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Themes

At Being Human we’re curious about why we experience our life the way we do, including our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.  Human life teems with richness and wonder, and yet if we hope to understand it scientifically, we must reduce it to the bare essentials. To that end we’ve come up with nine themes covering what we feel are the basic subjects necessary to begin. The presentations of the themes are based on widely held views from the fields of science, evolutionary theory, and philosophy.

    Emotions

    What Are Feelings For?
    You have a date to see friends for dinner, but you’re feeling anxious, it’s nearly time to leave and the sitter hasn’t arrived. When she finally shows up an hour late, it’s hard to contain your anger. She can sense that you’re not happy and seems a bit frightened. Your face turns red with embarrassment when you realize that last night was the end of daylight savings time...

    Bias

    How Fair Are We?
    When someone holds a one-sided point of view, we accuse him or her of being prejudiced, or having a bias. Human beings on an individual basis are inclined to interpret situations in biased ways, often based on their cultural norms and beliefs. But there is another kind of bias, called cognitive bias, that all humans share. Cognitive bias is our tendency to make systematic decisions in certain circumstances...

    Reality

    How Do We Know What Is Real?
    Reality then is what we can prove or logically infer is true or existent. Science posits that the universe began with the Big Bang, and even though we can’t go backward in time and watch it happen, we can infer that it actually happened from a wealth of evidence (such as the cosmic microwave background radiation). Religion may insist that a God created the universe in six days, but we cannot...

    Consciousness

    What Is Aware of Being Aware?
    What is consciousness? Is it a mysterious energy pervading the universe or an emergent function of your neurons? Let’s look at what we know: You are reading this page on a computer screen. Light from the screen hits your retinas, which convert it to signals that the brain processes and transforms into language. Your capacity to perceive these signals and translate them into something meaningful...

    Behavior

    Why Do We Do What We Do?
    It’s a hot summer day when you notice an Italian ice cream parlor. At first you resist the temptation since you’ve committed to a healthy diet. But as you get closer, you find your hand reaching for your wallet. “Two scoops of vanilla, please.” At home you confess your sin, but since you can’t come up with a good reason, you simply mumble, “The devil made me do...

    Evolution

    Where Did We Come From?
    It’s well accepted that our physical characteristics, such as multiple cells, bones, heads, legs, and hearts, evolved from our animal ancestors. But it’s even more interesting to ponder that all our biases, emotions, behavior, and even our viewpoints are the result of evolution. Classic human behaviors like dating, political maneuvering, and wanting to fit in have their roots in evolution...

    Perception

    Do We See the World as It Is?
    After we wake up in the mornings, something fascinating is happening, something we hardly notice. It’s smooth and transparent, yet fundamental as we navigate our world. We hear the alarm ring, we open our eyes and make our way to the kitchen. We smell the milk we use for our coffee, is it fresh or spoiled? We sense the temperature; is it cold, shall I wear a sweater today? We navigate our lives...

    Culture

    How Are We Influenced by Those Around Us?
    Culture is the knowledge, beliefs, behavior, outlook, attitudes, values, goals, traditions, and practices shared by a group of people that cannot be attributed to genetics. We define culture as the universal human ability to encode and transmit our experiences symbolically. Anthropologist Rob Boyd calls culture the “engine of human adaptation,” explaining that it was by accumulating and...

    Self

    Who Are We Really?
    For most of us it feels as if we are independent agents that control the choices in our lives. It feels like there’s a “me” that’s in charge. From a scientific perspective, however, the self may be illusory, since objective investigations reveal no agent or homunculus in the brain, no fixed self-entity, no “me.” Instead we experience a sense of self, which is generated...