconsider how they think about health. By unleashing the creativity and possibility inherent in data, these three speakers are inspiring us to look at information in new ways and to answer the question: how will you think about data?

Policy @ Home: How are you going to change America’s health for the better?

Often when we think about public policy, we think about lawmakers. After all, they are the ones who can make the change. However, we have found time and time again that changing public health policy is not limited to those serving in government offices. For researchers, medical practitioners, and community members, what it takes to be a change maker is finding your answer to the question, “How are you going to change America’s health for the better?” Each of our Speaker’s in this week’s Speaker Spotlight have found unique answers to how they are impacting change in America and helping to build a healthier future. Whether it’s from the Senate Chambers or a research lab, each of these Speakers will share their vision for how public policy can create a healthier United States.

As the 20th Surgeon General of the United States, Vice Admiral Jerome Adams is faced with a monumental task: improving the health of the American people. Specifically, Dr. Adams is responsible for overseeing the operations of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and providing the public with the best scientific information available regarding how they can better their health and reduce their risk of injury and illness. Since he took office in 2017, Dr. Adams has had to confront major national public health issues ranging from opioids to hurricane relief effort to health and national security s, which he has approached from a science-first perspective. Additionally, Dr. Adams is focused on demonstrating the connection between health and economic prosperity at the individual, organizational, and community level. Dr. Adams believes in the power of forming non-traditional partnerships, such as with law enforcement and private businesses, to address America’s most difficult health challenges and build healthier communities.

Dr. Adams at the NIH

Affordable and accessible health care is an important piece of the policy puzzle, too. Irene Papanicolas is a health system performance analyst who asks the important question “Why is health care spending in the United States so much greater than in other high-income countries?” While many have asked that question before, Irene has examined the data behind several theories, finding that issues with the prices of labor and goods, as well as high administrative costs are the main drivers of the differences in spending. Her research, which digs deeper into the strengths, weaknesses, and intricacies of different health care systems around the globe, is providing policymakers with critical data and inspiring new ways of thinking about the future of the US healthcare system.

Sometimes, the most effective policies are already on the books. April Zeoli, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University, has conducted extensive research on the association between laws addressing intimate partner violence (IPV), gun violence, and intimate partner homicide (IPH) rates. With her work, April digs into important questions such as what are “the risks of firearm access and use in IPV?” as well as what is the “effectiveness of interventions designed specifically to reduce firearm violence in intimate relationships”? Importantly, April has found that some states have policies that have proven to reduce instances of IPV and IPH — which have the potential to be adopted in other states as well.

Denisse Rojas’s work also has the potential to change policies in a major way. Denisse grew up as an undocumented immigrant and saw firsthand the issues that marginalized populations in the United States face when it comes to health care — experiences that have inspired Denisse to pursue a career in both medicine and public policy. In addition to her commitment to influencing immigration and health policy, Denisse is dedicated to helping other aspiring medical students navigate the DACA program through the organization she co-founded, Pre-Health Dreamers. With her educational fate in the hands of the government, Denisse is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School in the hopes of influencing immigration policy, and its health impacts on undocumented people, for the better.

Denisse testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee, October 2017

Whether it be research, advocacy, partnerships, or law, there are many ways to answer the question, “How are you going to change the health of Americans for the better?” Dr. Adams, Irene, April, and Denisse have all chosen different paths to address public health concerns in the US. Progress does not come without struggle, which each of these Speakers shed light on the incredible challenges we face as a nation, as well as individuals. However, their stories and research spark hope that there are clear ways to change policy to pave the way to a healthier future.

Q&A with Sian Leah Beilock, Performance Under Pressure Sage

Sian Leah Beilock is exploring the science behind why people “choke” in pressure-packed situations. Specifically, she examines factors in the brain and body that influence performance in stressful situations ranging from test taking, to public speaking, to sporting events. Using a variety of research methods, including assessing test performance to neuroimaging techniques, Sian’s work is aimed at better understanding how our cognition and reasoning skills change when we are under stress. Sian’s research is routinely covered in the media, including CNN, NPR, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences honored Sian with the Troland Award, in recognition of her pioneering work in experimental psychology. Sian has published two books and over 100 papers though her research. After serving as Executive Vice Provost of the University of Chicago, Sian was recently appointed as the eighth President of Barnard College. She spoke at TEDMED 2017, and you can watch her Talk here.


TEDMED: You were an athlete growing up, and in your talk you speak a lot about the pressures that athletes feel when it’s game time. How do you see athletic performance relating to the other types of performance pressures that people feel, such as those in the classroom or in the boardroom? Is there anything interesting to note in how these pressures are alike and how they’re different?

Sian Leah Beilock: I did spend a lot of time on the soccer field during my youth, and I learned, often the hard way, how the mental and the physical are linked. Later, as a scientist, I’ve studied this connection closely. Dealing with pressure is a universal. It doesn’t change, whether you have a golf club in your hand or a pencil. It’s the same. Accomplished athletes learn how to thrive when all eyes are on them—and by observing how they manage that and the strategies they use, we can learn a lot about how students survive the pressure of tests and how we can cope with other pressures of everyday life.

TM: In your Talk, you share how overthinking performance and trying to control the situation causes many people to flub under pressure. However, many people at the top of their fields are often considered to be “Type A” or even “control freaks.” It would seem that these people would suffer from what you call “paralysis by analysis,” and yet many seem to be thriving. How do you explain this seeming contradiction?

SLB: There is a time to focus on the details and a time to, as Nike regularly reminds us, “just do it.” When you are practicing and learning your craft, of course you have to pay close attention to the step-by-step process—that can be very important, even critical. But, my guess is, in the moment, when even the most Type A leaders excel, they are trusting their instincts and focusing on the outcome rather than the process. They are always keeping the big picture in mind.

TM: From practicing under the conditions you’ll be performing under to taking the time to write down all the worries and self-doubts circling around in your mind, your TEDMED Talk gave us some valuable strategies to employ when we’re looking to perform our best under pressure. We have a feeling that you have many more good tips, would you mind sharing a few more?

SLB: Well, here’s one tip that I try to use myself. Think about why you should succeed—rather than entertain the reasons why you might fail. I also recommend reinterpreting the signs that your body is giving you. Rather than your sweaty palms and increased heart beat being signs that you are freaking out, remind yourself that these physiological reactions are important and useful. They are shunting resources to your brain and body so that you can think and perform at your best.

TM: What was the TEDMED experience like for you? It would be especially interesting to learn more about how you prepared for the pressure of memorizing and presenting your Talk!

SLB: Believe me, I feel pressure like everyone else (maybe even more powerfully since that’s the crux of my research), but I also try to practice what I preach. Practicing— not just by yourself, but under the same conditions you are going to encounter when you perform—is what matters. It gets you used to what you are going to experience in the big moment. I talk about it as closing the gap between training and competition. I did this to prep for my TEDMED talk and it helped. I practiced on my own, but also in front of others—people I trust and whose opinions I value. I promise you it was nerve wracking every time, but it made the big day a little less daunting.