The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

TED-head and Other Things That Happen at TED Global

Meeting 850 of the most curious people in the world

I'm dead. Last full day, 6pm slot. Everyone's tired from a week of TED talks, dinners, parties, networking, challenging others and being challenged, publicly engaging in, using Matt Ridley's memorable phrase, "ideas having sex". Welcome to TED Global.

I was invited to speak at the 2011 TED Global in Edinburgh, Scotland. TED is the granddaddy of all public lectures, Eighteen minutes of edutainment for people with the IQ to know brilliance from crap after 20 seconds.

I actually felt more pressure. A week prior, I had turned in the manuscript for my new book "The Moral Molecule" to my publisher. The book was done and my TED talk was using the best stories from the book. If my talk fell flat, then the four years I spent writing it might have been a waste of time.

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Of course I had worked on my talk for six months, "work-shopped it" with colleagues and friends, finding a really solid ending only two weeks before I would give it live with eight cameras on me. TED Global's impresario, the inimitable Bruno Giussani had prodded and poked, suggested changes, mandated changes, motivated me with praise and fear. But, I had to wait through three days worth of fabulous talks before my 18 minutes on stage, rehearsing by myself in the gym in the morning and on solitary talks to Edinburgh Castle. The waiting was torture.

Then I realized it, Bruno had put me on the last day because he wanted a clean-up hitter. He expected me to knock it out of the park (gulp!). The crowd lets everyone know how good the talk is by amount of applause. Strikeout or home run, everyone one know after 18 minutes.

I was the third of five, and the two speakers before me, Alison Gopnik of Berkeley, a psychologist who studies babies gave a wonderful talk with great pictures (babies!). Then, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom discussed his book on why we seek pleasure with fabulous anecdotes. Then I was introduced. As I got on stage, I could feel my legs quiver, but I launched in.

I felt the crowd starting to follow my talk, then I relaxed and made jokes and got laughs, and as I wound-up for the big finish, I had them with me. The crowed stood up, a standing ovation. I was so relieved. As I walked off stage, Bruno met me, put his arms out and gave me a bear hug.

What happened next? Interviews, parties, innumerable people came to talk to me, ask me questions, try out ideas, challenge my thesis. For a guy who lives for the new new thing, it was fabulous.

They call the letdown after having one's head filled to the brim at TED, "TED-head". I certainly had it as I stepped onto the train at Waverley station in Edinburgh to head to London. My brain was so full it hurt, but the experience of communicating the many unusual experiments I had done on the biological basis for good and evil was amazing. Maybe I wasn't nuts after all....

TED rocks. Nothing else to say but that. If you have a chance to go, do it. Even if you don't, watch the videos of talks online, they will challenge what you think you know. Challenge is good, it's how we grow. Especially if you do it in front of 850 people.

 

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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