The Rewards of Risk-Taking: Q&A with Kayt Sukel

On the TEDMED 2014 stage, Kayt Sukel, journalist and science writer, shared insights into the neuroscience of risk-taking and how play during childhood and adulthood impacts the way we make decisions as adults. We inquired for more on brains at play and her favorite TEDMED 2014 talks.

"Too often, we wrap ourselves up in our grown-up suits and avoid play at all costs. And that’s to our detriment—at work, at home and for our overall health." Kayt Sukel at TEDMED 2014

“Too often, we wrap ourselves up in our grown-up suits and avoid play at all costs. And that’s to our detriment—at work, at home and for our overall health.” Kayt Sukel at TEDMED 2014

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

I’ve found so much inspiration in many TEDMED talks—and learned quite a bit. As I’ve been working on my book about the science of risk-taking, there were so many things I learned that I wanted to share. I’m honored I got the opportunity to do so on the TEDMED platform.

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

More and more, Americans seem to live in a culture of cultivated busy-ness. We have so much to do that we forget to take time for ourselves. And while we understand that our kids need to play (and take risks as they do so) in order to learn and grow—many of us have forgotten how to play for ourselves. Too often, we wrap ourselves up in our grown-up suits and avoid play at all costs. And that’s to our detriment—at work, at home and for our overall health.

I hope that people will recognize that there is great value in play—not just for children but also for adults– and that they understand that taking risks in playful arenas is a great way to gain critical problem solving, cognitive and emotional regulation skills. I want them to understand that the things we do each day to cultivate health don’t have to be joyless and staid. So if the people who listen to my talk find some time to engage in some kind of play, push the envelope a little, and reap all those beautiful brain benefits, I’ll feel like I’ve done something important.

How can we incorporate play and risk-taking into our daily lives?

I encourage everyone to find something that motivates you—whether it’s learning a new language, taking an improv class or rock climbing. Then, push your limits. You’ll be surprised where risky play can take you.

Tell us about your favorite TEDMED 2014 talks or performances that left an impression with you.

I found the whole program to be tremendously inspiring. But that said, if I have to play favorites, I was bowled over by Jeff Karp’s talk on bio-inspiration. His work on finding inspiration in the natural world and then bioengineering it for modern-day use just blew me away. I would never have thought about translating the properties of porcupine quills into state-of-the-art surgical staples– nor would I have agreed to put said quills into my face as a test–but Jeff did! —and it was a pleasure to learn more about his research and the way he thinks about problem-solving.

Jeff Iliff’s talk on sleep and the glymphatic system was fascinating. I remember one of my own neuroscience professors discussing the mysteries of how the brain clears out its waste almost 20 years ago. It’s such a big question—and one that has implications for neurodegenerative disease. I love that technology has advanced to the point where researchers like Jeff and his colleagues are beginning to figure it out. Also, he reminded me that I really need to make sure I get my beauty rest!

And, finally, I enjoyed Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s talk on the Alternative Limb Project. In a former life, I was the wife of a military officer during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. In that role, I met far too many soldiers who lost limbs. While prosthetic technologies are wonderful, many artificial limbs can feel a bit blank and soulless. Her creations moved me. And they show that we can embrace our differences, even those that we did not choose for ourselves, and allow them to be just another canvas to show the world who we are inside.

But I feel like I’m leaving out other great talks and performances—like those by Leana Wen, John Cryan, Carl Hart, Danielle Ofri, Marc Abrahams, Sonia Shah, Cole Galloway, Heather Raffo and Farah Siraj. Really, I could go on and on.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

Our family motto is “experiences over possessions.” I hope that, over the course of my career, I’ll inspire people to explore, to connect, to laugh and to live as fully as they can. And that, of course, requires being open to both playing and taking risks.

What’s next for you?

I’m finishing up my forthcoming book about the science of risk-taking, The
Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance. It hits
shelves March 2016.