Sunday, September 29, 2013

Being Human 2013

Having just attended Being Human 2013, a conference of anthropologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, designers, and others in San Francisco, I now sit down to summarize the sessions and my personal thoughts about them as one who works with and prepares others to work with adolescents. Warning: this is a long post!

Session 1: The Biology and Psychology of Ethical Behavior
Robert Sapolsky, Susan Fiske, Josh Greene

It's often hard for us to acknowledge just how much we have in common with our animal cousins, but it's important to recognize our evolutionary history as a step to understanding what it really means to be human. But it's also extremely important to note just how far we've moved past those commonalities in both constructive and deconstructive ways. While other animals can empathize, we do so in much more abstract ways and for a much broader range of individuals - even fictional ones! We understand not only that others think differently than we do, but that they think differently about US! We are able to delay gratification not only for now, but in some cases for a lifetime. But we can also be uniquely cruel and aggressive - using relationships and ideologies to divide and discriminate in ways that no other species does (think passive-aggression and outgroup stereotyping of people within our own race).

Being human is a unique and challenging prospect, and as we look forward it is essential that we learn to better understand and relate with others. Currently, we tend to map our relationships with others across two factors in a matrix. The factors are warmth and competence. We tend to express disgust those who are neither warm nor competent, pity those who we perceive as warm but incompetent, envy those who are not warm but competent, and have pride in those who are both warm and competent. In my field of adolescent educational psychology, I find it discouraging that the majority of individuals place teens in the first category; they are perceived as neither warm nor competent, therefore most people have contempt for them. Why is this so? Have we completely lost sight of the fact that teens are people who are training to become adults? That they are struggling to find their role in society?

The disgust we feel for people in this low warmth-low competence category can be so profound that we don't even use the same part of the brain - the medial prefrontal cortex - that we use to think about PEOPLE when we consider them and their motivations.

As educators, how can we help ourselves, those around us, and our own students to overcome this significant bias? The answer lies in how we think about others. When we think about people we don't know, we tend to focus on what we expect them to be like - essentially trying to stereotype or assimilate them into our existing perceptions. But when we think about people we know, we tend to focus on things that are different from what we expected. In other words, as we develop relationships with people, we really do get to know them and come to understand how they are different from our preconceived ideas. This is particularly true when we think about people with whom we are working toward a common goal.

These findings are consistent in the moral dimension. For most people, their gut reaction for those in their ingroup is to trust them and to be cooperative - to share resources and work toward the common good. But our gut reaction toward the outgroup is to be individualistic and "protect what's ours." And the more distant the outgroup - both physically and ideologically - the less sympathetic our reactions.

So let's consider how this information might translate to the classroom environment. First, we might have get-to-know-you activities that reveal surprising information about our students. We could ask questions like, "What is one thing that your classmates might be surprised to find out about you?" It is also extremely important to get our students into other people's heads, both real and fictional. As we learn about historical and literary characters, we can go beyond questions like, "How do you think she felt?" and ask more pointed and intriguing questions like, "Do you think she liked broccoli?" These unusual questions promote cognitive disequilibrium and higher-order thinking as students attempt to find clues to reveal unusual answers.

Second, it is important to establish our class as a community of learners from the very first day of class. When students understand that they are not competing against each other, but rather working together toward the common goal of understanding and achievement, they might more clearly see their peers as unique and important individuals.

Next, it seems obvious that the use of well-developed group work and team-based learning is essential. Teachers must carefully consider the makeup of these groups and teams, with an understanding that deliberate and systematic exposure to people of different backgrounds in ways that reveal commonalities and celebrate differences in beliefs, perceptions, ways of thinking, etc. (known as the contact hypothesis) can result in profound change. As stated at the conference, "Experience with diversity makes people more nuanced in their understanding and treatment of each other"

Additionally, the findings in moral development strongly suggest the need to integrate Noddings' theme of Caring for Strangers and the World into our curriculum in order to combat the sense of us vs. them and the tribalistic responses that it inspires. As we discuss modern issues, we can ask questions like, "What really matters?" and, perhaps more importantly, "Who really matters?"

Finally, we should take into account two important factors. First, that all of the activities and processes described above require a lot of frontal lobe involvement and the frontal lobes are very "expensive," meaning that they require a lot of energy. This means that our students must understand the importance of proper "fueling" of the brain; in other words, they must learn about and practice proper nutrition. And secondly, that knowledge is power. Telling our students that they may hold inaccurate perceptions of and biases toward one another and expressing the need for change as a theme of our classes may be a giant step toward solving this significant problem.

Session 2: Human Emotion
Richie Davidson, Paul Ekman, Esther Sternberg

"Emotion is the stuff that gives life color, it is the quality which propels us to act, it is what enables us to approach the things we love; to withdraw from the things that may be problematic. It is the key ingredient that distinguishes one human being from another." -Richie Davidson

We often hear people talk about positive and negative emotions, but these are really misnomers. What really mean are constructive and destructive emotions. Sadness isn't negative if it spurs us to compassionate action! But we have to wonder about the impact of the modern digital world on our own and, perhaps even more significantly, adolescents' emotional well-being. Modern media almost constantly reveals the suffering of others, both at home and across the world, which begs the question, "What is the result of repeated experiences of concern/empathy about observed suffering when action is not possible?" How can we possibly handle feeling consistently impotent in our ability to help others and solve the overwhelming problems that surround us?

And yet, as discussed earlier, compassion toward others really is the key to the survival of our species. While we cannot yet answer these questions, we do know that compassionate action, and even compassionate meditation!, are extremely beneficial for our emotional well-being, our interpersonal relationships, and even global interactions. And yet we are seeing a decline in compassion, particularly face-to-face emotional support and assistance. This ability seems to be inherent in the human species - it is evident in nearly all toddlers - and it feels good in our bodies and brains, so what is happening? Is it possible that entertainment (and an educational system) that celebrates competition over collaboration may be severely effecting our children's compassionate instincts? And how might we, as educators help improve our students' emotional well-being?

One idea is to more carefully consider the designs of our schools and classrooms. It is well known that stress can significantly impair the immune system and memory. Thus, our students, who are more stressed than they have ever been before, are struggling cognitively, emotionally, and physically.

Consider your classroom. How is it designed? What do students see, smell, touch, hear? Is your school/classroom a calming, beautiful place that relieves stress and promotes healing? Are there places where students can sit and have social support and compassion? Is there a meditation labyrinth for students to walk between classes? Is there good airflow and natural light? Are there opportunities to engage in meditation, yoga, service, physical activity? How might we impact our students' wellness and achievement by improving the design of our schools and classrooms?

For ourselves and our students, we have significant findings now to indicate the profound role of meditation in personal well-being.Even a little training increases prosocial responses, improves resilience, improves immune system, and speeds healing. This is particularly true of global compassion meditation, in which we cultivate a feeling of love and compassion toward everyone.

Self-control also plays a tremendous role, particularly when developed from childhood. Kids who are better at self-control are least likely to use drugs and have better health, more financial success, and fewer criminal convictions, as adults. This, to me, seems to be an irrefutable argument for explicit instruction in self-regulation in our classes. If we can help our students learn to set goals, monitor their progress, and self-evaluate, we can make a major difference in their happiness and success, and in the world at large. In short, we must help our students (and ourselves) take responsibility for the shaping of their (and our) own brains.

However, we must also realize the extraordinarily strong connections we have with everyone else on the planet. Therefore, we have to learn to focus outwardly AND inwardly in order to truly help humanity thrive. As stated so beautifully by Albert Einstein, "A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

So the challenge here, in my opinion, is to help students feel connected to the world in constructive ways. To see the struggles of others and provide them with paths toward action, through career exploration and service-learning opportunities. To learn to express their emotions in constructive ways and to regulate both their emotions and their actions in order to find lasting happiness and success.

Session 3: Human Relationships
Helen Fisher, Justin Garcia, Laurie Santos

The next session may be slightly less relevant to educators, but was certainly no less interesting. The panel focused on romantic love, sex, and relationships. According to Helen Fisher, "Love is the most important thing we do in our lives." And we, as educators, certainly understand the strong need that our students have for love and belonging.

But we also see a very strong shift in the dating culture and relationships of adolescents and young adults, moving to more of a "hookup culture" than we've ever seen before. This may be due, in part, to the earlier onset of puberty - on average at age 11 - and the later age of childbirth, resulting in, on average, nearly 15 years of reproductive ability during which the person has no desire to actually have children. So what do we expect to have happen? Particularly when we know that the frontal lobes, which consider consequences and really analyze events, are not fully developed during this time.

The thing is, what we're seeing is really a shift in how people approach committed relationships. The once-prevalent "courting" system has been replaced with physical intimacy with the hope of developing a lasting bond. The main problem arises when realize that we all think that we know what other people - especially those who are close to us - like and want, but we are generally horribly incorrect.

We tend to make two significant errors in our thinking: one is the egocentric bias and the other is the altercentric bias. The egocentric bias is pretty simple and horribly powerful. We tend to assume that others believe the same way we do and want the same things we do. This is particularly true of those with whom we have close relationships because we assume that they are "just like us." This causes problems not only in the bedroom, but throughout life, and is particularly true of adolescents who are already, from a purely developmental perspective, extremely self-absorbed.

The altercentric bias is also very prevalent in adolescents (and all of us - this conference, may I remind you, was not specific to adolescence or education). Dr. Santos defined this bias as follows: "As you read minds, sometimes you might take more into account what others might be thinking than what you know to be true." For example, you might go to a restaurant you know is terrible because it's highly rated on Yelp. In other words, we get messed up by what other people think. She went on to propose that, "If we have minds that are great at picking up what other people think, we might not have great filters for the quality of that information. As a result, we may end up conforming more than we should." In the words of Mark Twain, "In the matter of slavish imitation, man is the monkey's superior all the time. The average man is destitute of independence of opinion. He is not interested in contriving a opinion of his own, by study and reflection, but is only anxious to find out what his neighbor's opinion is and slavishly adopt it."

I don't know that I've ever heard a better explanation for the adolescent psychological landscape than this. First, they are so consumed by their own struggles that they assume that everyone is looking at them and/or believes what they believe. Once they move past that, they care so much about what others think that they often conform even when the conformation contradicts their own knowledge and beliefs. Please notice that these are not malicious behaviors, nor are they exclusive to adolescence! We all struggle with these biases, but as adults we are more capable of reasoning through them than adolescents are. We MUST empathize and engage with teens to help them develop their own identities, opinions, perspectives, and beliefs; to distinguish their identities from those of their friends while respecting differences; and to hold to their beliefs when it makes sense to do so.

Session 4: The Future of Being Human
David Eagleman, Natasha Vita-More, Jer Thorpe

The conference concluded with a discussion of the future of humanity, particularly in light of modern and future technologies. I particularly enjoyed the introduction by Being Human founder Peter Baumann, who said that, "We are all living in someone else's future. When we envision the future, we imagine people just like us, but with fancier toys. But the real question is whether they will think like we do."

Of the three presentations in this session, I found David Eagleman's the most intriguing from the perspective of trying to understand the human condition and how we can better interact with and educate others. Dr. Eagleman declared that man is equally incapable of seeing what happens in the infinitely small from which we emerged and the infinitely huge of which we are a part. Many of us now don't even understand what's really happening at our own scales. What we are able to experience is limited by our biology, and each animal has its own window on reality. This window is called an umwelt, a German word that means, "the surrounding world," or the sphere that you can pick up on. We all think our own umwelt is all that's really out there in the objective world. This idea of umwelt is particularly relevant to secondary educators. We call this idea adolescent egocentrism. We know that the vast majority of teens have a bit of tunnel vision, perceiving only what is most relevant to their own lives and their own experiences and believing that everyone else is most concerned with these factors as well.

The question for Dr. Eagleman is, "How will our technologies expand our umwelt and, therefore, our experience of being human?" He went on to demonstrate and discuss technologies that allow us to substitute and even add new senses, and proposed that we can marry our technology to our biology. The brain can figure out how to communicate with it (e.g., artificial retina, cochlear implant). The brain's umwelt is just a bunch of electrical pulses - it is, after all, just stuck up there in our skulls all day every day and doesn't actually "see" or "hear" anything - and it's really good at extracting patterns and somehow converting that into private, subjective experience. Therefore, Dr. Eagleman proposes what he calls the "MPH model of evolution" (Mr. Potato Head). The brain doesn't care what the peripherals are that we plug in - ears, eyes, 20-fingered mole noses - your particular plug-and-play devices are what determine your experience of reality. But they aren't what we have to stick with. The system is infinitely flexible and we are, or have the potential to be, something other than a "natural species."

So how is technology altering the umwelt of modern adolescents? Mr. Thorpe indicated that we all already have "email sense," in that we experience a sense of loss when we cannot access our email. I would argue that today's teens have Facebook and texting senses; that they intuit the passing of the world around them through their thumbs in ways that you and I simply cannot understand. So how much further might this go? To what extent might today's teens, or those that follow, develop unique senses and umwelts through their devices.

And with this possibility, we then have several very difficult ethical questions to ask ourselves, including "What could become of human nature?" and "Who do we want to become?" Dr. Vita-More, who, I will admit, was my least favorite presenter of the day as she struck me as more of a salesperson than an intellectual, strongly argued that parts of us have already evolved into "digitality." Thus, we must revisit the Cartesian idea of duality. Can our minds exist without our bodies, infinitely evolving and existing online? And, in fact, is the time coming in which we might be able to indefinitely upgrade our bodies to accompany that mind into the future?

This was all a bit beyond my personal comfort zone, though I certainly see her point. And the final presenter brought things back to my own realm of understanding as he discussed data as a form of existence and humanity. This may be even more true for today's adolescents than it has been for me and my peers. Data ownership is a giant issue going forward. We get requests for others to use our data, but we never get to use it ourselves.

According to Mr. Thorpe, we should have a personal relationship with our data. We should have access to it, know what it is, and know what it means. We should be able to visualize it and use it to create new understandings of and even new vocabularies around our own existence. Additionally, data is now a major factor in the preservation of culture. Mr. Thorpe posits that the most important cultural artifacts of the 21st century will be databases and asks, "What would it be like to have these databases played back to you?" Not linearly, but in an interactive and connected way. What would it be like to truly experience the past through the integration of ideas and data points? Whoa.

In closing, we often romanticize the past and talk about how simple things were and how lovely life was and how human everyone was. But, in looking backward, Eagleman states that, "It's not clear that things ever were the way they always were." We romanticize the past and, in turn, we fantasize the future. Peter Baumann reminded us, however, that we are living now, with the people who surround us right now. And while it is valuable to envision and plan for the future, we must also recognize the significance and importance of living in this time with these people and learn to exercise understanding, compassion, self-control, mindfulness, humanity, to find peace and beauty in our lives.

Again, this is so true of today's adolescents. They feel stuck in a time of chaos and unpredictability and dream of the idyllic future in which they can do what they want and they'll be who they want to be. What they often don't realize is that now is the perfect time for them to develop brain patterns, personality traits, habits, and characteristics that will make them most successful in the future.

Finally, while all of the sessions were really thought-provoking and even life-affirming, the most powerful pieces for me were the "brain breaks" that were provided in the forms of the extraordinary animator (dancer) Marquese Scott and the unique musician ELEW. These performances, above all else that day, reminded me of what it really means to be human. Our brains are so unique, so special, in their composition and function. No other species in the world creates music and dance the way these men did just because it's beautiful to do so. I encourage you to go online and watch them, as well as any of the other sessions that I might have convinced you would be interesting, at

This was a truly altering experience and I think it will take a significant amount of time for me to fully process and integrate it, but it also has the potential to change a great many things about my life, most importantly pertaining to my personal relationships and my interactions with and perceptions of others throughout the world, including the millions of teens who need our support and guidance.