Like moonlight seen in a well,
The one who sees it, blocks it.
-- Jane Hirshfield
Like moonlight seen in a well,
The one who blocks it, sees it.
-- Jane Hirshfield
Until recently, a conference attempting to answer the question of what it means to be human would be a very right-brained affair. Seats at the table would be held for philosophers, cultural critics, mystics, poets, and in some cases, medical doctors. The idea that laboratory scientists have something useful to say on the subject would be novel, if not slightly mocked.
Luckily for us, the hard sciences have made huge strides, not just in technological capacity, but in philosophical orientation. Neuroscience in particular is making discoveries so relevant to the nature of the self that any conversation about being human that ignores its lessons is doomed to two-dimensionality, even irrelevance.
The inaugural Being Human conference (San Francisco, March 24, 2012) was the first major expression of a new framing of the question about the nature of the self. It’s hardly the first time we’ve seen a science-meets-philosophy or east-meets-west investigation. But the focused inquiry, trained like a laser on a single, deep, and tremendously important question, made Being Human feel like the beginning of a new era. Perhaps, if it fulfills its mission, it can seed a new integrated worldview, free from mythology, subjective biases, historical tethers, or pseudoscience.
(If you missed the event, or wish to revisit some of the presentations, the complete videos are available here. I especially recommend watching Peter Baumann’s introduction, which begins at 4:00 in this video.)
Neuroscience steals the show
The Being Human conference was not about neuroscience. And yet somehow it was.
The opening presenter, Beau Lotto, set the tone beautifully (video here). He promised that by the end of his presentation we would know less than we thought we knew now. He proceeded to dismantle the notion that we have direct contact with the world we live in. By exploring our perception of color, using visual illusions and other tricks, he showed us just how much our perception of the world is shaped by the meaning-making engines working under the hood, far below the level of conscious awareness. In the example shown here, the two tiles on either side of the table leg are actually the same color. But our brain sees the context of those squares (one in shadow, one in light), and interprets the colors as two different neutral shades. Perception of context shapes the perception of data; it leaves one questioning what is real.
While this may seem like just a cute trick, he performed enough tricks to propel everyone in the room (and those watching the live stream) into a state of doubt, wonder, and humility. He created a space of not-knowing that is typically reserved for meditation teachers and cosmologists named Sagan.
It was a perfect beginning to the day. We intuit that the question “what does it mean to be human?” does not have a final succinct answer, but is endlessly rediscovered in the spaces in between. Those spaces need to be sought, or created, and Lotto brought them into full view.
Each of the scientists who took the podium followed a similar thread. VS Ramachandran showed his research in dealing with phantom limbs, which provides a valuable window into the mind-body connection. David Eagleman, a rising rock-star of a neuroscientist, presented much of the work that went into his recent bestseller Incognito (reviewed by Br. TJ here). He summed up his message by quoting 20th-century philosopher Roger Waters: “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”
Eagleman (whose presentation begins at 39:30 in this video) traces his research lineage back to Phineas Gage, the now famous railroad worker whose head was pierced by a rail spike in 1848. While Gage survived the incident, by all accounts he became a different person after the accident. What does that mean, “he became a different person” -- who is “he” and how could he possibly become someone other than himself? When we look at a chocolate cookie and experience the inevitable conflict between our short-term impulses (“yummm”) and our long-term planning (“fat!”), who exactly is fighting with whom? When we have a great idea, one that was actually brewing in the unconscious mind for hours or days, who is the one to get credit for that idea? Eagleman drove the point home eloquently, but persistently: our conscious mind is a tiny fraction of what is going on inside the wet three-pound lump of massively complex electrochemical mystery meat that we call home.
The research in neuroscience took on an almost Vedantic quality of neti-neti -- “not this, not that.” By dismantling each successive layer of the things we label as “me,” it left you in a state of emptiness, bordering on distress. Who am I? Nope, not that. But what about...? No, not that either. Is the self all of it, or none of it, or something else entirely? In the space of not-knowing, there’s a chance we might see something new, unexpected, significant.
Thomas Metzinger is a German philosopher who works closely with neuroscientists. He has written several books that challenge the myth that there is a thing called the self somewhere inside you. Instead, you are a process. I haven’t read his work yet, and I’m certainly fascinated. His thesis wasn’t fully formed in his short presentation, although he presented good food for thought. He cited some amazing research on alien hand syndrome as a powerful data point showing that we are not who we think we are. He followed Ramachandran’s comments on phantom limbs by citing the case of a woman born without limbs who experienced phantoms. How can this be? How can the brain produce data simulating the experience of a thing that never existed? Whose arms are being felt, and who is feeling them? Again: wonder, and more wonder.
A special shout out to Laurie Santos is required here. A professor of at Yale doing research in psychology and biology, she brought a much-needed element to the event. In introducing her studies of the economic behavior of non-human primates, she insisted that any investigation into what it means to be human must include those elements of our humanity that we are not proud of. It’s fine to research creativity or rational thought or empathy. But what about our capacity for irrational behavior? What about hatred or prejudice, or how difficult it is to learn from our mistakes? If we don’t study our foibles, we will succumb to the same cognitive biases that create distortions at every level of self and culture.
Culture and emotions
The powerful and spacious sessions on perception and cognition were a tough act to follow. The presentations on culture were interesting, but they just weren’t at the same level of engagement with the core issue of what it means to be human. To be fair, this is a big question, and progress can only be made when a certain type of rigor and courage is brought to the table. That rigor is not owned by neuroscience, but today it seemed to be.
The sessions by Anne Harrington, Hazel Markus, and Paul Ekman were testament to this. Each of the presenters is extraordinary in their own right, especially Ekman, who is widely regarded as one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century. The subjects were interesting -- issues of emotion, the culturally created self, and the placebo effect in relation to consciousness and culture -- but the level of presentation did not match the setting. For example, much of Ms. Markus’ talk was an introductory discussion of two modes of being (independent vs. interdependent); her time was not spent pushing any edges, or creating space inside the audience for new possibilities. I look forward to hearing more adventurous results from these important researchers.
It’s hard not to see Being Human as a metaphor for the teenage upstart prematurely claiming the throne of victory, in a group where no one even acknowledges a throne. Metzinger, while not himself a neuroscientist, did the scientists a favor by firing the warning shot for them: “Psychology may begin dissolving into neuroscience.” There are times when this new and rapidly-evolving field does seem capable of swallowing entire areas of study, however unsatisfying that might feel. After the conference, Eagleman expressed his relief to me that it was Metzinger who said it; there does seem to be some touchiness around the subject of how ambitious his field is. But the fact remains: neuroscience is taking some quality shots on goal, and this is much needed. (Obligatory hockey reference for our Canadian readers!)
The conference organizers did their best to ensure that the event was full-spectrum, and not dominated by the neuroscientists. I have no doubt that future events will see a more balanced field of presenters, with adventure and depth (and shots on goal) coming from every direction.
Back on the cultural module: I would have greatly appreciated a more rigorous exposition of the culturally-created self, with a similar level of “not-this, not-that” that we saw the neuroscientists perform with the individual self. For example, someone like Thomas de Zengotita, whose Mediated is a devastating deconstruction of the cultural self, or even Andrew Cohen, who brings great insight in unpacking cultural conditioning, would have shone in this setting. Clearing out the weeds -- the presumptions and wrong ideas -- is what turns the light on the mysterious question at hand.
(On a related note: Ramachandran spoke briefly of mirror neurons. About 20% of our motor neurons fire when we see other people interact with the world. Some scientists are hypothesizing that mirror neurons are the biological root of empathy. A longer presentation on this aspect of culture would be an exciting addition to the dialogue.)
The closing hour of the day was facilitated by Tami Simon. She hosted a warm, lovely dialogue and meditation with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Richard Davidson, and Gelek Rimpoche. It was afternoon tea with some deeply spiritual people.
It’s hard to say anything negative about this beautiful group. They did what they could not help but do, which is to say: they were beautiful.
On the other hand, it felt like a missed opportunity. Mystics and contemplatives have immense contributions to add to the inquiry of what it means to be human. Far from resting on the laurels and insights of past masters like Jesus or the Buddha, living mystics engage directly with the question in personal and powerful ways. The answer to the spiritual question “who am I?” is not one that has already been discovered (and is merely awaiting your acknowledgement), but a never-ending invitation to deeper processing and further development. As mysterious and empty is the space at the heart of the question, it is simultaneously always expanding, ever-rich, and the perfect fertile soil for this type of collective, multi-faceted investigation.
Having a passionate living mystic like Shinzen Young or Adyashanti -- people who bring space, rigor, and precision to their inquiry -- would be a fabulous addition to this project. Perhaps if it is done right, over time, the successful coordination of science and spirit may just win over some of the skeptics who balk at the relevance of introspection or spirituality.
I find myself surprised at how much passion I have for what this event means, and where it will lead. Is this a new meta-theory being born? A destruction of residual boundaries separating science from philosophy from meditation? The beginnings of a new spiritual path, with guidance from research done in the MRI machines, or a new science with guidance from contemplatives? We’re in very exciting territory here, and I have little doubt that the coming decade will be a magnificent time for self-discovery on a massive scale. This is, perhaps, the collective application of the Vedantic inquiry: Who are we?
As a whole experience, Being Human was a radically positive event. The organizers had their act together. The physical space was elegant, the technology was solid, the food was good, the lines for the bathroom moved swiftly. The conversations during the breaks were special even by San Franciscan standards: people would approach strangers and ask about their spiritual experience or their relationship to conscious capitalism. Most people sat on the floor to eat, speaking with whomever bumped their elbow. A thousand people, some of whom traveled from Europe just for the event, found themselves among instant friends.
As I mentioned above, it seems like neuroscience has set the bar for the philosophers and mystics. Having the urgent desire to crack the mysterious code at the heart of our being, along with a degree of softness and space -- is this the way one typically describes the hard sciences? The cultural critics and contemplatives will surely rise to the occasion at future events.
Jane Hirshfield, a poet who read after each session, hinted through her presence how valuable a visionary artist could be at this kind of event. Perhaps in future years we will see live graphic recorders or painters transcribing not just the words but the feeling of the shared investigation.
Lastly: big props to Peter Baumann, host, organizer, and patron of Being Human. He set the tone beautifully, and will surely be the driver of the evolution of future conferences.
Oh, and one important piece was glaringly omitted from the event: a thumping dance party. Who could possibly know what it means to be human without busting a move? Drop the cocktails, people, we’re all in this together.
You are a fly on the wall of a very special meeting. At this round table sit the very best scientists, philosophers, sociologists, mystics. These are not closed-minded specialists, blinkered to all but a single dimension of the human experience, but generalists with refined skills. They are passionately pursuing the same question, using different tools. They each know that the answer does not lie in any single direction, but in mutual discovery of partial truths, and the rapid abandonment of dead-ends. They relish the challenge of asking a question for which there may never be a final answer, and the camaraderie of other seekers.
Except you’re not a fly on the wall. You’re at the table. Not only as a full participant, but as the very subject of the inquiry.
This is Being Human.