The very best of 2018! 10 videos to get smarter, faster

From debunking flat-Earth theory to dissecting America's political woes, these are the must-watch videos of the year.

  • 365 days, 365 videos — it's been another huge year for big ideas.
  • We've tallied up the 10 most popular, as chosen by you, plus the most controversial and most talked about videos of 2018. Enjoy!

Jordan Peterson: The fatal flaw in leftist American politics

Superhumans: The remarkable brain waves of high-level meditators

Why Michio Kaku wants to avoid alien contact at all costs

Bored out of your mind at work? Your brain is trying to tell you something.

How to spot high-conflict people before it's too late

How religion turned American politics against science

Trump’s not the problem. He’s a symbol of 4 bigger issues.

From 300lbs to a Navy SEAL: How to Gain Control of Your Mind and Life

Pablo Escobar’s hippos: Why drug lords shouldn’t play God

Most controversial: Why “I’m not racist” is only half the story

Most talked about: How overparenting backfired on Americans

More playlists

Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more!

And this time, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, like, "How big is the Universe?", "Am I really made of stars?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?"

All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers!

Here's a question Michelle answered from a Big Thinker!

Here are more great questions submitted by you, our awesome audience!

Ask a NASA astronomer! Would scientists tell us about a looming apocalypse?

Great scientific discoveries hide in boring places

How futuristic ion rockets supercharge space exploration

Ask a NASA astronomer! Why is there zero gravity in space?

How self-healing DNA may protect astronauts from killer radiation

Art vs. science? The battle that never was

Imagination is sometimes claimed to be a uniquely human ability, and it has long intrigued psychologists. "Nevertheless, our understanding of the benefits and risks that individual differences in imagination hold for psychological outcomes is currently limited," note two researchers who have created a new psychometric test – the Imaginative Behaviour Engagement Scale (IBES) – for measuring how much imagination a person has, and then used it to investigate whether, as some earlier work hinted, having a stronger imagination might aid learning and creativity.

According to Sophie von Stumm at the University of York and Hannah Scott at UCL, writing in the British Journal of Psychology, imagination is the tendency to create "mental representations of concepts, ideas and sensations in the mind that are not contemporaneously perceived by the senses [and ranges] from the re-creation of images or sensory perceptions in the mind that were previously seen and experienced in reality ….to crafting images anew independent of prior actual sensory input."

It's not exactly a snappy definition. But that's partly a consequence of what the pair terms the "definition and measurement issues" that have plagued academic inquiry into imagination, including a lack of agreement among psychologists on a precise definition that distinguishes it from related constructs, such as fantasy or mental imagery.

To research what the new test should include, von Stumm and Scott conducted a literature search and interviews with "expert psychometricians". This led them to identify seven "domains of imagination" and their test includes two items measuring each of these, including how much a person: had imaginary friends as a child; is inclined to daydreaming; dreams; thinking styles (for example: "Do you ever play around with ideas just for fun?"); how often they feel a sense of feeling transported while reading a book or watching a movie; their "imaginative responsiveness" (for example: "If you wished, could you imagine that you had an additional arm so much that you would feel the limb and its movements?") and their proclivity for fantasies.

In the first study, the pair explored links between imagination (based on the IBES), personality and learning performance in 180 participants who were mostly undergraduate students. After taking an initial logical thinking test and then studying a scholarly text, the participants were immediately tested, and then later re-tested a week later, to see what they could remember of the text. They also completed the IBES and personality surveys at various time-points. Their IBES scores correlated with their learning ability, but only very weakly and not as strongly as did their scores on the logical thinking test and on Openness to Experience (one of the Big Five personality traits).

In a second study of 128 mostly British members of the general population, von Stumm and Scott looked for any associations between measures of imagination and creativity and schizotypal beliefs. (Schizotypal beliefs include odd beliefs and magical thinking, suspiciousness – and also unusual perceptual experiences). The researchers also considered the participants' scores on facets of Openness to Experience, including the Fantasy facet.

Participants' scores on imagination correlated with just one aspect of their creativity known as "creative ideation" (defined as the use of, appreciation of and skill with ideas, assessed using a self-report scale). Notably, imagination scores were not related to creative ability, which was measured using tests that asked the participants to write down as many uses as they could think of for a ping pong ball, a plank of wood and a paperclip (responses were scored for originality and functionality), nor with real-life creative achievements. On the other hand, a stronger imagination was correlated more strongly with the schizotypal belief scales and the Fantasy facet of the Openness to Experience personality trait (in fact, as the authors note, their new IBES test seemed to be tapping something very similar to the Fantasy personality facet) .

The findings suggest that being more imaginative – as measured in this study – is associated more with having schizotypal beliefs (or non-helpful "cognitive eccentricities") rather than being something that's useful in accumulating knowledge or producing new and useful ideas. This may be because learning and (to a certain extent) creativity require focused attention. "We propose here that the shared lack of executive control in imagination and schizotypal beliefs gives rise to their association and differentiates them from effortful, more regulated cognitive processes like learning and creativity," von Stumm and Scott write.

One problem with the study, though, is in the wording used to tap participants' creative ideation and imagination, compared with the test for creative ability, and also creative achievement (which measured their total creative achievements – such as having a song recorded – in their lives to date) . For the first two, participants reported their typical behavior, whereas for creative ability and achievement, their maximum ability was measured – this discrepancy could have easily skewed the results and led to lower correlations between imagination and creative ability/achievement.

Also, it's worth noting that other work has found an association between schizotypy and creativity, so "cognitive eccentricities" may sometimes be useful. It's hard, too, to believe that the strength of one's imagination would be essentially irrelevant to one's creative ability – in certain fields, anyway. JK Rowling, for instance, may have applied herself to the focused job of constructing a coherent plot, but without a strong, unfocused imagination, it's hard to see how she would have achieved her creative success.

What, then, do the results really show? The clearest suggestions from all this correlational data seem to be that if you have a strong imagination, this won't help you with academic study. It might mean that you're more likely to hold unconventional beliefs. It's also associated with creative thinking, though not creative ability and achievement (at least not as measured in this study).

A clearer idea of how the strength of imagination affects various outcomes in life will require longitudinal research. Certainly, the debate about what exactly imagination is – and how it may help or hinder us – is not over yet.

Imagination links with schizotypal beliefs, not with creativity or learning

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest


This article was originally published on BPS Research Digest. Read the original article.

  • A growing body of research suggests there's some relationship between our measurable personality traits and our political beliefs.
  • A recent study examined the relationship between political beliefs, personal responsibility and overall health.
  • The results suggest that an emphasis on responsibility might explain health differences between liberals and conservatives.

It's fairly well documented that conservatives tend to be healthier and than liberals, but what's less clear is why? Some say it's because conservatives tend to have higher incomes, and therefore have access to better health care. Others suggest it's because conservatives participate in more religious activities, which helps them build healthy social relationships.

A recent study offers a new hypothesis: Conservatives place greater value on personal responsibility, and therefore they take better care of themselves.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, defined personal responsibility as "the degree to which individuals see themselves, not external agents, as accountable for their own behaviors, which can be in a variety of domains," including health. They don't suggest that personal responsibility is the only explanation for health differences between liberals and conservatives, but rather that it can play a role.

"Political ideology is interesting, but terribly difficult to study. Causation is almost impossible," Eugene Y. Chan, the author of the study and senior lecturer at Monash University, told PsyPost. "Most work, including mine, relies on correlational studies, so we can't conclusively say that conservatives are healthier because of personal responsibility, just that the findings indicate a relationship between them."

This relationship implies that we don't always reason our way into a political party, or vote a certain way just because our family and friends do. Rather, our measurable personality traits seem to be, in some way, pulling us to the left or right.

"I've always been interested in people's political beliefs, and always believed that such a trenchant way of seeing the world doesn't simply affect people's votes at the ballots but can influence how they live their lives, including how they see and maintain their health," Chan told PsyPost.

Politics, personal responsibility, and taking the stairs

In the study, the researchers asked 194 people to self-report their political ideology, overall physical health and emphasis on personal responsibility, as measured by how strongly they agreed with statements like "I pay my bills immediately" and "I put a seat belt on when I enter a car." The results showed conservatives tended to place greater emphasis on personal responsibility, which was positively correlated with better physical health.

A second study tested whether conservatives were more likely to take an opportunity to engage in physical activity. The researchers had participants fill out some surveys, and then asked each individual to take a piece of paper up one floor to another experimenter.

"An elevator was located right next to the behavioral lab but there was also a stairway that could be assessed through a hallway around the corner," the researchers wrote. "Signed were posted along the walls. To induce participants to take the stairs, the experimenter informed them that, 'Hey, if the elevator is taking too long, you can use the stairs just by following the signs.'"

Conservatives were more likely to take the stairs, suggesting they're more likely to engage in physical activity than liberals. Of course, other factors might explain why this was the case.

"A concern might be that we simply measured conformity in that conservatives may be more acquiescent or respond in a socially-desirable manner," the researchers wrote.

Priming people to "think conservatively"

In a third study, the researchers primed cigarette smokers with words conceptually related to conservative or liberal political ideology — e.g. "traditional" for conservative, "free" for liberal — and then rated their desire to quit smoking. The idea was that priming smokers with political conservatives would increase the accessibility of "personal responsibility that would then increase smokers' intentions to quit." And that seemed correct: Smokers primed with conservative terms expressed a stronger desire to quit — a finding that implies "it may be possible to prime people to think 'conservatively.'"

The researchers cautioned that their study observed correlations among political beliefs, personal responsibility and health, and didn't establish any causal factors. Still, they wrote that it's a "potential explanation" for health differences between liberals and conservatives.

"We now know that conservatives may (emphasize may!) be healthier because they feel more personally-responsible for their own health. It's all very similar to the Protestant Work Ethic, the idea that you need to be responsible for your own self," Chan told PsyPost.

  • Spotify Teardown claims that the streaming service is sending (and receiving) much more than music.
  • The authors contend that the service is engaged in emotional manipulation given their playlist emphasis.
  • Music is only the surface layer of a much larger data collection and advertising infrastructure.

It started with geotracking. As smartphone owners realized we were being tracked, privacy concerns flooded our consciousness. Some acquiesced: Who cares if I'm offered a coupon while walking by a store I like? Most outrage has been tamped down by the addictive nature of the device. We seem to have accepted tracking as part of the bargain. Plus those disclaimers have too many words.

But the layers keep unraveling. Laptop cameras snapping unsuspecting candids. Alexa listening in on conversations. Your light bulbs sending sleep data to Google and Amazon. Every device and app appears to have ulterior motives. There's a reason app developer is the "fastest growing six-figure job."

In an attempt to monetize every second of every day, everywhere, imagine this scene: You walk into a store, which has a deal with Amazon to track what items you regularly purchase. As you approach that department, the store checks in with Spotify to discover your most played songs. Since your spending habits are higher than other customers, the store's soundtrack immediately updates to reflect your favorites. This little dopamine boost ensures an open wallet.

To my awareness this is not reality—yet. But it's coming. While privacy concerns are aimed at Facebook, Google, Apple, and other big players, we seem to have overlooked one of the biggest private data brokers around. Spotify passes as a music distribution service, yet there's much more being sent through your speakers.

That's the case made in Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music, a new book by a team of five academics that intensively studied the service for a number of years. This incredible investigation will open your eyes to an entire universe of data sharing and online marketing occurring at octaves too low for human consciousness to detect. As they write:

Rather than being an autonomous actor with the power to shape the future of the music business, Spotify exists at the intersection of industries such as music, advertising, technology, and finance.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Daniel Ek, chief executive officer of Spotify, speaks about a partnership between Samsung and Spotify during a product launch event at the Barclays Center, August 9, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

The historical analysis alone reveals a suspect future. Spotify's founders, Daneil Ek and Martin Lorentzon, never worked in the music industry before founding the company in 2006. Perhaps unsurprisingly they both came from advertising technology. Incredibly, the service launched with no song licenses; like their Swedish counterpart, The Pirate Bay, Spotify was effectively an illegal file-sharing service for a full year-and-a-half.

This recent history seems generations ago. Major complaints today include notoriously low payments, major label ownership, and pro rata revenue share, meaning that revenue is divvied up by how many tracks are currently being streamed at every moment, which favors more famous artists on larger labels. As I listen to American-Kenyan band Extra Golden while writing this article, Ariana Grande is getting paid more money per stream simply because more people are listening to her right now.

How is a song "streamed" in the first place? Actually, it's not. Rather than "streaming," the authors write, Spotify is "aggregating" by uniting "distinct data particles into a coherent whole." Though the service is protective of its processes, information provided by the company revealed that only 10 percent of music playback originates in its own servers; 35 percent from P2P networks; and a whopping 55 percent come from local caches.

This squares with a 2015 survey claiming that a majority of Spotify listeners stop listening to new music after age 33. Decades of internet research have revealed that we're more predictable than we'd like to believe; musical choice is no different. Due to the construction of our brain, music we listen to as a teenager tends to remain our favorite for the rest of our lives. Such data help advertisers pinpoint emotional responses to specific stimuli; an album becomes a gateway to sales across industries.

This Is Your Brain on Music

Such crass commercialization of a sacred act. Music is an integral part of our identity. The communication system we call language likely began as music. The ritual of music is ceremonial in intent, designed to invoke and inspire the emotions of a community. Spotify initially marketed shared experiences as a motivating factor for using their service, but over the years the Swedish company has gone the way of America with its hyper-focus on the individual.

The AI-driven Discover Weekly, Release Radar, and Daily Mixes are all based on personal listening habits, which self-reinforce the more you remain within your lane. Curated playlists, the authors note, also tend to skew happy—the more you enjoy upbeat music, the more likely you'll stay listening, sad songs be damned.

Music recommendations, then, can be understood as products for mood enhancement and the management of psychological capital.

Which brings us back to the beginning: Is Spotify a music streaming service or a data hoarder? There was outrage when Facebook manipulated the moods of its users, yet Spotify regularly attempts the same. Their focus on happiness is emotional manipulation. When you discover what a stream—an aggregation—really entails, the information proves even more troublesome.

The "intimate relation" personalized playlists evoke, the authors note, "is monetized at the very moment when users click play." Music is only the layer you hear above "a cacophony of other data." Using browser plugin Ghostery and network data capture tool Fiddler, the authors worked with a programmer to discover no less than 22 mostly advertising-related companies in that cacophony, tracking listening habits and providing real-time analytics. This data is packaged and resold.

As the rush to capture and capitalize data continues, every application seems to be in the race. The one safe haven left—the ritual of music, the shared experience between artist and fan—is now monetized at every turn. A pittance goes to the creators, while the price the fans pay is steeper than any of us imagined.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

  • Heterosexual people have been less interesting to scientists than gay people, in terms of where they come from, because, evolutionarily speaking, being gay doesn't lead to a higher "higher reproductive fitness" — meaning, it doesn't lead to more babies.
  • Across cultures, gay boys tend to be more interested in spending time with their mothers.
  • We still don't really know why gay people are attracted to each other.