This is Being Human 2013
By Max Song
(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.
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:
(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:
(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.
(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.
(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.
- The Biology and Psychology of Ethical Behavior (fora.tv)
- Human Emotions (fora.tv)
- Being Human 2013 (kalireads.com)
- Being Human 2013 post-conference thoughts (kalireads.com)
- Robert Sapolsky on Writing and The Popularization of Science (joshuapreston.wordpress.com)