Who Are We Humans?

I was fascinated a few weeks ago when I heard the news of the discovery of a new human ancestor, an extinct hominid named Homo naledi. I guess my interest was peaked partly because I used to teach about human evolution in a history class, and mostly because I never stopped being interested in anthropology and the broader question of “Who are we humans?”


The remains of Homo naledi were discovered in a cave in South Africa, in a great cache of bones. It is now thought to have been a burial site, since the bodies seemed to have been placed in a very difficult to reach cave. The males of the species stood about 5 feet tall, weighing about 100 pounds, and their skulls were slightly bigger than Australopithecines (the first upright walking hominid) and smaller than Homo erectus (the first hominid to leave Africa), and about half the size of modern humans. The discovery adds knowledge and also raises great questions about human ancestry. For example, just a few years ago it was thought that Neanderthal was the first hominid species to bury its dead. The Neanderthal lived from about 400,000 years ago to 39,000. This find would contradict that theory and push back the use of rituals and burials possibly 3 million years.


The discovery was also a personal reminder that my theories and knowledge are always partial. Although I know that everything changes, know that life itself is change, I still get surprised when a theory or understanding I hold must be let go. When I taught history, I did not expect that the “facts” I discussed would soon be altered. How do you teach knowing that everything you teach might change at any time? How do you understand anything knowing that the details, and theories based on those details, might change at any time? What a great question to pose to a class.


A great way to start any history class (or one in biology, human cultures, or a class on the literature of identity) is by asking this central question of anthropology: “What makes us human?” If you don’t have a grounding in the basics of humanness, how can you understand, for example, historical cause and effect? The laws of cause and effect in a group of baboons operate slightly differently than in a group of bonobo chimps (the species arguably closest to our own). Certainly, I have heard debates about politics, for example, where some speakers sound like they’re talking about baboons, others like bonobos, neither about humans. If you think humans are like baboons, you also use teaching methods created for baboons. In fact, I think many of the proposals for holding teachers accountable were formulated by mistaking humans for baboons.


One of the great characteristics of the human brain is its adaptability. Humans live in and have adapted to enormously different conditions. When I studied psychology in college in the 1960s, it was thought that the brain stops growing and new neurons stop being created after adolescence. Contemporary neuroscience disagrees. There’s the concept of neuroplasticity or the constantly changing nature of the brain, as well as neurogenesis, or the ability to produce new brain cells. But the ability to adapt and to change obviously has its limits, partly due to biology, partly due to attitude, conditioning and experience. For example, the hippocampus, part of the emotion center of the brain, is responsible for neurogenesis and creating new brain pathways. It is very sensitive to trauma and stress and to how these two are interpreted. If stress is habitual, the hippocampus can shrink  and slow neurogenesis. If stress is seen as occasional and as something to learn from, it is very different from thinking it unnatural and a result of a deficit in your character. What we think is true has tremendous influence on what we create to be true.


Neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson quotes a native American saying in his book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Science of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom: “In my heart there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.” Which one will you feed? Feed with your ideas and speech as well as your actions? Which one will our society feed in our systems of educating our youth? Which one will you as a teacher feed in your classroom, or you as a parent or child feed in your homes? How will you answer the question, in your life, “Who are we humans?”

Without Empathy and Feeling, Thinking Suffers

All too often, people forget or fail to understand how feeling, particularly feeling empathy, is necessary for clear thinking. Empathy aids thinking in two ways. It allows you to more fully understand a person or phenomena, as in “putting yourself in the shoes of another.” And to think clearly, you must think with less bias and distortion from your own likes and dislikes; empathy can actually counteract this distortion.


To think, you need relevant information and ways to organize, “view,” and explain that information. But information remains just random words unless you connect to it. You need feeling to derive meaning and you need to “put yourself in another person’s shoes” in order to understand what standing in their shoes is like. You can’t understand a time in history unless you imaginatively, with feeling, put yourself there. In a similar way, you can’t really understand a mathematical formula or scientific theory unless you can use it and conceptualize the consequences of applying it. And to do that, you need to think from the perspective on the world that the formula or theory implies. If you are to answer questions and solve problems regarding the world around you, you need to “open to” others and your world, as well as see the world from their perspective. You need this “felt relationship.”


This “felt relationship” is empathy and compassion (and imagination). Psychologist Paul Ekman describes three forms of empathy. There’s “cognitive empathy” or an ability to read the mental state and emotional expression of another person. Then there’s “feeling with” or care for, the other. A sociopath might be able to read emotion but not feel for the other. Compassion takes this further, to the point where caring and feeling propel action. Compassion is the felt awareness of interdependence with others and caring enough to act in response to that felt awareness.


James Austin, a clinical neurologist and Zen meditator, discusses how, when you practice empathy and compassion, you use more “selfless” pathways in the brain. This provides a natural counter-balance to the distortion of likes and dislikes. When you perceive a blackberry bush, for example, you need to see it both from its’ position relative to you (which uses dorsal, top-down brain pathways) and see the bush itself in relation to other bushes and trees (ventral, bottom-up pathways). This ventral pathway asks “What is it?” or “What does it mean?” in comparison to the dorsal asking, “How does it relate to me?” Even at this basic level of perception, you need both perspectives.


We need to value, “feel for,” both perspectives. But much of our society teaches only the value of “self-knowing.” Self is defined only as what distinguishes and separates us from others. The result, according to many researchers, is a one-sided and isolated sense and concept of self and increasing narcissism. Even President Obama, in several speeches, warned that our society is developing an empathy deficit disorder. This one-sided knowing, and intellectual and emotional attachment to a concept of an isolated sense of self, leads people to defensively react to any appearance of a threat, even one not to the bodily self and world, but only to the concept of a separated self. This can undermine the sense of society as a relationship of all its members. It is one reason why schools must include not just an education in reasoning and memory, but feeling and empathy. When the conceptual framework of a culture devalues empathy and an understanding of the role of feeling, we’re in trouble.


Many students come to class and argue that empathy and compassion don’t really exist. They say that humans act compassionately only out of self-interest. Some teachers argue the same. Acting with compassion and empathy is in your self-interest. It helps immune response and improves emotional well-being. According to James Austin, it also leads to more effortless learning, especially when sustained attention is required. But all of these goodies are undermined if the outwardly appearing act of compassion or altruism is done with self-interest in mind. The intention to act with the other’s welfare in mind is what leads to the positive rewards.


So, what can schools do? Teachers can model empathy. Mathieu Ricard, biologist, author, and Buddhist monk, cites a great deal of research to show that when teachers practice and act with empathy and compassion and establish a personal relationship with students, student learning improves, violence and absenteeism goes down.


Teachers need to point out that when you disagree with others, it’s easy to think your viewpoint is the “right” one. You might look down on your “opponents” and think you know something they don’t. If only they knew what you knew, they would “repent.” In Aristotelian logic, something is either true or false. It can’t be both. So, if this “other” view is correct, that means your view is incorrect. And most people I know don’t like being “wrong” or being looked down upon.


You can directly develop compassion through meditation practices. You can also start by mindfully noticing your thoughts and the story you are creating in your mind. Realize that as you are thinking of your “opponent,” she or he is thinking of you. Your viewpoint of this person, or of whatever question you are discussing, no matter how deep, can never encompass the reality of the person or question. So, hold your viewpoints with some lightness or humor and this will leave room for others to enter.


When you feel an emotional response to what another person says, or you are unclear about what was actually said, ask: “Can you repeat what you said and clarify what you meant? What was your line of reasoning?” One of the most valuable lessons hopefully taught in a class is how to learn, understand, and change. When you face a viewpoint that is different from your own, take it as an opportunity to learn, not a threat.


So, when you run into what you perceive as a threatening idea, or when you don’t understand someone, take a breath. Notice what you’re feeling. Breathe in the sense that this is another person you are speaking with, not a lifeless concept. Feel the fact that the person might be feeling something just like you; you feel you have the correct view, she might feel the same. Maybe he is feeling scared or defensive. As you breathe out relax, look at the other person, and only then begin to speak. Empathy and feeling will contribute to clear thinking. And you and the other person will then meet.



A Story or Two From Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks died August 25th. I felt awful hearing the news. I never met him but his books kept me company for many hours and provided engaging reading for students in my psychology class. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat was probably my favorite. The book tells stories of people with different and unusual brain conditions and so provided a very human side to the neuroscience they were studying. It not only gave rich insights into how the brain worked; it helped students overcome a huge stumbling block to self-understanding. By illustrating what happens when a part of the brain misfires, it taught them about the inseparability of themselves and the perceived world.


There were two stories in the book that particularly spoke to student questions and concerns, as well as my interests. One was the title story, which was especially rich in psychological observation as well as just plain weird details that stimulated discussion, imagination and insight. The story was about “Dr. P,” a one-time singer, musician and teacher of music, a man of great charm and imagination, yet strange. He listened to the world more than he saw it. He suffered from damage to various areas of his cortex, particularly the occipital, the visual center of the brain, and the parietal, which helps with the sense of self. The cortex or upper crust of the brain is divided into two hemispheres and only the right side, which is especially important for developing an overall viewpoint of the world, was damaged. This led to various forms of agnosia, which means not-knowing: not knowing how the various aspects of his own body and world related to himself. He could look at his foot and describe various details but didn’t know it as a foot and felt no connection to it. The visual world was all abstractions. That’s why at one point, as the title of the story and book described, he was getting ready to leave the room and he reached for his wife’s head and tried to put it on as if it were a hat.


Sacks made the point that Dr .P. thought “like a computer.” Without the ability to relate emotionally to things and people, he could do abstract and mechanical thinking but not make personal judgments. He could not think comprehensively and relate details to the setting or context, but could only add together details and make guesses.


Another story was “The President’s Speech.” The story describes a visit Sacks made to the aphasia ward of a psych hospital. This was years ago and the residents were watching a televised speech by the sitting President of the U. S. People with aphasia cannot understand words. Aphasia is almost the opposite of agnosia. The damage is in the left temporal lobe, responsible for speech and language, amongst other things. Yet,  the patients were watching the speech, seemingly understanding what was said, and very engaged, in fact, most were energetically laughing. These patients were experts in discerning when people lie with words. They saw the whole context, but missed the abstract meaning of much of the details. For them, the President was lying and doing it so obviously they had trouble understanding how others could not see it. They were not taken in by the abstract reality of words and saw and felt the truth told by facial expressions, gestures, and tone, the bodily context for the words.


The two stories together taught students about how the two hemispheres and different segments of the cortex of their brains worked. Also, more subtly, the connection between their own minds and reality, their own selves and the world they lived in. It taught them that one element of discerning truth is recognizing a lie. Also, students often were very skeptical about how malleable is the world they perceive. They thought that what they saw was what was— was for them, was for others, was even for other species. The stories dispelled that idea. It gave them concrete examples of how what we see and feel about what is “out there” is interdependent with what is “in here”–our selves, our own psychological, intellectual and physical equipment, abilities, memories and understanding.


Too much of our modern society values a mechanical understanding not much different than Dr. P’s (but without his musical sense), in that it knows the abstract descriptions and theories but lacks the sense of the whole, lacks overall judgment. We need to correct this deficit. Discussing these stories helped students to better understand themselves, and understand that to think and read others more clearly they needed to read themselves, and use both intellect and feeling. They needed to learn how emotions and their sense of self are constructed and how to be mindfully aware moment-by-moment of feelings, thoughts, and sensations. This type of learning is exciting and alive.

When Feeling Bad Leads To Doing Good

I get angry and a little depressed, probably just like most of you, at the increasing social inequities, at the actions of many of the richest individuals to undermine public schools and the public commons (our air, water, even the parks and common spaces), the lawlessness and intractability of our political system, at the instability of the weather, etc. It’s a crime that, in the richest nation in the world, one million school children are homeless, one quarter of all children live in poverty. Last week there was a report of drones getting in the way of aircraft fighting fires out west. Such shortsightedness and delusion.


Many people tell themselves things like: “There’s nothing I can do. Politics is a waste of time. The system is rigged. I’d rather just go about my life.” Such an inner dialogue is probably responsible for the fact that, in most U. S. elections, fewer than 50% of Americans vote or protest or, possibly, even educate themselves on the state of the world and the campaign issues. (In 2012, 58.6% of registered citizens voted; in 2014, 36.6%.) In a democracy, this is your life. Politics is personal. To have a say in politics, you must speak.


The fact that you feel discomfort, outrage, depression is an indicator that you care, not that you shouldn’t. It means that you want to take action, not that no action can be taken. Maybe you grew up feeling there is no way to face discomfort or you must get rid of, medicate away or let the emotion take you over. Instead of attacking, hiding, or letting the feeling take you over, you can feel the feeling, rest in it, and understand it. Only by knowing your feelings can you know what they have to tell you, act on them appropriately or let them go.


Schools need to educate young people about how to participate in democracy, and how to understand and be mindfully aware of their own emotions. To do that, they need to teach mindfulness and become democratic communities where students can grow up familiar with taking responsibility for their lives, communities, and nation. Students need to be given the space to verbalize, analyze, and discuss what they feel and think about the state of the world today. In my school, community service is a graduation requirement and some teachers build political/social action into the curriculum. In my historical development course, on the first day of classes, I often asked: “What are the biggest problems with our world today?” Once students named the problems or concerns, I then asked: “Which of these is most basic?” Each student then had to decide which named concern they considered most basic and follow its historical, cultural, and intellectual (and sometimes artistic or other) roots through all the times and cultures we studied during the year. The final assessment became analyzing and describing how this problem developed, and how other cultures dealt with it. Students need to be helped to recognize that their way of conceiving the world and themselves is crucial in how they act and in the responsibility they assume for the state of the world.


In our concern and outrage lies our salvation. Our loves, our willingness to act not just for our own welfare but for the welfare of others, combined with our openness to study, analyze and understand what might be in the greater good–this can counter hopelessness. And a comprehensive education, which includes learning mindful self-awareness in a democratic school, serves the possible realization of that salvation.