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Being Human : Seeing What We Mean


SAN FRANCISCO — I once had a publisher whose office wall bore an interesting motto: Are You SURE?! So when I bump ino a stick on my path, for instance, do I jump, thinking it's a snake? ¿How often do we all do this, in our own lives, everyday?

Later in the amazing one-day Being Human conference, Paul Eckman commented how it’s better for the sake of our survival (evolution), to see a rope and think it’s a snake — than to see a snake and wonder if it’s a rope.

In such a context as that, neuroscientist Richard Davidson began his role as moderator by introducing Being Human with the following, salient remarks.

Now that we’ve evolved this far, we can envision alternative possibilities to our distinctly human characteristics. Ways of thinking, and feeling, modes of being, different from those in which we currently engage. Being Human gives us all an opportunity to consider this with the support of the extraordinary tools which science and technology has now brought us for rendering the unperceptible as now perceptible, for making the unfelt felt, making what was previously not conscious brought to a level of awareness.



The opening panel set the bar high for the day to follow. Neuroscientist Beau Lotto presents in an ebullient, canny, and fun manner, exploring the realm of optical illusion, that shows as well as tells. It's almost always a good policy — and you can see for yourself by watching the presentation yourself, thanks to the good, local folks at Fora.tv.  

With the flair of a stage magician, he might be termed science performance artist. A graduate of Cal, now living in London, he’s established and maintains Lottolab Studio in London's Science Museum. Billing itself as "the world’s first public perception research space,” this may be the first place where you can find real scientists (at work) at a science museum. In a way, it stands on the shoulders of Frank Oppenheimer’s Exploratorium; when they reopen on the Embarcadero, maybe they might bring him back. His work deserves serious rumination. I'm still chewing it over.

Beau Lotto began by acknowledging the challenge of being the first speaker, inaugurating an entire new series. Yet it quickly became apparent he was an apt choice. Not  only is he an energizing performer, but, moreover, his research treats perception as basis of how we know think, believe, hope, and dream. It all begins with perception.

We don't necessarily perceive what's real but rather what's useful. If I recognize I'm seeing a snake in what's only a stick, I can also recognize I'm seeing my evolutionary history. Remembering Paul Eckman's comment, I might not be here if my ancestors didn't get in the habit of thinking "snake" when bumping into a big stick on the forest. For those who wish to get at bedrock beneath this recognition, it's an example of the wholly empirical theory of perception.

You've probably heard the new phrase, "the new normal." From Beau's perspective, what's normal is continually being defined and redefined by our brain. Whether I see a stick, or a snake, my brain is interpreting sensation, in feedback with environment, and other humans.  

Having come to construct the incredible concept known as "a world," perception is fundamentally all an illusion, based on interpreting sensation. So, in that sense, we're all delusional. But at least we can choose our delusion. For instance, right now you're choosing a dream called reading. (And my pointing this out might make you momentarily aware of your awareness, as in a lucid dream.)

Beau Lotto introduced and drove all these points home by inviting us to interact with a series of optical illusions projected on the stage's big screen. As he explored how our perception of the phenomenon of color, say, as an example of how we construct meaning — I realized he could also be referring to the quite striking design for the conference, bright stacks of spectrum slices on a black background.

Context is key. Empirical facts, in and of themselves, don't necessarily mean anything until put in formation. My brain makes sense of the world by actively discovering relationships. I get feedback and adapt to my feedback, then associate a meaning to those relationships.  In that sense, when we perceive color, we're seeing meaning.

You can test this out for yourself right now. For color, let's substitute letters. As Beau Lotto asks, what if you saw words missing some letters, like this

W at  ar  ou  rea in ?

What were words are no longer words. And so how you look at something changes the way you see it.

Can you fill in the blanks and decode the sentence?  Most of us in the audience came up with "What are you reading" But Beau then pointed out that it could just as easily be "What are you dreaming?" 

At the end of his talk, maybe I knew less than when I entered the Palace. But I came away with a vitalized sense of seeing what I think — and how that can be applied to not only other senses but the whole spectrum of human activity — — as future panelists would explore.

As I clicked <S>ave on my Touchpad tablet, I reflected on this guided tour wherein I'd been shown myself able to see myself seeing. Beau Lotto's words echoed in my mind —: 

not only are we the sum of our interactions, as individuals and as a species, but in recognizing this, we can be aware of our awareness.. It's this process of self-observation that makes us human. And only by accepting our own humanity, can we accept the humanity of others



Beau Lotto's home page is Lotto Lab, and tweets as @lottolab. He's given a TED Talk, and a longer RSA Talk.

The conference has a Facebook page, as well as an ongoing blog, and tweets as @beinghuman2012.

Next in our BEING HUMAN series we'll introduce you to the scientist who British biologist has called The Marco Polo of Neuroscience ... and whose remarkable breakthroughs are not only as fascinating as any detective novel, but are also bringing hope for people living in previously unexplainable suffering. 

BEING HUMAN coverage:

  • Conference Inception
  • Opening Remarks
  • Perception & Sensation : Beau Lotto
  • Perception & Sensation : VS Ramachandan
  • Mental + Self Representations & Decision-Maklng
  • Poetry • Cinema
  • Individual + Society • Morals + Culture
  • Conscious Experience
  • Reflections


Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot's to Buddhism, third edition (Nautilus Book Award), and editor of What Book!? ~ Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop (American Book Award). His work has also appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The Atlantic, BuddhaDharmaHarvard Divinity ReviewLanguage for a New CenturyThe New YorkerTechnicians of the SacredTricycle, and Yoga Journal. He teaches mindfulness and creativity in San Francisco (Aquatic Park Community Center, Buddhist Church of San Francisco, and Dragon's Leap zendo). Visit http://word.to.

Copyright © 2012, Gary Gach



Photo by Darren Eskandari

( using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II )





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