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: edge.org

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

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!!

Introduction

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!

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!) 😀

"To develop its Neurocapital applications, Acclair implements a fundamental architecture that includes (a) a wearable sensor (consumer brain-computer-interface) communicating with a (b) smartphone (personal application) that send information to a (c) “Data cloud” server (“meaning production” system), which provides the arguments for a (d) progressive reward mechanism used by both individual and institutional entities". ~Photo and text from the Acclair Neurocapital Services Site

As much as I would like to view art as an escape, it’s not. I use my brain (a lot) when I’m looking at art (all types). Of course, I enjoy art yet I’d like to think I glean as much as I can philosophically, psychologically, as well as artistically when attending an opening or a much-anticipated exhibition because it is my hope that a deeper meaning and connection are forged that correlate to my passions. Yet, I’ve wondered, what if my musings and perceptions were to take on some form of currency, would I be hard pressed to return to my day job? Seriously though, even with such a simple act as looking, what if there was some reward? An incentive for looking?

Contemporaneously, art is rather demanding, isn’t it? Even with paintings, drawings, and photographs, there is a higher level of skepticism, processing, and perception that adds to the already multi-layered experience of viewing art. With many genres, cultures, and sub-cultures capturing a myriad of ideas in various forms that already add to our growing lists and categories of things in the world, what if there was a way to evaluate art per the user’s experience? What if there was a way to measure and quantify cognitive processing? What if your brain activity served as an exchange for something you wanted, maybe needed?

With your neural network engaged synapse after synapse regardless of you enjoying or vehemently disliking a work of art, the Acclair Neurocapital Services uses technology to create brain scans of your art experience. Imagine a scientific method that would allow you to see how you process artwork! In turn, helping refine your tastes, allowing you the ability to experience art in a way that is truly interactive, and witnessing the parts of your brain most activated by particular works.

Artist, Luther Thie, partnered with Cognitive Researcher, Eyal Fried, and created the Accalair Neurocapital Services, which involves brain scanning and looks at neurological processes to somehow transform what we see into “biometric currency”. I have yet to put on the brain scanning device but I’m awfully intrigued to see what my scans would say about me, my preferences, or what emotions are triggered. As innovative as the project is, it steps far into the realm of science where beauty and genius become demystified by our collective experiences (i.e., data collection and metrics) and presents a new way of governing ourselves. Yes, I used the word governing because even tastes and preferences can be controlled (Maybe not in the Western world but I’m also thinking historically. Art has been used to govern and/or teach people ideology. I also realize this is a whole other issue so I’ll try to stick to the topic at hand). Imagine if this device were used by people who wanted to see a sampling of individuals intellectual and emotional reactions to some sort of propaganda? I know, crazy thought but just throwing it out there. As much as I admire and see the value in the neurocapital services project, there is a part of me that feels discomfort in seeing my profound love or dislike (for something I may or may not be able to even explain) as a cluster of data. I would, however, love to see the brain scans morphed into a project later on down the line but I’m sure there are other important aspects of the project that have yet to be fleshed out.

Either way, the Acclair project has certainly caught my attention and here’s hoping I get a chance to physically see arts effects on me in the near future.

Another (recent) short paper I wrote on artist, Fernando Botero, for the course, Contemporary Art: History and Theory taken at UC Berkeley Extension (for Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Visual Arts).

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One of the fundamental lessons in drawing class entailed drawing untold numbers of fruit, boxes and bags.  The exercises were required to instill the importance of actually depicting what existed in reality versus what the mind believes or thinks exists.  I was often reminded that we first see everything the wrong way and that it is our brain that turns everything right side up.  Understandably so, as the world and human cognitive processes evolve, ways of governing ourselves and let’s not forget the ways in which we’ve created social and gender constructs to function in the world and society at large; we often forget to try and understand a photographic depiction.  We take it for what it is.  From finding a photograph aesthetically pleasing to a sense of repulsion, there are instantaneous reactions.  It’s the closest depiction of reality and how we physically see something.  Yet, with post modern nuances of art entailing a conceptual and performative slant, it should not be forgotten the effectiveness of painting.  I would like to ask the reader to combine the tenets of philosophy and art to re-contextualize the way in which painting, in contemporary times, can offer a much more powerful way of understanding politics and how it coveys philosophical concepts in such a way language is unable to capture.  From Botero’s classical painting techniques, the viewer is afforded the opportunity to navigate biopolitics (as Foucault has coined), social constructs and ideology through the canvas.

Reading through Eduardo Mendieta’s paper entitled, Moral Optics, my interest was piqued in how philosophy and art are combined.  We see this convergence in post modern thought and art practice.  He discusses Foucault’s Biopolitics and its relationship to seeing as correlated to biopolitics and biopower.  From this, the reader gains a broader understanding of how Botero’s paintings take the imagery of Abu Ghraib produced by photography and brings the seeing to an inevitable understanding of torture through re-contextualization via painting.  Mendieta inculcates the reader to re-examine and learn new ways of seeing Foucault’s archeological dives into the human condition through histories of sexuality and power, which is integral to the current discussion yet for the scope of this writing, the points most correlated will be highlighted.  In his reflection of Foucault’s look at politics and power, I find myself most concerned with the following:

This new form of political power, or biopower, has evolved along two axes. Along one axis, it has developed a series of disciplinary technologies that come to bear upon the body as a machine. These technologies conform an anatomopolitics that aims to optimize the capabilities of the body by rendering it more docile and pliable to be inserted within systems of economic and political control and efficiency. Along the other axes, the body is treated not singularly but as part of a spe- cies, a genera, whose basis is entirely biological and organic. Here the body is seen as part of a system of life processes: birth, mortality, health, life expectancy, and anything that increases or decreases any of these. The body is seen as an instance of a species falls under the regulatory controls that conform a biopolitics of populations (Mendieta, 6).

First, understanding that there is a way in which a viewer perceives their own body within a culture, a society of bodies, is crucial.  If we were to examine Botero’s painting from a philosophical standpoint.  There is an act of knowing and acknowledgement that must occur prior to engaging in Botero’s work.  With the base knowledge of the body being part of a larger system, the body and mind become part of a larger system of symbiotic relationships.  Exploration of those power relationships that Foucault is so well known for is all the power relevant in political and contemporary art.  The contemporary art museum and gallery patrons can see this with the advent of specific types of museum and gallery collections (ie., Museum of African Diaspora, alternative art spaces to reach and represent various under represented minority groups, etc.).  With many various groups in the arts and although a completely different discussion, I felt compelled to start with a specific way in which to view post modern (contemporary) painting from this lens.

One of the reasons Botero’s paintings are extremely effective is due to a certain level of detachment the viewer experiences at first glance.  There is a stage of processing that occurs which does not necessarily seem to be present in photography.  Since photography is the closest depiction of reality, painting offers a graduation in perception and comprehension.  As I mentioned in the beginning of the piece, when one learns how to draw and paint for the first time, there are various techniques incorporated into the teaching that force the student to view only the shapes, lines and form of the object.  One of the methods, from my experience, includes looking at an actual photograph upside down to relieve the mind and brain of affixing a meaning.  In a way, this is what Botero’s paintings allow the viewer to do.  Mendieta explains several ways in which one can view the art works claiming that:

On the one hand, fatness stands in his paintings for the excesses of the privileged classes, which more often than not are ridiculed, scorned, and demoted. The haughty expressions, the ornate dresses, the regal accoutrements, the imperial posturing, are all neutralized and deflated by the heaviness of unbridled and undisciplined bodies. On the other hand, this very same abundant, solid, cherubic and baby-like fatness can be read as a form of humanization. What from an angle can be seen as an anxiety, from another angle, provided within the paintings themselves, allows us to see a vulnerable subject. Against a bourgeois, imperial, sovereign subject –Cartesian, Kan- tian, but most exactly, against the Cortésian and Pizarronian subject—Botero juxtaposes the cor- poreality of the flesh that is undisciplined and undisciplinable. We are irreducibly creatures of bod- ies that hunger and can die both of starvation or gluttony. Our flesh thus is always a source of a profound unease, for it can betray us to the same degree that it is what makes us vulnerable to another’s violence (Mendieta, 8).

The very fact that Botero’s paintings bring up quite a dichotomous way of seeing and thinking in terms of how we place ourselves in time and space is what makes painting such a relevant art form in contemporary times, if and only if the painter makes the wise decision of provoking the viewer into that stage of detachment to see what is actually there and what ought to be understood.  Comprehending in such a way that questions acts of violence and torture through an understanding of the body is only possible if the painter creates something that we cannot easily place meaning upon.  In many ways, showing us what we think we know in an unparalleled and unconventional way.

Overall, the framing of the subject and the artist outside the frame is integral in understanding Botero’s work.  As Mendieta points out with meditations on photography, painting has the ability to recontextualize systemic issues for the viewer that lead to a greater, deeper understanding of social, cultural ills.  In Botero’s case, specifically, painting offers a multifaceted perspective on the biopolitics of torture.  Mendieta asserts:

Painting has re-claimed its sovereignty over the field of representation and perception. Susan Sontag wrote, “photography is, first of all, a way of seeing. It is not seeing itself”…Painting, after the age of the mechanical reproducibility of chemically produced perceptual equivalences, teaches us that seeing itself is a way, a framing (Mendieta, 2).

Work Cited

Mendieta, Eduardo.  Moral Optics: Biopolitics, Torture and the Imperial Gaze of War Photography.  Stony Brook University, New York.  2009.