TEDMED 2015

December 11, 2015

Three days at TEDMED has convinced Bill Drummy that a dramatic shift in your definition of what’s possible is not only re-energizing, it can also help you approach your biggest problems in ways you would have never otherwise considered.

As a marketer in the healthcare field, with its regulations, restrictions, and rigidities, how do you escape the confines of conventional thinking? And should you bother? Is expanding the definition of what’s possible a fool’s errand? An intellectually disguised indulgence? A congratulatory dose of ego-stroking?

These are the questions I ask myself whenever I head out to a conference like TEDMED. Surely, I will find some brilliant people and stimulating conversations, but will it only frustrate me when I seek to apply this thinking to my day-to-day world? Let’s face it: my clients market brands, they need to kick up the sales line, and they don’t have unlimited time and resources. Will this be valuable for them?

After three days in the California desert, I’m back to report that a dramatic shift in your definition of what’s possible is not only re-energizing, it can also help you approach your biggest problems in ways you would have never otherwise considered. 

I admit: that’s a big claim. So I will prove my case.

To set the stage, the venue for this year’s TEDMED was the La Quinta Resort, near Palm Springs, a classy escape a few hours east of Los Angeles, where in 1933 Frank Capra sat by the pool preparing to direct It Happened One Night.

Tasty Bits

In November 2015, the presentations were less dramatic but no less exotic: Synthetic Biologist Floyd Romesberg spelling out the potential for new life forms based on the addition of artificial letters to the DNA alphabet; Food Entrepreneur Shobhita Soor asked us to digest the outsize value of insect protein (cricket chips, anyone?); and Former San Quentin Inmate Sam Vaughn related how exposure to the “vaccine” of older, hardened convicts saved his life, and helped him save many others.

While every TEDMED includes a rich (and sometimes indigestible) serving of overstuffed scientific, social, and cultural ideas, this year’s confab also included several bites of intellectual foie gras that were quite savory. 

Over the 3 days of TEDMED, containing 8 thematic sessions and a total of 47 talks (each 15 minutes or less), the 2 most highly memorable motifs concerned the clinically measurable impact of emotions on well-being, and an approach to solving big problems that, ironically, requires you to make them much larger before you can figure them out.

High Science

Roland Griffiths is a Professor of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and he’s really, really into drugs. No, I don’t mean Rx drugs, but the kind of drugs people took in college and don’t mention on job applications. Griffiths is head of the Psilocybin Research Initiative at Hopkins and has taken a very straight, scientific approach to understanding the efficacy of psilocybin (the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms) for the amelioration of a number of medical conditions (including the medical condition known as death).

His research has found that 92% of cancer patients treated with high doses of psilocybin saw a clinically significant reduction in depression and anxiety. And 79% of cancer patients saw the effect last up to six months. 

For smokers treated with psilocybin, 80% maintained abstinence from smoking at six months, a rate not even remotely approached by other smoking cessation methods.

And yes, psilocybin has also proven to be extremely effective at assuaging end-of-life anxiety. Since there will never be a cure for death (sorry Google Verily, which has some pretty ambitious plans for “solving” the aging problem), medical professionals need to get more comfortable treating patients with therapies that produce a different kind of relief. 

“Mystical experiences are biologically normal,” said Dr. Griffiths. And when patients turn their intention inward with the help of psychotropic agents, they often find a palliative sense of peace–some psychic relief from existential distress.

Furthering the theme of the therapeutic role of emotions, Jenny Stellar, who’s a Post-Doc at the University of Toronto, proclaimed “the anti-inflammatory effects of Awe.”  She’s been able to prove that certain human emotions (overwhelming wonder in appreciation of artistic and natural beauty or of great human feats) effect a measurable reduction in cytokines, and thus inflammation. So being awestruck is not just a pleasant rush, it’s a very healing rush.

Older and Happier

Stellar’s talk was trippy, for sure. But the emotional impact on well-being doesn’t necessarily depend on overwhelming experiences or hallucinogens. In fact, I was most surprised by Dilip Jeste’s talk, which confounded the usual expectations of what happens to people as they grow older. Jeste, a Geriatric Neuropsychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego, has found that, contrary to what’s occurring within the rest of our bodies, mental well-being generally improves with age, particularly over age 70.

Wisdom appears to be biologically based; as a person’s brain ages, and as the person becomes more emotionally “settled,” if you will, dominance shifts from the more primitive portions of the brain (so exercised in teenagers) to the prefrontal cortex, where more calm, sophisticated neural processing occurs.

Besides making life more pleasant for the elderly, the growth in wisdom offers obvious benefits to society at large, benefits which are wasted if the elderly are warehoused in “senior centers” and cloistered away from the young. Jeste noted that there is an evolutionary advantage to the greater wisdom of elders that’s been documented in other species: whales and dolphins raised by their grandparents have significantly higher fertility rates than those raised by their parents. 

As someone now closer in age to the elders than the teenagers, this was all very comforting.

Griffiths, Stellar, and Jeste’s consideration of emotions served as an intriguing overture to a talk later in the day from Vivek Murthy, the new and indeed precocious US Surgeon General (he’s 38, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in three years, then earned a combined medical and business degree from Yale.)

Dr. Murthy spoke about the impact of happiness on well-being.  “Happiness is protective, and we can create it,” he declared.  Happiness is a function of gratitude, exercise, meditation, and social engagement. And just one of the wonderful products of this emotion is better health outcomes. 

Although that might seem obvious, the actions he called for are far from self-evident (or maybe they should be self-evident, but they are far from conventional). “We have to prioritize happiness in the workplace, because it will increase our emotional well-being.” 

A little too new-agey, crunchy granola for you? Well to demonstrate the measurable value of emotional well-being, Dr. Murthy cited a program at Visitacion Valley Middle School, located in a violence-plagued San Francisco neighborhood (where, according to SFGate.com, “gunfire is as common as birdsong”). The school suffered from extremely high truancy and suspensions and high drop- out rates. After introducing a modified meditation program called “Quiet Time,” suspensions dropped by 45%, and teacher absenteeism declined by 30%.  

It will surprise precisely nobody that Google has introduced meditation programs free to all employees. 

Make the Problem Bigger

As inspiring as they were, the talks addressing the emotional dimension of health were actually not the most revelatory moment for me at TEDMED. 

I was most awestruck by a talk about garbage.

In 2012, Bill Gates presented Engineer Peter Janicki with a seemingly unsolvable problem: turn mountains of untreated human waste fouling the groundwater in developing countries into safe, clean drinking water. And do so without building “traditional” wastewater treatment facilities like those used in the developed world, because poor countries don’t have the money or infrastructure to support them.

Janicki struggled to find a solution to the Gates Foundation challenge. The answer didn’t come until he looked at the problem entirely differently.

Here was something nobody wanted--raw sewage--something that actually had negative economic value. (Communities pay enormously to remove it, process it, and clean it up.) “I had to make the problem bigger in order to solve it,” he told us at TED. What if the problem wasn’t removing the sewage, but keeping the sewage and making it valuable? Sounds like a way bigger, way harder problem. But, digging deeper, Janicki realized that sewage was composed mostly of water and biomass. The water could be boiled, the biomass could be used as fuel, and the output could be two highly valuable products: clean drinking water, and electricity. Janicki’s “Omniprocessor” can thus become an economic boon to an impoverished community: the local entrepreneur running the processor gets paid for the sewage that goes into the plant, as well as for the electricity that comes out of the plant. (The electricity also powers the plant itself, making the system entirely self-sustaining.)   

The Omniprocessor is now being tested in a pilot program in Dakar, Senegal. If it works as designed, there will be a simply brilliant solution to the dirty water problem afflicting nearly 2.5 billion people today.

Life Lessons

So what does all this crap have to do with my job? What useful product can I extract from this story, and from my entire TEDMED experience?

Since we are all in the business of solving creative problems within the limiting constraints of regulated industries, we regularly need to follow Engineer Janicki’s advice: Make the problem bigger in order to solve it. It’s not about sharing the example of the Omniprocessor and saying “Oh wow”; it’s about approaching the very act of thinking in a broader, deeper way. Turn constraints into parameters that give form to the problem, and use those guide rails to help you define a fresh solution.   

The other lesson: Every day we translate the science of very advanced products and make it comprehensible, looking for ways to bring the data to life. But in the end, whether we’re talking to patients, caregivers, or doctors (like all the doctors at TEDMED), it’s the emotional trigger of the story that makes the decisive difference.  

So if you’re concocting a campaign for a new product, or doing something incomparably more important, like helping someone deal with end-of-life anxiety, you’ll only succeed if you solve for the emotional equation, too. 

About the Author

Bill Drummy is Founder & CEO of Heartbeat Ideas and Heartbeat West and a member of Pharm Exec's Editorial Advisory Board.