The Uncertainty of Being Human

 

It is because Humanity has never known where it was going that it has been able to find its way.

~ Oscar Wilde

We are all human beings being human – a characteristic that all who are reading this share (as far as we know). But what does it mean, to be human? Is it the set of characteristics that set us apart from other beings? What does our ‘humanity’ consist of? Is it just our common biology; that we are not primates?, What is it that about us that makes us distinctively ‘human’ and not monsters (vampires, werewolves, ghosts, etc…) Does it have to do with our sense of self, our awareness, our consciousness? Could it be the space in between, the capacity to use these tools to create, to imagine alternative possibilities? Or our compassion, our ability to empathize and become a mirror for the experiences of others? The speakers at the Being Human conference sought to provide some insight into this .

We as humans are a conflux of seemingly conflicting dualities; we have the capacity for rationality, but still act irrationally,we have the capacity for logic, but are driven by emotions; we create complex machines to mimic ourselves, yet have little understanding of how our own machinery works, we have the capacity to build and the capacity to destroy, to love, to hate, for compassion and for intolerance, to become architects of greatness or destruction. We live in a world that isn’t exactly as it seems; a world where colors can appear different depending on context alone, where phantom limbs can cause real pain; where a lesion in a particular part of the brain can essentially change who you are; and our sense of self can be easily transposed to an avatar. How easy it is to trick ourselves, it comes as no surprise that we become complicit in our own deception.

We trust in our senses to transmit information, which is the basis for how we perceive the world. The information enters through our senses and is presented to the brain for interpretation. The brain looks for relationships in the information in order to provide meaning, giving it context. The brain relies on experience and history in creating these relationships. Without context, the information is meaningless. Through feedback from experiences, we adapt and create a sense of normalcy consistent with our worldview. The awareness that we have, the ability to ‘see ourselves see’ allows us to see the illusions; to see that our perceptions are dependent on context and experience. It also allows for us to see the possibility of other viewpoints, since other people’s perceptions are based on their experiences; to have compassion for their view of the world.

There are many ways in which we can trick the brain. Optical illusions are easy enough to see through once you know the truth behind them, but there are others. Perceptual sensory illusions aka phantom limbs are another. This phenomenon occurs when the loss of a limb is not acknowledged by the brain, so the brain still monitors the limb as if it is still there. One can consciously know that the limb is gone, but the conscious mind can’t communicate that information to the brain. There is a gap between the conscious and unconscious processes. One consequence of this is that these phantom limbs can cause real pain, which is very disconcerting since there is no limb which can be treated. It has been shown that one way to relieve this phantom pain is to hold up a mirror to the opposite limb and perform actions to relieve the pain while looking in the mirror. The brain accepts the sensory information as seen in the mirror as real even though one ‘knows’ it’s just a mirror. This is one example of the duality between the conscious mind and body.  Rama (V.S. Ramachandran) described a patient who had phantom pain in her thumb, but felt relief of her pain while watching her husband massage his corresponding thumb. One explanation for this could be due to the existence of mirror neurons – a cluster of neurons in the brain that fire in response to an action perceived to happen to anyone. For instance, if you see someone get stabbed with a needle, the same neurons fire in you as in them, the only difference is that your skin sends feedback to the brain telling you that it is fine and not to feel pain. In someone with a phantom limb, there is no feedback response, so you would feel as if it had actually happened to you. These cells mirror the cells in another and allow us to empathize, to see ourselves in others.

Thomas Metzinger posits that the self is not a thing but a process and that there exists, a global representation of the self in the brain. In a rubber hand experiment it has been shown that when one’s own hand is replaced by a rubber hand, the visual illusion is enough to convince your brain to think that it belongs to you. And in other experiments through work with a group called Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment (VERE) in Israel, this sense of self has been shown to be able to be transposed into virtual avatars and perceiving robots where using an fMRI the avatars/robots were able to be controlled remotely by thought. He also talked about the element of transparency: how we don’t see the neurons firing but only what they represent for us; we are unaware of the medium through which information reaches us. The combination of the self model and transparency create a concept of selfhood. There is a kind of uncertainty as to how information gets to us, it’s as if we are looking through a window without actually seeing the window only what is outside of it.

As Beau Lotto stated, the brain is presented with uncertainty because we have no direct access to the physical world other than through our senses. The brain can only rely on experience to provide meaning. It is the awareness of perceiving that allows us to choose how to interpret the information that is presented to us; which experiences to use as filters what lens to use to view the world.

David Eagleman’s talk reminded us that everything we do is beyond the scope of conscious awareness. There is a gap between the conscious and unconscious mind. The conscious mind is just a summary of what the brain does; an abstract representation. It is in this conscious/unconscious gap where uncertainty lies. When we try to observe these unconscious processes, we find that we don’t quite get it right, that we don’t really know how we do the things we know how to do. We cannot observe ourselves accurately, the act of observation can change it/ruin it. The conscious mind cannot observe the unconscious, it does not have the tools, so the act of trying to make sense of it simplifies it to a point where it doesn’t work anymore – conscious interference.

When you think about the awareness that we have, the ability to ‘see ourselves see’ as Beau Lotto put it, it allows us to choose the ways in which we perceive. Allows for us to, in Richie Davidson’s words, ‘envision alternative possibilities’, which I think opens the doors to imagination and creativity. Each of us share a common biology, a common form, but have vastly different histories and experiences through which we view the world, thus creating many completely different worlds. Through our awareness of this process we are able to have compassion; our bodies are made with mirror circuitry built in, giving us the ability to empathize with others. Our conscious minds create an image of the self in our brains and along with our senses, through which we transmit information, allow us to develop a sense of selfhood and choose the world in which we live. The ultimate uncertainty is that life has no blueprint, no guide and in that uncertainty is freedom. Freedom in not knowing, freedom to to make our own choices and the capacity to envision alternative possibilities.

Richie Davidson is the Founder and Chair, Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org/

 

Beau Lotto is a Biologist and Performance Artist http://www.lottolab.org/
V.S. Ramachandran is the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego http://cbc.ucsd.edu/ramabio.html
Thomas Metzinger is a professor of Theoretical Philosophy at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz http://www.philosophie.uni-mainz.de/metzinger/
David Eagleman is a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine http://www.eagleman.com/

Make sure to check out my previous post which is a list of books by the presenters from the conference where you can find more information about some of the ideas presented here. http://www.ladylxa.com/archives/327

Click here to view the conference in it’s entirety. For more information on the Being Human conference visit http://www.beinghuman2012.org or http://www.beinghuman.org

On a related note, I just finished David Eagleman’s book of stories “Sum”. Very interesting and goes along with the idea of our ability to envision alternative possibilities. It is a series of 40 stories that imagine 40 different scenarios for what the afterlife is and provides context and meaning for the world as we know it. And each and every one could be a very real possibility!


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