Big Think's Top Videos of 2014
Bill Nye: We May Discover Life on Europa
Bill Nye (The Science Guy!) describes the possibility of discovering life on Europa, arguing that we might make such a discovery in as little as 20 or 30 years. Bill is the CEO of the Planetary Society (http://planetary.org/).
James Gleick on the Common Character Traits of Geniuses
This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.
The personalities of Isaac Newton and Richard Feynman were, on one level, extremely different. Biographer and former New York Times reporter James Gleick says Newton was argumentative, had few friends, and likely died a virgin. Feynman, on the other hand, loved dancing and going to parties, and had many friends in the scientific community. But in regards to their working habits, both men were solitary and had the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is hard for mortals to grasp. At bottom, Gleick says geniuses tend to have a yearning for solitude which, though fruitful for their professional work, made the task of daily living more burdensome.
Dan Harris: Hack Your Brain's Default Mode With Meditation
Dan Harris explains the neuroscience behind meditation, but reminds us that the ancient practice isn't magic and likely won't send one floating into the cosmic ooze. He predicts that the exercise will soon become regularly scheduled maintenance, as commonplace as brushing your teeth or eating your veggies. Harris, an ABC News correspondent, was turned on to mediation after a live, on-air panic attack. His latest book is 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story.
The Racist War on Drugs, with Ethan Nadelmann
Inevitably drug laws will be disproportionately enforced against the poor, younger and darker-skinned members of society.
Michio Kaku on the Alien Mind
Michio Kaku on why Hollywood needs to make better aliens.
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic cripples the economy and kills hundreds of people each day, there is another epidemic that continues to kill tens of thousands of people each year through opioid drug overdose.
Opioid analgesic drugs, like morphine and oxycodone, are the classic double-edged swords. They are the very best drugs to stop severe pain but also the class of drugs most likely to kill the person taking them. In a recent journal article, I outlined how a combination of state-of-the-art molecular techniques, such as CRISPR gene editing and brain microinjection methods, could be used to blunt one edge of the sword and make opioid drugs safer.
I am a pharmacologist interested in the way opioid drugs such as morphine and fentanyl can blunt pain. I became fascinated in biology at the time when endorphins – natural opioids made by our bodies – were discovered. I have been intrigued by the way opioid drugs work and their targets in the brain, the opioid receptors, for the last 30 years. In my paper, I propose a way to prevent opioid overdoses by modifying an opioid user's brain cells using advanced technology.
Opioid receptors stop breathing
Opioids kill by stopping a person from breathing (respiratory depression). They do so by acting on a specific set of respiratory nerves, or neurons, found in the lower part of the brain that contain opioid receptors. Opioid receptors are proteins that bind morphine, heroin and other opioid drugs. The binding of an opioid to its receptor triggers a reaction in neurons that reduces their activity. Opioid receptors on pain neurons mediate the pain-killing, or analgesic, effects of opioids. When opioids bind to opioid receptors on respiratory neurons, they slow breathing or, in the case of an opioid overdose, stop it entirely.
Respiratory neurons are located in the brainstem, the tail-end part of the brain that continues into the spine as the spinal cord. Animal studies show that opioid receptors on respiratory neurons are responsible for opioid-induced respiratory depression – the cause of opioid overdose. Genetically altered mice born without opioid receptors do not die from large doses of morphine unlike mice with these receptors present.
Unlike laboratory mice, humans cannot be altered when embryos to remove all opioid receptors from the brain and elsewhere. Nor would it be a good idea. Humans need opioid receptors to serve as the targets for our natural opioid substances, the endorphins, which are released into the brain during times of high stress and pain.
Also, a total opioid receptor knockout in humans would leave that person unresponsive to the beneficial pain-killing effects of opioids. In my journal article, I argue that what is needed is a selective receptor removal of the opioid receptors on respiratory neurons. Having reviewed the available technology, I believe this can be done by combining CRISPR gene editing and a new neurosurgical microinjection technique.
CRISPR to the rescue: Destroying opioid receptors
CRISPR, which is an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is a gene editing method that was discovered in the genome of bacteria. Bacteria get infected by viruses too and CRISPR is a strategy that bacteria evolved to cut-up the viral genes and kill invading pathogens.
The CRISPR method allows researchers to target specific genes expressed in cell lines, tissues, or whole organisms, to be cut-up and removed – knocked out – or otherwise altered. There is a commercially available CRISPR kit which knocks out human opioid receptors produced in cells that are grown in cell cultures in the lab. While this CRISPR kit is formulated for in vitro use, similar conditional opioid receptor knock-out techniques have been demonstrated in live mice.
To knockout opioid receptors in human respiratory neurons, a sterile solution containing CRISPR gene-editing molecules would be prepared in the laboratory. Besides the gene-editing components, the solution contains chemical reagents that allow the gene-editing machinery to enter the respiratory neurons and make their way into the nucleus and into the neuron's genome.
How does one get the CRISPR opioid receptor knockout solution into a person's respiratory neurons?
Enter the intracranial microinjection instrument (IMI) developed by Miles Cunningham and his colleagues at Harvard. The IMI allows for computer-controlled delivery of small volumes of solution at specific places in the brain by using an extremely thin tube – about twice the diameter of a human hair – that can enter the brain at the base of the skull and thread through brain tissue without damage.
The computer can direct the robotic placement of the tube as it is fed images of the brain taken before the procedure using MRI. But even better, the IMI also has a recording wire embedded in the tube that allows measurement of neuronal activity to identify the right group of nerve cells.
Because the brain itself feels no pain, the procedure could be done in a conscious patient using only local anesthetics to numb the skin. Respiratory neurons drive the breathing muscles by firing action potentials which are measured by the recording wire in the tube. When the activity of the respiratory neurons matches the breathing movements by the patients, the proper location of the tube is confirmed and the CRISPR solution injected.
The call for drastic action
Opioid receptors on neurons in the brain have a half-life of about 45 minutes. Over a period of several hours, the opioid receptors on respiratory neurons would degrade and the CRISPR gene-editing machinery embedded in the genome would prevent new opioid receptors from appearing. If this works, the patient would be protected from opioid overdose within 24 hours. Because the respiratory neurons do not replenish, the CRISPR opioid receptor knockout should last for life.
With no opioid receptors on respiratory neurons, the opioid user cannot die from opioid overdose. After proper backing from National Institute on Drug Abuse and leading research and health care institutions, I believe CRISPR treatment could enter clinical trials in between five to 10 years. The total cost of opioid-involved overdose deaths is about US$430 billion per year. CRISPR treatment of only 10% of high-risk opioid users in one year would save thousands of lives and $43 billion.
Intracranial microinjection of CRISPR solutions might seem drastic. But drastic actions that are needed to save human lives from opioid overdoses. A large segment of the opioid overdose victims are chronic pain patients. It may be possible that chronic pain patients in a terminal phase of their lives and in hospice care would volunteer in phase I clinical trials for the CRISPR opioid receptor knockout treatment I propose here.
Making the opioid user impervious to death by opioids is a permanent solution to a horrendous problem that has resisted efforts by prevention, treatment and pharmacological means. Steady and well-funded work to prove the CRISPR method, first with preclinical animal models then in clinical trials, is a moonshot for the present generation of biomedical scientists.
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Using a combination of imagination and technology, science tech company Nanotronics aims to revolutionize the factory floor so that industries can have a smaller factory footprint, produce less waste, and rapidly increase the speed from R&D to production—it's this very philosophy that allowed Nanotronics to pivot and manufacture ventilators as a rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this Big Think Live session, presented by BMO Financial Group, Matthew Putman, scientist, musician, and CEO of Nanotronics, and Peter Hopkins, co-founder and president of Big Think, will open a window to the future. Learn how manufacturing disruption will accelerate innovation in a multitude of industries, why impact over profit should be a guiding star for leaders, and watch Putnam settle this question once and for all: Is AI a homicidal, job-devouring nemesis?
Ask your questions for Matthew Putman during the audience Q&A!
Join the live stream at 10am EDT, Tuesday August 11.
Thanks to our partner BMO Financial Group.
Women today are founding more businesses than ever. In 2018, they made up 40% of new entrepreneurs, yet in that same year, they received just 2.2% of all venture capital investment. The playing field is off-balance. So what can women do?
They can get candid with each other. In this Big Think Live session, Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, and Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, will discuss entrepreneurship, decision-making, and leadership lessons from Victoria's new book, Digital Goddess: The Unfiltered Lessons of a Female Entrepreneur. The book is a raw and real roadmap for any woman who has ever thought about striking out on her own, and will empower you to get meetings, raise money, and make hard choices—and never get so serious that you can't still have fun doing what you love.
Victoria Montgomery Brown has built and run Big Think for the last 12 years. It's become the leading digital media knowledge company, making people and companies smarter and faster with the world's best thinkers and doers. It wasn't a venture-funded tech darling, born and raised in a Silicon Valley incubator. It's a scrappy, creative, labor of love that was born in a New York City bar and raised in a rented closet in someone else's office. It's had to fight for its existence most of the time. Her new book is Digital Goddess: The Unfiltered Lessons of a Female Entrepreneur (available for preorder).
Brown graduated from Montreal's McGill University in 1997 and received her MBA from Harvard Business School in 2003.
Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and the author of Smarter Faster Better, about the science of productivity and The Power of Habit, about the science of habit formation in our lives, companies and societies. Duhigg studied history at Yale, received an MBA from Harvard Business School, and was a reporter at The New York Times for a decade. Today, he is a leading writer on the nature of habits and productivity. He writes books and magazine articles for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and The Atlantic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
After the U.S. began battling the coronavirus in February, it didn't take long for Americans to make the battle part of the culture war. The left, in general, framed mandatory shutdowns and precautionary behaviors as a moral duty, while parts of the right viewed these reactions not only as overreactions, but as a threat to freedom, coming from untrustworthy sources.
But why? What are the forces or ideas causing so many Americans to behave in ways that are demonstrably exacerbating the spread of COVID-19?
To better understand, some pollsters have examined not only Americans' political views, but also their religious attitudes. The results have suggested that religious Americans — in particular, white evangelicals — are less likely to practice precautionary measures, like mask-wearing and social distancing.
But a new study argues that looking at broad religious attitudes only offers part of the picture.
Published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the study suggests that the far right's behavioral response to the pandemic is largely shaped by Christian nationalism, which they define as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
Christian nationalism is generally characterized as fundamentalist, exclusivist, and supportive of ultra‐conservative ideals, according to the researchers. The ideology includes several key components:
- Skepticism of science and scientists
- The belief that Americans are God's chosen and protected people
- Distrust for news media
- Commitment to President Donald Trump
Past studies have shown that Christian nationalists are likely to affirm statements like: "The United States was founded as a Christian nation," "America holds a special place in God's plan," and "The success of the United States is part of God's plan."
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images
Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.
"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.
"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America back to himself, which assumes the two belong together."
The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.
(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.
In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.
Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."
To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."
The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."
But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.
Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.
"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.
- Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
- A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
- With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.
Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.
Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.
But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.
A mixed response to technology
Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.
This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!
According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.
To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.
But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).
Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.
Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.
For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."
Screens, parents, and pandemics
Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.
But are these concerns overblown?
As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.
Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.
"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."
This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.