Can Big Data Change Who You Are?

Rick Smolan: Last year at the World Economic Forum there were a number of people talking about the fact that they see big data as a new asset class.  I think Zack Bogue, who is Marissa Mayer’s husband, was telling us about this also. When we were doing research, he and Marissa were both incredibly helpful to us in kind of conceptualizing the whole project.

There’s a story in the book about a gentleman who has a pacemaker; it’s a wireless pacemaker, so throughout his day the data from his heart is transmitted to his doctor, and he actually spent time looking at his exercise, his nutrition, his alcohol consumption, and he wanted to find out whether there is some correlation between his other activities and when his pacemaker kicked in.  So he called the manufacture saying, “Could I get a copy of the last six months of my heart data?” and they said, "Sorry, sir, this is proprietary."  He said, “Wait a second. This is my heart. You have been collecting information about my heart; I want a copy of the information.”  They have refused to give it to him.  

What I love about the story is it kind of makes you think, well, wait a second, why is it that my browser history is being sold to the highest advertiser, there’s credit card companies selling the data about what I’m consuming, everybody’s trading in all the data that I’m creating, and here’s a guy who - someone is actually recording his heartbeat and when his pacemaker kicks in, and yet we don’t have access to most of this, we have no control over who’s using it.  It’s very valuable, and yet, we as the people manufacturing it don’t seem to have any say over who's using it or what they're doing with it.  And I think that’s got to change.  I think that we have to have the ability to decide what we share and what we don’t.  

I read recently that there was a credit card company that admitted that they were actually looking at people‘s Facebook profiles and that people that were listening to rap music were given a lower credit rating score because somehow, statistically, people listen to rap music were somehow a more of a credit risk.  My twelve year old listens to rap music.  The fact that there are algorithms and programs out there that are making decisions about my ability to get credit, that I have no idea on what I’m being judged by, what books I read, who I talk to, what music I’m listening to.  This is very scary stuff.  

The whole point of doing this Human Face of Big Data project, which was sponsored, by the way, by EMC, one of the largest players in the big data space, but they - I’m a journalist, so they had no right of review or censorship.  They didn’t even see this project 'til the book and the iPad app came out.  They basically gave us the ability to kind of start this global conversation. . . .

A lot of my friends in the journalism world, who are hearing about big data for the first time, have said to me, well, is this just a big promotion for big data?  Is it just, yay, big data’s going to solve all of our problems?  My response has been that every time there’s a new tool, whether it's Internet or cell phones or anything else, all these things can be used for good or evil.  Technology is neutral; it depends on how it’s used.  So I think that what I’m trying to do, what I’m hoping that the Human Face of Big Data project will do, is to get people talking and thinking about this in a way that perhaps is thought provoking and disturbing and exciting.  I mean, there’s a lot of stories in the book where you go, that’s so cool; that’s wonderful.  I love this!

A lot of people believe that the ability to measure - instead of doing a random sampling, which is what we used to do; we used to go out and ask people, twenty thousand people a question, and they would say, this is what everybody thinks.  We're able to do much more nuance now.  We're almost able to poll people all over the world at the same time. 

There’s five million people now that carry cell phones, particularly in the developing world.  So we're actually - a lot of people have been speculating that soon we may be able to actually measure the heartbeat of everybody on earth simultaneously, which is kind of a fascinating idea.  What would that mean if you could actually listen to this global heartbeat and actually sense this pattern of behavior across the planet in the course of a day?  I mean, in a way Twitter has become that.  Twitter has become sort of a new way of sort of listening in on the conversation in real time.

So, there’s a lot of questions out there.  Big data is a brand new tool; we’ve never seen anything quite like this before, and I hope people will turn the pages of the book and want to share the stories with each other.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd


We have generated a huge amount of information, which is very cheap to collect. But we are now able to see patterns and develop a new understanding of data. This gives us the potential to change our behavior.

Participatory democracy is presumed to be the gold standard. Here’s why it isn’t.

Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.

Photo by Nicholas Roberts /Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
  • Political psychologist Diana Mutz argues that we need more deliberation, not political activism, to keep our democracy robust.
  • Despite increased polarization, Americans still have more in common than we appear to.
Keep reading Show less

How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.

Learn the art of conversation, with comedian Pete Holmes

We have a new range of skills coming to Big Think Edge this week, including communication, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence.

Edge Weekly
  • At Big Think Edge this week, we delve into ways you can make your conversations sing. So to speak.
  • Learn a valuable lesson about psychopaths, from diagnosed psychopath (and neuroscientsit) James Fallon.
  • If you're not a subscriber yet, join Big Think Edge today. Boost your skills with our 7-day free trial.
Keep reading Show less