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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

TED And The Open Mind

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I just returned from the TED conference in Monterey, California, perhaps one of the most interesting experiences of my life, 3 and a half days of short presentations by scientists, writers, innovators, and creative thinkers of the 21st century. What permeated the event was curiosity - an insatiable thirst for learning, for experiencing, for allowing creativity to take the lead. Einstein once said, "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." I've come to understand the importance of questioning and the never-ending nature of it.

We live in a culture today that is impatient with uncertainty. We seek certainty and search the web and other sources for answers. This striving to want answers, the kinds that are 'black or white' plague us in many ways. We have all seen that played out in the election process where politicians are forced into giving yes/no types of answers on every issue presented. The news announcers asking questions won't settle for anything less and because of that, we never get to see the depth of character of those we elect. For I believe it is in the weighing of information, in the flexibility of approach, in their strength of character to change course when needed that true leadership arises.

This intolerance of uncertainty reflects our discomfort with change. In certainty, we feel a sense of comfort that the world and human nature is ordered in such a way that we can control it or predict its outcome. What we continue to discover - in science and in life - is the lack of constancy of life, the constant changing and unpredictable nature that surprises us over and over again. A friend gets sick, a parent dies, life's unpredictability is often brought to our attention through tragedy; but it is always present, we just ignore those events that don't fit our simple models of predictability.

The news brings us unpredictability every day - a war begins, the stock market falls, a man gives up his life to rescue another, a celebrity dies unexpectedly. But, we learn to separate ourselves from the news, to think, it happens 'out there,' and in some way there is an element of comfort is being separate from the day-to-day news events. In the separateness, we give ourselves a false sense of security, a false sense of control, that we are not part of that changing world, that we have a relatively stable, predictable day-to-day life. It is this apparent sense of control that keeps us from experiencing new things, that keeps us from taking chances, exposing ourselves to risks, reaching out when fear impedes us. I spent much of my life not attempting new things because of this heightened sense of unpredictability. But as I got older - and unpredictable and tragic like events happened to me - I lost that fear. I saw that our changing nature is so commonplace; there is no escaping it by avoidance - by creating habitual patterns and routines to give us a false sense of control.

As a scientist, I was always satisfied in knowing that the process of questioning and discovery is never-ending - that around every scientific discovery, a new set of questions arise. But, on a personal level, I was not. Until I was curious enough to study my habitual patterns and behaviors of avoidance, I could not let go of them. My curiosity to study myself opened up when I discovered that my "I" was not fixed, my "I" had changed dramatically throughout my life and that it was a product of my biology and environments in which that biology found itself.

As I began to study that 'I,' I took concrete steps to bring into awareness habitual patterns: for example, I quit wearing a watch (something I never went without), I used a different burner on my stove, I tried lots of new things (foods, recreational activities, work). In those 'changes' in behavior, I discovered my habitual patterns, my actions to make the world seem steady and predictable, and I learned to let go of those patterns. I could then move to investigating something more subtle, the origins of my thoughts and feelings. Watching my reactive patterns in thought and feeling was a lot tougher than seeing my habitual behaviors but with careful and open observation, I discovered a lot about them and me. However, it is much easier to adopt new repetitive patterns (whether thoughts, feelings or actions) than it is to be aware of them and let them go. I constantly see myself doing it again, and again, and again. It's like a game of sorts -patterns develop, I step back and see them, and let them go. In the process, more and more curiosity about human nature arises and our natural tendencies to want constancy dissipate. With each step and rediscovery and release of the patterns I develop, the closer I move to contentment in our changing nature.

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