I am about to spend a few days in Cleveland, weather permitting. I am doing a repeat of a class I did last year for the Weatherhead School Doctor of Management candidates. It will be the first class I have taught that was assigned Flourishing instead of Sustainability by Design. In preparing for this class, I had to carefully revise my presentations to reflect the changes that have entered my thinking and vocabulary in recent months. I use a wonderful video to raise questions about the Cartesian model of the mind as a mirror. This time as I was reviewing it, I got one of those aha moments.
The video shows a hollow mask of Charlie Chaplin’s face slowly rotating, and, as the concave backside appears, the nose sticks out instead of sticking in as it really is. The face rotates several times and each time the nose sticks out. The narrator, some droll Englishman, points out that our brain is so used to faces with noses sticking out that we cannot perceive one sticking in, even though our senses get that signal. Our brains have become so wired by our historical experience that our present perceptions are shaped by the past.
I have known this for some time. It is central to Humberto Maturana’s (and others) model of human cognition, but I have not put it explicitly into the context of my work. Our brains are plastically coupled to the outside. The neuronal structure evolves with our historical life experience. What this means is that the brains we are born with change over our lifetime. Our actions at any time result from the ontogeny of our brain, that is, our personal evolution. We start life with the built-in emotions that reflect our phylogeny, the evolution of our species. Having no experience in our neonatal rational brains to draw on, our early actions are largely emotionally driven. Another way of saying this is we begin life as an exemplar of Homo sapiens, a human being, a unique species, but unaffected by culture. Whatever we are at that point, that is what it is to be human. Our rational brain is there, but not yet fired up.
We experience need and fear, negative emotions resting in our evolutionarily older reptilian brain parts. We learn what love is via the relationship with loving parents and others that care for us. Our mirror neurons help transfer that emotion and other positive emotions into the evolutionarily later developing the mammalian brain parts and reinforce other positive emotions already there. I am reading Spiritual Evolution, by George Valliant. It would be better titled “Emotional Evolution and the Brain” because that’s what is really is all about. Valliant, drawing on his long experience and on other brain researchers and behavioral scientists, locates emotions in various parts of the brain. He has equated positive emotions and spirituality, a dubious connection. In my own phenomenology, spirituality is a more limited domain of action than those associated with all the positive emotions, love compassion, empathy, etc. But that’s a little besides the point here.
The key point about all this is that we learn, not only facts, as we live out our lives, we also learn emotions. Maturana’s simple, but elegant, aphorism, “doing is learning; learning is doing,” is wonderfully explanatory here. I had always connected it to our rational actions per se, but it is equally applicable to our emotional learning.
Returning to the Chaplin head demonstration for a moment, if we are immersed in a culture where human beings act primarily on the basis of emotional neediness, we will eventually embed that as our primary shaper of action. Maturana and others point out that our emotions come before our behaviors. They prepare our brain and body for what responses we exhibit to sensory and internally generated signals. When we are angry, our reactions are shaped by the anger. When we feel love, we act accordingly.
As need suppresses love and other positive emotions, our actions involve the obvious consequent acquisition of material objects. Our attention focuses inward. We become more individualistic. We see others more as means to satisfy our needs. Kant’s imperative to treat humans always as ends, not means, may come from a philosophical source, but it has real practical importance in today’s materialistic culture. The key point, so far, is that the dominant negative emotional context of our modern culture is not the result of our primal human nature, but comes from cultural, not biological evolution. Maturana has always said that love is our most basic emotion but has become submerged, creating a societal pathology. Science has not helped dispel that notion. Until very recently psychology, an important field of study of human behavior, focused entirely on negative emotions, dismissing love and others as mere distractions. Valliant’s book is full of excellent references to this history. Only recently has the field broadened to include positive psychology. One of its central players, Martin Seligman, has written a book about it, titled, Flourishing. Great minds…
The significance of all this is that we can recover more fully and more balanced what is is to be human-what makes our species evolutionarily distinct. I have argued in the past that recovery is what it will take to make flourishing possible, but did not have such a clear pathway in mind. Those who argue that what we are today is our true nature and can’t be changed by culture are on shaky ground. We will not rediscover love and our mammalian nature while we are immersed in this modernist, need-based culture, but we can change it, albeit only with great difficulty. Need and other negative self-directed emotions did come first when we were still at the reptilian stage and still springs from the reptilian brain. Love and care developed later and became embedded in our mammalian, human brain. It is waiting there to come forth as the dominant shaper of human life. It must if we would flourish.