Misbehaving beautifully: Meet TEDGlobal guest host Sarah Caddick in our Q&A

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Sarah Caddick is a neuroscientist who’s obsessed with the way that science and, in particular, the brain, are understood by those who don’t spend most of their lives inside a lab. She is the Neuroscience Advisor to David Sainsbury and a senior advisor to the Gatsby Charitable Foundation — a big funder of scientific research, based in London — and she’s also curating the “Misbehaving Beautifully” session at this year’s TEDGlobal conference, running June 25-29 in Edinburgh. Helen Walters caught up with her on the telephone as she was putting the final touches on the session. An edited version of their conversation follows:

“Misbehaving Beautifully” is a really wonderful title for a TED session. But what exactly do you mean by this?
The title was born out of a conversation I had with TED’s Bruno Giussani last fall. I was peppering him with things I think are of interest to the general public and that I think they should pay attention to in the next decade, and he just turned around and said we should tackle it at TED. So the whole thing is really all Bruno’s fault. But the session does reflect both my growing concern and my growing interest in getting the public at large to rethink what they perceive to be going on when people are suffering from mental disorders or behavioral issues.

What do you mean?
I’d been noticing this trend of people becoming fearful of what they perceive to be “incorrect” behaviors. But the thing is, the brain does misbehave. You can manipulate its wires and circuits to do all sorts of things that are not “normal’. And so my question became: is this as bad as we seem to think it is? When communication in the brain is “going wrong”, that actually underpins a lot of the things in world that are truly beautiful and captivating.

Won’t it be a bit of a battle to get those who aren’t scientists or experts to understand these nuances?
As science gets a better handle on the causes of problems that we don’t like, such as schizophrenia, depression, or bipolarity, my fear is there’ll still be a sense that these are bad, they’re disorders, they’re negative. And the more the public buys into that, the more it enhances stigmas and makes it more difficult to advance. People shy away and then they vote with feet, and eventually funding goes down.

So how do you help mere mortals understand what the experts still really don’t have a handle on? After all, the brain is a huge topic!
It’s a scary topic. There’s a body of knowledge that only Hercules could hold or only Atlas could carry on his shoulders. But then again, people are fascinated too; the brain underpins the id of every one of us. After all, we all walk around with this exquisite piece of machinery.

So how did you go about putting together the session?
I felt it was very important to pick individuals with very unique stories. Ultimately it came down to wanting to convey both some of the science and how science is done — and then I wanted to bring in the reality of individuals who have brains that are misbehaving but do so in such a way that people weren’t frightened or didn’t feel pity. A couple of speakers, in particular Elyn Saks and Ruby Wax, suffer from schizophrenia and depression respectively. They are two of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met. They’re extremely smart, articulate, passionate, and they have wonderful stories. And having them in front of an audience reminds us all that these are real people. Yes, something in their brains is not working quite the way we’d want it to, some bit has been co-opted to produce something that isn’t ideal. But I want people to see two very smart, very articulate individuals who are not their disease. They are who they are.

Well, that just gave me chills. Who else will be talking?
Read Montague will talk about how we study behavior. He’s very compelling, charming, and articulate and for him, this is not just a job. He is truly driven to try and understand behavior. With all of these speakers, I wanted to get people to talk about their journeys and stories and to weave in aspects of the brain and its capacity to misbehave. Then, Wayne McGregor is a spectacular choreographer who studies how the brain can inform how you create dance and movement — often movement that is seemingly impossible. Wayne thinks about how we can push the brain to help us create completely spectacular movements. I think that’s fascinating. The circuit in the brain that may deliver some hideous schizophrenic behavior can equally be co-opted to create something that we all sit in awe of.

It sounds so cool. Who else will you be bringing onto the stage?
Robert Legato is a spectacular visual effects guy who won Oscars for Titanic and Hugo. Again, he is somebody tuned in to how you take the power of the brain to create visual scenes in your minds that don’t actually exist. His job is to get people to believe scenes in a movie are real. Now I would argue that the average man or woman loves movies and buying into these scenes. But this is co-opting a bit of the brain that in another situation would be delivering hallucinations that are seen as scary or stigmatized. Yet we’ll pay for the privilege.

You’re not just calling on those from the developed world, are you?
Absolutely not. I really wanted to bring in a global perspective, to hit hard at the whole mental disorder aspect from a global point of view. We too often focus on the western perspective and I wanted to lay out that the brain is the same hunk of ugly tissue wherever it is, whether that’s India, New York, London … Vikram Patel is a world leader in field who works in low-resource communities in India. I really wanted him there to bring in a bigger perspective.

It’s quite a session. What do you want the audience to take away?
I want to turn what people currently think they know on its head. I want people to walk away at the end with the idea that everything is not as black and white as we might like to think. In doing that I’m hoping to help create a culture where we stop and think before we jump to make judgments.