Don’t worry: being human is designed to be a work in progress

by DRM

Being good at being a human is like getting certified to fly with instruments:  it takes hours of training and we rarely get it right the first time.

In a blog post last fall, anthropologist Melvin Konner wrote his excitement about the new science developing that would influence the study of the human condition.

He framed the discussion with a question from a senior researcher about what she really meant when she said “myself.”

I said to Monica, “Well, you probably use the word ‘myself,’ what do you mean?” She said, “It’s the part of me that’s unique, that no one else has. It’s also my consciousness, my private thoughts, my identity.” I thought that was about as good a definition as I could offer, although I added that the self is what you alone see, a kind of parallax shift from what others see and even measure, but what subjectivity allows only you to access.

I was reminded of Konner’s quick definition of self as I read a recent paper from Mark Turner, from the Department of Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University.

In Scope of Human Thought, Turner ruminates on a hypothesis of human consciousness termed “double-scoped blending.” observes that humans are unique among living creatures in our ability to perceive and combine two types of scale: human scale, which is marked by our ability to project our own existence into the past and the future; and network scale, which is marked by our ability to exert the same powers of projection onto other people and things. As Turner observes, we are constantly creating hypothetical definitions of the past and the future, encompassing seemingly infinite variables, but we are able to compact this network scale into our human scale.

Double-scope blending gives us the ability to conceive fully of other minds and to grasp extended conceptual networks that would otherwise lie beyond our cognition. These extended conceptual networks have elaborate “vital relations” running across the network—relations of time, space, cause-effect, representation, analogy and disanalogy, change, identity, uniqueness, and so on.

The effect is a reality of the self that folds in on itself.

A self can feel such a singular fixture, hugging one’s here-and-now like a twenty-four-hour undergarment, but actually it’s a string, looping back and forwards in time to knit together our past and future moments. . . . A self is a Tardis, a time-machine: it can swallow you up and spit you out somewhere else.
Charles Ferneyhough The Baby in the Mirror: A Child’s World from Birth to Three.

The hypothesis intrigues me. Through my reading over the years, I’ve become more focused on the role of communications in the development of human characteristics, identity and culture. Our distinctive attribute is the development of highly sophisticated abstract communications systems that allow for the rapid transfer of information from person to person and group to group. If we are able to transfer critical information, we will significantly increase the likelihood of survival for ourselves and the others around us.

The consequence of the evolving of communications systems is that a large part of our focus was devoted to finding ways to communicate things. As our primitive brains built those systems, benefiting from genetic changes and the improvements innovated by generation after generation, our minds discovered that these abstract skills could be leveraged into more and more complex perceptions and experiences.

Our humanness gained dimension at a compounding rate, across generations and populations. The conceptual systems for writing, for instance, are just 8000 years old, Turner observes.

Konner talks about the science of self with excitement; the science is changing and the experience of self becoming more and more defined.

What I’m struck by, though, is that our self is a constantly changing identity engine. We are susceptible to misfired and discontinuities in the self. Our only recourse is to go into the mind and find the dialogue that re-calibrates the impact of our double-scoped blending, diminishing the risks of network scale perception running wild and overwhelming our human scale.

We’re not born with a fixed tool kit, you see. We’re born with the skills to br human, but it’s not a sure thing that we’ll get to a human state.

Turner frames it neatly at the close of his paper:

The human condition is not simple: evolution did not so much make us human as provide us with the mental abilities we need to make ourselves human, an on-going and dynamic process, with hope and uncertainty stretching over the vast scope of human thought.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]