While most of the speakers I’m mentioning are the ‘science’ speakers in this session, they are more precisely ‘medical science’ speakers which takes me further than usual out of my comfort zone. That said, Nancy Kanwisher, brain researcher, opened the session (from her TED biography),
Using cutting-edge fMRI technology as her lens, Nancy Kanwisher zooms in on the brain regions responsible for some surprisingly specific elements of cognition.
Does the brain use specialized processors to solve complex problems, or does it rely instead on more general-purpose systems?
This question has been at the crux of brain research for centuries. MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] researcher Nancy Kanwisher seeks to answer this question by discovering a “parts list” for the human mind and brain. “Understanding the nature of the human mind,” she says, “is arguably the greatest intellectual quest of all time.”
As many of us now know courtesy of researchers like Kanwisher, the brain has both general purpose regions and specialized regions for perception and complex processing but Kanwisher’s presentation was as much about the process of discovery as it was about the discoveries she and her colleagues have made. She talked about her personal experiences with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as she tested (many times) her own brain first and then spent years looking at grayscale images as she decoded what she was observing and tested over and over and over again.
Next came the ‘gut guy’, or as microbial ecologist Rob Knight’s TED biography describes him,
Rob Knight explores the unseen microbial world that exists literally right under our noses — and everywhere else on (and in) our bodies.
Using scatological research methods that might repel the squeamish, microbial researcher Rob Knight uncovers the secret ecosystem (or “microbiome”) of microbes that inhabit our bodies — and the bodies of every creature on earth. In the process, he’s discovered a complex internal ecology that affects everything from weight loss to our susceptibility to disease. As he said to Nature in 2012, “What motivates me, from a pragmatic standpoint, is how understanding the microbial world might help us improve human and environmental health.”
Knight made the case that our microbes are what give us our individuality by noting that 99.99% of our DNA is the same from one person to the next but out microbial communities vary greatly person to person and the community in your mouth varies greatly from the community on your skin. He and his colleagues are using the information to consider new types of medical interventions. For example, research has shown that giving children antibiotics before the age of six months affects their future health.
Interestingly, we carry about 3 lbs. of microbes individually and Knight and his colleagues are still gathering information about those lbs. He mentioned the American Gut project (and solicited future volunteers from the live audience by mentioning he had just happened to bring 100 kits which were available at his table outside). This project is for US participant only.
Stephen Friend, oncologist and open science advocate was featured next. From his TED biography,
Inspired by open-source software models, Sage Bionetworks co-founder Stephen Friend builds tools that facilitate research sharing on a massive and revolutionary scale.
While working for Merck, Stephen Friend became frustrated by the slow pace at which big pharma created new treatments for desperate patients. Studying shared models like Wikipedia, Friend realized that the complexities of disease could only be understood — and combated — with collaboration and transparency, not by isolated scientists working in secret with proprietary data
Friend has a great name for someone who advocates for transparency and openness. He opened with stories about his work and how he came to be inspired to look for health rather than disease. He noted that for the most part, medical research is focused on the question of what went wrong with a patient rather than asking if healthy people have some sort of natural immunity or protection from cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc. Perhaps by examining health people we can find ways to more effectively intervene.
He provided two examples of research that examined natural immunity such as research in San Francisco (California) into why a small but significant percentage of people with HIV never developed AIDS; his other example was regarding research into lipid levels and why some people with high levels never develop heart disease.
I’m a little foggy about this point but I think he made a request for information about these medical phenomena and people from around the world shared their research with him in an open and transparent fashion.
This next bit was clear to me, he and his colleagues are moving to another stage with their research initiative which they have named the Resilience Project; Unexpected Heroes. He too solicited volunteers from the audience. I haven’t been able to locate a website for the project but there maybe some on the Sage Bionetworks website, the organization Friend co-founded. Good luck!
Finally, I wasn’t expecting to write about David Chalmers so my notes aren’t very good. A philosopher, here’s an excerpt from Chalmers’ TED biography,
In his work, David Chalmers explores the “hard problem of consciousness” — the idea that science can’t ever explain our subjective experience.
David Chalmers is a philosopher at the Australian National University and New York University. He works in philosophy of mind and in related areas of philosophy and cognitive science. While he’s especially known for his theories on consciousness, he’s also interested (and has extensively published) in all sorts of other issues in the foundations of cognitive science, the philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology.
Chalmers provided an interesting bookend to a session started with a brain researcher (Nancy Kanwisher) who breaks the brain down into various processing regions (vastly oversimplified but the easiest way to summarize her work in this context). Chalmers reviewed the ‘science of consciousness’ and noted that current work in science tends to be reductionist, i.e., examining parts of things such as brains and that same reductionism has been brought to the question of consciousness.
Rather than trying to prove consciousness, Chalmers proposes that we consider it a fundamental in the same way that we consider time, space, and mass to be fundamental. He noted that there’s precedence for additions and gave the example of James Clerk Maxwell and his proposal to consider electricity and magnetism as fundamental.
Chalmers next suggestion is a little more outré and based on some thinking (sorry I didn’t catch the theorist’s name) that suggests everything, including photons, has a type of consciousness (but not intelligence).