TED Talks are public-speaking presentations which bring different professionals to discuss a topic from their chosen field. TED Talks cover a wide range of topics from health, to business to science to education among very many others. Therefore, it shouldn’t be too surprising that there are TED Talks dedicated to the area of psychology. In this article, I share my Top 3 Psychology TED Talks!
1. What’s Normal Anxiety and What’s an Anxiety Disorder?
In this Ted Talk video, Dr Jen Gunter seeks to educate viewers about anxiety in great depth. She differentiates between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder. Normal anxiety is seen as a very real and normal emotion people feel in stressful situations.
Normal anxiety is related to fear. However, fear is often the response to an immediate threat that quickly subsides. Whilst with an anxiety disorder, the response to more uncertain threats tends to last much longer.
For Dr Gunter, anxiety disorders are as real as diabetes. This is because after observing her patients, she noticed that they display symptoms of anxiety which include constantly worrying, having trouble sleeping and having difficulty concentrating. However, she observes that they do not get treatment for different reasons.
For some, insurance would not cover their treatment but for others, they have gotten dismissed in the past. She also backs her argument up with statistics from the World Mental Health Survey.
According to them, about 16% of individuals currently have or have had an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders include social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia and phobias. In addition, she revealed that studies show that people with anxiety disorders have a different way of reacting to stress and there may be actual differences in how their brains work.
One model suggests that there are possible mix-ups in the connections between the amygdala and other parts of the brain. As a result, pathways that signal anxiety become stronger. Therefore, the more anxiety you have, the stronger the pathways become and it forms a vicious cycle.
Furthermore, she explains the science behind anxiety. Anxiety is all part of the threat detective system beginning in the brain. It starts with the amygdala which alerts the brain to be ready for defensive action. Then, it moves to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus relays the signal, setting off the stress response.
This leads to muscles tensing, breathing and heart rate increasing and blood pressure increasing. From there, areas in the brain stem kick in leading to a state of high alertness referred to as the fight/flight response). In introducing, the fight/flight response, she develops deeper on the role it plays in anxiety.
The flight/fight response is kept in check with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area of higher-level learning. She gives the example of seeing something dangerous like a tiger. In this instance, due to seeing the tiger, a signal is sent to the amygdala to act (i.e., run).
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex communicates to the amygdala to calm down as the danger is limited because the tiger is in a cage. Here, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex serves as a feedback loop that can help keep the response in check. To add further, the hippocampus has a role to play as well. It provides context and says things like, “We have seen tigers before. We are in a zoo so you are extra safe”.
With anxiety, these threat-detection systems and mechanisms that reduce or inhibit them (danger/fear) function incorrectly and cause us to worry about the future and our safety in it. However, for many people, it goes into overdrive. They experience persistent, pervasive anxiety that disrupts work, school and relationships leading to them avoiding situations that may trigger symptoms altogether.
Nonetheless, not all hope is lost because anxiety can be treated. Research in this area shows that the brain can reorganize and form new connections throughout life. The first step in treating anxiety is by doing the basics like getting plenty of sleep, eating a balanced diet, meditating which slows down the fight/flight response and exercising regularly.
Another way to treat anxiety is through cognitive behavioral therapy. It is a form of talk therapy where the patient learns to identify upsetting thoughts and determine whether they are realistic. This can rebuild neural pathways that tame down the anxiety response.
In addition, medications can serve as a form of relief in both the short and long-term. In the short-term, anti-anxiety drugs can down-regulate the threat-detection mechanisms that are going into overdrive. In treating anxiety, research has shown that both long-term medications and cognitive behavioral therapy can reduce the over-reactivity of the amygdala in anxiety disorders.
2. Ted Talk on How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across A Lifetime
In this TED Talk video, Dr Burke Harris talks about how childhood trauma is undermined to such an extent that it is the leading cause of death in the USA, and is still not being given the attention it deserves.
She backs this up with research done by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente who in the mid-90s, discovered that childhood trauma dramatically increases the risk for seven out of ten of the leading causes of death in the USA. However, she mentions that today, doctors are still not trained in routine screening or treatment. This was even reflected in how she was taught to view childhood trauma in media school.
She and peers were taught to view childhood trauma either as a social problem (refer to social services) or as a mental health problem (refer to mental health services). As a result, this was how she viewed childhood trauma for many years.
In the video, she also takes the audience on a journey to discover that how she was taught to view childhood trauma was completely wrong. After her residency, she and California Pacific Medical Center opened a clinic in Bayview-Hunters Point, one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Francisco. Together, they targeted the typical health disparities which are access to care, immunization rates, and asthma hospitalization rates and were able to hit all of their numbers.
Even with achieving this goal, she felt something was not right due to the constant ADHD referrals she was getting and when she did a thorough history and physical, she discovered that most of her patients could not make an ADHD diagnosis.
This led to her wanting to read any material about how exposure to adversity affects the development of children’s brains and bodies. One day, her colleague burst into her office asking her if she had read the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES).
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study was done by Dr Vincent Felitti at Kaiser and Dr Bob Anda at the CDC. They asked 17,500 adults about their history of exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The ACEs are physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, parental mental illness, substance dependence, incarceration and parental separation or divorce.
For every ‘YES’ was one point on their ACE score. Dr Felitti and Dr Anda correlated the ACE scores against health outcomes. In doing this, they found out that ACEs are incredibly common and that there was a dose-response relationship between ACEs and health outcomes.
The higher your ACE score, the worse your health outcomes. For a person with an ACE score of four or more, their relative risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and hepatitis was two-and-a-half times that of someone with an ACE score of zero. When it came to depression, it was four-and-a-half times more likely and for suicidality, it was twelve times more likely.
This study also revealed that a person with an ACE score of seven or more, had three times the lifetime risk of lung cancer and three-and-a-half times the risk of ischemic heart disease, the number one killer in the USA.
Having the information about the ACES helped Dr Burke Harris in understanding the relationship between adversity and the developing brains and bodies of children. Adversity affects areas like the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure and reward center of the brain, which is implicated in substance dependence and the prefrontal cortex which is necessary for learning.
There are also neurological reasons why folks exposed to high doses of adversity are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior but even if they don’t, they’re still more likely to develop heart disease or cancer. This is because of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (the brain and body’s stress response that governs the fight/flight response).
She uses the scenario of being in the forest and seeing a bear in explaining this. In a situation like this, the hypothalamus sends a signal to the adrenal gland that communicates to the stress hormones.
The heart begins to pound, pupils dilate, airways open up and balls down to either fight the bear or run away from the bear. However, when the bear keeps coming every night, this system will keep being activated again and again. As a result, it goes from being adaptive/life-saving to maladaptive/health-damaging.
Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity affect the brain structure and function, the developing immune and hormonal system as well as DNA transcription and reading.
3. Who Are You, Really? The Puzzle of Personality
In this TED Talk video, Professor Little chooses to interact with the audience by telling them a few facts and stories in which one may catch a glimpse of themselves. He uses trait psychology to accomplish this.
Trait psychology aligns you along five dimensions with the acronym ‘OCEAN’. The ‘OCEAN’ acronym helps in implicating our wellbeing. For instance, extraversion helps us with understanding our three natures. The three natures are the biogenic nature (neurophysiology), the sociogenic nature (which deals with the cultural and social aspects of our lives) and the idiosyncratic (individual) nature.
Professor Little explains how extroverts need stimulation. Stimulation can be achieved by finding things that are exciting like loud noises, parties and social events at TED. Introverts who normally like to spend time in quiet places (thus reducing stimulation) may be misconstrued as being antisocial because of this.
Also, extraversion cuts into different areas of life like sexual activity and communication style. When it comes to sexual activity, extroverted men and women are more likely to have sex than introverted men and women. When it comes to communication, extroverts prefer to use simple language whilst introverted people prefer to speak in contextually, contingent and weasel-word sentences.
Furthermore, he explains that people are different from one another based on the things they do in their lives. For example, personal projects can be used to differentiate people from each other.