Culture Criticism Observations Theory

Being Human 2012 Conference ~ The Individual + Society | Morals + Culture Part & The Contemplative Life ~ Part II

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.

Hazel Markus Diagram of the 4Is ~ Ideas, Institutions, Interactions, and Individuals - Image Source:

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).

Personally, one of my favorite contemplatives (ever!)

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
Culture Criticism Observations Theory

Being Human 2012 Conference | Sensation + Perception & Self Representation + Decision Making ~ Part I

Being Human 2012 Conference

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 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!

VS Ramachandran, Phd ~ Center for the Brain and Cognition at the UC San Diego

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.

Friendly Exchange on the Social Network ~ Yes, Sarah gave me full permission to use this image!

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.

David Eagleman, Phd ~ Neuroscientist and Professor of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine

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!) 😀