This write-up is LONG overdue! Caught up with other writing assignments and, well, being human (probably half the time being a human doing). In any case, here’s my lengthy piece on the conference. I had to break up the posts into two parts. Here’s the first part of my reflections along with an introduction.
Comments, constructive feedback, and/or challenging questions are more than welcome! Enjoy!!
As a child, I constantly wondered, “Who am I?”. My father was 60 years old and my mother was 26 years old when I was born. Growing up, the retired military man was the stay-at-home parent. He constantly played his big band music on AM radio and, often times, strummed his guitar. His traditional and gender specific beliefs accompanied by strict rules were challenging to abide by. On the opposite end of the spectrum, my mother was progressive, young, vibrant, and provided all the essential talks (i.e., issues about sexuality, dating, friendships, etc.). My mother let me dress in button ups and men’s neckties and allowed me to play around with gender representation in my pre-pubescent and early teen years (she let me wear overalls and baggy jeans). Ironically, my father let me listen to rap music and the Mary Jane girls while my mother refused to buy me McDonald’s, made me read the dictionary, and listen to classical music.
Colorful upbringing? Absolutely!
After attending the Being Human 2012 conference, my fascination with the human brain, mind, and body expanded and brought me back to these childhood memories. Naturally, I thought about the past few years and how much has happened! Now, if you weren’t at the conference and would like to view the full programming or a specific presentation, please visit the Being Human fora.tv channel by clicking here. Trust me, the talks were engaging, enriching, and are worth your time. Most importantly, you are more than welcome to return to this particular virtual space to take part in a dialogue with me, which I would LOVE!
Please note, I organized the post sections per the order of presentations!
I. Sensation + Perception
Everyday, we use our senses to tell us something about our environment. From feeling the temperature of a cold room that may lead to turning up the thermostat or perceiving colors in a book, our eyes and sense of touch certainly work in concert with our brain to help us navigate the familiar as well as the unfamiliar.
Neuroscientist and artist, Beau Lotto, started with an entertaining and participatory talk on perception. As a performance artist, he offered a fun look into how our brains perceive visual information and how our perceptions easily fall prey to illusions. Throughout his talk, he made clear that, “Context is everything”. Since our perceptions change due to context, he asserts, “All information IS meaningless”. When we get feedback from our experiences, we see the world through that particular experience, and the world changes. Now, here’s the throwback statement to my undergrad philosophy reading of Immanuel Kant, Lotto stated something along these lines, “…the brain finds relationships through engagement with the world and develops meaning”. Gestalt psychology came to mind as while listening to him speak but that’s an entirely different bag of neuropsychology goodies. Lotto also claimed, “the brain continually redefines reality and history of interactions”. Essentially, we get to select our delusion (or illusion) and, according to his definition, ”The brain is a representation of its history”. It’s good to know that my long list of to-dos for the week is, well, pretty non-existent. Then again, it depends on how I perceive this list and what I do with the information, right? According to Lotto, my manager may see things differently! Visit Beau Lotto’s site here.
Soon after, popular neuroscientist, VS Ramachandran, shared thoughts on body and brain interactions. As you can see from the screen capture above, I was tweeting throughout the event. A scientist friend was equally engaged with Ramachandran’s work! For those of you not familiar with his work, he has done significant research on the “Phantom limb”. Through brain imaging and behavioral neurology, Ramachandran’s research points to the idea that the human brain has the full capacity to see itself as (physically) whole despite circumstance (i.e., being an amputee). Essentially, an amputee’s ability to physically feel, sense, and perceive their absent limb. Although an arm is not physically seen, the brain doesn’t know that the arm is gone. It continues to receive signals. Ramachandran compares this to a virtual reality system. Mirror Visual Feedback (MVF) Virtual Reality (Complex Regional Syndrome Type II) to be exact. To learn more about Ramachandran’s work, click here.
II. Mental + Self Representations & Decision Making
Laurie Santos, Comparative Psychologist, presented on irrationality, decision-making, and human error. Her presentation , The Evolution of Irrationality: What Monkeys Tell us about Being Human covered two topics, 1) Understanding the bad parts of being human and 2) irrationality. Now, it’s pretty difficult to monitor decision-making processes of humans but she wondered if Capuchin monkeys could develop their own system and technology of commerce. She was pleasantly surprised to learn the species knew more than she expected. One of the fascinating aspects of her research and presentation involved reminding the audience that even in the face of consequences, we STILL make errors. Personally, I think of looking into a fridge multiple times KNOWING very well nothing has changed and some slice of chocolate cake is not going to magically appear (yes, I have looked into a fridge multiple times) is irrational. I’ll be the first to admit it. It is human to repeat actions and gestures to see if there is a different result. Santos’s presentation reminded me of Gambler’s Fallacy. During her talk, she discussed how economic biases and systems of errors play a tremendous role on our ability to make decisions. Specifically, there are two biases humans grapple with, which are 1) Reference point bias: we think along the status quo and 2) loss aversion: which entails taking on more risk. She found monkeys, like humans, typically play it safe. Although decision-making is not necessarily what people may think of when asked the question, “What does it mean to be human?”, decision-making is integral to our development. We make decisions everyday of our lives – some minor (Blueberry muffin or oatmeal) to major (deciding to have major surgery and dealing with the odds and consequences of a life altering decision). Yet, it is our decisions, our choices, that dictate what happens.
After listening to research around decision-making, philosopher, Thomas Metzinger, discussed the idea of being selfless or self representation. He started his talk by sharing two experiences: 1) when he started his doctoral program, he found many people did not believe in the idea of the soul and 2) Metzinger’s out-of-body-experience (OBE) after a meditation retreat. Personally, it’s great when people share personal experiences verus pontificating on some point based on their research! It was great because a lot of the intro meshed with the two philosophical concepts he presented. First, the Self-Model, which is the idea that an individual’s thoughts and emotions, phenomenologically entail some global form of consciousness. He referenced Spinoza’s idea that the Soul is the body that develops. The second concept was transparency. Essentially, transparency entails no access to the construction process. A person is not privy to how the soul’s construction because the body develops in tandem with the soul. Bottom line: Self-Model + Transparency = Selfhood. In the Q&A, Metzinger expressed wanting a refined culture of “effortless introspection” and non-judgement. Although I wholeheartedly believe in Metzinger’s idea, you would need a lot of people that actually care to know what introspection means.
Well known, Neurobiologist, David Eagleman started off with a question about “How do we know everything that happens in the brain?” He brought up a neuroscience joke about the tennis serve that went a little something like this, “If you want to muck up a tennis game, ask your opponent to show you their tennis serve (basically, they can’t! It’s difficult to mimic exactly what action takes place). That particular example makes a lot of sense and is reminiscent of the times when someone has said, “Wow, great shot or nice lap around the rink (I’m referring to skating) and out of nowhere, I mess up royally on my next shot or fall from showboating! In essence, it is in our nature for over analysis to kick into warp speed and alter what comes naturally to us. I enjoyed Eagleman’s metaphor of the brain being similar to parliament or a governing body with a multitude of experiences and perspectives. If there is a conflict in your neurobiology, this effects decision-making yet it is difficult to truly know what is in someone’s brain, literally. When the brain changes so do you. He brought up famous cases in history (i.e., Phineas Gage, Charles Whitman, etc.) that all point to us being our biology! Another fascinating aspect of his presentation dealt with the legal assumptions we collectively take on. We either base our decisions off of being 1) practical reasoners or the belief that we are equipped with 2) brains that have equal capacity (which simply isn’t true). Eagleton asserts neuroscience suggests these are poor assumptions to take on!! His take-home message: Know Thyselves (meaning, get to know the multifaceted make up for your neurobiology, personality, and psychology). Need to get rid of the illusion that you can completely make the distinctions that are happening neurologically. Lastly, make yourself an avid practitioner of exercising in the “pre-frontal gym” to constantly develop.
Watch for Part II…I actually bring art into the discussion. Thanks for reading (especially if you’ve read all of this!)