Jason Padgett - We Need Every Kind of Mind

Jason Padgett, an aspiring mathematician and number theorist, is one of very few individuals in the world with acquired savant syndrome. He wasn't always this way.

He scraped by in high school by copying the work of his friends, and only graduated because one of those friends did his homework for him for a final.

Padgett: "That gives you an idea about how seriously I took school.... I had a very shallow life."

But one night outside of a karaoke bar, his life was changed dramatically. He was severely beaten in a mugging gone wrong.

"Immediately, everything," quite literally, "looked different." He explains that he began to see motion as a series of discreet events, much like how a mechanical flip book might display moving images.

One day, obsessively drawing fractals and Pi, he heard Daniel Tammet talk about synesthesia. Padgett realized that Tammet's experience was much like his, and that the experience of seeing the world as start and stop, as a series of shapes and numbers, was not unique. While the attack had left him with serious post-traumatic stress syndrome and in self-imposed exile away from anyone and everyone outside his home, the feeling he had for the first time in a long time was one of overwhelming relief. His condition had a name.

As he explained, "I didn't want to be that crazy guy who didn't know he was crazy."

He put some of his mathematical drawings online tagged with the word "synesthesia," and an expert on the condition contacted him. Functional MRIs later revealed that he had "conscious access," in his words, to parts of the brain that most humans "don't have access to." Physical changes in his brain could explain his attraction to Pi and his intense interest in mathematics.

Watching Padgett talk, it's clear that the recovery process, understandably, is ongoing. No longer that disinterested young man - his words - content to get by, he has a curiosity about the world around him. He explains that he feels much more deeply than he did in his old life. Moreover, he connects the interior landscape smeared with numbers and a developing skill in advanced mathematics to a person that has been changed for the better.

Describing why the Doppler effect is the result of compressing sound waves, which we hear as a higher pitch sound as they approach and a gradually lowered pitch noise as they expand and move away, he connects that phenomenon to special relativity. Using the wave-like property of light, astronomers, he explains, are able to measure "red shift" to approximate the immense distances in the universe. In a poetic turn, he says that if an observer were able to stand with him while he rushed away at the speed of light while another were to remain stationary, the blue shirt he was wearing today would appear red to person left behind, while his companion would continue to see blue. Relativistic physics are well established in that regard. But "in fact," he adds, "if everyone in the universe could see him" at that moment, his shirt would be every color.

His point: we need every kind of mind.

In the following question and answer session, Padgett tells the audience in evident disbelief that a movie of his life will be opening in the next year or so. Channing Tatum will play him. "And," he adds, a bit chuffed at the idea, "he is taking math classes to prepare for the role."


Lee Billings - "Planets Pour Out of the Sky"

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Arthur C. Clarke

Lee Billings is the author of Five Billion Years of Solitude and is speaking today at the IdeaFestival. He starts at the VERY beginning.

It's been 13.8 billion years. "Let me congratulate you on the improbable achievement of being here.... Most of the universe is empty space."

Spreading his arms wide, he suggests that if all of time were contained within his reach, human existence could be scraped away with a nail file. Moreover, cosmically speaking, we are perhaps nearer the end of complex life on earth than its beginning. And if we want to have a future after the next 500 million years, when planetary life will become untenable because of the changes in our sun, we might want to think of alternatives. We're capable, he says, of "choosing our own cosmic fate."

In the meantime, the search for life elsewhere "can give valuable context to life right here on this small cosmic speck of dust." Turning to the subject of his talk today, he points out that science and technological progress tell us that planetary formation is common.

In fact, planets are now "pouring out of the sky." He believes that 10,000 confirmed finds will soon be in the exoplanet catalog, which only came into existence in the past 20 or so years. Plotting those finds on a graph overhead, he points to "walls of worlds" discovered in just the past three or four years thanks to the space telescope Kepler. Interestingly, he says, Kepler has told us that OUR planetary system is atypical. 

Billings walks the audience through two basic exoplanet detection techniques, the transiting and radial velocity methods. "Wobbles give you size. Transiting gives you mass." Kepler uses the transiting method.

The data so far, he is quick to add, doesn't support some of the wilder claims for habitable Earths that have reached the popular press. We're just in the formative stages of a new science. He explains that as late as the 1950's, many informed scientists believed that Venus might be a terrific place to live. It's emblematic, he says, of where exoplanetology is today.

Since direct observation of worlds tens of thousands of light years away is problematic because the competing light from the host star overwhelms the reflected light from nearby planets, we know what we know about the suitability of worlds for life based, in part, on how light interacts with chemicals as it passes through a planet's atmosphere on its way to our telescopes. Those signatures can be teased out in spectrographic prints to tell us what what molecules are present above the host body.

Thanks to that technique and the evidence offered by robotic explorers, we now know that Venus' crushing atmosphere is suffering from a runaway greenhouse effect. It would be a terrible place to live.

In the next few years, the enormous James Webb telescope will be able to peer at nearby stars to look for water vapor. And we could fund additional searches, but the trade-offs in a time of budget cuts are hard. One proposed exoplanetary telescope, for example, was killed in favor of funding two more Space Shuttle missions.

Meanwhile, "the planets are piling up." Asked during Q&A about what it would mean to find microbial life in our own planetary neighborhood, Billings believes it would be "disconcerting." If primitive life thives nearby, it means that, like planatary formation, it too is a common phenomenon.

And since we haven't heard from intelligent life elsewhere, is there a "filter" along this developmental path that prevents intelligent civilizations from flourishing?

The question lingers.


Clive Thompson - Smarter Than You Think

“We think in public,” Clive Thompson tells the audience at #IF14. Author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Lives for the Better, Thompson makes a compelling case that our new technology actually enables us to become better thinkers.

Critics often say that our over-connected world is causing us to be less mindful, but Thompson argues the opposite: it can improve our intelligence.

One of the strongest illustrations of how technology causes us to become more thoughtful is the audience effect, Thompson says. It happens when we Tweet, post on Facebook, or send text messages. “Presenting, talking, or communicating in front of an audience actually has an effect on us— we start thinking harder,” he says.

Thompson has seen this on the subway. “It’s interesting to watch someone struggle to compose a Tweet,” he says. “There’s a lot of thought put into it.”

Another way technology is improving how we think is by connecting us with other thinkers, making us part of an intellectual community. Students asked to post to Wikipedia for a class assignment ended up feeling a sense of accountability for their work — which, in turn, caused them to put more care into the final product.

“One of the great delights of our modern age is that it decreases our isolation,” Thompson says. When we think together, we think better.

Kind of like at IdeaFestival.

Till next year!

Hope Reese @hope_reese


Claudia Hammond - Time Warped, Our Minds Play Tricks on Us

As often happens at the IdeaFestival, we begin asking more questions than we can answer. Such is the case at this afternoon’s Time Warped session with Claudia Hammond.

BBC reporter and psychologist, Hammond has been mulling over the question of time-perception for quite a while (in real time). 

She opens today’s talk by describing what happened to Alan Johnston, a BBC journalist who was kidnapped and held hostage in Gaza for four months.

“When the gun was put to his head,” Hammond says, “time slowed down.”

Johnston had no watch or clock. He could not see the sun rise or fall. He began to contemplate the psychology of time.

We often hear how a moment can feel like an eternity. But this is not just a cliche— it’s real.

And even less extreme cases, Hammond reminds us, illustrate the point. A 30-minute lunch break with a friend will often feel rushed; if you’re spending that time waiting in line, it’s a different story.

Hammond is interested in the psychology of time. How does time FEEL? Our minds, she says, are vulnerable; time can play tricks on us.

Psychologists have shown ways that we can be manipulated.

In 2003, psychologists gave 50 people name tags and asked them to chat with others in the group. Afterwards, the subjects were asked to form pairs with the people they were getting along with. Then, the experimenter took half of the group aside, each person individually, and told them (falsely) that no one had selected them as a partner. The experimenters told the other half (falsely) that everyone had selected them as partner. Then, each person proceeded to work on a task individually.

The rejected group, perhaps not surprisingly, felt time pass more slowly. 

So emotional state has an effect on time-perception. Happy people perceive time moving faster. Depressed people feel time passing more slowly.

“We actively construct in our mind how much time is passing,” Hammond says. 

Emotions play into time-perception in another way; the experiences we find meaningful (as well as new experiences) resonate more deeply; we will feel time moving more slowly through those moments.

Are you paying attention?


Hope Reese @hope_reese

Debbie Millman - "Don't Waste Time"

At Debbie Millman’s presentation at IdeaFestival 2014, we are again reminded of the profound importance of failure in living a creative life.

When she was a young girl, Millman imagined a life “like Mary and Rhoda’s” on the Mary Tyler Moore show. She wanted to be a career-woman — little did she know just how complicated her own journey would be. 

Millman is now President Emeritus of AIGA, the largest professional association for design in the world. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine and Co-Founder and Chair of the world's first Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting, "Design Matters," the first podcast about design on the Internet. In 2011, the show was awarded a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award.

She is the author of six books on design and branding. Last year, an exhibition of her visual essays debuted at the Chicago Design Museum.

But before all that, Millman traveled a rocky road. Her work was met with many rejections. AIGA was initially a road block, and early on, Millman was humiliated by criticism she received on a 2003 weblog about her role in giving a design award.

Here at IdeaFestival, she narrates her career trajectory — with design, journalism, business, marketing, and leadership stepping-stones — to illustrate how each mis-step has created a new opening.

So often, we are our own worst enemy. Those who are successful, Millman says, “didn’t determine what was impossible before it was possible. Just the possibility of failing turns into something self-fulfilling.” 

Humans, Millman says, are like computers. “The computer will do absolutely nothing unless commanded to do so.” It’s only our perceptions of our abilities that limit us. 

Whether you’re starting out young, or reconfiguring your life mid-way, there is always time to “rewrite the possibilities of what comes next.”

“Do what you love.” Never put off your dreams. Never underestimate the “strength of imagination.” 

Millman puts it best:

“Don’t compromise,
 And don’t waste time.
 Start now,
 Not 30 years from now,
 Not 20 years from now,
 Not 2 weeks from now,


Hope Reese



IdeaFestival/ICI, Inc. | 200 West Vine Street, Suite 420 | Lexington, KY 40507 | | phone: 866-966-4607 toll-free or 502-966-4607 | fax: 859.259.0986

Copyright @ ICI, Inc. 2014