Friday, September 26, 2014

What makes us human?

Hi everyone, now that summer is officially turning to autumn it's time for regular service to be resumed here at Potting Shed HQ.

It's been great to post some different things over the summer, and in case you missed them, there were fascinating interviews with Chris Whyley and Chris Eaton as well as a write ups of the spectacular Just So Festival and my moving time working alongside the charity Ten Thousand Homes in South Africa. I've got some more treats lined up for you in the next few months too, so watch this space!

This week's topic set by my fellow blog buddies is the gigantic question 'what makes us human?' - just a small subject to tackle then! 

Over the summer I've read some interesting books on how our brain works, so I'm going to start to approach our humanity from this angle. The first book is Focus by Daniel Goleman, all about how we use out attention (and the challenges of an information-overloaded society). The second is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, all about how we acquire and retain skill. I'd well recommend both.

Top-down thinking comes from our neocortex
As I was planning this post, I jotted down various things that came to mind that potentially make us different to other living things. But then I thought of other species that could also do these things! For instance, perhaps we're different because we use tools?We certainly use tools in a much more sophisticated way than other creatures on the planet. But apes also use tools, along with some species of crow (in fact, I watched a fascinating documentary with Chris Packham the other month about how the crows in New Caledonia not only passed on tool-making skills within their social groups, but how subsequent generations actually improved and refined the design, something previously only observed in humans - I'd recommend the book Corvus about how clever the crow-family of birds are).

Perhaps what makes us human is that we feel things deeply and have a rich emotional life? But then, so do Orcas (if you haven't seen the documentary Blackfish, about Orcas in captivity it's well worth a watch, so long as you realise that it's been produced with a specific agenda in mind). Is it because we form social groups? Well this also seems to be common among many intelligent animals, like elephants, dolphins and certain birds (the corvid family again!).

So what makes us different? What makes us human? In all the examples I mentioned above we are able to do those things with much greater clarity and sophistication than other living things. There are clearly numerous things our brains can do which other creatures' brains can't do. Our human brains seem uniquely configured in a manner that sets us apart from animals. We are able to picture ourselves in situations outside of the situation we find ourselves in. As Daniel Goleman notes in Focus "The capacity to think in ways that are independent of an immediate stimulus - about what's happened and what might happen in all it's possibilities - sets the human mind apart..".

"Perhaps what makes us human is that we feel things deeply.."

Something that Goleman elaborates on in his book is our ability as humans to override our instinctive, perhaps animal, responses to situations through deliberate choice. This is something he refers to as "top-down" thinking overriding "bottom-up" thinking. When we choose to focus our attention on something, this is an example of the left hand "top-down" part of our brain overriding the right-hand "bottom-up" part of the brain. Our brains are complex, and clearly I am not covering this in great detail, but the point is that we have the ability to make conscious choices, taking into account what may or may not happen, that other species aren't able to do.

A musing chimp?
Why have we been able to use tools, communicate and think to a far greater degree than other species? Another process in our brains may hold the answer to this, and it's something that Daniel Coyle chooses to focus on in his excellent Talent Code book.

Our brains reinforce patterns of learning through a remarkable substance called myelin. Crudely, this wraps around the neural connections we fire the most, making them quicker and more efficient. Coyle explores the way in which our brains reinforce learning, and points out that myelin is not present in anywhere near the same degree in our closest ape relatives. So while other species have been able to use tools, feel emotions, communicate.. they simply don't have the bandwidth we humans do to be able to do those things with with the same level of sophistication. Coyle compares this to the difference between sending data through an old copper cable compared to a fibre-optic cable. Maybe it's as big as the difference between communicating through the telegraph system and the satellite system.

So what makes us human? I think it's about choice. We are able to override our instinctive thinking and reactions (our bottom-up brain), with deliberate choices. Our top-down brain, filled with myelin, enables us to make these deliberate choices.

There was a news article this week that caught my eye, suggesting that chimps are naturally violent. Maybe we are too, given the pandemic of war around the world.  But in the midst of this pandemic there are also deliberate actions of love and peace and beauty going on every second around the world. We may be the naked ape, but what makes us different is our ability to choose - perhaps even to choose peace and love over judgement and war. To love our enemies. To choose mercy over justice.

"So what makes us human? I think it's about choice."
In this light, the Biblical assertion that we're made in the image of God makes sense to me. Made in the image, the likeness, of a sacrificially loving creator god. A God whose plan allowed "mercy to triumph over judgement" (James 2:13).

In the end, we're not just defined by what goes on in our brains, but by our choices and actions. And maybe this week, wherever we find ourselves, we can choose a top-down not bottom-up path of peace, love and mercy. 
The Dad Network


Modern Belle said...

Luke, this is such a great post. I think you are right. Our ability to choose love and mercy over our survival instincts that come natural to all living creatures sets us apart.

Also makes you think about with everything going on that the only way to recapture society's humanity to look past all the negative and just love.

I definitely want to read the books you mentioned as well.

Random Musings said...

Fantastic post, really interesting, and certainly gave me something to think about. I don't think we're all that different from the other animals, we are just arrogant enough as a species to think we are.
Thanks for linking up to #AnythingGoes

Martyn Kitney said...

Fab post. So we'll written and a lot to take in! Will definitely check thos books our too. Thanks for linking up with us on the #bigfatlinky hope to see you there this week

Luke Strickland said...

Thanks for commenting! Hope you enjoy the books :)

Luke Strickland said...

That's a really good point Debbie! Appreciate you taking the time to read my post :)

Luke Strickland said...

Thanks Martyn :)