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The Echoes of Experience

Life propels us forward, but our learning journey is rooted in the past.

  • Writer's picturePatricio Ramal

On Becoming: The Human Paradox

The Greek Myths

The gods were bored, becalmed in the ocean of time. It's all very well being immortal, but time does start to weigh heavily after a few dozen millennia. Boredom isn't stillness. Boredom is sameness. The god's lives flowed on with endless monotony; no century was really any different from any other century, and there was no prospect that the next century would be any different from the last.


They needed amusement and entertainment, but it wasn't just that: they found themselves even longing for opposition. Opposition would spark interest, create twists and knots in the smooth, unwinding yarn of the years. So they decided to populate the earth.

This is an excerpt from the first chapter of Robin Waterfield's book, The Greek Myths.


According to Greek mythology, the earth was initially populated out of boredom—an experiment of the Gods to amuse themselves. These Greek gods were very humorous. As you might have guessed, Zeus led the pack and recruited the rest of the gods to make all creatures. Once they were shaped out of clay, he gave the Titan Prometheus the job of equipping them with their powers.


According to the myth, Prometheus delegated the task to his brother Epimetheus at his request. When Epimetheus was done with his work, he presented it to Prometheus. Immediately, they both realized he had forgotten about a tiny clay form hidden in the workshop table: Humans. Since Epimetheus had already distributed all the powers, humans were left to fend for themselves with no unique ability.


With no claws, high strength, good vision, or skins that would protect them from the weather, Prometheus pondered ways to ensure humans' survival. Out of a sense of kinship or pity, he infused humans with his essence, and intelligence was born. The rest, as they say, is history.


But it is not, since this is only a myth.


According to estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world. Even if we only took the significant religions which account for more than 80% of the world's faithful, that leaves us with 12. That's twelve different accounts of the origin of humans. This does not include scientific theories, which are more than a dozen. But whether created by the Greek gods, a Christian God, or natural evolution, we are here now and have one thing in common. We are all human.


Or are we?


Defining Human


According to Merriam-Webster


human noun

: a bipedal primate mammal (Homo sapiens): a person: MAN sense 1c —usually plural


human adjective

  1. of, relating to, or characteristic of humans, as in the human brain or human voices

  2. consisting of humans, as in everyone held hands and made a human chain

  3. a: having human form or attributes, the statue is more human than the beings at his feet b: representative of or susceptible to the sympathies and frailties of human nature, as in human kindness


Of course, we don't need a dictionary to know that we are humans. Yet, it seems that the way we define it, we are not all human to the same degree. Let me elaborate.


A human is both a noun and an adjective. Nouns group or identify the class or group we are talking about, while adjectives serve to name an attribute related to a noun to modify or describe it. If adjectives are used to describe nouns, and a human is both, then we can say, "That human is very human."


But what does it mean for a human to be very human? And if we are something, do we need to recognize the degree to which we possess the descriptive quality? It sounds strange to say: "That mountain is very mountainous." Or "That cat is very cat-like." Well, he is a cat, isn't he? Then, aren't we just humans?


Aristotle called humans a rational animal. This notion is among the most widely used to distinguish us from other mammals. After all, our rational ability, we claim, is superior to any other species on earth. And we have our prefrontal cortex to thank for that.


Our prefrontal cortex, PFC for short, is the part of the brain responsible for rational thought. The section of the frontal cortex lies at the very front of the brain, in front of the premotor cortex. Put your hand wide across your forehead. Now imagine the depth of two business cards stacked together. That is your PFC. It makes up only 10% of the volume of the brain but is involved in many functions. The one that is probably best known for is executive function.


Our executive function focuses on controlling reflexive behaviors to participate in planning, decision-making, problem-solving, self-control, and acting with long-term goals. They are higher-level cognitive processes that humans tend to display greater proficiency in than other animals. This supports the argument that these are some of the functions that genuinely help make human cognition unique.


However, some researchers say we spend 10% of our waking time using our PFC. That is when we intentionally engage with our cognitive capacity and executive functions.


So what happens with the other 90% of the time?


The vast majority of our time is spent reacting reflexively. Acting on instinct, just like any other animal on the planet. It sounds simple, but it isn't by any means. Without getting into much detail, for now, your subconscious brain is responsible for the many activities that are keeping us alive and helping us navigate the world. We do this primarily through heuristics in the mind that we have learned from previous experiences and have coded as habits or automatic behaviors. Meaning they usually happen without our conscious thought or intention. 


The analogy we use to describe the brain as a computer isn't accurate or helpful. We have a very fickle brain with a limited PFC capacity. It needs the right chemistry, food, and rest to operate well and work in tandem with a subconscious mind full of cognitive distortions and biases. As a species, we are very limited, constantly frightened, controlled by emotions, and lacking self-awareness. With the accumulating evidence from neuroscience and behavioral sciences, it's hard to believe that we are rational animals and not just animals who sometimes reason. 


On Being


Herein lies the paradox. We are both animal and rational. It is only human to be fearful or courageous, to be mean or kind, to be angry or joyful, to be cruel or compassionate, to be inconsiderate or thoughtful, to be selfish or to be generous, to be arrogant or humble, to be reckless or prudent, to be ungrateful or grateful, and to react subconsciously or act intentionally. The difference between them is choice.


We don't have humanity infused by the gods, universe, or nature; we must create it ourselves.


That is the process of becoming.


I was thinking about why we are called human beings. It might be that the only way to be human is actually in the act of being. Maybe being is all we are, for we are never fully human.


Full of potential, constantly growing, always becoming.


A human being.


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Patricio Ramal


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