A few weeks ago I attended the Being Human 2012 conference in San Francisco.
I wasn’t sure what I would gain by attending the conference, but the subject matter seemed intriguing, and at least tangentially relevant to the National Equity Project‘s work as a leadership (human?) development organization. In particular, I’m working with a team on staff to gather brain research that pertains to our coaching and change management work, so I figured I might gain some new insights to bring back to that team. If nothing else, they did a great job marketing the conference in my neighborhood. I couldn’t turn a corner without seeing these colorful and compelling posters.
The day featured a series of presentations from leading researchers from a range of disciplines – psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, anthropologists, even a poet.
Beau Lotto opened the day with a series of optical illusions, demonstrating how our brains are continually searching for relationships in order to make meaning. Our brains are constantly “redefining normality”. I couldn’t help but hear that hot new phrase, “the new normal,” justified here by neuroscience. At the same time, Beau gave it a positive twist in that we’re actually free to “choose your delusion.”
I was most impressed by Vilayanur Subramanian (VS) Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UC San Diego. I wasn’t surprised at all to learn that Ramachandran was named named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2011 by Time Magazine. His talk focused on his research on “phantom limbs” – people who have either lost or were born without a limb experience the limb as real, and oftentimes experience pain or cramping in the phantom limb. Since the limb isn’t actually there, the pain is generated from their brain, but the pain is still real. Ramachandran developed a therapy for these people involving mirrors, whereby they see their actual limb reflected in a mirror, and are able to “wake up” the phantom limb.
In our brain research study group, we have already discovered and discussed the phenomenon of mirror neurons, which essentially help us to understand the actions, intentions and emotions of others by “mirroring” their actions within our own brains. When we see someone else do or feel something, part of our brains actually fires as if we are doing or feeling it ourselves.
Ramachandran took this thinking further, equating mirror neurons to “Gandhi neurons.” He suggests that “there is no fundamental difference between your mind and my mind except for our skin.” He suggests that mirror neurons are the foundation for empathy.
In this interview “Do Mirror Neurons Give Us Empathy?” he says,
“If I really and truly empathize with your pain, I need to experience it myself. That’s what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathize with your pain—saying, in effect, that person is experiencing the same agony and excruciating pain as you would if somebody were to poke you with a needle directly. That’s the basis of all empathy.”
Empathy is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence, and is essential for effective leaders. For fun, try taking this Emotional Intelligence quiz to see how well your mirror neurons pick up on these facial queues.
At the National Equity Project, we coach leaders to understand and emulate the notion of “distress-free authority.” In a group setting (in our case, a school) the distress and anxiety of one person can be rapidly transferred throughout the group (to both staff and students). You know that pervasive ‘vibe’ that you sometimes feel – negative or positive – when you enter certain groups or settings? Mirror neurons provide one explanation for this very real phenomenon.
I found most of the other speakers to be equally compelling and relevant. David Eagleman’s critique of the United States prison system as our “defacto mental illness system” was so powerful, I still need to read more about his work at neulaw.org.
Anne Harrington, Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University gave a great talk on the cultural factors that influence both our treatment and perception of illnesses.
Hazel Markus, Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University told a story about being chided by her Chinese neighbor after letting her daughter quit the cello that I could easily see in one of our Teaching With A Cultural Eye sessions.
And it was a real treat to hear from Paul Ekman, especially this bit of wisdom he formulated together with his Holiness the Dalai Lama:
“Every emotion can be experienced in a constructive or destructive fashion. If the emotional episode seeks to further future collaboration, it’s constructive. If it interferes, it’s destructive.”
I do wish the day had a more interactive format. I wanted to know more about these people in the audience around me, and what had brought them all the way to out to the Palace of Fine Arts on a rainy Saturday. Apparently the Being Human team is working on an interactive website that should be live sometime in 2012. In the meantime, I will continue to ponder what it means to Be Human in our schools and communities.