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This week’s best questions, ideas and debates from TED Conversations

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TED Conversations is a unique space where any member of this community can get feedback on an idea, pose an interesting question, or start a fascinating debate with fellow TEDizens from around the globe. This week, dozens of new conversations were started — from “What are the ethics of spending money?” to “Are we on the brink of creating a human-like digital mind?” Here, a sampling of the highlights from this week.

From Nina Tandon’s class at Cooper Union, student George Holevas posed a thought-provoking question: Do you believe the human brain will continue to increase its capabilities? He writes:

According to neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran’s TED Talk, “The neurons that shaped civilization”, a sudden emergence and rapid spread of a number of skills that are unique to human beings occurred 75k to 100k years ago. These defining skills include the use of tools, fire, shelter and language, and the ability to interpret a person’s behavior …

The question I would like to pose is, might our brains (collectively, as a species) soon experience such a new type of development once again? If so, what new skills could this more sophisticated neuron system facilitate our ability to perform, considering trends in globalization and collaboration (e.g. collaborative tasks across geographies, learning multiple languages more quickly, etc.)? Has the brain’s full potential already been unleashed? Or will it perpetually continue to develop more complex neural permutations?

Allan Macdougal responds:

The kind of attention we give to the world you describe only exists in the present and the past — what is known — and is thus not creative and speculative. In other words, ‘what is’ exists predominantly in one part of the brain, while the creative, speculative ‘what could be’ exists predominantly in another. It is open to question therefore, whether such discoveries as fire and the use of tools were accidents, or whether an element of creative input was present.

Creativity is the key to increasing capability, in my humble opinion. The more we confuse knowledge retention and ‘what is already known’ with intelligence — and go on to prime our children through education on that basis, the less we are likely to increase our capability.

And Arkady Grudzinsky adds:

After reading Julian Jaynes’ “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” where he argues that there have been considerable changes in human brain since the times of Homer’s Iliad (that’s only about 3000 years ago), I believe that our brain changes continuously, perhaps every few generations. Consider that children in today’s high schools easily absorb information that took humanity many centuries or even millennia to acquire.

With five days remaining, there’s time to add your thoughts to the exchange »

Following this week’s powerful talk on desertification and climate change, Linda Hesthag Ellwein asked: How attached are you to your deeply held beliefs? If solutions to global problems challenge your worldview, how do you react?

Allan Savory’s recent TED Talk introduced an unlikely and politically incorrect solution to reversing global desertification and climate change with the use of livestock as a tool, and different decision making.

Well-meaning laws, bureaucracies, and activists at the mercy of public opinion have stifled this work from moving forward on a large scale in the US. Belief systems and the fear of being wrong often prohibits change.

How do you respond to ideas that challenge your belief system? How do we stop our paradigms and prejudices from unfairly shaping decision making, or allowing us to take real risks for lasting change? What’s your reaction to cows helping save the world? What idea have you believed and been completely wrong?

One of the participants is Shannon Horst, co-founder of the Savory Institute.  She writes:

Some of the best work on this topic remains Thomas Kuhn’s work, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” I re-read it recently, just hunting for the nuggets (it can be pretty heavy reading) for some work I am currently doing around health care and new ideas — and found his insights into how revolutions take place in science as pertinent as ever. Recommended for all following this discussion on Allan’s talk.

Another commenter, Scott Reil, shares his own story on the topic:

I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Elaine Ingham not long after she and Allan met, and getting her perspective (that of probably the leading soil biologist on the planet) in relation to his work was amazing. She made it very clear to me that my long-held belief — that old-growth forest was the best natural carbon sink we could develop — was way off base; it was her opinion that from what Allan was showing her, savannah, due to its higher root densities, and greater depth of root zone, coupled with a much higher biodiversity (both above and below the soil surface), made it a much better carbon sink.

It was also neat to see that Dr. Ingham was just as geeked out about Allan’s work as I was; scientific aloofness is a myth from my (admittedly limited) contacts with big-name scientists.

And check out lots more fascinating discussions and debates over at TED Conversations »