III. Individual + Society | Morals + Culture
Anne Harrington, Harvard Professor of History of Science presented her research of the human experience within a physical body. Science, predominantly, looks inside the body to understand what it means to human but very rarely do people explore the exterior parts (i.e,. skin) and the multitude of cultural beliefs about healing and recovery that play a role in how we care for the self and others. Harrington talked about experiences of animal magnetism or ‘mesmerism”. Mesmerism was a form of therapy and related to the act of exorcism. There was a belief that fluids and minerals in the body could be controlled through intentional movement and gestures (in a ritualistic sense). Along with Hypnosis and before the scientific method, people believed in forces beyond and outside the realm of human experience. Even now, many diseases are psychosomatic. If you think of the placebo effect, many people are led to believe they are cured of an illness through suggestions (i.e., taking medication). Off on a tangent, this reminded me of the phenomenon of skin lightning. The act of lightning is affected by cultural need or belief about social hierarchy, I know, it may be a stretch but it relates to how one may see themselves within a culture, which is a great segue to the next speaker who talked specifically about culture and its impact on being human.
Social scientist, Hazel Markus, from Stanford University, began her talk with a story about her 10-year-old daughter wanting to play the cello and, subsequently, quitting the cello. The story concluded with the mother of a her daughter’s classmate calling Markus to ask why she let her daughter make the choice versus pushing her to continue. I believe the other mother was Asian. I think you know where this is going. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother sound familiar? Our models of self are defined heavily by our culture and history (Beau Lotto ala carte). Markus used the term, standard issue human, and our human components fall into the 4Is – Ideas, Institution, Interaction, and Individuals. Essentially, we think, feel, and act in accordance to our culture based on these 4Is. She stipulated two models of the self, which I found really interesting, 1) Independent and 2) Interdependent. Independent is defined as an individual, unique, influencing, free, and equal to others while interdependent means relational, hierarchical, and connected to others. Markus referenced the “mom-choice condition” where interdependent children are more motivated by what their parent provides to the child for intellectual (rather functional) use. Thinking back on how my mother raised me, I think it’s absolutely fitting to say she was an interdependent with a strong desire to raise an independent. That made for some interesting times growing up.
To round out the talk on the individual within society, Paul Ekman, UCSF professor emeritus, presented with no PowerPoint, which was extremely memorable! He definitely didn’t need them. As a behavioral science theorist and practitioner, he discussed how feelings are dependent on our constructive nature. We also describe our experiences through language but language has its limitations. The problem with language is based on the idea that words could not even begin to fully describe our emotional experiences. The very word happiness (alone) is misleading, he claims. It doesn’t point to all of these other factors that go into what we can actually describe as (true) happiness. (Side note: I’m a huge fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein who believed humans were linguistic animals. I mean, it is one of the things that separates us from other species. In any case, I was excited about Ekman’s talk). Ekman also specializes in facial coding and recognition. Imagine the show Lie to Me. Well, that’s what Ekman specializes in. His studies on deception are fascinating. He claims it’s human nature to WANT to be misled because, “We are bias to see threats that aren’t there”. Aside from Ekman’s research and years of wisdom, he was one of my favorite presenters from the conference. I guess I enjoyed what he had to say because it had to do with the fact that I’ve been ‘at a loss for words’, or lied (Sorry, Mom! Unfortunately for me, I’m a horrible liar!), or engaged in lying on behalf of a friend (I’m so happy high school days are over).
IV. Conscious Experience
The last section of the day covered the Conscious Experience. Tami Simon was the facilitator for this last dialogue, which was between Gelek Rimpoche (Buddhist monk), Richie Davidson (Neuroscientist and Researcher), and Jon Kabat-Zinn (Scientist).
Being a human being, to Rimpoche, is creating a future with compassion and love. Rimpoche seemed hopeful the discussions on neurobiology and science suggest having empathy is intrinsic to human nature. Although a simple message, many Buddhist tenets, when incorporated in daily life can have a dramatic effect on the way we care for ourselves and others. Richie Davidson touched upon contemplative practice as “…a vehicle for becoming aware of our emotional life”. Familiarizing ourselves with our own mind and being conscious of our experience is imperative. One of my favorite quotes from the day was when Davidson stated, “An honest scientist needs to relish uncertainty”. Uncertainty is a part of knowing the self. Everyone WANTS to know and be connected to the world (all the time) and this is just not possible. Jon Kabat-Zinn mentioned the same method of dealing with life. Participating in meditative exercises to know the mind. He reminded us that there are about 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections but these cells came from 1 cell!! Trying to get at such a granular and molecular bird’s or bug’s eye view of ourselves can be very challenging though. Strangely, even though writing about the conscious experience was the easiest, it’s probably also the most difficult to understand. I’ve meditated on-and-off for the past few years and the times I do, it truly brings me back into the moment. However, I see other forms of meditation that don’t consist of sitting on a cushion (i.e., walking through a gallery or a museum, preferably when it’s extremely quiet) and looking around at what as been created). LIFE is a meditation but I guess it really matters the way in which one lives it and how they take their collective experiences and transform them into an opportunity to learn and ruminate. How many people actually do that? Sitting at the conference, all of those individuals there, that’s such a small fraction of the world! Overall, it was nice but at the end, I left wanting more…(Perhaps, this is exactly what the presenters wanted).
Suggestions for the next Being Human 2012 Conference
- The conference can easily be two days
- Incorporate more discussions that involve the arts (visual and performing)
- A larger venue
- A place for the media folks (press and bloggers) to connect with each other!
- Have presenters answer questions from posed on the live Twitter feed