Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Being Human

Being Human 2013 @ The Nourse Theatre 
September 28th 9am-5pm 

BACKSTAGE: J-Me, Peter Baumann (Founder of Being Human), Richard Davidson (renowned neuroscientist), 
Paul Ekman (pioneer in the study of emotions) 
Being Human was by far the best conference I've ever crashed. Across age brackets, industries and roles this was an event meant for anyone. Being Human is a daylong exploration of human nature in the light of cutting edge science, philosophy and evolution. A quote I overheard while eating lunch in the courtyard of the Nourse Theatre, "The one thing I'm learning, is that I don't know anything."
The Nourse Theatre Courtyard
This is the second year of Being Human and it was obvious they were onto something incredible. This was like no other conference. Try to imagine the energy felt when not one person in the room wants to talk about how to increase sales or app downloads -everyone here just simply wanted to better understand who we are as people and how we relate to one another. There were four sessions and each had three speakers give individual presentations then do a round table discussion, and as much as I would have loved to share the insights on all of them it's just one more reason why you should attend yourself. [Strategy Suggestion: Given how intensely insightful this conference is, distributing pens and notepads next time would provide a convenient way for attendees to easily capture their own take-aways.]

Excerpts from the opening speech given by Peter Baumann, the Founder of Being Human (pictured above with me backstage), "Today we count anything and everything we can get our hands on. In this frantic pursuit to try to analyze and measure our world, our consciousness is pre-occupied with symbols and ideas while our interior experience is often left behind taking a backseat. When we recognize how much we label each other, how much we categorize one another -black, white, hispanic, asian, conservative, progressive, gay, straight, and even our names Jack, Simone; we can forget that they're labels because behind these labels in each of us there's a rich inner world. When we really look at it from an objective perspective we like to explore both worlds of being human -the world of logic and understanding and how science can help us shed a light on our private inner world. Why? Because a clearer view of human nature may help us understand each other better and increase our tolerance, empathy and build more respect and dignity for one another. Perhaps we can find this "meta-OKness" -a fundamental OKness with being human. That no matter what experiences we have -if we're embarrassed, full of guilt, shame, doubt or worry, a fundamental OKness because there really is never a moment that we're not human. We can't really do it right, but we can't really do it wrong either so perhaps the more we understand the more we can become comfortable and at home with being human."

This new understanding is part of a growing trend I've been noticing in many conversations I've been having lately, and Being Human was at the forefront of it all.

BACKSTAGE: Robert Sapolsky (one of the leading neuroscientists in the world)
I caught up backstage with Robert Sapolsky, one of the leading neuroscientists in the world. Robert Sapolsky was the first speaker at the event and talked about his latest findings on what makes us human. With a perspective that studies animals and the range of our uniqueness, some dynamics that were considered uniquely human are now being observed in other species. For example, similar to humans, vampire bats exhibit tit for tat reciprocity and killing is also not uniquely human either as actually the leading cause of death in male baboons is other male baboons. Also, just like other species', variable reward schedules drive our dopamine pathways crazy -you can see that vegas slot machine designers know this very well. It turns out dopamine is not about reward, it's about the anticipation of the reward because when adding a "maybe" to the equation the dopamine rises even higher -nothing drives us to do stuff in a goal directed way more than a maybe thrown in there. Humans display empathy in realms of abstraction like no other species though. We recoil when we see a dog paw stuck in a trap because we feel the pain of a member of another species, or a character in a novel  -like how we feel sorrow when watching Na'vi in Avatar which are computer generated pixels yet we feel terrible for them at times. The term "Theory of Mind" is the understanding that an individual has different thoughts, information, emotions, empathy (happens with humans between the ages three to five) which primates also have this ability to do. Taking it one step further to the understanding of what one person knows about that other individuals knowledge is called "Secondary Theory of Mind" -which is a uniquely human thing, hence why we're the only species that can sit through an entire Midsummer Night's Dream and understand it. It also turns out that we're not the only species that divides the world into "us" and "them." Humans, however, are the only species willing to make that divide based on ideology, whether you speak the same language, wear the same clothing, if you eat strange foods, etc. "Brine shrimp would be green with envy at the cultural complexities that we humans can invent." How we deal with the "them"s is one of the greatest issues for the future of humanity.

This subject was transitioned and expanded next by Susan Fiske PhD, Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, to elaborate on the way that we see different kinds of people (the "them"s) and these are a few interesting facts from her studies.
Susan Fiske's studies
-We categorize people along two dimensions: friendliness towards ourselves and competence towards their intents. 
-The most reliable finding in neuroscience is the medial prefrontal cortex lights up when we judge and perceive other people, except those we consider to be low competence / low warmth. 
-When thinking about whether that homeless person likes broccoli, they automatically become more human.

Susan Fiske (Professor of Psychology at Princeton)

Richard (Richie) J. Davidson had no hesitation opening up to talk about human emotion, and ultimately how well-being is actually a skill. Richard Davidson is a neuroscientist that's spent nearly 40 years studying the human brain and emotion because, "Emotion is the stuff that gives life color. It's the quality that propels us to act, it's what enables us to approach the things we love and withdraw from the things that maybe problematic." Emotion is the key ingredient that distinguishes one human being from another. When we think about human diversity and our collection of people that we know, and who those individuals are -the emotional characteristics are the ones that typically are the most salient.
Richard Davidson (neuroscientist) showing first visit with the Dali Lama
It was in 1992 when Richie's world view began to shift as it was his first meeting with the Dali Lama and Richie was invited to talk with him about the possibilities of using tools of modern neuroscience to investigate the changes that were occurring in the brains of individuals who spent years cultivating certain positive, constructive, virtuous qualities of their mind. The Dalai Lama challenged Richie asking him, "Why can't we use the same tools that we use to measure anxiety, fear and depression to study kindness and compassion?" There was also another idea that was transitioning at the time, Neuroplasticity -the notion that the brain changes in response to training and experience. This provided the conceptual framework in which we can now understand how the systematic practice of certain mental skills can actually change the brain and provide the underlying substrate for enduring transformations in our experience and behavior. They started out having long-term meditation practitioners come into the lab to analyze the MRI scans going from a neutral state to a meditation state in very short blocks, where they were generating a state in which love and compassion permeated the whole mind with no other consideration, reasoning or discursive thoughts -global compassion. Recording the brain electrical signals in the MRI machines showed a visible considerable difference detected in the brain state during meditation. Resilience is how rapidly you can recovery following negative events and it turns out that people who recover from hardship more quickly are also more resilient -and have a higher state of well-being. Mindfulness promotes resilience and allows people to recover more quickly from traumatic experiences. Also, looking at kids capacity to regulate their attention and emotions (self control) in relation to adult outcomes show that kids that are better at self-control later down the road have better health, earn more on income, and have the fewest adult criminal convictions. These findings have led Richard Davidson to develop a kindness curriculum for preschoolers to understand the impact on the development in promoting compassion. Initial evidence show that it's changing the kids' minds in positive ways, for example, it's led to an equitable distribution of stickers (currency for children) as opposed to before the curriculum that had heavy favoring of friends. Change your brain, change your behavior.

Helen Fisher also studies the brain, however her focus is within human relationships, love and attachment. In 2005, asked her, "Why do you fall in love with one person rather than another?" Timing & proximity, ethnic and socio-economic background, similar degree of intelligence, similar degree of good looks, similar level of education, similar religious and social values, similar reproductive, economic and social goals -but maybe we have some biological make-up that naturally draws us to some people rather than others. That's when Helen Fisher began to look into the biology of the brain to see if she can find any trait that was linked with any biological system. Helen found four that are all linked with a different constellation of personality traits: Dopamine "Explorer", Serotonine "Builder" , Testosterone "Director", and Estrogen & Oxytocin systems "Negotiator", which led her to create a questionnaire (56 questions) to see what degree you express those traits linked with each one of these biological systems. It's now been taken by 13 million people in 40 countries. We're all a combination of them, but we express some more than others. Helen examined them to see who is naturally drawn to whom.
People who are drawn to people like themselves.
Dopamine "Explorer" -curious, energetic i.e. Richard Branson
Serotonin "Builder" -social norm compliant, cautious i.e. Mitt Romney
People who are drawn to the opposite of themselves
Testosterone "Director" -tough minded, analytical i.e. Steve Jobs
Estrogen & Oxytocin "Negotiator" -empathetic, prosocial i.e. Oprah Winfrey
Helen Fisher (Biological Anthropologist)

Studying the data with couples in love they found activity in a tiny little factory in the base of the brain called the Ventral Tegmental area, that makes dopamine and sends it to many brain regions linked with wanting, craving and obsession. Helen also found activity in the nucleus accumbens that is linked with addiction. The question then remains, can romantic love last? People that were married for 20 years and still claimed they were madly in love with their partner were put into the scanner to find out. Sure enough, the same activity in the Ventral Tegmental area linked with feelings of intense romantic passion and attachment were activated, however there was one difference with activity found in the base of the brain region linked with calm/pain suppression, and found no activity in the brain region linked with anxiety (when you just fall in love you're anxious and all of that is gone in long term love). What the brain scan on the biochemical research showed regarding grief over loosing love -is that time really does heal a heartbreak. Ultimately, we're all left wondering what is the key to a happy long term relationship? It turns out, this thing called "positive illusion" -the ability to overlook everything you can not stand about that other person and just focus on what you do. Love is the most important thing we do with our lives. Helen Fisher ended her speech on this,  "It's a basic drive that evolved millions of years ago and along with it are going to be all kinds of myriad different brain systems that enable us to pick the person that's right for us."

After hearing Helen Fisher, I was inspired to put together a piece of my own in an attempt to quantify love myself. For those of you that don't know me personally, I do spoken word

Laurie Santos (primatologist) and Justin Garcia (evolutionary biologist)
Primatologist Laurie Santos jumped on stage in the afternoon to talk about her time spent with monkeys. Laurie exposed what could perhaps be the curse of being human, "We might end up over-conforming because her studies show humans are much better (stricter) at imitation, even when it might not make intuitive sense."

David Eagleman (neuroscientist) 
David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, talked about the future of being human centered around the "umwelt" -German for surrounding world from our own perception and senses. David Eagleman described this notion with referencing a memorable quote from the movie the Truman Show, "We accept the reality in which we are presented." The bottom line is that the human umwelt is expanding and is no longer limited to our biology. For example, in this photo of the slide behind him a magnet has been implanted into a fingertip to easily sense the flows of a pipe by simply rubbing a finger over it. David Eagleman and his team are in prototype experiments to help blind people "see" images. MPH, is the scientific term David Eagleman coined that stands for Mr. Potato Head model of evolution representing this discovery that you can plug in sensory receptors and the brain figures out a way to use that code. From David Eagleman's determinations, what the future looks like will involve technologies expanding our umwelt even more, and changing what it means to be human.

Marquese Scott aka Nonstop
This is Marquese Scott aka Nonstop. He's a dubstep dancer described as a "big deal on Youtube" having obtained five million views in one week, he was also featured on the Ellen Degeneres show and although many of us missed his performance (because we were outside eating lunch) I still give him a thumbs up. Marquese Scott Performance at Being Human

Leaving with a sense of awe at how remarkable it is that we know such little about ourselves, yet how amazingly functional we can be.

CRASHED IT... for the love of Being Human!