Amazing Experiences, motivation, poetry

Being Human 2013

This is Being Human 2013

By Max Song

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(Photos and logo courtesy of ©BeingHuman Organization)

What does it mean to be human? What have we learned about ourselves, and how can we use that knowledge to live, love and relate better with one another?

These and other big questions were the theme of the Being Human 2013 conference. Organized by the creative mastermind Peter Baumann, and edited by the venerable kosmonaut Michael Taft, it is a tremendous blending of the latest in psychology and neuroscience with age-old philosophical questions of ethics, emotions and relationships. Through humor, humility and curiosity, the conference danced between serious and levity as it teased apart the tightly woven fabric of the human experience into compelling, digestible narratives.

The Importance of “Being Conscious”

You have to admire the thoughtfulness of the conference name. The choice of the present particle “being” guided attendees to focus their attention on themselves, and triggered self awareness every time it was used in the hall way conversations. It also mirrored one of the conference’s biggest themes- this element of reflexive reflection explored through the lens of ethics and emotion.

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(From Left to Right: Dr. Josh Greene, Dr. Robert Sapolsky, Dr. Susan Fiske)

As famed psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl once observed, one of the distinguishing features of being human is to pause between stimulus and response. Said another way, it is the ability to take a step back from the immediate present and reexamine the experience from a higher vantage point. The morning panel on the Biology and Psychology of Ethical Behavior started along this line of inquiry, led by the respected psychologist and science writer Dr. Robert Sapolsky, the session featured Dr. Susan Fiske and Dr. Josh Greene and examined the psychological biases that humans share when making ethical decisions. A common theme through the different speakers was the tension between our automatic, unconscious tendencies and what we consciously know to be morally proper.

For example, in her talk, Dr. Fiske describes a two dimensional axis of warmth and competence which the human brain uses to judge new people it encounters, and determines the attitude with which we treat them:

1. High warmth, High Competence: we feel proud of the individual

2. Low warmth, Low Competence – generates disgust.

3. High warmth, Low Competence – generates pity

4. Low warmth, High Competence – generates envy

One interesting application of this research was the insight it shed on ‘re-humanizing the homeless’ – unsurprisingly, often times these decisions about others are made without rational thought, but a simple question such as “ Do you think he would prefer broccoli or spinach” is enough to jolt the listener into conscious attention, and reconsider the subject as a person instead of an object of disgust of disgust

Continuing on this theme of identifying and overriding our automatic behavior, Dr. Greene draws on an analogy from Daniel Kahneman’s idea of Thinking Fast and Slow to illustrate we how make snap morality judgments, describing two different types of thinking in human brains. You can think of them as a camera modes, he tells us, there is the automatic “mode” and manual “mode”. Interestingly enough, the moral “correctness” of the decisions made in each setting depends on the context, as a broad generalization: we tend to be more generous when we make snap judgments in a group that we belong to (an in-group), as opposed to more selfish decisions after conscious thought. However, when deciding between oneself and one in which we are an outsider (an out-group) – our snap judgments are biased towards selfishness, though with more conscious input we can override away the perceived difference between us and them. As a pithy summary, we are better at making Me vs We decisions, and not so good at making Me Vs Them.

Awareness and knowledge of these weaknesses in human decision-making, coupled with the technological zeitgeist of Silicon Valley, gives way to some fanciful thinking about how we might fix these flaws. Perhaps a wearable sensor that monitors our context (based on the hypothesis that our stress biomarkers and resting heart-rate might be lower in the company of an in-group, and higher in an out-group) might be able to help alert us to when we are about to make an incorrect moral decision, and interject to correct our response?

Seeing the Invisible:

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(From Left to Right: Dr. Paul Ekman, Dr. Richie Davidson, Dr. Esther Sternberg)

Another approach to correcting the problem above would be to expand the scope of conscious perception– in the next session of the conference, led by Dr. Richie Davidson, and featuring the legendary Dr. Paul Ekman and Dr. Esther Sternberg, the conference explored the powerful effects of meditation and the unrecognized effects of space and perception on our moods.

“How many of you think of a hospital as a place of calmness and healing?” asked Dr. Sternberg to knowing and ironic chuckles from the audience. “My mission is to create a world where that will not generate a laugh,” she followed, as she presented research on how the visual landscape activated parts of our brain rich in dopamine, and argued that seeing something beautiful might actually make us feel happier. This might not be surprising to the happy Californian natives in the Bay Area sun, but what was new was her effort to take the knowledge and act upon it. Following the tradition of sociologist Edward Hall in his Hidden Dimension, she took the invisible aspects of space to our conscious attention, and imagined new designs of hospitals and workspaces that contributed, rather then detracted, from the inhabitants’ experience.

Both Dr. Ekman and Dr. Davidson took rendering the invisible to the mental level, beginning with the question of why we know so much about the neurochemistry of fear and anxiety, but very little on happiness and love. Influenced and inspired by the curious inquiries of the Da Lai Lama, they presented research that combined cutting edge MRI scans with practitioners of the age-old mindfulness practice, and painted some of the first pictures of the human brain on meditation with Technicolor heatmaps. Of course, they did not stop with just visualization, but continued with a plethora of double-blind controlled studies demonstrating the positive effects of meditation in a variety of mental tasks.

This is your Brain on Love and Sex:

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(From Left to Right: Dr. Justin Garcia, Dr. Helen Fisher, Dr. Laurie Santos)

In the first of the afternoon sessions, perhaps to counteract a post-lunch crunch, Dr. Helen Fisher led a fantastic and engaging session on Human Relationships. Dr. Justin Garcia directed a thoughtful look at the sexual freedom and “hook up culture”, where traditional norms have undergone an inversion. As one subject recounts of an “intimate” experience: “I didn’t want to kiss him, it was a hook-up, kissing is too intimate!” Garcia then goes on to investigate the psychological factors that drive teenagers to hook up – and present some depressing statistics about the high rate of regret from both males (72%) and females (78%).  So why do we do it?

In a particularly moving revelation, Garcia describes more than half of people who hook up are looking for love, or emotional gratification. It seems like the need is still the same after all of theses years, but our medium and choice of expression has changed drastically. Nonetheless, 33% of young adults reported that they have had a hookup emerge into a relationship.

Primatologist Dr. Laurie Santos took the discussion in a different direction, accenting the how difference in decision-making between our close mammalian relatives and humors. Center-stage for was the unparalleled human capacity of imitation which explains much of human behavior in both relationships and elsewhere. It turns out that we are very good t it, sometimes to a fault, as one study comparing chimpanzees with small children showed. Both humans and chimps were given an opaque box containing a treat: and both were shown an intricate series of maneuvers to open the top of the box, poke the insides, and then retrieve the treat. However, when presented with the same architecture in a transparent box, which showed that the maneuvers didn’t actually have any bearings towards the reward, the chimps naturally skipped right to the end and retrieved the treat. Children, though, for better or worse, followed the original technique, even when it didn’t seem to impact the reward at the end.


Expanding our Umwelt and making sense of complexity:

The final section of the conference dealt with imaginations towards the future of being human.

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(From Left to Right: Jer Thorpe, Dr. Natasha Vita-More, Dr. David Eagleman)

After an entire day of seizing the invisible, the unconscious and bringing it to the forefront of the audiences attention, David Eagleman goes one more layer metaphysical, and literally creates a new lens to look on reality. He describes the umwelt, “the world as it is experienced by a particular organism”, and through an interesting thought experiment, shows us that our experience of reality is really actually delimited by our sensory organs. In his words: “Your brain is locked in the silence & darkness of your skull.” Hence, by expanding scope of our sensory organs, we can literally experience new realities. To illustrate his point, he created a vest with actuators, and wondered aloud what it would be like to pipe the sentiments of the stock market, or the Twittersphere, into physical sensations. Will our brain learn to adapt to the signal feed, and create a global awareness?

The session also featured Dr. Natasha Vita-More, who brought together the world of design and radical life extension, and led the audience to think about what form and manifestation their bodies could take if they were not bound by the physical world. Digital artist Jer Thorp dazzled with beautiful visualizations of data taken from air-travel, Twitter, and the Internet to illustrate a the counterpoint to Dr. Eagleman’s talk – we are entering a world of complexity and messiness in which the original tools and sensory perceptions are no longer enough to make sense of the world. In order to thrive in the informational deluge ahead, we needed to create new tools and new ways to interpret and understand, new ways to learn, new ways to live. These advances will not be built de novo, but rather on our growing understanding of how we work, think and love.

From my vantage point sitting on top of Twitter as @BeingHumanOrg, I was in a position to experience this uniquely. One of the strangest experiences came late in the afternoon, as the volume of traffic from our twitter feed ran into the threshold and Twitter choked our ability to post. To compensate, we took to our own personal twitter handles, in order to continue the traffic. Yet as I switched accounts, I had this remarkable perception of a shrinking of self and personality. As the human behind the Twitter feed, for most of the day I had an expansive “feel” of self, a generosity in attitude, and an immense gratification that came from the reporting on the conference, and having so many people interact with the tweets I sent. As I switched back to my personal handle, not only was there a drastic decline in interactions, but also I was suddenly more uncertain about the tweets I would send. My ‘theory of mind’ kicked back in, and the simulation of how others would perceive me made me a lot more critical and self-conscious of every tweet I sent. It was an eerie feeling to live and experience the material of the day’s discussion, though as a result of hearing from the speakers, I was also able to recognize and categorize the novel experience.

This is being human:

For a day filled with scientific presentations, it should be fitting that the most beautiful part of the conference was also the most mysterious. Interspersed between the neuroscience and psychology were two amazing performances that lacked and shunned scientific explanation. The first was Youtube sensation Marquese Scott, who dazzled the audience with mind-boggling control of his body, causing Kevin Kelly, sitting among the audience, to wryly remark “At the being human conference, they had a human dance like a robot.” At the end of the day, musician ELEW played an unconventional piano piece, with one hand reaching into the innards of the piano body to dampen and accent the acoustics as his other hand plucked out a riveting melody.

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(Left –Dance Performance by Marquese Scott. Right – Piano Performance by ELEW)

In some sense, this was a perfect metaphor for the human experience – this uneasy balance between our amazing behavior, and our gradual understanding of its underlying structures. In ELEW’s performance, I saw and heard a profound message about how to navigate the days ahead: as we stop treating our bodies and minds as black boxes, we could start to reach into them as ELEW reached into the black body of the piano, and correct our shortcomings, while preserving those parts of ourselves that are beautiful. May we all be like ELEW, incorporating our growing knowledge of the patterns and neurochemistry that regulate human behavior- not as a replacement for our actions, but as a companion, to continue creating beautiful music with our lives.

As the lights fade and the audience dispersed, I thought: this is indeed what it is like to be human, in 2013.


If you want to relive the experience, or experience it for the first time – the videos from the conference can be found at #BeingHuman2013

life heuristics, motivation

How to do Hard Things Pt. 2: Going Super Saiyan

TL;DR: Things get harder before they get easier. When exercising, or doing anything else hard, embrace the pain – its the only way to level up. 

If you are like me and was born in the 1990s, you probably familiar with the show Dragon Ball Z. I used to watch it over cereal on Saturday mornings, and the thing that always struck me about the show was how in the epic fights as Goku or one of his friends faced off against the forces of evil,   would always suffer some sort of initial defeat.  The power of their opponent was so enormous that the outcome seemed hopeless.

Then magically,  the background music would swell and Goku would reach into himself to pull out some extraordinary ability that evened the odds.

Remember this scene?

Even as a kid, I  thought that the cycle was pretty cheesy – if he had so much power why didn’t he use it in the first place? Why did he let himself (and us) suffer through all of the brutal beatings that led up to his transformation? Why didn’t he start out with Super Saiyan 4, or as the Giant Gorilla, and just beat the ever-living-shit out of his opponents in the first place?

This guy was enormous.

Today, I think that I found one answer. As context, earlier this week I broke through some internal walls, and swam 3000 meters non stop in the pool. Then, I went back to try my hand at repeating the phenomenon,  to see if I could do it or that it was a fluke. And it was HARD. The first 700 meters were slow and brutal, and the next 700 were even worse, by the end of that I was gasping for air, stumbling around in the pool, my shoulders screaming. And I thought to myself, golly, I guess I was just lucky and couldn’t actually swim at this length.

Then a funny thing happened at 1500 m. I got my breath back. My shoulders cooled down, and my strokes got longer. The end-of-the-wall kickturn became routine, and I started cruising.

I found that the same thing works for running as well. I used to be afraid of running, but after running 2.5 miles, the feeling of tightness went away and there was just calm resolve. It seems like when you commit yourself to something, and keep working through the pain, your body realizes “Oh, you are going for the long run – guess I better give you more energy.” I’m sure that there is a scientific explanation as well, something about aerobic vs. non-areobic exercise, using up the cellular creatine, etc, but its the good thing to know is that you have much more in reserve then you thought 🙂

So going back to Goku, maybe getting beat up was just part of the cycle, and he could not become more powerful without opposing resistance. So the next time that you feel uncertain about your ability, or capability, just remember- it will scale to match the problem you are matching. Grit your teeth and think of Goku 😉

Kick Ass and Take Names.

life heuristics, motivation

Breaking Boundaries

“We often make the mistake of giving up before we really, truly, begin.” ~Anonymous

Daniel Bell (AUS) action reflections Swimming 2000 Sydney PG

Today I swam 3 kilometers. I never thought that I could do it, or even that it was within the scope of things of which was available to me. Now after the experience, I’m forced to come back and look at other aspects of my life where I’ve demarcated realms of possibility and impossibility.

Goal setting is important. But sometimes the slow progress that you make through the journey to your goal is deceiving – for example, when we set out to swim 10 laps, the first and the second and third seem like an eternity, and there are yet so many to go, but suddenly you’re at four, and five and halfway there. A few more and you have made it over the halfway hump and it’s now an accelerating rush, as you surge closer to your goal.

My old mentor at Brown, Keith Thompson, once told me something that I thought was remarkably simple and insightful. Essentially, the goals that we set ourselves are also limits or boundaries on the things that were willing to push ourselves to do – when he runs or reads a book he doesn’t say “I’m going to stop at page so-and-so or by that landmark there”, because once you do as you approach a landmark case begins the slow any check more quickly about your progress.

Rather his internal dialogue goes something more like “I’m going to try to make it to that point, and then will reevaluate my progress”. Something so simple as not having a definite end in mind, so allows you to keep pushing in a way that he couldn’t after a supposedly resolution.

Which brings us to one of the age-old questions – what would you do if it was not impossible? …. And how do you know for certain that it is?

life heuristics, motivation

Finding your rhythm for excellence

A question I been thinking a lot about lately is: what is the best way to establish a routine in order to improve at something important?

One thing I’ve noticed about biking is that after three weeks, it’s become more of a habit then a conscious decision – and interestingly the consequence is that the outcome of each ride, whether I ride faster or slower that day, matters less than just the fact that I keep riding. Progress, especially in something large and intricate, takes a lot of time. Our human need for gratification sometimes gets in the way of maintaining steady rhythm in order to put in the necessary work as we are constantly thinking about whether or not we are improving. If we plateau in our performance, we may get discouraged.

One way to get around this problem might be what Drew Houston suggested in his commencement speech at MIT this year, when he said something to the lines of:

But it was a fascinating challenge. I was possessed. I would think about it in the shower. I would think about it in the middle of the night. It was like a switch went on — suddenly I was a machine.

In the middle of all this, my mom and dad wanted all of us to come up to New Hampshire to spend a family weekend together. But I really wanted to keep working on my poker bot. So I pull up in my Accord and open the trunk, and next I’m dragging all my computer stuff and all these wires into our little cottage. The dining room table wasn’t big enough so I started moving all the pots and pans off the stove to make room for all my monitors. This time it was my mom who thought something was wrong with me. She was convinced I was going to jail.

I was going to say work on what you love, but that’s not really it. It’s so easy to convince yourself that you love what you’re doing — who wants to admit that they don’t? When I think about it, the happiest and most successful people I know don’t just love what they do, they’re obsessed with solving an important problem, something that matters to them. They remind me of a dog chasing a tennis ball: their eyes go a little crazy, the leash snaps and they go bounding off, plowing through whatever gets in the way. I have some other friends who also work hard and get paid well in their jobs, but they complain as if they were shackled to a desk.


Obsession definitely is a cure for this problem, in fact it’s probably the best cure because it doesn’t take any conscious will or volition. It almost sounds little magical, if you manage to find the thing that you become obsessed about then discipline is secondary.

That’s all fine and dandy, but what if you’re not obsessed about anything just yet? One thing might be to keep seeking and find your passion that will absolve you of the responsibility, but in the meantime there is something else that you can start doing right now. It’s not as glamorous or easy as being obsessed, but something within your control.


I call it: Having a rhythm. It involves building a routine in which you practice the thing you want to prove at every day, and instead focusing on the immediate outcomes of each day, you focus on the process, and rest in your confidence that over time you will improve. It’s not easy, and I haven’t figured it out exactly – but one thing that biking is taught me the setting aside time for it each day, especially in the morning we don’t have any other distractions or obligations, really helps.

I keep you updated on how it goes. If you have something that works for you, or thought along similar veins, feel free to share them below 🙂

life heuristics, motivation

Whose time do you live by?


Not all time is created equal. 

The Greeks believed in two kinds of time, Chronos and Kairos. Chronos was the time of man, man’s time – it was the space, and pace that ordinary human life progressed along. All the joys and sorrows that are common to man – the spring sowing, the autumn harvest; the joys of new life, the mornings of death— Chronos encapsulated them all. This is the natural harmony of life, the eternal cycle of the mundane. And the lesson in life with the find one’s rhythm, because there was no escape.

And then, there is Kairos. God’s time. Absolute, resolute and magnificent. Acyclic, unprecedented, this was when epochs were decided, when immortals wrestled with fate – and won. When outcomes depended as much on the will of its contestants as it did on the circumstances.

These two parallel planes of existence coexist side-by-side. At any point one can choose to cross between one or the other. There is security and comfort in Chronos, the security that believes in the long history of humanity and “who am I to assume that my life will be different”; the comfort of finding one’s pace and rhythm – and belonging. There is hardship and sacrifice in Kairos, where the granite record of one’s fate can be re-carved with the price of blood, and the only steadfast companion is the shadow that drags at one’s feet. But there is also a secret joy, that few should know – and that is the joy of creating something new.

The fire of the Forge demands its payment of sweat, and flickers hungrily over charred bones and wasted metal, but that it is the only place where diamonds are made.

In rhetoric, Kairos means “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.”


“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever. That surrender, even the smallest act of giving up, stays with me. So when I feel like quitting, I ask myself, which would I rather live with?”
― Lance Armstrong, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life

“Pain is tempor…