TEDMED: Finding Unexpected Connections

Having not attended TEDMED previously, in some ways I expected it to be interesting but draining, like so many other health conferences. I found the opposite to be true, and I’ve walked away more energized than ever. TEDMED brought together some of the brightest minds in health (not just medicine; health) and asked people to unlock their imagination. What struck me most was the wide range of participants — from physicians to authors (and those talented few who are both, like Abraham Verghese), entrepreneurs in The Hive to bioethicists on the stage. At the center of this variety was a singular mission: to help people be healthier so they can lead longer, fuller lives. So they can thrive.

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(That’s me, front and center, having my mind blown)

One particular talk from scientist-turned-filmmaker Tiffany Shlain spoke to the heart of the TEDMED experience for me. While discussing her mission of making science exciting and accessible for people through film (“editing is like film surgery”), she talked about neuroplasticity. This is the ability of the brain to make new connections and associations that are flexible enough to change over time, in response to new experiences. It’s also what allows us to make new connections between seemingly unrelated thoughts. New thoughts are quite literally new connections between synapses in the brain — the first time your brain fires in a new, never-before–connected way. In the words of Shlain, “Creative breakthroughs and empathy come from making unexpected connections and considering new perspectives.”

And this is exactly what TEDMED is all about — finding new connections, whether they be thoughts, people, or ideas. TEDMED brought to light the benefits of connecting seemingly unrelated disciplines: physicians who are sharing knowledge about disease across species, including humans, so we can all live healthier (Barbara Natterson-Horowitz). And designers making hospitals healthier by examining everything from materials to layout to (gasp!) hospital windows that actually open, reconnecting patients with the outside world (Robin Guenther). And scientists exploring ways to provide better haptic training for today’s surgeons by creatively modifying sensors that are already available on the market (Carla Pugh). And humorists that who hope to make you laugh, then think, about the big questions in science (Marc Abrahams).

It’s all about the power of tangential thinking: making new, unexpected connections and finding novel ways of thinking to solve big, thorny, complex problems. And rediscovering a sense of wonder for science by being exposed, fire-hose style, to the scientific brilliance that’s all around us, all the time. It’s about opening your mind and challenging your long-held beliefs, and trusting that other big thinkers will too.

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(Me and my awesome TEDMED team in San Francisco)

– Sarah Larcker, VP, Account Planning