written by Nathan Vanderpool
I've had a lot of ideas about what a human is over the years. My Protestant Fundamentalist parents taught me that a human is a child of God. In public school, I learned to think of humans in terms of their roles as students and teachers, and later as citizens. I began working my way through college, and learned to think of a human as a rational actor with psychosexual energy. Eventually I also thought of a human as a product of culture or a member of a social class.
As I moved into my 20's my religious faith broke down, and I became a rather depressed Athiest. I began thinking of a human as a hairless monkey, or maybe sometimes even just a pile of chemicals. On good days, I might see a human as a storytelling animal or even the universe looking back at itself. But I was always looking at the question of what a human is from the outside—a belief (or image) about how things are. I hadn't ever stopped to deeply reflect on what it's like to be a human.
That shift in perspective—from ideas about what a human is to the experience of being a human—allowed me to see the world in a completely different light. I began to devour theories of developmental psychology (especially Piaget, Kohlberg, and Keagan). I also became fascinated with "affordances" as outlined by Gibson and expanded upon by Norman and Gaver. You could stop reading here, and spend the next three months in the library swimming in that ocean of writings. But if you're pressed for time, my son and I made an 11 minute audio meditation for you that covers the important stuff.
Perception (Memories and Possibilities) [11 min]
Go to a park, and pick up a stone. Hold it in your hand. Press Play.
Because it's 11minutes long, the file is about 10MB. You can download it over wifi here:
Note: This meditation also works anywhere outside near trees. If you can't go outside, you can also do it in your flat. Pick up a small object (one that won't break easily) instead of a rock, press play, and use your imagination.
I was walking in the park when I really got it. Afterwards... I never looked at the world the same way again.
It's like that David Foster Walace story about fish. Have you ever heard that? It goes like this:
"There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
Wallace said that "the point of the fish story is that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about."
So... Imagine you know nothing about the world. You just woke up here, one blink ago, in this park, with a stone in your hand. But you don't know what a stone is or what a park is, let alone who you are. That's ok, don't panic. Just take a moment and start with the stone.
Close your eyes. How does it feel in your hand? Try to see it with your mind.
Open your eyes and hold the stone out in front of you. Now drop it.
Did it fall to the ground? You weren't born knowing that things fall.
You learned about stones as a very small human. You learned how they feel, how they sound, how they act. You touched and tasted and threw them. You found out what kind of a thing a stone is.
Now start walking around.
Look at the ground, cement, plants, whatever is there. Feel them, just by looking with your eyes.
What would happen if you picked things up and dropped them?
You can imagine all of these things because you have memories... memories of how things hold together. How a rock feels and drops, for example. What it would feel like if you fell on the ground right now...
These memories are in the world. They aren't a separate thing. You already perceive them.
Look around you right now.
Look at all of the memories. They almost seem to say what what they are and what they are like when you see them. That tree is hard and rough, that grass is soft and bendy.
And memories point to something else... possibilities. A tree with low branches seems climbable. The flat surface in front of you seems walk-on-able.
The stone your dropped earlier seems pick-up-able.
All of these possibilities are already there in the world, too. They are in the way you and the world combine into one thing.
Walk around a bit longer, and notice the depth of your memories and the presence of possibilities in everything you see, hear, touch, taste, and feel.
So hey there fish... this is water.
Let that sink in for a minute.
HS101 is not based on a theory of what a person is. Instead it begins with what it's like to be a person, how human attention is guided in situations, and how (re)designs can guide that attention toward personal values. The obvious next question is: what is a personal value?