TED2008: What Stirs Us?

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(Unedited running notes from the TED2008 conference in Monterey, California. Session ten.)

Anthropologist Helen Fisher studies romantic love — its evolution, its biochemical foundations, and its importance to human society. She gave a talk at TED2006 (watch the video). Her current research is on why we fall in love and how.
In the jungle of Guatemala, she says, stands a temple. It was built by the king of the Mayas, who was buried under it when he died. Mayan inscription proclaims that he was deeply in love with his wife, so he built a temple on her honor facing his. The sun rises behind one and sets behind the other: after 30’000 years these two people still kiss from their tombs. Anthropologists have not find any society that doesn’t know love.
Have you ever been rejected by somebody you really loved? Have you ever dumped someone who really loved you? About 97% of people, men and women, say yes to those questions. Romantic love is one of the most powerful sensations on Earth. We are currently looking at the data of brain scans of people that have just been dumped, and we find alot of activity in the region associated with romantic love. We found activity in other brain regions also, in one associated with calculating gains and losses.
What have I learned? Romantic love is a universal human drive — not the sex drive — that it allows you to focus your energy into a single energy. Of all the poems, Plato: "the God of love lives in the state of need". Love is a need, like hunger and thirst. I have come to believe that romantic love is also an addiction. It has all of the characteristics of an addiction, you focus on a person, you obsess about him/her, you need to see more of her/him. Romantic love is one of the most addictive substances  on Earth.
Animals also love. There is not a single animal on this planet that would copulate with anything that comes along, unless you’re stuck in a lab cage. I’ve looked at 100 species and everywhere in the wild animals have favorites.
Our newest experiment — putting people who report they’re still in love in a long-lasting relationship into the functional MRI. And we find the same data, that region of the brain still becomes active 25 years later.
Why do you fall in love with one person rather than another? Match.com came to me three years ago and asked me that question, and I’ve researched it ever since. Psychologists tell you that we tend to fall in love with people with the same general level of intelligence, good looks, values, social status, but we don’t know what makes two personalities really stick together to form a stable couple. I’ve concocted a questionnaire to analyze — through biochemical analysis —  who chooses whom to love.

David Griffin
is the director of photography for the National Geographic magazine — the Vatican of photography. On his blog, Editor’s Pick, he discusses the creation of the extraordinary photos published in the magazine.
He starts by showing some great — truly awesome — pictures by NG photographs, including the iconic portrait of the "Afghan Girl", Sharbat Gula (picture right) photographed by Steve McCurry and who did the NG cover in 1985.
Last year NG has added a section to their website ("Your Shot") where anyone can submit photographs to be considered for publication — and it has been a runaway success. Everyone of us has one or two great photographs in us, but to be a great photojournalist you need to take great photos all the time.
Griffin goes on to tell great stories of photojournalism: in African national parks, in Indian slums, underwater in Baja California and New Zealand, in Chinese jellyfish markets, in the military medical system in Irak, etc.
Photography can be used to address our biggest issues. But sometimes photojournalism is just plain interesting or fun. Photography can make a real connection to people, and can be employed as a positive agent to understand the challenges and opportunities facing us today.

Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize and advocate of the private exploration of space.
When I met Stephen Hawking (who spoke on Wednesday at TED), he told me his dream was to travel into space. I told him I could not take him there, but I could take him to weightlessness. The way to do so is through parabolic flights (fly up, then go into free fall, which gives you a few dozens seconds of weightlessness). And so we brought Stephen Hawking there (picture left see video).

Chris Abani is a Nigerian writer and political activist (twice imprisoned and tortured in his country). His 2004 novel "GraceLand" is a bitterly funny tale of a young Nigerial Elvis impersonator in Lagos. Abani was a speaker at TEDGLOBAL in Tanzania, last year.
My search is to find stories of everyday people that transcend us, that don’t look away at the reality: we are never more beautiful than when we are ugly. What I’ve come to learn is that the world is never seen in the grand gestures, but in the accumulation of the simple, soft, selfless acts of compassion. In South Africa they say "Ubuntu": the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me. Which means that there is no way for us to be human without other people.
So Abani tells stories of people. People standing up to soldiers wanting to kill them. People being compassionate. People being human, reclaiming their humanity, recognizing that we are surrounded by amazing people, who offer all of us the mirror to a whole humanity.

Benjamin Zander has been for almost 30 years the conductor of the Boston Philarmonic — and a speaker on leadership. He uses music to help people open their minds.
"There are people that think that classical music is dying, and others who think that we haven’t seen anything yet. Rather than going into statistics of orchestras dying, we should do an experiment." He is on stage with a piano, and uses it to play Chopin and tell stories of musical
learning and amazement, walking around on stage and down into the
audience, and at the end of his speech, he gets the TEDsters to stand and sing Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy". (They distribute the text written phonetically, but as a German speaker, I can’t read it — I’d never realized that if you speak a language, it’s very difficult to read its phonetic rendering — so I have to look up the original text: "Freude, schöner Götterfunken…")