Flow, TED Talks & The Power Of Flattery


Stream: The Techie Rich are Easily Flattered

There’s a contemporary commercial for a company whose name I forgot that sells science lectures or videos or some such thing. The key line is that you should buy these items to feed “your brilliant mind”.

I don’t want to be seen as cruel, delicate reader, but given our knowledge of the American public the chance a viewer of this commercial (including myself) is brilliant is low. Plus, if the viewer really was brilliant, then it’s likely he would not need the videos.

Flaubert said “The public wants work which flatters its illusions.” Advertisers and charlatans heed this wisdom, their path made smooth by an educational system which inculcates the illusion of limitless intelligence in its students. Any child can be brilliant, parents are assured. We are all geniuses.

Who doesn’t want to hear how far above the others one is—or can be, for a small fee?

The question is, if you’re a huckster, what is the maximum you can you charge for selling flattery without your audience balking? Five thousand is not too large, apparently.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the New York Times story “How to Hack Your Brain (for $5,000)“.

EDEN, Utah — One morning last month a group of roughly 60 people, including doctors, C.E.O.s and internet entrepreneurs, gathered under a big white dome to hear the mission statement of their host, a 45-year-old man named Jamie Wheal.

As he paced back and forth in front of an altar bearing shiny Buddha heads, Mr. Wheal talked about the perils of information overload in our content-rich era. “A literate person in the European Middle Ages,” he said, “consumed the same amount of content in their entire lives as we do reading a single edition of the Sunday New York Times.”

Only an illiterate person in the modern age would nod in agreement at that “content” claim and flatter himself into believing he was leagues beyond the poor simple folk of yore. This flattery is evidently enough to convince the audience of the need to cleanse their minds. For a stinging fee.

About the supposed content-benighted medieval dwellers. One wonders if Mr Wheal read any of the books by Thomas Aquinas. Had he even heard of Albertus Magnus? Perhaps he had. But he was sure his audience hadn’t.

Before continuing, re-read the first paragraph. Doctors, CEOs, entrepreneurs. All educated, even highly educated, folks. If that doesn’t teach you the lesson that modern education is sorely lacking in substance, nothing will.

The story continues, “Sinewy and tanned from a life of outdoor pursuits, Mr. Wheal was offering attendees the chance to ‘upgrade’ their nervous systems to meet this incontrovertible information overload. How? With ‘flow.'”

Flow, they say, is associated with hidden and rarely accessed brain “layers”, [… TED talks …]

Only the best among you will read the rest.


  1. brian (bulaoren)

    There’s one born every minute, but never give one an even break. All children are above average.

  2. You don’t have to look at Aquinas to disprove the contention. You don’t even have to consider the literate person of the Middle Ages. The average person built his own house, grew/raised and cooked his own food, told his own stories, sang his own songs, raised his own children, and had at least a basic understanding of Christianity. Not only would all that knowledge not fit into the New York Times, I doubt seriously if Mr. Wheal knows as much as all that.

  3. John B()

    I forgot Briggs’ buddy Jerry Coyne is center to the TEDx controversy

  4. grodrigues

    I have not laughed this hard in quite some time.

    Why is it that people want to flatter themselves in these silly, stupid ways? Is not being a common, average decent human being, maybe raise a family and teach your kids a couple of truths, do some charity every now and then, a grand enough project, enough to fill an entire lifetime?

  5. brian (bulaoren)

    This post shows a..toilet. As it happens, Thomas Crapper was baptized on September 28th, 1856…Well, maybe 1858…

  6. brian (bulaoren)

    Ooops! Make that 1836. My memory’s gone to c….

  7. c matt

    To some extent he may have a point on information overload – although I would not characterize it so much as “information” as “noise.” A literate person of the Middle Ages enjoyed much higher quality of the information consumed.

  8. Hey Briggs–are you trying to flatter us, by saying we’re all more intelligent (if not as rich) as those dupes who shell out for TED conferences? And do you think you might somehow make TED a business model to capture an audience of the intellectually gifted but financially stressed? I forgot–you have a book to sell.

  9. Steve E

    There’s one born every minute. Empty people trying to fill the emptiness. Transcendental Meditation, est, Primal Therapy, Tony Robbins, Yoga…Flow.

  10. Ray

    “Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.” George Orwell
    Remember, the intellectuals believed in scientific socialism and history as a metaphysical force.

  11. Bruce

    In the sixties there was a short-lived movement to forego the use of Novocaine at the dentist. It was called ‘Transcend Dental Medication’, if memory serves… 😉

  12. Milton Hathaway

    I clicked on the link to The Stream, but had to immediately stop reading upon finishing the first eight words. You still get paid for the click, I assume?

    Sorta reminded me of that commercial with the “Wouldn’t it be great if everybody just said what they meant” meme.

  13. Briggs


    First eight words: “There’s a commercial for a company whose name”.

    Now I’ve looked and looked but have not been able to discover anything offensive in them. Can you enlighten?

    And, no, I do not get paid for clicks.

  14. brad tittle

    My wife showed me a TED Talk recently. She asked me what I thought…

    That didn’t go well. I have seen many TED talks. The one she showed me had about 30 seconds of information I was interested in. The rest of it was fluff to make the emotion happen. Emotion is great in poetry, music and movies. If I am supposed to be enlightened, … not so much.

    So my response was …

    “It’s a TED talk. I have seen that one give 10 times. Some basic pattern. Same speech. Just different people telling the story.”

    Not the right answer.

    The challenge for TED… Those emotional stories are putting butts in the seats. NEVER underestimate the importance of butts in the seats. Butts in the seats fund. Butts not in the seats do not fund.

    Science is built on the not in the seats part of the equation though. The epidemiological studies that are worthwhile are the ones that show that something isn’t there.

  15. Milton Hathaway

    Professor Briggs – The first eight words that came up for me were “Only the best among you will read this”. And thus I had to quit reading at that point lest I make a liar of you.

    Sorry, lame attempt at humor, I guess.

  16. bat8

    Daniel Kahneman, in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, gives the pronunciation of Csikszentmihalyi as “six-cent-mihaly”. So assuming you read this comment, now you know.

  17. Briggs


    But the best did read!


    Sounds like ‘Smith’ to me.

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