Doing a TEDx talk – some thoughts

Cotard's Syndrome EP
Cotard’s Syndrome EP (Photo credit: This Sect)

So, I did a TEDx talk. Extraordinary enough to be asked, and humbling too (thanks Science Gallery folk!). Nerve-wracking also. There is a peculiar nakedness to a TEDx talk. You stand on the red spot – you shouldn’t move around much (at least the online instructions tell you not to). No rostrum to hide behind – nothing between you and 1800 people. No laser-pointer, notes, nothing. And 15-16 minutes to fill with your words, wearing one of those odd little Madonna microphones. And speak you must. Preferably coherently, with a storyline, an idea that you hope people will care about… But what topic to speak on? What could I have to say that anyone might care about? #

I chose to speak about the behavioural neurology and neuropsychology of zombiesI’ve had quite a few queries about why I did this. In no particular order, here’s why:

1. We know a lot of things about the brain now. We can make first order guesses at parsing structure-by-function questions. We know lots about the ultrastructure and micro- and macro-circuits of the brain. TEDx was a great chance to educate the public about the brain, using a very different but, I hope, immediately accessibly approach;

2. It was a great chance to get people to think about counterfactuals about the brain – suppose the following were true (zombies exist) – then what could we infer about their likely brain functions, using what we know about the functioning of our brains and an approach from behavioural neurology neuropsychology;

3. This a great place to speak about extremities of brain function that do actually occur – and that have consequences – the automatisms seen during parasomnias leading to acts of violence but no legal ‘mens rea‘ present, or indeed little understood syndromes like Capgras or Cotard’s – which are very challenging in the sense of what we understand it must mean to be alive among zombie imposters or to be convinced that one’s self is dead. Astounding.

4. What’s not to like about zombies?! I’ve been a fan of zombie films for as long as I can remember – there is something terribly sad about zombiedom and zombiehood – the line from David Chalmers about it ‘being all dark inside’ a zombie does feel correct. A zombie is all rage and hunger; there is nothing else there.

5. I didn’t get to talk about the 28 Days Later zombies – who offer a very different neurological phenotype (they can climb! and aren’t hyperphagic!). Are these 28 Days Later zombies even zombies at all? Are they merely hyper-aggressive, hyper-kinetic humans possessed of a pointless and murderous rage?

6. The science education line – I do think we need to try and extend our comfort zones as scientists to teach the public about science in a variety of different ways. It would have been easy (and maybe quite dull) to do a talk about some aspect of brain function – the neuroscience of learning and memory, for example – but to say something new, to give a different perspective on things, and to force yourself to do something a little bit scary like zombie neurology – well, that’s a good personal challenge, I think.

The day was remarkable itself – the other talks were by an astonishing and amazing group of people. Spend time on these talks – they are well worth it. Thanks TEDxDublin and thanks Science Gallery!

[Update: The reality TV series returns.]

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist

3 thoughts on “Doing a TEDx talk – some thoughts

  1. I just watched your Zombie TedX Talk – it was brilliant! Great idea and excellently presented. Thank you 🙂 (A former student of yours)

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