I watched over 100 TED Talks, and these insights have stuck with me the most

Marla Aufmuth/TEDCarole Cadwalladr speaking at TED 2019.

While attending the TED conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, I resolved not to skip a single talk for fear that I’d miss out on a golden nugget of wisdom to share with our readers.

After totaling up all the speeches across the five-day conference, I realised I had attended 107 talks. That’s about 30 hours of presentations, all of which I’ve distilled into a few key lessons.

Read more:
We went inside a virtual simulation of a black hole, and it was a mind-bending experience

This year’s theme, “Bigger Than Us,” encouraged speakers to present solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. A few missed the mark in terms of offering the kind of “tough truths” that participants were promised, but others posited ideas we’ll be mulling over for years to come.

Here are the lessons that have stuck with me the most.

Lack of sleep is killing us, but there are things we can do about it.

Getty Images/Sean Gallup

There was much talk of doom and destruction at this year’s conference – technology will overtake us all, climate change could destroy the planet, and so on – but by far the scariest talk had to do with sleep.

Most of the time, I tune out recommendations to get more sleep, partly because I hear them so often. I may not get a full eight or nine hours, but I’m far better than former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who reportedly sleeps only four hours a night.

But one short talk by Matt Walker, a sleep scientist, and I’m going to bed early from now on. Walker taught me that sleeping six hours versus eight hours could be the difference between a healthy immune system and body at risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Research also tells us that lack of sleep can lead to premature ageing, weight gain, memory loss, Alzheimer’s, depression, Type 2 diabetes, and reproductive issues. Men who sleep five hours a night even tend to have smaller testicles than those who sleep seven hours or more, Walker said.

Rather than popping a sleeping pill, Walker said, the best way to ensure a good night’s sleep is to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Walker also recommended keeping the bedroom temperature at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit, or moving to another room if you’re tossing and turning so you don’t associate your bed with wakefulness.

People who are empathetic believe their destiny is intertwined with other people.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

At just 28 years old, Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton, California, is piloting the first major basic-income program in the US.

As someone who grew up poor and was raised by a single mother while his father was in jail, Tubbs is intimately acquainted with Stockton’s inequality.

During his talk, he used the “good Samaritan” parable, which tells of a beaten man who is passed by on the street until one kind soul finally stops to help him, to distinguish between those who give to the poor and those who see themselves reflected in the less fortunate. The latter, he said, are helping to create a more just society.

“In our country, we really have to contend with this idea of ‘the other,'” Tubbs told Business Insider. To empathise with someone, he said, we must assume that our fate is tied up with theirs.

Read more:
A 28-year-old mayor is giving his city’s poorest residents $US500 a month, but he thinks there are still obstacles to rolling out basic income in the US

Social-media platforms are making even big-name celebrities feel insecure.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Joseph Gordon-Levitt knows what it’s like to crave attention. In his TED Talk, the actor described comparing his following on Instagram to that of other celebrities.

“I see that their number is higher than mine, and I feel terrible about myself,” he said.

It’s a feeling that’s likely familiar to most in the social-media era, but the fact that even big-name actors are becoming insecure suggests that no one wins on these platforms – except the companies that created them.

Like an addiction, Instagram “trains you to want that attention, to crave it, to feel stressed out when you’re not getting enough of it,” Gordon-Levitt said.

Read more:
Joseph Gordon-Levitt says that playing Edward Snowden inspired his distrust of Instagram and Facebook

Sometimes we have to tear down seemingly untouchable institutions to make them more inclusive.

Ryan Lash/TED

It’s easy to dismiss problems as the product of a structure or system outside our control. If you’re having trouble at work, for example, you might blame your company for its failings.

While it’s true that there are unfixable systems designed to keep people from getting ahead, others can be broken and put back together in a more inclusive way.

That was the motivation behind the comedian Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up routine “Nanette,” which shocked its audience by vacuuming the humour out of her jokes. Whereas Gadsby once poked fun at her sexuality, “Nanette” details harrowing encounters with homophobia and sexual assault, subjects that led many to describe her work as “anti-comedy.”

But Gadsby insists she’s still operating in the realm of humour – she’s simply created a version that doesn’t turn marginalized groups into a punch line.

“The point was to break comedy so I could reshape it,” she told the crowd at TED.

Some animals can experience grief, so it matters how we treat them.

The anthropologist Barbara King doesn’t think pets can understand what we say, but she does believe they’re capable of real emotion.

In her talk, King challenged scientists who argue that animals can’t experience grief, citing real-life examples of animal mourning. She told the audience about an elephant named Maui who rocked in distress over the body of her late friend Eleanor. For seven days, King said, a parade of elephants traipsed by to pay their respects.

King also told the story of two ducks, Harper and Cole, who were rescued from a foie gras factory. When Cole had to be euthanised because of an illness, Harper laid over Cole’s body for more than an hour. Within two months, Harper died as well.

King said this kind of mourning applies only to animals that form close one-on-one relationships, like pigs, chickens, and cows. It’s a lesson that might make you want to rethink eating meat.

North Koreans are being denied the critical-thinking skills needed to escape from isolation.

Ryan Lash/TED

While most TED Talks are meticulously planned and rehearsed, there was one exception at this year’s conference.

The night before the conference ended, Yeonmi Park was asked to give a talk after a riveting chat with Chris Anderson, the head of the event.

It was easily one of the best speeches of the entire week.

Speaking before hundreds of people, Park detailed her escape from North Korea at age 13. Her experience living there, she said, was an Orwellian nightmare of propaganda, starvation, and isolation – but she didn’t know it at the time.

“I was even afraid to think,” she said. “If you have never practiced critical thinking, then you simply see what you’re told to see.”

You can’t resist a problem if you don’t know it exists.

Wikipedia might hold the answer to our debate over “fake news.”

My high-school history teacher used to threaten to give us a failing grade if we cited Wikipedia in our papers. But Claire Wardle, a TED research fellow, thinks it’s one of the more trustworthy sources of information on the internet.

In her talk, Wardle said most misinformation consists of real photos, memes, and videos that are given a false context. The even bigger problem, she said, is that there’s no universal way to determine what’s accurate.

Wardle said that based on her research, she thinks the answer might be a centralised hub of anonymous information – something akin to Wikipedia. Because the site draws from users around the world and discloses the sources of its information, she said, we can independently verify its claims. Using it would have also saved me a ton of time on my history papers.

Tech founders still think they’re creating a net good for society — but that kind of logic had allowed them to excuse all manner of ills.

Bret Hartman/TED

The journalist Carole Cadwalladr rose to fame after breaking the news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a political-consulting firm accessed data on tens of millions of Facebook users.

The scandal was, in many ways, a symbol of the negative side effects of social-media platforms, including online hate speech and misinformation. In her viral talk, Cadwalladr accused Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey of “breaking” liberal democracy.

But Dorsey’s talk the following day made it clear that he still thinks of Twitter as an “interest-based network” that follows trends and develops communities. He also said the measure that’s most important to him right now is daily active usage – an odd choice, considering that hate groups tend to spend a lot of time on Twitter.

A few days later, Cadwalladr called Dorsey’s talk “insentient” in an Observer op-ed article.

“What came across most strongly, chillingly,” she wrote, “was the complete absence of emotion.”

Read more:
The woman who blew open the Cambridge Analytica scandal says Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are ‘handmaidens to authoritarianism’

Don’t dismiss the mythological. It’s becoming more real by the day.

Matter Design and CEMEX Global R&D

The megalithic structures at Stonehenge were built about 5,000 years ago, but until recently, their construction was somewhat of a mystery. Though it seems almost inconceivable that humans could have carried the stones, which weigh up to 25 tons, researchers have tapped into a hidden construction method that would make it all possible.

In 2014, a lab called Matter Design began studying the way ancient civilizations built giant structures like the statues on Easter Island and the Egyptian pyramids. Using stones that have a certain density and center of mass, the researchers found, humans can actually move objects as heavy as a great white shark with their bare hands.

In his talk, Brandon Clifford, a TED fellow, said he had uncovered a “thick connective tissue between mythology and reality.”

Read more:
MIT researchers discovered a way to move objects as heavy as a great white shark with your bare hands. Take a look.

Humans could destroy themselves with technology, but the odds are still in our favour.

Bret Hartman/TED

While addressing the audience via virtual robot, the physicist David Deutsch had some good – and bad – news about the future of our planet.

First, the bad news: Deutsch said there’s no limit to the size of mistakes that humans can make, meaning we could eventually destroy ourselves through our own actions.

But he also argued that that outcome isn’t likely. In the battle between humans and the universe, he said, “our side is not destined to lose.”

That’s similar to the argument made by the philosopher Nick Bostrom, who was a bit more cynical. In his conversation with Anderson, the head of TED, Bostrom said there was a chance that we could destroy our civilisation with a technology of our own making. He argued that mass surveillance could be one of the few ways to save us from ourselves.

But Deutsch seems to think that human knowledge will help us overcome all manner of ills, including war and climate change.

Read more:
An Oxford philosopher who’s inspired Elon Musk thinks mass surveillance might be the only way to save humanity from doom

There are five signs that signal abuse in a relationship.

Love may be a biological characteristic, but it’s also a skill we can hone. Like with most practices, it’s common to make mistakes in relationships – but only to a point.

Katie Hood, a relationship expert, said that “100% of us will be on the receiving end of unhealthy relationship behaviours, and 100% of us will do unhealthy things.” But only certain relationships are unhealthy overall.

In her talk, Hood identified five signs of an abusive or dangerous relationship: intensity, isolation, extreme jealousy, belittling, and volatility. The more of these markers a relationship has, the less healthy it might be.

The clothing of the future could have sensors.

Bret Hartman/TED

This year’s conference had not one but two proposals for clothing with sensors.

The first came from Roger Hanlon, a scientist who studies cephalopods, marine animals like octopuses and squids. The skin of these animals contains pigments and reflectors that soak up light and manipulate it into a variety of colours and patterns.

Together with a researcher at the University of Illinois, Hanlon developed small patches with tiny sensors that pick up on patterns in their surroundings the same way cephalopod skin does in nature. In the future, he said, these patches could be used to create camouflage clothing.

Ivan Poupyrev, a Google engineer, has taken a slightly different approach. His company’s “smart jacket,” developed in partnership with Levi’s, has sensors in the sleeves that can link to a person’s phone. He also discussed a pair of sensor-imbued running shoes that could track a person’s activity and weight.

Read more:
Octopus skin could be artificially replicated to make camouflage clothing and colour-changing makeup

Charity makes us happy only if there’s a human connection.

Victoria Jones/WPA Pool/Getty Images

I’ve often heard that giving to charity makes us happy, but I assumed it was because we feel better about ourselves in the process. That would imply that there’s an element of narcissism in our giving, which I wasn’t quite ready to accept.

Elizabeth Dunn, a happiness researcher, offered me a way out of this thinking. At TED, Dunn said that it’s not just giving that makes us happy, but seeing how our dollars are making a difference in other people’s lives.

For a good deed to produce happiness, it must result in a human connection between the giver and the recipient, she said. So we may get pure joy out of someone else’s pleasure after all.

It also gives me a bit more hope for humanity – part of the goal of this year’s conference.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.