Let’s consider four verbs which highlight essential characteristics of human beings.
All living creatures are sensate. All have sensory organs to pick up stimuli from the environment – light, sound, odours, temperature and so on. As human beings we have a particularly elaborate sensory system, possibly THE most elaborate of all creatures, however, being sensate is a characteristic we share with all animate beings.
I have a large hardback copy of Gray’s Anatomy on my bookshelf. I bought it when I was studying anatomy at Medical School back in 1973. I still find it fascinating. The section on the nervous system and the brain shows something incredibly striking. All the nerves which carry the signals from the sensory organs travel first of all to what is termed “the old brain”, the “limbic system” more or less. That always amazed me. Why do all the sensory signals go there? This particular area of the brain is the main emotion generating and processing centre. It’s responsible for those feelings you get of fear, of arousal, of anger, and so on. Modern techniques of brain imaging are helping us to understand this better. It seems that we have developed in a way which allows signals from our sensory equipment to first of all create emotional states. This has a survival advantage. For example, we can quickly develop the “fight or flight” response to successfully deal with any threats around us. Obviously emotions are considerably more elaborate than this. Anthony Damasio is really interesting to read about this subject. “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain” is a good starting point. But I can also recommend his “The Feeling of What Happens” and “Looking for Spinoza”. You might also like “Consciousness Explained” by Daniel C Dennett and “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman. What all of these authors show us is how this particular function of the brain allows us to respond to stimuli from the environment far, far more quickly than we could if we had to become aware of everything consciously first, then figure out what to do about it. That thinking thing comes next! Although it’s not possible to really know the emotional content of another creature’s mind, from observing behaviour patterns it would seem that other animals also have emotions.
Those two great parts of the brain known as the cerebral hemispheres are responsible for what we term “cognition”…….thinking. In its entirety, the human brain is THE most complex structure in the known universe. Amazing, huh? And it’s inside your head! There’s way too much involved in thinking for me to explain here but it involves memory, imagination, awareness, concentration and systems of assessment. Once signals have been processed in the old brain (and acted upon!), this “new brain” picks up the trail and processes what’s going on. It’s thinking that let’s us make choices. Some other creatures think too, but, as far as we know, not to nearly the same extent as human beings do. One of the things we’ve done with these capacities is to develop language which gives us the ability to handle and manipulate symbols and to think both abstractly and synthetically. And that leads to the fourth verb – the one which seems to be uniquely human -
We don’t just pick up signals, we don’t just generate feelings, we don’t just think about the signals and the feelings to make choices, we do something else. We try to make sense of things. We are always asking the questions “Why?” and “How come?” We are insatiably curious but we are also insatiably trying to understand the world and our experiences. The way we do this is by telling stories. We put everything together and attribute values and meanings to weave narratives which enable us to make sense of the world and of ourselves. We do this in a host of complex ways. Viktor Frankl showed how this is one of our most fundamental drives. See his “Man’s Search for Meaning”. Richard Kearney shows how we use storytelling for this purpose, and Owen Flanagan shows how we inhabit “spaces of meaning” to create our distinct worldviews and narratives.
So, there you have it. Four verbs which make us human – sensing, feeling, thinking and meaning-seeking. Let me just add one further level of complexity. I’ve presented this is a logical, step-wise way – inspired by those evolutionary biologists – but on a moment to moment basis, these activities of the human being are continuously active and interactive. What sense we make of something influences what we sense and vice versa. Feelings influence thoughts and vice versa. And so on.
What do you think? Do you agree that these four verbs capture what it is to be human? Have you any others you think I should add?
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