As night drew its dark blind over Boston, volunteers and work crews made haste to set up lighting displays and sound systems. A group of movers shuffled under the weight of an amplifier the size of a refrigerator, while a technician hunched over what appeared to be a generator, inspecting it with a flashlight and barking commands to his colleague. Domes varying in their size and designated color pallette received last minute touch ups, as an organizer scribbled notes on her clipboard before moving on. Behind the light technicians, a band of forklifts were hard at work arranging what would ultimately serve as the exhibitor space.
A field of shipping containers created a fluorescent mosaic in the heart of Boston’s City Hall Plaza. Boston-based muralists and street artists such as Andrew Ringler, who specializes in interactive sensory experiences, worked through the night to decorate these pods, yet the only sound they made was the low-fi hip-hop tunes that seeped into the night. Suddenly, a technician let out a call of relief as the spotlight flipped on. Projected onto the side of an office building situated behind the venue was the HUBWeek 2017 logo for the whole city to see. The stage was set for a celebration of the people and businesses that have supported Boston’s creative spirit.
Created in 2014 through a consortium involving MIT, Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, and The Boston Globe, Hubweek is an annual week-long festival that seeks to showcase the brightest and most inventive minds in science, art, and technology. The initiative is centered around civic collaboration and the ideal that our work is enriched when shared with those around us. Activities on display ranged from artistic to entrepreneurial creativity. A DJ mixed tracks with heavy basslines in a dome directly adjacent to one that hosted a college startup competition, with representation from MentalRep founded by a recent Boston College graduate. Outside, bossa nova musicians offered a smooth soundtrack for muralists to anchor themselves to while a teenager stood unawares at a nearby virtual reality simulation. These juxtapositions represent HUBweek’s ultimate desire to bring people together from different parts of the world and blur the conventional industry lines. By highlighting the thinkers, doers, creators, and organizers who are actively seeking answers to the toughest problems of modern society, HUBweek serves as medium through which we, as people, establish vital intellectual and social connection.
Despite the overcast skies and humidity on this particular Saturday, there was a discernible buzz filtering through the HUBweek grounds in anticipation of Amy Cuddy’s presentation. A social psychologist at Harvard University with a PhD from Princeton University as well as numerous academic appointments, Amy Cuddy is the foremost voice on the behavioral underpinnings of power, presence, and prejudice. Perhaps most well-known for her research contributions on the positive effects of “power-posing”, Cuddy has not only impacted the field of social psychology but also challenged society’s interpretation of physical and emotional well-being. The talk she gave at TEDGlobal in 2012 is one of the most watched talks ever with more than 39 million views to date. At HUBweek, Cuddy illuminated some of her research findings and broke down the connection between physiological states and feelings, or lack thereof, of empowerment. By adopting a more expansive physical posture that lengthens the spine, Cuddy asserts that we are able to optimize how we interact with our environment. When we artificially construct a sense of power within us in this way, our brain function actually begins to improve.
“You see challenges not as threats but as opportunities,” Cuddy said. “It changes the way you think. You are better at abstract thinking … your executive functions improve. When people feel powerful, they act. When people feel powerless, they don’t.”
Cuddy has conducted extensive research on how our attitude and general sense of self-image affect not only our stress levels in terms of cortisol release, but also how these behaviors affect the way others see you. For example, she referenced clinical findings that point to lower cortisol reactivity and extended lifespan in individuals who feel powerful. Ultimately, Cuddy connected the distribution of power in today’s society to the idea of subjective well being, suggesting that we derive strength from the feeling that we play an active role in shaping the world in which we live.
Whenever our sense of agency feels diluted, the body enters one of three states: fight, flight, or faint. During her presentation, Cuddy practiced what she preached by demonstrating an impeccable posture on the stage. At one point, she took a break in between slides to check in on the audience members.
“I want you to check your posture right now,” Cuddy said. “We think it doesn’t matter…but it does matter because your body and your mind are constantly in conversation with each other. Notice the extent to which you are contracting versus expanding. It can be very subtle.”
Cuddy’s attention to that which often goes overlooked in our daily lives is poignant, revealing a key dimension in how we express power and dominance across the animal kingdom. Flipping through slides of athletes stretching their arms out after winning or peacocks fanning their colorful plume, she provided evidence of the fact that these postural and behavioral expressions of power were universal across culture and species.
It was not her first time speaking at HUBweek, or in front of a group of strangers for that matter, but her tone was far from pedantic. Her non-verbal communication with the audience grabbed their attention for the entirety of the hour-long talk and following questions. Her position in the research community is of the highest order, yet she spoke as if it were an open-minded conversation rather than a lecture.
Those nuanced ways of connecting with others on a level relational plane are powerful in and of themselves. They mark a way forward, a beam of light cast into the future to guide us through the generations. Herein lies the underlying power of HUBweek; Boston is home for many people from different backgrounds, educational levels, and with diverse interests. When we co-create and co-innovate together in pursuit of answers to the exigencies of humanity, however, it is only natural that the smoke clears to reveal our common thread. Maybe then we can transition from an ego-system to a true eco-system.
Featured Image by Alessandro Zenati / Heights Staff