Aspen Times Weekly cover story: What’s the big idea? |

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: What’s the big idea?

Hilary Stunda
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Contributed photo of Dennis ShollCover by Afton Groepper

ASPEN – Every June, the Aspen Ideas Fest stretches our cerebral cortices like a series of crash courses in grad school. Speakers, thinkers, conceptualists, artists, environmentalists and politicos arrive armed with in-depth research, concepts and solutions. One could be overwhelmed. But Aspen has a way of balancing the intensity of thought by couching the exceptional in blue jeans and alpenglow conversation.

I recently spoke with three Ideas Festival participants: social biologist Nicholas Christakis; Dennis Scholl, art philanthropist and vice president of arts at The Knight Foundation; and acclaimed DJ, musician and photographer Moby (the great-great-great-nephew of Herman Melville, hence the nickname). Moby has sold more than 20 million albums. For decades, he has been captivating audiences in the hundreds of thousands with his symphonic combination of disco beats, punk-rock speed and anthemic lyrics.

While the three might seem to occupy separate camps, I soon learned they had more in common than I imagined. Their visions – backed by science, art and music, respectively – hold to the belief that the “right” human interactions and connections can elevate if not transform life.

Hilary Stunda: What was it about Tanzania’s Hadza hunter-gatherer community that affirmed your theories?

Nicholas Christakis: Whenever human networks have been mapped or studied, they always seem to have a strikingly similar mathematical structure. We were wondering: Is there something deep and fundamental in our evolutionary past that destines humans to make networks with particular structures? Ideally we would want to fly back 10,000 years and look at humans when they lived before the invention of modern technology. But second best is to explore a hunter-gatherer population that lives like they did in the Pleistocene. There are only about 1,000 Hazda left. They are one of the last hunter-gatherer populations on the planet. There are only about 500 adults. The co-author, Coren Apicella, spent the summer driving around in a Land Rover avoiding scorpions and other disasters to basically find every adult Hazda she could using a kind of Hazda Facebook that we made that mapped our network. They have no agriculture. They have no significant material possessions (and) do not construct dwellings. They sleep under the stars. They hunt and they gather for their food. The Hazda social networks, we discovered, look just like ours. It helps confirm the belief that there’s something very ancient about the human social network. We humans don’t just live in groups. We live in networks. We need to have particular ties to particular people in a particular pattern. How is a flock of birds able to navigate and pull their wisdom to find a tiny speck of an island in the Pacific? Connections matter. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

HS: Your research delves into emotional contagion. How long does the particular emotion stay with you?

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NC: In the Hazda, we didn’t study emotional contagion, but we studied other types of similar behaviors like altruism and cooperation. Our work on emotional contagion picks up on older literature on emotional contagion that goes back decades. In fact, people can look at emotional contagion in chimpanzees. We found that when your friends express an emotion – or become happy, for example – it affects the probability that you will become happy. The effect decays after about a year. We’re not talking about transient moods, which also happens – someone smiles at you and you smile back – which lasts a few seconds. We’re talking about a more sustained effect. These emotional effects do not stop at one degree of separation. They appear to spread to your friends and your friend’s friend and your friend’s friend’s friend.

HS: Which is mind-boggling.

NC: Yes. But that result has now been replicated using Twitter. If one person posts a happy tweet, it affects the people to whom they are connected. To be very clear, these are not huge effects. And I need to emphasize that we are not saying that all that is necessary for your happiness is for your friends to become happy. It is only that having happy friends does seem to affect the probability that you will become happy.

HS: How do the Hazdas handle those in the tribe who are unproductive or different? How do they discourage or encourage adaptive behavior that sustains their networks?

NC: The tendency of the Hadza is to be cooperative. The data suggests that Hazda people get up and move away from uncooperative people. So altruists shun non-altruists, leaving them in the company of other defectors.

HS: Considering the plasticity of the brain and how we can hotwire our brains to new thought patterns, if you were suddenly immersed in a group of very innovative thinkers, would you become more innovative?

NC: Yes. There is a company that has licensed some of the software and intellectual property from my lab called They’ve looked at mapping networks of workers for things like innovation and energy. If your co-workers are energized, this can affect you, and it occurs in clusters and spreads within the co-worker network. Innovation and productivity in the workplace particularly show interpersonal influence.

HS: Knowing how humans seek out networks, what would be your ideal scenario for galvanizing positive change in the world?

NC: It is possible to do two things to exploit networks to make the world better – manipulate the connections among people, rewiring social interactions and manipulating contagion between people, so leave the network intact, but target particular influential individuals for behavior change.

HS: Dennis Scholl, of The Knight Foundation, has spearheaded Random Acts of Culture, spontaneous performances that bring classical art to the people in very ordinary places – the supermarket, a library, a shopping mall. These acts not only offer shards of beauty within the quotidian but also are galvanizing if not transformative for the masses. I would say their emotional contagion carries a strong import.

NC: And in principle we would expect that these interventions would not stop just with the participants. These participants go home and are in turn connected to other people. The ideas they have obtained and their sentiments can presumably spread and affect other people. A variety of public-policy interventions, whether they are health related, economic related or artistically related, have effects beyond the individuals to whom they are targeted. These effects spread through human social networks.

HS: What do you think of this, Dennis? Speaking of emotional contagion, I see Random Acts as transforming and galvanizing movements that can better the world.

Dennis Scholl: Let me tell you something interesting about that. We did a study at Knight Foundation called “The Soul of the Community.” We did it in 26 communities in three consecutive years. We asked a simple question: What attaches you to your community? What makes you care about your community? What makes you want to be there? In all 26 communities in all three years, the one leading indicator that attaches people to their community was social offerings like arts and culture. Not jobs. Not the economy. The No. 1 thing was arts and culture.

HS: And this is the main thrust of The Knight Foundation?

Scholl: We want art to be general. We believe that having art weaved into the fabric of a community will have a profound effect on how people feel about their community.

HS: It elevates the banal. Random Acts really hits the core essence of all of us. It’s archetypal.

Scholl: That’s a good way of saying it. And that’s what Random Acts does. It helps us reach for that emotional resonance that we may not be getting in our day-to-day life.

HS: I’ve never seen a live Random Act.

Scholl: There might be a little surprise on the morning of June 30.

HS: Do you consider yourself an existentialist?

MOBY: A big part of the human condition is our inability to have objective understanding of the universe in which we live. That’s the existential crisis. How do we make sense of the universe that seems to be 15 billion years old with our limited intellect and perception? The question is … how do we respond? Some people respond to that dilemma with despair. Some with elation or indifference. Not to sound too much like a grad student but to a large extent, we are all existentialists whether we know it or not.

Every time someone logs onto Facebook to see what their friends are up to they’re turning their back on the existential void. I accept that the universe is vast and beyond our comprehension and try not to be too concerned with it.

HS: Does this quell the nerves before a big show? Knowing that you are part of this system which is incomprehensible and absurd to try to rationalize?

MOBY: I don’t really get nervous performing anymore. Looking at the audience and being filled with a friendly, endearing sense of solidarity and compassion with people who, like me, are blindly stumbling along … Spending a couple of hours in a room with a bunch of other people and helping them feel better in the face of the existential void, then that seems pretty good to me.

HS: When I think of your more “atmospheric” music, with its combination of varying elements, what do you think others are resonating with? For me, it’s like being suspended in water…

MOBY: This is going to sound esoteric and I don’t want to sound like a new age grad student, but a friend of mine has this idea that we have a bunch of different selves – our external selves that tend to be tough, cynical, aggressive. And a lot of pop culture plays to those selves – vanity and anger, cynicism. I have certainly made some music that plays to those, but I think the music that resonates with me the most is music that plays to a deeper self that is more vulnerable, more honest and more genuinely emotional – not covered in the armor of cynicism and anger.

HS: Yes. It lends itself to a beautiful solitary moment. There’s something about it that makes me want to take a leisurely stroll through The Tuillerie Gardens…

MOBY: It comes from a more vulnerable place. That’s what resonates with me. We’re encouraged to buy into notions of youth and vanity. We spend so much time constructing those selves that the more honest, vulnerable selves get neglected. It’s when we find music or art or another person to connect with … then we respond even more powerfully.

For more on the Aspen Ideas Festival, including a full schedule of speakers and events, visit