Home » The Greatest Discovery You Never Heard Of: Rebecca Costa (Transcript)

The Greatest Discovery You Never Heard Of: Rebecca Costa (Transcript)

Full text of sociobiologist Rebecca Costa’s talk: The Greatest Discovery You Never Heard Of atTEDxSantaCruz conference.

Best quote from this talk:

“What we need now is an agency like NASA, that was developed to explore outer space, we need an agency to explore inner space.”


Rebecca Costa – Sociobiologist

Hello, TEDsters. OK, this is going to start out on a negative note, but it’s going to get better.

And what a hard act to follow, right? It’s not easy to be me on this stage right now. So be kind.

Let me be the first to tell you things have gotten too complicated. The other day, I had somebody try to explain to me the economics behind a national healthcare program. And I thought my head was going to explode. I should understand how we’re going to pay for it.

So I went to Alan Dershowitz, Bill Richardson, and some smart people that should know this stuff. And they said, “We don’t understand it either.” Yikes!

But it’s not just that. You know, I’m driving here in my car and I’m trying to load my CD player, and I’m trying to put the address in, the nav system and all that. And I realize, “Yeah, that’s why they made a log and it’s texting” because I can’t figure out, like there’s a limit to what I can do.

I’m too stupid, so they got to say, “You can’t drive and put your CD in and fiddle with your nav system, and text. What are you thinking?”

So, I got to thinking, “What’s going on? Why can’t we solve our problems?”

Maybe there’s a connection between why we can’t solve our problems anymore and the complexity of the issues we face, whether it’s climate change – we still have 65% of the people in the United States that don’t believe that global warming is happening.

Now, can I balance that against the 1.5 billion with a “b” measurements of the Earth’s surface temperature that we’ve taken since 1880. Now, if that isn’t enough data, I don’t know what it’s going to take.

OK, 1.5 billion measurements since 1880 – it’s not theoretical anymore, OK. It’s gotten really complicated.

So, what I’m going to do here in the next ten minutes is I’m going to try to show you why our problems are not political anymore, they’re biological. We’re up against an evolutionary limit.

Now, one way to think about this is two clocks. One clock is the clock of evolution, discovered by Charles Darwin 152 years ago. And every time the hand moves, it’s a million years. I need a new appendage to do all the stuff in my car, I’m not getting one. Neither are you. Can’t drink my coffee, drive, and work my nav system.

We’re not getting one for many millions of years. It doesn’t matter what you need, you’re not getting it, because we’re all in the same biological spacesuit, and this spacesuit can only adapt in million-year increments, it’s very, very slow.

Now, with the second clock is human progress. And every time that hand moves, it’s a picosecond, right? Apple’s already come out with a new version of the gadget you’ve just bought last week. Guess what? While we’re sitting here, there’s ten more free apps you can get. I don’t want any more free apps!

Let me be the first one to say, “I don’t want any more gadgets, I don’t want all the free stuff that came on my PC and I’m scared to take off because it might ruin my work. I don’t want any of that.”

What happens when complexity races ahead of the brain’s ability to understand it?

Well, we know by looking over ancient civilizations, we become gridlocked. We can’t solve our problems. One of the earliest signs is we begin passing them off from one generation to another, and we know they’re getting worse.

The world I am passing off to my children is significantly worse than the one I inherited from my parents. An uneven rate of change between biology and human progress causes a lag, causes a gap to occur. All of humankind, every government, Mr. Obama, you and I have hit a limit.

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When we’ve broken down the human genome between our nearest ancestor, the bonobo monkey, in ourselves. I don’t know if you know this, there is only a 1.7% genetic difference between the bonobos. I think we’ve leveraged the hell out of that!

While I’m talking to you, the men are not trying to have sex with their chairs. You’re not throwing food at each other. If you’ve ever studied bonobos, that 2% difference is massive! We stay in our lane, we … my God! So, I’m really impressed.

But folks, there’s a limit to this. If you took a Neanderthal, you dropped him into Times Square today, he wouldn’t function very well. And if you put us in a time machine and jet us into some million years ahead, we’d look like a Neanderthal. We are a work in progress, and there is a limit to it.

And we can argue whether we hit that cognitive threshold today, or 50 years from now, 100 years from now. But eventually, if you’re logical, if you’ve got one logical cell in your body, you know those two clocks have to hit.

When complexity makes knowledge very difficult to attain, like the global recession, like global warming, like picking out milk, right? How many of you think cow’s milk is good for you? Raise your hand.

Nobody? Nobody drinks cow’s milk?

Well, it’s amazing, because there’s 22 types of milk at Safeway. 1%, 2%, non-fat, I don’t really know all the differences there. Acidophilus, lactose intolerant, soymilk – which is really soy juice, there’s no milk coming from soy. But you wouldn’t put juice on your cereal. Almond milk – interesting concept.

OK, we are an organism – when facts drop off, we switch over to beliefs. We just have this automatic governor. Think about the human organism as having two baskets. One basket is facts, gravity is a fact. The speed of light, a fact. I drop my keys – every time they fall to the ground, never once in suspended animation.

But when we don’t have facts, or we can’t grasp the facts, we switch over to unproven beliefs. Does anybody know who this is?

All those people that handed their money to Bernie Madoff, they were very sophisticated investors. Make no mistake, they weren’t people like me that have 100 bucks in the bank. These were very sophisticated investors, and they said, “The financial market’s just gotten too complicated. I don’t know how to invest my money. Here it all is. Here’s the dump truck, you take it.”

And we all know what happened, we follow false prophets. Public policy becomes shaped by irrational beliefs. When you’re not developing public policy based on facts, what are you basing them on? You’re basing them on beliefs.

And so you hear politicians say things like, “I don’t believe in global warming.” Or “I don’t believe the deficit is that dangerous.” “I don’t believe social security is going broke.”

Let me give you an example, one example going back to ancient history, the Mayan civilization.

You think early period of the Mayan civilization, when they were thriving, they nurtured both beliefs and facts, they were building massive reservoirs and underground cisterns. Because, for 3,000 years, they’d had a tenuous relationship with rainfall, and they knew that would do them in.

So, they practiced crop rotation, water conservation. They stored food in the underground cisterns so that they’d have food during times of drought. But as the drought got worse and they couldn’t understand climate change – the facts weren’t available and they might not have understood them even if they were – what did they wind up doing?

They wound up abandoning man-made rational methods and relying exclusively on fetishism. So, what did they do?

At first, they were sacrificing captured slaves to get rid of the drought. That didn’t work so well. They said, “We’ll get our own people.” So they started sacrificing their own people. And when the drought was at its worst, there’s evidence for 1,000 years they were building no more rational reservoirs, cisterns, and so on.

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They were relying exclusively on murdering newborn, unspoiled infants as a solution to their drought. If you live here in California, you know we have a similar situation. With all the resources, technology, data, and will, we have failed to put a meaningful decel program together.

Do you think that we might have something in common with the Mayans? What happens is we become gridlocked, we can’t understand the problem, and the second thing that happens to us is we begin substituting facts with beliefs, and we don’t know the difference.

So how do we break the cycle?

Here’s the fun part. Now it gets good!

OK, neuroscientists are discovering a third form of problem solving that is evolving in the human brain. They’re calling it “insight.” Every one of you has had an insight. Think about this, this is amazing!

For the first time in human history, we could put a skull cap on your head and administer increasingly difficult problems and watch what your brain’s doing – it’s really fun. I go up to UCS, I’m kind of a brain junky, I like to look at pictures and see what parts of the brain are lighting up.

And we’ve discovered that every now and again, your brain starts shutting down a variety of functions as though it’s storing up … and bam! you have an insight; it’s spontaneous, it comes on like a freight train, and you can’t trace it to any series of steps. And it’s always right, it’s a process by which you’ve connected two pieces of data that were floating around in your head somewhere, and you came up with a very elegant solution.

There is a lot I could say about insights, but I’m going to tell you the most important thing about an insight: We have discovered that about 300 milliseconds before you’re ready to have an insight, a small part of the brain lights up, called the aSTG (anterior Superior Temporal Gyrus).

And if you know anything about science, you know when you get to a point where you can predict an event, you are on to something.

So, what am I doing?

I’m trying to get as many insights as I can. I get up every morning, and I do all the things I can to arm my brain, because when you don’t arm your brain, you fall into beliefs, and you follow false prophets like maybe some of the candidates – I don’t want to name any names for 2012 because they might be listening.

I love you all, please come on my radio program.

So, to sum up, what am I saying? A thriving society has left and right brain. Solving problems – that’s what we’ve evolved, that’s what we’ve perfected. Eventually, we hit a cognitive threshold, we go into gridlock, our problems persist, and eventually we collapse and we regenerate.

But there is a way out, evolution’s gift: insight. And neuroscience is a way to get us there.

So now I want to talk to you about mitigation. Normally I give this talk, it’s two hours long. The big challenge at TED is to get it down into 12 minutes, and I’m already two over.

So, the next thing is the big hook comes, and you’ll be kind. Remember? You’ll be kind.

While we’re waiting around and using brain fitness, what can we do? I’m going to tell you one thing before we get to mitigation. I am a big believer in brain fitness by a fellow by the name of Dr. Michael Merzenich, who should be here at TED next year and you should hear what he has to say. He’s a neuroscientist, and he’s developed a series of programs that helps warm the brain up before it has to make a critical decision or load content or data.

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In our particular case, we did a study of 23,000 schoolchildren. We gave them 10 to 15 minutes of brain fitness videos and games to play, to warm their brain up just before they started school.

Now, four years later, those children have twice the academic achievement as kids who didn’t warm their brain up before the beginning of school. If you think about it, you wouldn’t run a marathon without stretching, hydrating, and preparing yourself. Anything short of giving children brain fitness before they go to school is, in my opinion, child abuse.

If you and I are having a hard time keeping up with stuff and learning stuff and getting to the bottom of things, imagine what it’s like for a child in school right now. And if we didn’t raise teacher’s salaries, if we didn’t make classrooms smaller, if we did nothing else but gave them brain fitness, we would have a massive improvement in education.

And I feel very bad that that is not on the docket for any educational reformer right now. And it should be because it’s physically demonstrable.

OK. So while we’re waiting for our brains to catch up, we could arm it with brain fitness, we can eat better, we can exercise. By the way, blood flow is idea flow. I hate to get back to exercise, because I hate exercise. I hate it and we keep getting back to food and exercise. And, you know, I can’t get away from it, I got to get back into the gym.

OK, so what can we do in the interim? Mitigation. Mitigation is the key to buy time, it’s not a solution. We need to be sure we understand that when we evoke mitigation, we are not solving the problem.

So, when people ask me what we can do in the interim, one of the definitions of complexity is that there are more wrong solutions than there are right ones, and the number of wrong ones are exponentially growing. So we become bad pickers of the solution.

But thankfully, we have fantastic models for high-failure rates. Everybody aware of venture capital? You might think that they’re great success stories, but they’re actually experts at failure. For every 100 companies that they do diligence on and invest, they’re only expecting maybe 15 to do well. But those successes will dwarf the failures.

When we come up against a problem like the Gulf oil spill, we have to go at it like a venture capitalist. We’re bad pickers. But instead, what did we do? First, we got all the smart people together and we dropped a concrete box on the hole. Does everybody remember this? Then every night we watched the oil spewing out, and we said, “That’s not working!”

And 30 days later they said, “Yep, that didn’t work, all right. Our next plan, plan two, is we’re going to drill from the side and we’re going relieve some of the pressure.”

And 30 days later, “Nah! That’s not working!”

Fortunately for us, solution number three was “static kill.” But imagine for a moment if that had been solution number 87. We would still be watching those horrific scenes on the Gulf Coast now.

So, the gap between evolution and complexity can be bridged, that’s good news. For the first time in human history, for the first time since man has walked the planet, we can mitigate to buy time by using high failure rate models, and we can develop insight.

What we need now is an agency like NASA, that was developed to explore outer space, we need an agency to explore inner space.

Thank you so much for your time today.

Resources for Further Reading:

Know Your Inner Saboteurs: Shirzad Chamine (Full Transcript)

Building Your Inner Coach by Brett Ledbetter (Full Transcript)

The Disruptive Power of Exercise: Dr. Wendy Suzuki (Transcript)

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