From TED talks to online seminars, video channels crammed with inspirational and thought-provoking lectures are educating us on everything from town planning and depression to body language, animal morality and dangers of sugar in just a few minutes. Here is our pick of the best, from Amanda Palmer on the music industry to Bertrand Russell on Christianity and Terry Pratchett on coming to terms with death. Share your favourites below
How Economic Inequality Harms Societies
Who’s talking? Professor Richard Wilkinson, an epidemiologist.
What is he on about? The effects of inequality on societies all over the world. This will be familiar territory to anyone who has read The Spirit Level, but for those who haven’t it will be eye-opening in the extreme. Wilkinson shows that in unequal societies crime rates are higher, mental health and teen pregnancy are more common, and people – in every income bracket – live shorter lives.
Is he right? Yes. It’s kind of his life’s work.
Highlight: Wilkinson’s brilliant voice.
Use this knowledge to: Reinvigorate egalitarianism; reform everything.
Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are
Who’s talking? Professor Amy JC Cuddy, of Harvard Business School.
What is she on about? The power of a power stance. Cuddy argues that not only do our non-verbal communications govern how others think and feel about us, they also have a significant effect on how we feel about ourselves.
Is she right? Yeah, it’s kind of her area of expertise. Plus it’s all backed up with the science of testosterone and cortisol levels.
Highlight: Cuddy’s personal story of faking it as a public speaker.
Use this knowledge to: Stand tall; fake it; make it.
Violence Against Women – it’s a Men’s Issue
Who’s talking? Dr Jackson Katz, an educator, filmmaker and cultural theorist.
What is he on about? The need to focus on the men who commit violence against women – and how other men can stop them. Katz argues that male peer cultures need to change, and this requires brave leadership within male-dominated communities.
Is he right? Yes, of course. The more sexist a man is the more likely it will be other men, not women, who change his mind.
Highlight: A well-deployed Martin Luther King quote.
Use this knowledge to: Challenge patriarchy; embarrass sexists; berate your granddad.
Depression in the US
Who’s talking? Professor Robert Sapolsky, of Stanford University.
What is he on about? Depression. Specifically, major depression. Which he defines as “a biochemical disorder with a genetic component, with early-experience influences, where somebody can’t appreciate sunsets”. Sapolsky argues that it must be recognised as a disease as real as diabetes or cancer. And he says it is absurd and ignorant to suggest that people with severe depression simply need to “pull themselves together”.
Is he right? Yeah.
Highlight: Sapolsky’s captivating beard.
Use this knowledge to: Sympathise with sufferers; banish ignorance; appreciate beards.
Listening to Shame
Who’s talking? Professor of social work Brené Brown.
What is she on about? The power of shame. Brown’s first talk for TED was on the power of vulnerability. It has been viewed over 10m times. In her second, she returns to her roots as a researcher into shame, which she argues “is an epidemic in our culture”.
Is she right? She is. The talk is light on evidence but rich with authority.
Highlight: Her account of the effects of shame on health.
Use this knowledge to: Dance like someone’s watching; love like you’ll be hurt; sing like everyone is listening.
Why I Am Not a Christian
Who’s talking? Nobel prize-winning philosopher, mathematician and campaigner Bertrand Russell. Back in 1927.
What is he on about? The flimsiness of the arguments for God’s existence and the stifling effects of religious doctrine on human progress. Long before Richard Dawkins made militant atheism fashionable, Russell had already more or less settled the argument.
Is he right? Yes.
Highlight: “A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.”
Use this knowledge to: Argue with Christians; silence Dawkins fanboys; live.
We Need to Talk About an Injustice
Who’s talking? Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer and the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
What is he on about? The need for drastic reform to the American criminal justice system.
Is he right? The facts are hard to argue with. For example: America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 2.3 million people in prison, and one in three black men in America aged 18 to 30 is in prison or on probation or parole.
Highlight: “The moral arc of this universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
Use this knowledge to: Change the world; chastise Americans; check your privilege.
The Art of Asking
Who’s talking? Singer, songwriter and musician Amanda Palmer.
What is she on about? The willingness of fans to pay for music if you ask them to do so. She suggests the music industry shouldn’t ask: “How do we make people pay for music?” but instead “How do we let people pay for music?”
Is she right? Well, it worked for her. The talk is mostly about Palmer’s own success with crowdfunding.
Highlight: The moment the audience realises just how successful her fan-funded approach has been.
Use this knowledge to: Bypass record labels; make great art; crowdsource your mortgage.
The Myth of the Gay Agenda
Who’s talking? Sports journalist and gay rights activist LZ Granderson.
What is he on about? The ludicrous notion that there is a “gay lifestyle”, let alone a “gay agenda”. Granderson argues the entire gay agenda is there in the US constitution: the demand to be treated as equal citizens. He also points out that in some US states a landlord can evict their tenants – and a boss can fire their employees – for being gay.
Is he right? Obviously.
Highlight: The bit where he has a lightsaber.
Brilliant Designs to Fit More People in Every City
Who’s talking? Architect and designer Kent Larson.
What is he on about? The need for the cities of the future to make more efficient use of space. He calls it “a global imperative”.
Is he right? Yes. It’s a pretty uncontroversial thesis. But Larson’s talk goes further and shows off some of the technology that might address the problem.
Highlight: That cool new tech: a folding car designed for shared use; an electronic three-wheeled bike; and a two-room apartment that functions like a five-bed town house using transformable multipurpose furniture.
Use this knowledge to: Prepare for the future; feel better about your tiny flat.
Shaking Hands With Death
Who’s talking? Discworld author Sir Terry Pratchett, via actor Tony Robinson.
What is he on about? The right to die on one’s own terms. Pratchett’s moving speech addresses the arguments against assisted dying one by one, subjecting each to a sharp satirical examination.
Is he right? As Pratchett puts it: “I believe that consensual assisted death for those that ask for it is quite hard to oppose.” After watching this, it’s even harder.
Highlight: Too many moments of humour and heartbreak to pick one.
Use this knowledge to: Fall in love with Pratchett; prepare to die.
The Voices in My Head
Who’s talking? Academic Eleanor Longden.
What is she on about? Her experience of hearing voices. Longden was diagnosed with schizophrenia and told by doctors she would never recover. She proved them wrong with the help of the Hearing Voices Network, which encouraged her to engage in dialogue with her voices to discover and address the underlying problems from her past. She argues for a radical shift in attitudes towards people who hear voices.
Is she right? It worked for her. And many others.
Highlight: Finding out just how far she has come since.
Use this knowledge to: Improve treatment; be compassionate; challenge ignorance about mental health.
Arithmetic, Population and Energy: Sustainability 101
Who’s talking? Physics professor Albert A Bartlett.
What is he on about? The same thing he’s been on about since he first gave this infamous lecture in 1969: the inevitability of overpopulation; its disastrous consequences in a world of finite resources; and the fact that the US is the prime culprit in terms of per capita resource use.
Is he right? Yeah. Although he doesn’t really offer a solution.
Highlight: The sheer weight of intellect and evidence marshalled.
Use this knowledge to: Reconsider progress; check your consumption; become a nihilist.
The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class
Who’s talking? Harvard law professor and US senator Elizabeth Warren.
What is she on about? The precarious way of life of the modern two-income family in America. She argues that in the space of a single generation the middle class have lost the financial capacity to survive income shocks. And, as a result, America is transitioning from a three-class society to a two-class society: the rich, and the debt-ridden rest.
Is she right? We’ll see. But the stats are pretty convincing.
Highlight: All those shocking stats.
Use this knowledge to: Demand change; get rich; die tryin’.
The Secret Powers of Time
Who’s talking? Professor Philip Zimbardo.
What is he on about? The way our personal, national and cultural concepts of time affect our health, well-being and careers. Zimbardo divides people into six groups according to their perspectives on time: the past-negative; past-positive; present-hedonistic; present-fated; future-oriented with a focus on work; and future-oriented with a focus on the afterlife. He says many of life’s problems can be solved by understanding our time perspectives.
Is he right? Maybe. But re-conceptualising time seems less about solving problems than realising how little they matter.
Highlight: This short RSA Animate version – for people with less time.
Use this knowledge to: Slow down; chill out; save time.
The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship
Who’s talking? Psychotherapist and marriage coach Esther Perel.
What is she on about? The tension between desire and domestic life. She argues that erotic desire is not about toys, lingerie or Hollywood-derived spontaneity, but the freedom to keep exploring life away from your partner.
Is she right? You would have to ask the couples she works with.
Highlight: Her thesis that “the erotic mind is not very politically correct” because “most of us will get turned on at night by the very same things we protest about during the day”.
Use this knowledge to: Stop stifling your partner; keep things spicy; get turned on by benefit cuts.
Printing a Human Kidney
Who’s talking? Anthony Atala, a surgeon and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
What is he on about? The capacity of 3D-printing technology to one day solve the organ-donor problem by printing a human kidney one layer of cells at a time.
Is he right? Well, he brings a prototype printed kidney out on stage, so he must be making some progress.
Highlight: A moving cameo from a boy with an artificial bladder.
Use this knowledge to: Save lives; prepare for the future; fax people kidneys as a joke.
Do Schools Kill Creativity?
Who’s talking? Educationalist, author, academic and government advisor Sir Kenneth Robinson.
What is he on about? The need to reform education. Robinson says schools are teaching children not to be creative and failing to recognise the diversity of intelligence. He calls for a rethink of the fundamental principles of education, placing creativity front and centre.
Is he right? Perhaps. He’s certainly popular. With over 23m views, Robinson’s 20-minute lecture is the most-watched TED talk so far.
Highlight: Robinson’s killer gags. It’s almost a stand-up routine.
Use this knowledge to: Reform education; help your children; annoy teachers.
Sugar: the Bitter Truth
Who’s talking? Professor of clinical pediatrics Robert H Lustig.
What is he on about? The high fructose diet. Lustig says fructose – the sweet molecule in added sugar – is the primary cause of the obesity pandemic. He calls it “a poison”.
Is he right? The science is debated, but there are enormous vested interests behind high-fructose foods; you would expect there to be a lot of disagreement even if Lustig is entirely correct.
Highlight: At an hour and a half, the bit where it finally ends. But – if you’re not familiar with this stuff already – it’s well worth it.
Use this knowledge to: Cut your sugar; cut your kids’ sugar; hate juice.
Moral Behaviour in Animals
Who’s talking? Professor Frans de Waal, a primatologist.
What is he on about? The capacity of animals to cooperate and empathise with one another, as demonstrated by chimps, elephants and capuchin monkeys. De Waal argues that this capacity in animals suggests morality has pre-human evolutionary roots.
Is he right? Perhaps, although the explanation may have more to do with survival than any meaningful notion of altruism.
Highlight: The Capuchin monkeys rejecting unequal pay.
Use this knowledge to: Demand income equality for monkeys.