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Imagine If: A session of talks in partnership with the U.S. Air Force

Curator Bryn Freedman invites the audience to imagine a world we all want to live in, as she kicks off the TED Salon: Imagine If, presented in partnership with the U.S. Air Force. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

The event: TED Salon: Imagine If, curated by Bryn Freedman and Amanda Miller, TED Institute

The partner: U.S. Air Force

When and where: Thursday, February 21, 2019, at the TED World Theater in New York City

Music: Rapper Alia Sharrief, performing her songs “My Girls Rock” and “Girl Like Me”

The big idea: Imagination is a superpower — it allows us to push beyond perceived limits, to think beyond the ordinary and to discover a new world of possibilities.

New idea (to us anyway): We may be able to vaccinate against PTSD and other mental illnesses.

Good to be reminded: Leaders shouldn’t simply follow the pack. They need to embrace sustainability, equality, accountability — not just the whims of the market.


Brigadier General (Select) Brenda P. Cartier shares how we can balance our personalities and create more just societies. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Brenda Cartier, Director of Operations at Headquarters Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and the first female Air Commando selected for the rank of general

  • Big idea: “Precision-guided masculinity” allows us to maintain a killer instinct without discarding the empathetic, “feminine” traits that mitigate the “collateral damage” of toxic masculinity.
  • How? Viewing gender as a spectrum of femininities and masculinities allows us to select traits as they fit each situation, without tying our identities to them. As we learn to balance our personalities, we become well-rounded human beings and create more just societies.
  • Quote of the talk: “This new narrative breaks us out of a one-size-fits-all approach to gender, where we link male bodies and masculinity and female bodies and femininity. ‘Precision-guided masculinity’ begs us to ask the question: ‘Who is it that is employing those masculine traits to protect and defend?'”

Could we put a stop to mental illnesses like depression and PTSD before they develop? Rebecca Brachman explores the potential of a new class of drugs called “resilience enhancers.” (Photo: Dian Lofton / TED)

Rebecca Brachman, neuroscientist, TED Fellow and pioneer in the emerging field of preventative psychopharmacology

  • Big idea: Brachman and her team have discovered a new class of drugs called “resilience enhancers” that could change the way we treat mental illness like depression and PTSD. These drugs wouldn’t just treat symptoms of the diseases, she says — they could prevent them from developing in the first place.
  • How? Brachman’s research applies the fundamental principle of vaccination to mental illness, building up a person’s ability to recover and grow after stress. For example, imagine a Red Cross volunteer going into an earthquake zone. In addition to the typhoid vaccine, she could take a resilience-enhancing drug before she leaves to protect her against PTSD. The same applies to soldiers, firefighters, ER doctors, cancer patients, refugees — anyone exposed to trauma or major life stress. The drugs have worked in preliminary tests with mice. Next up, humans.
  • Quote of the talk: “This is a paradigm shift in psychiatry. It’s a whole new field: preventative psychopharmacology.”

Michele Wucker, finance and policy strategist, founder and CEO of Gray Rhino & Company

  • Big idea: Catastrophic events sometimes catch us by surprise, but too often we invite crises to barrel right into our lives despite countless, blaring warning signs. What keeps us from facing the reality of a situation head-on?
  • How? Semantics, semantics, semantics — and a healthy dose of honesty. Wucker urges us to replace the myth of the “black swan” — that rare, unforeseeable, unavoidable event — with the reality of the “gray rhino,” the common obvious catastrophes, like the bursting of a financial bubble or the end of a tempestuous relationship, that are predictable and preventable. She breaks down the factors that determine whether we run from problems or tackle them, and lays out some warning signs that you may be ignoring one of those charging rhinos right now.
  • Quote of the talk: “Think about the obvious challenges in your own life and how you deal with them. Do you stick your head in the ground like an ostrich and ignore the problems entirely? Do you freak out like Chicken Little over all the tiny things, but miss the big giant wolf coming at you? Or do you manage things when they’re small to keep them from going out of control?”

Curator Bryn Freedman interviews executive (and former candidate for president of Iceland) Halla Tómasdóttir about how we can transform corporate leaders and businesses for a better world. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Halla Tómasdóttir, CEO of Richard Branson’s B Team and former Icelandic presidential candidate, interviewed by curator Bryn Freedman

  • Big idea: Corporate leaders — and the businesses they run — are in a crisis of conformity that favors not rocking the boat and ignores big issues like climate change and inequality. We need new leadership to get us out of this crisis.
  • How? It’s not enough for corporate leaders to simply follow the pack and narrowly define the missions of their organizations. If CEOs want to avoid the pitchforks of the masses, they must also ensure that their businesses are global citizens that embrace sustainability, equality, accountability — not just the markets.
  • Quote of the talk: “At the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves who are we holding ourselves accountable for — and if that isn’t the next generation, I don’t know who.”

Sarah T. Stewart, planetary scientist at the University of California, Davis, and 2018 MacArthur “Genius” fellow

  • Big idea: How did the Moon form? Despite its proximity, we don’t actually know! Adding to the mystery: the Earth and Moon are composed of the same stuff, a rarity we’ve found nowhere else in the universe. In trying to solve the mystery, Sarah T. Stewart discovered an entirely new not-quite-planet.
  • How? Stewart and her team smash planets together in computer simulations to learn more about how they were created. While trying to uncover the Moon’s origin, they discovered that the early Earth may have been involved in a massive collision with a Mars-sized planet, which then created a “synestia:” a super-heated doughnut of molten material previously unknown to science, out of which the Moon was born.
  • Quote of the talk: “I discovered a new type of astronomical object. It’s not a planet; it’s made from planets.”

Why do teens seem to make so many bad decisions? Kashfia Rahman searches for an answer in psychological effects of risk-taking. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Kashfia Rahman, Intel International Science and Engineering Fair winner and Harvard freshman

  • Big idea: Teenagers aren’t necessarily chasing thrills when they make bad decisions. Rather, repeated exposure to risk actually numbs how they make choices.
  • How? After wondering why her peers were constantly making silly and irresponsible decisions, Kashfia Rahman decided to conduct an experiment testing how her fellow high school students responded to risk. She found that habituation to risk — or “getting used to it” — impacts how teenagers make choices beyond their cognitive control. With this insight, she believes we can create policies that more holistically tackle high-risk behavior among teenagers.
  • Quote of the talk: “Unforeseen opportunities often come from risk-taking — not the hazardous negative risk-taking I studied, but the good ones, the positive risks,” she says. “The more risks I took, the more I felt capable.”