Here’s my attempt to capture the big ideas from today’s TEDx Oxford event. You can read the bios of the speakers here.

Susan Greenfield

Greenfield argues that human personality is due to our brains ability to  react differently to our environment. So our environment is the key to our personality.  Crain circuitry is all about making connections these connections can grow deeper over time.

Greenfield gave the example of a child encountering a gold ring – it is first understood as an object, a gold colour circle shape but as the child grows up it begins to understand the symbolic meaning of the ring as wedding band.  The symbolic meaning is only properly understood in a social environment.

Our brains are changing in unprecedented ways due to the impact of  new media. This is evidenced by events such as Davos 2013 devoting  time to talk about  the global impact of “Digital wild fires.”


Greenfield argues that a neurological effect of lots of screen times is an under active prefrontal cortex . A symptom that is also present in acute over eaters and excessive gamblers. A side effect is a pattern of behaviour where “the thrill of the moment trumps the consequences.”

Greenfield quotes Isaac Asimov predictions about life in 2014:

“Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!

Controversially Greenfield asks if there is a link between autistic like tendencies and screen time?

Greenfield’s presentation was very clear and engaging despite a few technical difficulties. Would have loved to ask a few questions back to this very gifted thinker and speaker. 

See Greenfield’s book on the subject here. Tomorrow’s People. 


Guttenberg promised to spread light to all. Taking publishing away from elites and into the hands of the masses.  Tim burners Lee has achieved the same thing with the advent of the world wide web.

Despite the possibilities of the democratisation of the knowledge promised by the internet there has still been a reconcentration of voice of the media.

Of the 10 most visited internet sites from the UK 9  are based outside the UK. The bbc is the only one that is UK based and is also the only one not trying to sell you something.

Despite having left  a high profile job at the BBC for 6 years John argues passionately for the need of an independent media of which the BBC is a vital part.

john tate

Laura Bates

Founder of everyday sexism was shocked by the number of young girls and students that responded to the Everyday sexism website. Freshers week brought a huge numbers spike in the traffic. Bates read out a harrowing litany of offensive and abusive practices that had been become normal practice on many campuses during freshers week including:

Slag and Drag
Tarts and Vicars
Pimps and Hoes
Rappers and slappers

Freshers week initiation rituals including girls being pressurised to perform:

– lap dances
– stripping
– sex position contest
– downing a bottle of beer held in a man’s crotch

Bates offered a challenge to all of us to do what we can to help young women know that this is not normal or acceptable. She also reported some frightening statistics about the number of sexual assaults that were reported on campuses and also the number of unreported sex assaults.




Although we have seen some incredible positive changes in global poverty there are still countries in the “Bottom Billion” who are not just falling behind but falling apart these countries  include: Mali, South Sudan, DRC

What can be done to change this situation?

Step 1 establish security

There needs to be a standing African army sadly this  is beyond the financial means of any African nation.  What we need is what America did for Europe with the formation of NATO USA piled in money but let Europe run it. This would take a couple of decades. and involve thinking long term about security.

1. Iraq invasion of Kuwait went very well this lead to…
2. Somalia was going to be a TV event but went badly wrong this lead to..
3. A policy of no more military interventions lead to Rwanda this lead to
4. Over intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan

We have a recurring cycle of over intervention then non intervention.

Step 2 Help African countries to harness the resources they have

Resources extraction companies are the custodians of other people’s assets. Just like banks. It took 50 years to bring accountability to banks….

Step 3. Fight Corruption 

Follow the money trail and help the governments take on the mining companies. Need to  think about how the might of Starbucks and their tax evasion techniques befuddled the  HMRC and remember that many  small nations do not have the resources to take on the big companies.

See Collier’s excellent book on this subject: The Bottom Billion.




If we are going to be able to emulate brains. Could we replace lab rats with emulators. If we do this how much should we care about virtual lab rats. There are three main ethical theories in play

1. Indirect theories
– being cruel is bad for u
2. Direct theories
– animals have lives too
3. Moral equity
– suffering is suffering

If you create a virtual mouse that can suffer should you care about it and think about creating virtual painkillers.

Richard Leyard

Not so subtle dig at Christianity by arguing that the Puritan’s lived with  “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.”

We want a society where we have the most happiness rather than more wealth. The USA increase in wealth across the board but happiness has flat lined. How would we go about making happiness as possible and as little misery.

What do we mean by happiness? Feeling good about your life and wanting it to go on that way.

If you measure electrical activity in the brain you can map that against happiness. Government has measured happiness as the OECD have (this is important as it was the OECD started measurement of the GDP). The UN has run a consultation on this too. There had been disillusionment in economic growth. The had also developed a new science of happiness.

The causes of happiness

1. External causes
Many think it is  income but studies show that  variation of happiness based on income is only 1%. Instead it is  relationships that are the key indicator of happiness in every part of the world. Work ( which is also a relationship) is a major indicator of happiness so are our relationships with neighbours.

Key Question:

Do you think that most other people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful?

In Britain 30% think most people can be trusted it used to be 60%. Is this due to individualism and competitive capitalism. Scandinavian countries have over 60%

2. Internal  Causes
Health – mental health causes more impact that physical health. 1/5 are diagnosed as having a mental health issues but a minority are in treatment.

Which factor in childhood is the best indicator of adult happiness?  Academic achievement? Social achievement?  Emotional health? The answer is emotional health.

One of the main factors that leads to unhappiness is social comparison.  If you happiness depends on how you compare with other people then there is a zero sum game.

What could government do to spread happiness?
– invest in mental health services
– emphasise building resilience in children in schools rather than just academic prowess
– support parents especially in conflict

What can we do?
Build inner resilience
Victor Frankel ‘man’s search for freedom’ describes how he survived because of man’s ability to choose how to respond in any circumstances. We must work out ways to build inner strength if we are going to learn how to be happy in difficult circumstances.

Develop altruistic tendencies
Neuroscience explains why virtue is its own reward. It releases psychological reward.

See Leyard’s book on Happiness here. 

Develop Community with other like minded people
(look out for a blog post on a Christian take on Leyard’s work). 


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