Our Top 10 TED Talks by Life Scientists
Since 2006, TED Talks have been wowing audiences both in-person and online with their bite-sized insights into fascinating subjects, delivered confidently by knowledgeable and experienced speakers.
The TED phenomenon began in 1984 in the form of a one-off conference exploring new ideas in Technology, Entertainment and Design. In 1990, the conference became an annual event, and when YouTube was launched in 2005, TED’s founders saw an opportunity to showcase their unique events to a global audience.
The carefully designed format means presentations are capped at 18 minutes, giving the speaker just long enough to flesh out their ideas, but remaining short enough for the listener to digest all the information without losing interest. The presentation stages range from huge arenas for the big city TED events, to school halls or community venues for the smaller, independent TEDx gatherings.
Today, some of the most popular TED Talks have racked up an impressive 65 million views online, and the events have attracted contributions from such notable speakers as Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, Simon Sinek, Brené Brown and many more. Topics now cover a broader spectrum - from business, tech, education and innovation, to culture, feminism, spirituality and personal development.
TED Talks are famous for being inspirational and thought-provoking, delivering new ideas from fresh thinkers and experts in their respective fields. Of course the format has its critics too, with some academics arguing that the slick production of TED presentations mean inaccuracies and errors often go unchallenged, with any criticism of the content being quickly drowned out by whooping audiences and standing ovations.
However, the TED Talk format remains popular, and while social media allows us to share video content quickly and easily, it will likely remain part of online culture for many years to come.
Here we’ve selected our ten favourite TED or TEDx Talks by life scientists who have shared some of their inspirational ideas and personal stories over the years. From neuroscientists to biologists, brain surgeons to epidemiologists, these are some our favourite life science TED Talks. We hope they inspire you too!
1. After watching this, your brain will not be the same
Dr. Lara Boyd - TEDxVancouver, Canada (November 2015)
In this classic TEDx Talk, neuroscientist and physical therapist Dr. Lara Boyd of the University of British Columbia, explains how neuroplasticity can help us to shape our own brains. She explains how our brains are constantly changing with each new experience and interaction we face, and how we should harness this as an opportunity to ‘build the brain’ we want to have.
2. How to control someone else’s arm with your brain
Greg Gage - Vancouver, Canada (March 2015)
This highly entertaining TED Talk by neuroscientist and engineer Greg Gage demonstrates the power of the brain. Using an inexpensive DIY kit, he takes away the free will of an audience member, and hands over the control of his arm to another! It has to be seen to be believed!
Jill Bolte Taylor - Monterey, California (February 2008)
Author and neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor shares an astonishing personal story which changed her life and career forever. After suffering a massive stroke, she realised she had a unique opportunity to study first-hand the effects on the brain, from a patient’s perspective. In this awe-inspiring presentation, she describes what she went through, and how she has since established herself as a powerful voice in brain recovery research.
Alan Harvey - TEDxPerth, Australia (November 2017)
Neuroscientist and musician Alan Harvey of the University of Western Australia demonstrates live on stage the effects that music can have on our brain waves. With the assistance of musicians from Perth Symphony Orchestra, he demonstrates the power of music and explains how music therapy can be used to treat stroke patients, people with autism, Parkinson’s Disease, and those suffering from brain injuries.
Ben Goldacre - Edinburgh, Scotland (July 2011)
This brilliant TED Talk may be over a decade old now, but as fake news and conspiracy theories continue to circulate online, its message is as relevant as ever. Doctor and epidemiologist Ben Goldacre explains, at high speed, how scientific evidence can be distorted by the media.
6. The science of cells that never get old
Elizabeth Blackburn - Vancouver, Canada (April 2017)
When a Nobel Prize winner signs up for a TED Talk you know it’s time to sit up and listen! Groundbreaking molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn explores exactly what makes our bodies age, our skin wrinkle, our hair turn white and our immune systems weaken. She discusses her research on the telomerase: an enzyme that replenishes the caps at the end of chromosomes, which break down when cells divide, and explains why it might just mean we have more control over the aging process than we think.
Russell Foster - Edinburgh, Scotland (June 2013)
It’s something we spend one-third of our lives doing, but what do we really know about sleep? In this myth-busting TED Talk, circadian neuroscientist Russell Foster explores why we need different amounts of sleep at different ages, and looks in detail at the physical links between sleep patterns and mental health problems within the brains of schizophrenia patients.
8. Food for thought: How your belly controls your brain
Ruairi Robertson - TEDxFulbrightSantaMonica, Los Angeles, USA (September 2015)
Nutritionist, microbiologist and neuroscientist Ruairi Robertson gives us a bite-sized look at the link between our brains and our bellies in this fascinating TEDx presentation. He explores the physical and biochemical connections between head and stomach, explaining how our intestines can alter the way our brains behave, the reason why we get ‘butterflies’ in our tummies, and why hunger can have such a big impact on our mood.
9. What you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s
Lisa Genova - Vancouver, Canada (April 2017)
Neuroscientist and award-winning author Lisa Genova delivers a powerful presentation on Alzheimer’s disease in this brilliant TED Talk from 2017. She shares her research and describes possible preventative measures that scientists have explored to help stop Alzheimer’s in its tracks before it takes hold within the brain. She also considers some of the steps we can take as individuals to build our own Alzheimer’s-resistant brains.
10. How to meaningfully reconnect with those who have dementia
Anne Basting - TEDMED Boston, USA (March 2020)
This powerful presentation by creative gerontologist Anne Basting explores how creative expression can improve the lives of those living with cognitive disabilities. She describes how her grandmother’s experience of aphasia following a stroke inspired Anne to study new methods of expression, helping to ease the pain and frustration of stroke and dementia sufferers.
We must give a special mention to some past and future TED Talks by two of our wonderful Hello Bio guest contributors.
Kay M. Tye - Washington DC, USA (November 2019)
In 2019, neuroscientist Kay M. Tye of the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences delivered a thought-provoking TED Talk on her research into neural pathways and how new discoveries could uncover effective treatments for mental disorders. We were lucky enough to work with Kay in the same year when she contributed a fantastic piece to our blog entitled Gender Bias From A Woman In Science.
Dr Lucka Bibic - TEDxKrško, Slovenia (April 2021)
Later this month, scientist, creator, writer and guest blogger Dr Lucka Bibic will be speaking at TEDxKrško in Slovenia. Lucka has been a regular contributor to the Hello Bio blog, with fantastic articles such as To Science, or Not To Science? Alternative Careers For PhDs and On a Mission to Write Like a Scientist - and a Poet. For more information about Lucka’s TED Talk, take a look at the TEDxKrško website: www.tedxkrsko.com
“Hey! What about…”
If we’ve missed your favourite life science TED or TEDx Talk, we want to hear about it! Share it in the comments or tweet us about it at @hello_bio – we’re always on the lookout for new inspiration!
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