Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Humanity of Humans

by Drew Martin
I had a very out of body experience on Friday at work, which may have had something to do with only having two hours sleep the night before. I was sitting in a meeting with some pretty smart people and although I was engaged in the conversation, I felt like I was watching it happen. I was consumed by the thought that our ideas were formed in and projected from what's inside our skulls.

It's quite remarkable that inside our thick skulls, there is a handful of gray matter that makes thought possible, and organizes our bodies through eye contact, speech, hand gestures, etc. to express our thoughts. This all came to me as I listened to one fellow across the table from me. I was most surprised by all the space around his head. It's like our brains are living planets in an otherwise vastly empty universe. 
I started thinking of the brain less as a central thought generator, or even the hub of a human conscious-style Internet, but more of a processor of one's total environment.

The human brain is still such a mystery. Even though we are getting a much better understanding of how it functions, the extremes of what it can do are mind-boggling, to say the least. In the past couple days I watched two films that made me think quite deeply about what makes us tick.

The first documentary I saw was The Drop Box, which is about a South Korean pastor and his wife in Seoul who have a drop box at their house for unwanted babies. Dead babies found in the trash and the alleys of Seoul, and abandoned babies left outside their gate on freezing cold nights inspired the drop box as a way to save the little, helpless lives. Most of the mothers who leave their babies in the drop box (and then take off before they are seen) are teenage girls. And many of the babies have Down's Syndrome, mental issues, or are physically deformed. It is a heart-wrenching film.

The second documentary I saw was Project Nim, about the 26-year roller coaster life of Nim Chimpsky (yes, after Noam Chomsky) who was taken from his chimpanzee mother and raised by a series of human surrogate mothers and teachers as part of a Columbia research project to see if a chimpanzee, given the right nurturing human environment could acquire the ability to communicate at a human level through sign language. Doomed from the start, the physicality of the maturing male chimp brought a swift end to the project, which began a personal hell for Nim: first, being returned to a prison-like environment, and then even worse - being sold for a scientific research project where he was used as a lab animal for testing Hepatitis and AIDS drugs.

Both films explore the depths of what it means to be human through the cruelest actions to the most compassionate souls.