• Richard Hughes

Being Human: Or How Not To Be A Robot

Updated: 3 days ago

I thought I would set myself a challenge to explore in less than a thousand words perhaps the most important question of all: what makes us human? It is one of those questions that is at the heart of psychotherapy, a call to action which feels particularly pressing as we enter the second decade of the 21st century.

Our planet is fragile, people are polarised and many have argued that as a species we are at a critical point. We may have the latest iPhone but we have never been less connected; hyper-connectivity, mood-tracking technologies and sentiment analysis algorithms threaten to reduce the human race to consumers and data suppliers. A culture of corporate managerialism infects every aspect of our lives and whilst we are an extraordinary species with a sophisticated brain, our increasingly impaired ethic threatens our humanity.

Humanity is not a given. I hold a view, proposed by many writers and philosophers, that we are born man but we become human. Some argue that as we become more technologically advanced, the key to rebalancing our humanity is a neo-enlightenment, a return to reason; this may seem like an appealing argument but I concur with Carl Jung that ‘rational’ minds are a socially constructed narrowing of the human ability to expand consciousness. Social systems such as patriarchy and political ideologies do not define our ability to be human and whilst they may have evolved from brilliant intellects, we need to remind ourselves of these words by the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir: ‘in masculine hands, logic is often a form of violence’. This experience is mirrored by the black American writer James Baldwin, who observed that America was suffering ‘an emotional poverty so bottomless and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable organic connection between his public stance and his private life.’ History has shown that the outcome of this has been a deep fear of ‘difference’ and a pathological obsession with the mastering of nature and the dehumanisation others. Freud and Schopenhauer understood this all too well; they argued that rationalism and science only go so far before the monster retreats to a deeper domain.

Of course, we now live in an post-Cartesian world where we understand that reason and emotion are not separate and opposed, there is no clean left brain, right brain split. Reason is dependent on emotion, emotion gives value to things which enables us to make choices based on those valuations. The pragmatism of the human mind exists because it is aesthetic. The ancient Greek word ‘metanoia’ encapsulates the human potential of this, noia being ‘mind’ and meta being ‘greater’ or ‘beyond’. As the theologian Cynthia Bourgeault explains, being human is not about thinking differently, but about ‘going beyond the mind’, of connecting deeply with other minds. A neuroscientific perspective may help explain what is meant here: as a species we have evolved a nervous system which according to the psychologist Daniel Stern, ‘is constructed to be captured by the nervous system of others, so that we can experience others as if from within their skin, as well as from our own.’ The importance of touch, eye contact, curiosity and an openness to others must be developed as we seek to establish deeper and more complete connections. Through the co-created experience, the mystery of our humanness is revealed.

The need to understand who we are is part of our humanness. Through our connections with others, we have the ability to makes stories and create narratives. Science may reduce us to particles, this is a fact, but it does not take into account the human condition. For that we need stories. As soon as man looked up at the stars in wonder and began to share his experiences around the campfire his humanity was revealed. All stories need something magical and mysterious about them which cannot be rationalised away. For some that may be found in the Greek myths, fairytales, the works of Shakespeare or the Bible; as stories they help us explore the complexity of our inner selves and through that, our connection with others.

This curiosity about our inner selves and other's lived experience is the corner stone of empathy, compassion and self-awareness. The potential is huge: together we can create more human-focused morality, ethics and social structures. An over-focus on rationality has led to a narrowing of these structures with the outcome that we pathologise human experience, value helicopter parenting over the humanities and search for meaning and purpose in quick fix spiritual appropriation. All of this is the slow erosion of what makes us human and none of it makes us truly happy or gives space to our inner life. In summary, it seems that Descartes was wrong after all; it is not I think, therefore I am rather I am because of who we are and whilst this might sound like a neuroscientific meme, it is in fact an ancient Nguni expression as old as time.

Further reading:

Olivia Laing - Every Body


Daniel Stern - The Interpersonal World of the Infant

James Baldwin - The Evidence of Things Not Seen

Anne Lamott - Bird by Bird

E. M Forster - The Life to Come

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