A “connectome” denotes the sum total of connections between the neurons in a nervous system and, like “genome,” implies completeness. It’s a complex fingerprint of identity, revealing the differences between brains and, inversely, the specificity of our own uniqueness. Seung proposes a simple theory: We are different because our connectomes differ from one another. With that lens, he argues, any kind of personality change — from educating yourself to developing better habits — is a matter of rewiring your connectome.
That capacity is precisely what makes the connectome intriguing and infinitely promising — unlike the genome, which is fixed from the moment of conception, the connetome changes throughout life. Seung explains:
Neuroscientists have already identified the basic kinds of change. Neurons adjust, or “reweight,” their connections by strengthening or weakening them. Neurons reconnect by creating and eliminating synapses, and they rewire by growing and retracting branches. Finally, entirely new neurons are created and existing ones eliminated through regeneration.
We don’t know exactly how life events — your parents’ divorce, your fabulous year abroad — change your connectome. But there is good evidence that all four R’s — reweighting, reconnection, rewiring, and regeneration — are affected by your experiences. At the same time, the four R’s are also guided by genes. Minds are indeed influenced by genes, especially when the brain is ‘wiring’ itself up during infancy and childhood.*
The connectome theory of mental differences is compatible with the genetic theory, but it is far richer and more complex because it includes the effects of living in the world. The connectome theory is also less deterministic. There is reason to believe that we shape our own connectomes by the actions we take, even by the things we think. Brain wiring may make us who we are, but we play an important role in wiring up our brains.”
Harnessing the power of those four R’s, Seung believes, is the most important goal of neuroscience — but, given your connectome is 100 billion times larger than your genome and has a million times more connections than your genome has letters, it’s a daunting task. Still, new technologies and new directions of scientific curiosity are bringing us closer to understanding this microcosm of meticulously structured chaos.
Map of the C. elegans nervous system, or 'connectome,' borrowing from the language of genomics
DNA is a long chain-like molecule composed of nucleotides connoted by the letters A, C, G, and T, and your genome is the entire sequence of nucleotides in your DNA. Similarly, your connectome is the totality of connections between the neurons in your nervous system.
At the heart of Seung’s vision is a new way of thinking about human personality, a fascinating and controversial subject we’ve previously explored. He proposes an apt metaphor, underpinning which is a desire not only to find and understand our connectomes, but also to develop methods for changing and optimizing them:
In the nineteenth century, the American psychologist William James wrote eloquently of the stream of consciousness, the continuous flow of thoughts through the mind. But James failed to note that every stream has a bed. Without this groove in the earth, the water would not know in which direction of the flow. Since the connectome defines the pathways along which neural activity can flow, we might regard it as the streambed of consciousness.
The metaphor is a powerful one. Over a long period of time, in the same way that the water of the stream slowly shapes the bed, neural activity changes the connectome. The two notions of the self — as both the fast-moving, ever-changing stream, and the more stable but slowly transforming streambed** — are thus inextricably linked. This book is about the self as the streambed, the self in the connectome — the self that has been neglected for too long.”
One self changes rapidly from moment to moment, becoming angry and then cheering up, thinking about the meaning of life and then the household chores, watching the leaves fall outside and then the football game on television. This self is the one intertwined with consciousness. Its protean nature derives from the rapidly changing patterns of neural activity in the brain.
The other self is much more stable. It retains memories from childhood over an entire lifetime. Its nature — what we think of as personality — is largely constant, a fact that comforts family and friends. The properties of this self are expressed while you are conscious, but they continue to exist during unconscious states like sleep. This self, like the connectome, changes only slowly over time. This is the self invoked by the idea that you are your connectome.”
Sample Seung’s insights with his 2010 TEDGlobal talk:
Scientific American has an excellent Q&A with Seung about Connectome.
* For more on this fascinating early wiring, especially as it applies to our emotional lives, see the excellent A General Theory of Love.
** For a different metaphor articulating an analogous concept, see Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, where he describes the self as the interplay between the conscious “rider” and the unconscious “elephant” he struggles to command.
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On nature, nurture, and the neural pathways of possibility.
Are musicians born or made? What is the line between skill and talent in any domain, and can we acquire either later in life? That’s exactly what neuroscientist Gary Marcus explores in Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning — a fascinating journey into the limits of human reinvention.
In an effort to reconcile his lifelong passion for music with his self-admitted chronic musical inaptitude, Marcus set out to debunk one of science’s longest-running theories about learning — that there are “critical periods” in which complex skills can be learned, and that they slam shut after adolescence.
If critical periods aren’t quite so firm as people once believed, a world of possibility emerges for the many adults who harbor secret dreams — whether to learn a language, to become a pastry chef, or to pilot a small plane. And quests like these, no matter how quixotic they may seem, and whether they succeed in the end or not, could bring unanticipated benefits, not just for their ultimate goals but of the journey itself. Exercising our brains helps maintain them, by preserving plasticity (the capacity of the nervous system to learn new thing), warding off degeneration, and literally keeping the blood flowing. Beyond the potential benefits for our brains, there are benefits for our emotional well-being, too. There may be no better way to achieve lasting happiness — as opposed to mere fleeting pleasure — than pursuing a goal that helps us broaden our horizons.“
To his astonishment, however, Marcus found a dearth of scientific literature and research on music learning in people of his age. The problem, it turned out, wasn’t lack of scientific interest but, rather, a lack of subjects — studying the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours of practice proved difficult since most people of that age have life responsibilities that prevent them from putting in that time in the first place. So, Marcus decided to turn himself into the guinea pig.
For a glimmer of hope, he looked to a number of well-known musicians who arrived at their particular musical talent late in life — Patti Smith didn’t consider becoming a professional singer until she was in her mid-twenties, iconic jazz guitarist Pat Martino relearned to play after a brain aneurysm at the age of 35, and New Orleans keyboard legend Dr. John switched from guitar to piano when he was 21 after an injury, then won the first of his five Grammys at the age of 48. Having no such aspirations of grandeur, Marcus, aged 38 and with a documented lack of rhythm, still found himself desperately longing to learn to play the guitar. As he puts it, “Perhaps few people had less talent for music than I did, but few people wanted more badly to be able to play.” So he confronted the fundamental question:
Could persistence and a lifelong love of music overcome age and a lack of talent? And, for that matter, how did anyone of any age become musical?”
Curiously, one of the most influential experiments on critical periods comes from barn owls who, like bats, rely heavily on sound to navigate; but, unlike bats, they see better than bats do, and one of the first things they do after hatching is calibrating their ears with their eyes, attuning what they hear to what they see. But because this navigational mapping of auditory information depends on the exact distance between their eyes and ears, which changes as the owl grows, it can’t be hardwired at birth.
To study how the owls calibrate their visual and auditory worlds, Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen devised a clever experiment, in which he raised owls in a kind of virtual reality world where prisms shifted everything by 23 degrees, forcing the owl to adjust its internal map of the world. Knudsen found that young owls learned to compensate for the distortion easily, and older owls could not — at least not in one go. But as soon as the 23 degrees were broken down in chunks — a few weeks at 6 degrees, another few at 11, and so forth — the adult owls were able to make the adjustment.
Using this insight, Marcus turned to David Mead’s Crash Course: Acoustic Guitar, which broke guitar playing into the kind of bite-sized morsels fit for the human equivalent of adult owls. It gave Marcus the basics, and thus the first step in rewiring his own brain.
This book is about how I began to distinguish my musical derriere from my musical elbow, but it’s not just about me: it’s also about the psychology and brain science of how anybody, of any age — toddler, teenager, or adult — can learn something as complicated as a musical instrument.”
Wilder Penfield's cortical homunculus, a pictorial representation of the neural tissue in the primary motor cortex assigned to different body parts, illustrates that the exact amount of 'cortical real estate' varies between body parts, with the more sensitive ones getting more real estate. Marcus suggests a try-this-at-home test:
'You can confirm this with the aid of a pin and a trusted friend. Close your eyes as the friend gently pokes you with the pin. In areas with heavy cortical representation, you will be able to easily discriminate closely spaced pinpricks; in areas with light cortical representation, you will sometimes be unable to distinguish two pinpricks that are close together but not identical.'
Along the way, Marcus explores the basic elements of music and how it evolved culturally and biologically. He dives deep into the popular “ten thousand hours” theory of mastery, developed by cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson, “the world’s leading expert on expertise,” and examines Ericsson’s second, lesser-known prerequisite for expertise — the notion of “deliberate practice,” which describes the constant sense of self-evaluation and a consistent focus on one’s weaknesses rather than playing on one’s strengths. In fact, the practice of targeting specific weaknesses is known as the “zone of proximal development” and offers a framework for everything from education to videogames:
[The “zone of proximal development” is] the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that its’ best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80 percent of the time; more than that, and kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated. The same is surely true of adults, too, which is why video game manufacturers have been known to invest millions in play testing to make sure that the level of challenge always lies in that sweet spot of neither too easy nor too hard.”
But what makes Guitar Zero exceptional isn’t simply that it simultaneously calls into question the myth of the music instinct and confronts the idea that talent is merely a myth — at its heart is a much bigger question about the boundaries of our capacity for transformation and, ultimately, the mechanics of fulfillment and purpose.
The laugh track as cultural currency, or what David Letterman has to do with the dopamine circuit.
“At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities,” author and philosopher Jean Houston once said, and Walt Disney famously called laughter “America’s most important export.” But what exactly is humor, and why does it have such a profound effect on us? In this talk from TEDxRainier, comedian Chris Bliss — whose writing credits include The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman — explores the sociology and neuroscience of humor, the alchemy of laughter, and why honesty and integrity are at the heart of good comedy, using a handful of Pretty Damn Good jokes to illustrate these insights along the way.
I want to talk [about] the unique power the best comedy and satire has in circumventing our engrained perspectives — comedy as the philosopher’s stone that takes the base metal of our conventional wisdom and transforms it, through ridicule, into a different way of seeing, and ultimately being, in the world… It is about communication that doesn’t just produce greater understanding within the individual, but leads to real change… communication that manages to speak to and expand our concept of self-interest.”
We spend most of our lives going around believing we are rational, logical beings who make carefully weighted decisions based on objective facts in stable circumstances. Of course, as both a growing body of research and our own retrospective experience demonstrate, this couldn’t be further from the truth. For the past three years, David McRaney’s cheekily titled yet infinitely intelligent You Are Not So Smart has been one of my favorite smart blogs, tirelessly debunking the many ways in which our minds play tricks on us and the false interpretations we have of those trickeries. This month, YANSS joins my favorite blog-turned-book successstories with You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself — an illuminating and just the right magnitude of uncomfortable almanac of some of the most prevalent and enduring lies we tell ourselves.
The original trailer for the book deals with something the psychology of which we’ve previously explored — procrastination:
From confirmation bias — our tendency to seek out information, whether or not it’s true, that confirms our existing beliefs, something all the more perilous in the age of the filter bubble — to Dunbar’s Number, our evolution-imposed upper limit of 150 friends, which pulls into question those common multi-hundred Facebook “friendships,” McRaney blends the rigor of his career as a journalist with his remarkable penchant for synthesis, humanizing some of the most important psychology research of the past century and framing it in the context of our daily lives.
Despite his second-person directive narrative, McRaney manages to keep his tone from being preachy or patronizing, instead weaving an implicit “we” into his “you” to encompass all our shared human fallibility.
From the greatest scientist to the most humble artisan, every brain within every body is infested with preconceived notions and patterns of thought that lead it astray without the brain knowing it. So you are in good company. No matter who your idols and mentors are, they too are prone to spurious speculation.” ~ David McRaney
And in the age of Books That Should’ve Stayed Articles, it’s refreshing to see McRaney distill each of these complex phenomena in articulate, lucid narratives just the right length to be stimulating without being tediously prolix.
“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser famously proclaimed. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Some stories become so sticky, so pervasive that we internalize them to a point where we no longer see their storiness — they become not one of many lenses on reality, but reality itself. And breaking through them becomes exponentially difficult because part of our shared human downfall is our ego’s blind conviction that we’re autonomous agents acting solely on our own volition, rolling our eyes at any insinuation we might be influenced by something external to our selves. Yet we are — we’re infinitely influenced by these stories we’ve come to internalize, stories we’ve heard and repeated so many times they’ve become the invisible underpinning of our entire lived experience.
That’s exactly what F. S. Michaels explores in Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything — a provocative investigation of the dominant story of our time and how it’s shaping six key areas of our lives: our work, our relationships with others and the natural world, our education, our physical and mental health, our communities, and our creativity.
The governing pattern a culture obeys is a master story– one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture. When you’re inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things. That’s the power of the monoculture; it’s able to direct us without us knowing too much about it.” ~ F. S. Michaels
During the Middle Ages, the dominant monoculture was one of religion and superstition. When Galileo challenged the Catholic Church’s geocentricity with his heliocentric model of the universe, he was accused of heresy and punished accordingly, but he did spark the drawn of the next monoculture, which reached a tipping point in the seventeenth century as humanity came to believe the world was fully knowable and discoverable through science, machines and mathematics — the scientific monoculture was born.
Ours, Micheals demonstrates, is a monoculture shaped by economic values and assumptions, and it shapes everything from the obvious things (our consumer habits, the music we listen to, the clothes we wear) to the less obvious and more uncomfortable to relinquish the belief of autonomy over (our relationships, our religion, our appreciation of art).
A monoculture doesn’t mean that everyone believes exactly the same thing or acts in exactly the same way, but that we end up sharing key beliefs and assumptions that direct our lives. Because a monoculture is mostly left unarticulated until it has been displaced years later, we learn its boundaries by trial and error. We somehow come to know how the mater story goes, though no one tells us exactly what the story is or what its rules are. We develop a strong sense of what’s expected of us at work, in our families and communities — even if we sometimes choose not to meet those expectations. We usually don’t ask ourselves where those expectations came from in the first place. They just exist — or they do until we find ourselves wishing things were different somehow, though we can’t say exactly what we would change, or how.” ~ F. S. Michaels
Neither a dreary observation of all the ways in which our economic monoculture has thwarted our ability to live life fully and authentically nor a blindly optimistic sticking-it-to-the-man kumbaya, Michaels offers a smart and realistic guide to first recognizing the monoculture and the challenges of transcending its limitations, then considering ways in which we, as sentient and autonomous individuals, can move past its confines to live a more authentic life within a broader spectrum of human values.
The independent life begins with discovering what it means to live alongside the monoculture, given your particular circumstances, in your particular life and time, which will not be duplicated for anyone else. Out of your own struggle to live an independent life, a parallel structure may eventually be birthed. But the development and visibility of that parallel structure is not the goal — the goal is to live many stories, within a wider spectrum of human values.” ~ F. S. Michaels
Legendary Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman is one of the most influential thinkers of our time. A Nobel laureate and founding father of modern behavioral economics, his work has shaped how we think about human error, risk, judgement, decision-making, happiness, and more. For the past half-century, he has profoundly impacted the academy and the C-suite, but it wasn’t until this year’s highly anticipated release of his “intellectual memoir,” Thinking, Fast and Slow, that Kahneman’s extraordinary contribution to humanity’s cerebral growth reached the mainstream — in the best way possible.
Absorbingly articulate and infinitely intelligent, this “intellectual memoir” introduces what Kahneman calls the machinery of the mind — the dual processor of the brain, divided into two distinct systems that dictate how we think and make decisions. One is fast, intuitive, reactive, and emotional. (If you’ve read Jonathan Haidt’s excellent The Happiness Hypothesis, as you should have, this system maps roughly to the metaphor of the elephant.) The other is slow, deliberate, methodical, and rational. (That’s Haidt’s rider.)
The mind functions thanks to a delicate, intricate, sometimes difficult osmotic balance between the two systems, a push and pull responsible for both our most remarkable capabilities and our enduring flaws. From the role of optimism in entrepreneurship to the heuristics of happiness to our propensity for error, Kahneman covers an extraordinary scope of cognitive phenomena to reveal a complex and fallible yet, somehow comfortingly so, understandable machine we call consciousness.
Much of the discussion in this book is about biases of intuition. However, the focus on error does not denigrate human intelligence, any more than the attention to diseases in medical texts denies good health… [My aim is to] improve the ability to identify and understand errors of judgment and choice, in others and eventually in ourselves, by providing a richer and more precise language to discuss them.” ~ Daniel Kahneman
Among the book’s most fascinating facets are the notions of the experiencing self and the remembering self, underpinning the fundamental duality of the human condition — one voiceless and immersed in the moment, the other occupied with keeping score and learning from experience.
I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.” ~ Daniel Kahneman
Kahneman spoke of these two selves and the cognitive traps around them in his fantastic 2010 TED talk:
The word happiness is just not a useful word anymore because we apply it to too many different things.”
What’s most enjoyable and compelling about Thinking, Fast and Slow is that it’s so utterly, refreshingly anti-Gladwellian. There is nothing pop about Kahneman’s psychology, no formulaic story arc, no beating you over the head with an artificial, buzzword-encrusted Big Idea. It’s just the wisdom that comes from five decades of honest, rigorous scientific work, delivered humbly yet brilliantly, in a way that will forever change the way you think about thinking.
We’re social beings wired for communicating with one another, and as new modes and platforms of communication become available to us, so do new ways of understanding the complex patterns, motivations and psychosocial phenomena that underpin that communication. That’s exactly what social psychologist and language expert James W. Pennebaker explores in The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us — a fascinating look at what Pennebaker’s groundbreaking research in computational linguistics reveals about our emotions, our sense of self, and our perception of our belonging in society. Analyzing the subtle linguistic patterns in everything from Craigslist ads to college admission essays to political speeches to Lady Gaga lyrics, Pennebaker offers hard evidence for the insight that our most unmemorable words — pronouns, prepositions, prefixes — can be most telling of true sentiment and intention.
Both a fascinating slice of human psychology and a practical toolkit for deciphering our everyday email exchanges, tweets and Facebook statuses, the research looks at what our choice of words like “I,” “she,” “mine” and “who” reveals about our deeper thoughts, emotions and motivations — and those of the people with whom we communicate.
One of the most interesting results was part of a study my students and I conducted dealing with status in email correspondence. Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status.” ~ James Pennebaker
Like much of scientific discovery, Pennebaker’s interest in pronouns began as a complete fluke — in the 1980s, he and his students discovered when asked to write about emotional upheavals, people’s physical health improved, indicating that putting emotional experiences into language changed the ways people thought about their upheavals. They eventually developed a computerized text analysis program to examine how language use might predict later health improvements, trying to find out whether there was a “healthy” way to write. To his surprise, the greatest predictor of health was people’s choice of pronouns.
As I pondered these findings, I started looking at how people used pronouns in other texts — blogs, emails, speeches, class writing assignments, and natural conversation. Remarkably, how people used pronouns was correlated with almost everything I studied. For example, use of first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) was consistently related to gender, age, social class, honesty, status, personality, and much more. Although the findings were often robust, people in daily life were unable to pick them up when reading or listening to others. It was almost as if there was a secret world of pronouns that existed outside our awareness.” ~ James Pennebaker
From gender differences that turn everything you know on its head to an analysis of the language of suicidal vs. non-suicidal poets to unexpected insights into famous historical documents, The Secret Life of Pronouns gleans insights with infinite applications, from government-level lie-detection to your everyday email inbox, and makes a fine addition to these 5 essential books on language.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by neuroscientist David Eagleman is one of my favorite books of the past few years, so I was thrilled for the release of Eagleman’s latest gem, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain — a fascinating, dynamic, faceted look under the hood of the conscious mind to reveal the complex machinery of the subconscious. Equal parts entertaining and illuminating, the book’s case studies, examples, and insight are more than mere talking points to impressed at the next dinner party, poised instead to radically shift your understanding of the world, other people, and your own mind.
Bringing a storyteller’s articulate and fluid narrative to a scientist’s quest, Eagleman dances across an incredible spectrum of issues — brain damage, dating, drugs, beauty, synesthesia, criminal justice, artificial intelligence, optical illusions and much more — to reveal that things we take as passive givens, from our capacity for seeing a rainbow to our ability to overhear our name in a conversation we weren’t paying attention to, are the function of remarkable neural circuitry, biological wiring and cognitive conditioning.
The three-pound organ in your skull — with its pink consistency of Jell-o — is an alien kind of computational material. It is composed of miniaturized, self-configuring parts, and it vastly outstrips anything we’ve dreamt of building. So if you ever feel lazy or dull, take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.” ~ David Eagleman
Sample some of Eagleman’s fascinating areas of study with this excellent talk from TEDxAlamo:
Decades before women sought liberation in the bicycle or their biceps, a more rudimentary liberation was at stake. The book opens with a letter penned in 1872 by an anonymous author identified simply as “An Earnest Englishwoman,” a letter titled “Are Women Animals?” by the newspaper editor who printed it:
Whether women are the equals of men has been endlessly debated; whether they have souls has been a moot point; but can it be too much to ask [for a definitive acknowledgement that at least they are animals?… Many hon. members may object to the proposed Bill enacting that, in statutes respecting the suffrage, ‘wherever words occur which import the masculine gender they shall be held to include women;’ but could any object to the insertion of a clause in another Act that ‘whenever the word “animal” occur it shall be held to include women?’ Suffer me, thorough your columns, to appeal to our 650 [parliamentary] representatives, and ask — Is there not one among you then who will introduce such a motion? There would then be at least an equal interdict on wanton barbarity to cat, dog, or woman…
AN EARNEST ENGLISHWOMAN
The broader question at the heart of the Earnest Englishwoman’s outrage, of course, isn’t merely about gender — “women” could have just as easily been any other marginalized group, from non-white Europeans to non-Westerners to even children, or a delegitimized majority-politically-treated-as-minority more appropriate to our time, such as the “99 percent.” The question, really, is what entitles one to humanness.
But seeking an answer in the ideology of humanism, Bourke is careful to point out, is hasty and incomplete:
The humanist insistence on an autonomous, willful human subject capable of acting independently in the world was based on a very particular type of human. Human civilization had been forged in the image of the male, white, well-off, educated human. Humanism installed only some humans at the centre of the universe. It disparaged ‘the woman,’ ‘the subaltern’ and ‘the non-European’ even more than ‘the animal.’ As a result, it is hardly surprising that many of these groups rejected the idea of a universal and straightforward essence of ‘the human’, substituting something much more contingent, outward-facing and complex. To rephrase Simone de Beauvoir’s inspired conclusion about women, one is not born, but made, a human.”
Bourke also admonishes against seeing the historical trend in paradigms about humanness as linear, as shifting “from the theological towards the rationalist and scientific” or “from humanist to post-humanist.” How, then, are we to examine the “porous boundary between the human and the animal”?
In complex and sometimes contradictory ways, the ideas, values and practices used to justify the sovereignty of a particular understanding of ‘the human’ over the rest of sentient life are what create society and social life. Perhaps the very concept of ‘culture’ is an attempt to differentiate ourselves from our ‘creatureliness,’ our fleshly vulnerability.”
Bourke goes on to explore history’s varied definitions of what it means to be human, which have used a wide range of imperfect, incomplete criteria — intellectual ability, self-consciousness, private property, tool-making, language, the possession of a soul, and many more.
For Aristotle, writing in the 4th century B.C., it meant having a telos — an appropriate end or goal — and to belong to a polis where “man” could truly speak:
…the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, or just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.”
In the early 17th century, René Descartes, whose famous statement “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) implied only humans possess minds, argued animals were “automata” — moving machines, driven by instinct alone:
Nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, as one sees that a clock, which is made up of only wheels and springs can count the hours and measure time more exactly than we can with all our art.”
For late 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, rationality was the litmus test for humanity, embedded in his categorical claim that the human being was “an animal endowed with the capacity of reason”:
[The human is] markedly distinguished from all other living beings by his technical predisposition for manipulating things (mechanically joined with consciousness), by his pragmatic predisposition (to use other human beings skillfully for his purposes), and by the moral predisposition in his being (to treat himself and others according to the principle of freedom under the laws.)”
The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.”
(For more on Darwin’s fascinating studies of emotion, don’t forget Darwin’s Camera.)
Darwin’s concern was echoed quantitatively by Jared Diamond in 1990s when, in The Third Chimpanzee, he wondered how the 2.9% genetic difference between two kids of birds or the 2.2% difference between two gibbons made for a different species, but the 1.6% difference between humans and chimpanzees makes a different genus.
In the 1930s, Bertrand Lloyd, who penned Humanitarianism and Freedom, observed a difficult paradox of any definition:
Deny reason to animals, and you must equally deny it to infants; affirm the existence of an immortal soul in your baby or yourself, and you must at least have the grace to allow something of the kind to your dog.”
None of the traits by which the most authorized philosophy or culture has thought it possible to recognize this ‘proper of man’ — none of them is, in all rigor, the exclusive reserve of what we humans call human. Either because some animals also possess such traits, or because man does not possess it as surely as is claimed.”
A Möbius strip, from a 1963 poster of the woodcut by M. C. Escher: 'Which side of the strip are the ants walking on?'
Curiously, Bourke uses the Möbius strip as the perfect metaphor for deconstructing the human vs. animal dilemma. Just as the one-sided surface of the strip has “no inside or outside; no beginning or end; no single point of entry or exit; no hierarchical ladder to clamber up or slide down,” so “the boundaries of the human and the animal turn out to be as entwined and indistinguishable as the inner and outer sides of a Möbius strip.” Bourke points to Derrida’s definition as the most rewarding, calling him “the philosopher of the Möbius strip.”
Ultimately, What It Means to Be Human is less an answer than it is an invitation to a series of questions, questions about who and what we are as a species, as souls, and as nodes in a larger complex ecosystem of sentient beings. As Bourke poetically puts it,
Erasing the awe-inspiring variety of sentient life impoverishes all our lives.”
And whether this lens applies to animals or social stereotypes, one thing is certain: At a time when the need to celebrate both our shared humanity and our meaningful differences is all the more painfully evident, the question of what makes us human becomes not one of philosophy alone but also of politics, justice, identity, and every fiber of existence that lies between.
How “you” are you, really? Character is something we tend to think of as a static, enduring quality, and yet we glorify stories of personal transformation. In reality, our essence oscillates between a set of hard-wired patterns and a fluid spectrum of tendencies that shift over time and in reaction to circumstances. This is exactly what journalist Julian Baggini, co-founder of The Philosopher’s Magazine, tries to reconcile in The Ego Trick: In Search of the Self — an absorbing journey across philosophy, anthropology, sociology, neuroscience, religion and psychology, painting “I” as a dynamic verb rather than a static noun, a concept in conflict with much of common sense and, certainly, with the ideals of Romantic individualism we examined this morning. In his illuminating recent talk at The RSA, Baggini probes deeper into the theory of self-creation and the essence of our identity.
The topic of personal identity is strictly speaking nonexistent. It’s important to recognize that we are not the kind of things that simply popped into existence at birth, continue to exist, the same thing, then die off the cliff edge or go into another realm. We are these very remarkably ordered collections of things. It is because we’re so ordered that we are able to think of ourselves as being singular persons. But there is no singular person there, that means we’re forever changing.” ~ Julian Baggini
Flourish is definitely not a self-help book, though it does offer insightful techniques to optimize yourself, your relationships and your business for well-being. If anything, it can read a bit wonky at times, as Seligman delves into fascinating empirical evidence culled from years of rigorous research. But I find this remarkably refreshing and stimulating amidst the sea of dumbed down psycho-fluff.
Relieving the states that make life miserable… has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority. The time has finally arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the ‘good life.'” ~ Martin Seligman
Seligman identifies five endeavors crucial to human flourishing — positive emotion, engagement, good relationships, meaning and purpose in life, and accomplishment — and examines each in detail, ultimately proposing that public policy have flourishing as its central goal.
The content itself — happiness, flow, meaning, love, gratitude, accomplishment, growth, better relationships — constitutes human flourishing. Learning that you can have more of these things is life changing. Glimpsing the vision of a flourishing human future is life changing.” ~ Martin Seligman
Seligman’s work over the years has taken him inside the brains of British lords, Australian school kids, billionaire philanthropists, Army generals, artists, educators, scientists and countless more of humanity’s most interesting and inspired specimens. The insights gleaned from these clinical cases are both sage and surprising, inviting you to look at the pillars of your own happiness with new eyes.
V.S. Ramachandran — one of the most influential neuroscientists of our time, whose work has not only made seminal contributions to the understanding of autism, phantom limbs and synesthesia, among other fascinating phenomena, but has also helped introduce neuroscience to popular culture. The fact that he is better-known as Rama — you know, like Prince or Madonna or Che — is a fitting reflection of his cultural cachet. This year, in furthering the inquiry into what it means to be human, Rama released his highly anticipated new book: The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human — an ambitious exploration of everything from the origins of language to our relationship with art to the very mental foundation of civilization. Both empirically rooted in specific patient cases and philosophically speculative in an intelligent, grounded way, with a healthy dose of humor thrown in for good measure, it’s an absolute masterpiece of cognitive science and a living manifesto for the study of the brain.
As heady as our progress [in the sciences of the mind] has been, we need to stay completely honest with ourselves and acknowledge that we have only discovered a tiny fraction of what there is to know about the human brain. But the modest amount that we have discovered makes for a story more exciting than any Sherlock Holmes novel. I feel certain that as progress continues through the coming decades, the conceptual twists and technological turns we are in for are going to be at least as mind bending, at last as intuition shaking, and as simultaneously humbling and exalting to the human spirit as the conceptual revolutions that upended physics a century ago. The adage that fact is stranger than fiction seems to be especially true for the workings of the brain.” ~ V. S. Ramachandran
You can sample Rama’s remarkable quest to illuminate the brain with his excellent 2007 TED talk:
If humans are really natural rather than supernatural beings, what accounts for our beliefs about souls, immortality, a moral ‘eye in the sky’ that judges us, and so forth?”
A leading scholar of religious cognition, Bering — who heads Oxford’s Explaining Religion Project — proposes a powerful new hypothesis for the nature, origin and cognitive function of spirituality. Far from merely regurgitating existing thinking on the subject, he connects dots across different disciplines, ideologies and materials, from neuroscience to Buddhist scriptures to The Wizard of Oz. Blending empirical evidence from seminal research with literary allusions and cultural critique, Bering examines the central tenets of spirituality, from life’s purpose to the notion of afterlife, in a sociotheological context underlines by the rigor of a serious scientists.
The dichotomy of good and evil is as old as the story of the world, and timeless in its relevance to just about everything we do in life, from our political and spiritual views to our taste in music, art and literature to how we think about our simple dietary choices. But while most of us recognize that these concepts of good and bad aren’t always black-and-white categories, we never cease to be surprised when someone or something we’ve perceived as “good” does or becomes something we perceive as “bad,” from an esteemed politician’s transgression to a beloved celebrity’s slip into addiction or scientology or otherwise socially undesirable behavior.
In Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us, researchers David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo explore this curious disconnect through the rigorous lens of science. Drawing on their research at the Social Emotions Lab at Northeastern University, the authors offer a fascinating yet highly readable perspective on the psychology of the hero/villain spectrum of human character, inviting us to reconceive personality, both our own and that of others, with a more balanced moral view that reflects the fluidity of human psychology.
The derivation of the word ‘character’ comes from an ancient Greek term referring to the indelible marks stamped on coins. Once character was pressed into your mind or soul, people assumed it was fixed. But what modern science repeatedly shows is that this just isn’t the case. As we discuss in our book, everyone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted.” ~ David DeSteno
In this excellent talk from Northeastern’s Insights series, DeSteno reveals some of the fascinating research behind the book and the illuminating insights that came from it.
The analogy of color is an interesting way to think about [character]. Most of us think that colors are very discrete things — something’s red, it’s got redness; something’s blue, it’s got blueness. But we are creating these categories. They’re not natural kinds, they’re not given in ways that represent fundamentally distinct things. Ultimately, what determines what colors we see are the frequencies of light waves entering our eyes, so it’s along a continuum. It’s kind of the same with character. Things blend. We assume that if someone is good, that we’ve characterized them as good, that’s a discrete category, they can’t be bad. And when they are, our categories shatter. That’s because we have this illusory, arbitrary idea of what vice and virtue mean” ~ David DeSteno
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