I had a marathon of a Saturday at Being Human 2012. Imagine sitting in a room with some of the leading thinkers on human and neuro sciences, getting to listen for personal enjoyment, take notes, network and live tweet the whole event for roughly 8 hours and you get a sense of the frenetic brain pace I was setting. Yet, at the same time I felt like I was in a waking meditative trance the whole time. All that meditation I practice sure came in handy. I’ve had some time to sift through my myriad of notes, trying to make sense of my chicken scratch handwriting. There was so much content so where do I start with my recap? (Brace yourselves, this will be a longer than normal post. For those interested in some choice quotes, skip to the end)
For pictures from the event click here.
For video clips from the event click here.
List of speakers can be found here.
My big takeaway from the event was the persistent theme on the perception of the self model. I’m a career musician, non-tradionalist buddhist and casual dabbler in sociology, astrophysics and quantum theory so this has been an ongoing theme that has run through my mind for several years. What I found important wasn’t any of the data or research that was presented, though it was important and fascinating knowledge, but the mere fact that we must persist with the exercise of reflective evaluation of who we are and how we can evolve to become a better species. This, to me, has always been what being human is about.
All of the speakers were captivating, dynamic, insightful, and humorous. I didn’t sense that anyone took themselves too seriously or had over-inflated egos. Perhaps that comes with the territory of studying the self. It was fascinating to hear of the capabilities of the conscious and unconscious mind being able to work separately from each other and together simultaneously. How most of our perceptions are based on context generated from acquired data by the brain. The very notion that we don’t actually have selves but what Thomas Metzinger describes as our phenomenal selves was similar in line with my buddhist studies of conditional and unconditional emptiness. All very intriguing explorations on the Self Model.
Many of the studies and experiments presented at the event have been common knowledge and can easily be searched for online, such as the phantom limb phenomenon and various mind experiments conducted by Metzinger. However, what I was more interested in hearing about was what being human meant in the 21st century with the saturation of social media, gamification, online community activism, etc. It is a vastly different world that we live in from just a decade or so ago. Throughout the event, Twitter feeds were blowing up, including my own as I live tweeted the entire event. This was captivating human behavior to me and I was taking part in it. I felt that it would have been important to touch upon how this was rewiring our brains in how we think and interact with each other. A pervasive question that was beating in my head: “Are our online selves an evolutionary step in humanity or a de-evolution of our physical selves into digital transcendency?”
University of Maryland physicist James Gates Jr. is working on a branch of physics called supersymmetry. In the process of his work he’s discovered the presence of what appear to resemble a form of computer code, called error correcting codes, embedded within, or resulting from, the equations of supersymmetry that describe fundamental particles. The ramifications of this field of study are astounding. Perhaps we truly do have digital selves. You can read a semi non-technical description of what Dr. Gates has discovered here.
I felt that there was a missed opportunity at the event to talk and think about where our cultures are moving towards at a singular level and global level. Aside from this missed opportunity I did find a mutual shared experience that was beautiful and insightful. The event promoted an atmosphere of unforced networking and natural curiosity in each other.
There was a brief screening of A Declaration of Interdependence by director Tiffany Shlain. You may know her as the founder of the Webby Awards and co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. The film speaks to the essence of how we must always remember that all of our singular actions have ripple effects that govern the world and that we should be ever mindful of those actions. It is a beautiful and inspiring short film. It can be found at letitripple.org or simply watch it here:
During the final session of speakers, Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, led the entire audience in group meditation. It was a reflective moment that stood out from the various lectures. It gave everyone a moment to step out of all the data processing and re-familiarize ourselves. Jane Hirshfield, acclaimed writer and poet, closed the event with a beautiful set of introspective poems.
I could go on and on and give a complete play by play, but there’s plenty of material from the links I’ve provided and other bloggers have done a great job of posting a comprehensive overview. I think I’ll move on and end this with some of my favorite quotes from the event. After all, being human is also about what we share with each other.
“We are raising ourselves…and have a need to know as much as we can to grow” – Peter Baumann
“We have the capacity to envision alternative possibilities” – Richie Davidson
“There’s someone in there, but it’s not me” – Pink Floyd courtesy of David Eagleman
“EVERY emotion can be experienced constructively and destructively.” – Paul Ekman
“We are incredibly bad at lying and equally bad at catching lies.” – Paul Ekman
“Being human is being at the edge of chaos.” – Peter Baumann
“I never learned english…I learned street english. I guess that makes me street smart” – Galek Rimpoche
Paraphrased: “I really didn’t learn anything. I just somehow have the titles” – Galek Rimpoche
Paraphrased: “All animals are wonderful. As humans we must be more.” – Galek Rimpoche
“The very practice of science is an opportunity to embody and cultivate honesty.” – Richie Davidson
“Meditation is how I live my life from moment to moment” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
“A hand turned upward holds only a single, transparent question. Unanswerable, humming like bees, it rises, swarms, departs.” – excerpt from “A Hand” by Jane Hirshfield