We are SO Basic: The Wiring that Makes us Human

Over the Christmas holiday last week, I got to hang out quite a bit with these two characters - nephews Charlie and Oliver, born two months apart.  (Lucky me!)  

In the absence of sustained adult conversation (which these little dudes render impossible but we love them anyway) we grown ups spent a lot of time playing a game I like to call "Look How Different They Are!"  

Here are the rules:  Sit on the floor (that's the hardest part for us old folks), watch the boys play, and call out things we notice, like "this one seems to really like cars and wheels more than the other one..." "this one seems to really persevere while this one asks for help sooner..." "this one seems more serious while the other one likes a good chuckle..."  (Its not a complicated game, but it is at least a step up from the alternate game we play, called "Oh My God Did You See the Cute Thing He Just Did? Isn't He Cute?")

If you think about it, the "Look How Different They Are" game is one that all of us play our whole lives - as we come to know ourselves better and better, we get a clearer and clearer view of the particular way we are wired, and knowing how we're wired is a key to making good choices about how to use our lives in ways that feel satisfying and purpose-full.  My Creative Constellations Project is all about offering a framework to help you understand your distinct individual creating styles and patterns so that you can see your splendid, complex uniqueness in a new and hopefully useful way.

But, here's the thing:  

The work of figuring ourselves out is kinda hard...  

Carl Jung reminds us, in fact, that it requires quite a bit of deep thought.:  “To find out what is truly individual in ourselves, profound reflection is needed; and suddenly we realize how uncommonly difficult the discovery of individuality is.” 

...and since we're all pretty pre-occupied this week with making sure there aren't any cookies or fudge left to see the New Year, I vote we put off the 'uncommonly difficult' work a bit longer.

So, instead of looking more deeply into how YOU are wired as a creator, I think this might be a good time to step back and think for a moment about how WE are wired as human beings.  

Because as fascinating as our individual differences are, they are actually an infinite set of variations on the theme of being human.  So, today, let's look under the hood and check out the shared wiring all of us humans carry somewhere in the core of our beings.  Let's, in other words, take a break from the "Look How Different I Am" game, and play the "Look How Amazing (and Cute) We All Are!" game.

(As an anatomist's daughter, I feel I must clearly state for the record that my graphic renderings of our basic human wiring may be just a tad shy of anatomically correct.)

It seems to me that there are three basic drives that we share as human beings:  

  1. We are wired for caring connection (with other humans and with the entire world around us);
  2. We are wired to learn and grow (to explore, to discover, to broaden our understanding, to evolve our consciousness); and
  3. We are wired to create (to make a mark, to have an impact, to imagine new possibilities, to forge meaning, to play a part in adding to or changing our world).  

Pretty basic right?  You may be surprised at how long it has taken us to arrive at this view...but more on that in a moment.  First, here's a close up of the three strands that make up our basic human wiring.

Of course, there are many biological environmental factors that play into the degree to which each of these strands is developed in a particular person, and we can clearly see from this illustration that each of the main wires is made up of all those little teeny wires, which make things even more complex...but if we're talking about the best of what makes us human beings, if we're talking about the capacities that we collectively strive to develop in ourselves and our children - here's a little chart that helps us see what each of these drives moves us toward, and what happens when, for whatever reason, we don't fully develop one of our "wires."

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Now, many wise people like to call our attention to one wire at a time and remind us of how fundamental it is...

Some say the deepest truth of our humanity is caring and connection:  

"You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart."  - Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum

Some say the deepest truth of our humanity is our engagement in a continual learning process:

"Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness"  - Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

Some remind us that we are here to create - to make a mark, to use our voice:

"If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud."  - Emile Zola

...but, in fact, the three strands are completely intertwined and mutually reinforcing.  

  • We learn by attempting to create.  
  • All humans learn best in the presence of a caring person.
  • We create because we want to explore and impact what we care about.  
  • We come to care more deeply for the things that we study closely.
  • Our ability to empathize is connected to our ability to imagine.
  • Our connections to the world fuel our desire to solve problems, which fuel our desires to learn and create.
  • As your consciousness expands, it takes you deeper into connection with all things and inspires new creations.

And around and around we go...

Why haven't we seen this simple wiring before?

The basic truth about our shared human wiring - and by extension our highest potentials for contribution - has been hidden under mountains of cultural baggage and just-plain limited knowledge.  

It turns out that one of the things that we humans really love to do with our creative wiring is to create rules for the right way to be human - particularly rules that support the social order and shore up the way power is organized and distributed in a given time and place.   We are particularly awesome at inventing all kinds of beliefs that limit and obscure the truth of our common basic wiring.

What kind of baggage?  Well, just for fun, let's peel back a few old trunks and valises, shall we?

Here's a stack of junky old thinking that's accumulated around our Basic Human wiring - see if any of this sounds familiar:

Women have fought very hard to change this thinking - but there are still many places in the world where female humans are denied all support for learning and creating.  Oppressive cultures everywhere have long ago figured out that education fuels revolution and that ignorant people are more easily kept in their place. Even in the parts of the world where women have made the most strides toward unpacking this particular baggage, many struggle to give ourselves the permission to keep learning and creating in our adulthood - witness the shelves and shelves of creative self help literature which largely functions to shore up women's internal belief that we have the right to nurture our own voices and follow our own curiosities. 

Happily, more and more men are chucking this baggage, speaking out about the deep damage suffered when the caring and connection wiring is suppressed and denied, and re-defining masculinity in ways that are more fully human.  A cursory survey of the field of GOP Presidential candidates, however, reveals we've still got a loooooong way to go.  A habit of defining "real power" as inherently detached from empathy and compassion still has a scarily deep hold in our culture.  

Thankfully, this baggage is well on its way to being debunked.  In 1983, Howard Gardner put forward his theory of Multiple Intelligences.  By defining eight distinctly different intellegences, Gardner paved the way to stop asking the punishing question "How Smart Are You?" and start asking "How are You Smart?"  If there are different ways of being intelligent, there are different ways of learning and developing those intelligences...and good teachers in classrooms everywhere are now actively working to diversify the teaching modalities they use to address the needs of all kinds of learners.  Huzzah!

This old chestnut was really useful "back in the day" for shoring up the notion that grown ups should pick one job, no matter how deadening, and stick to it.  Here's a quick peek at how this "static brain" baggage has been thoroughly unpacked:  "One of the startling revelations of the 21st century is the improvement in our knowledge of nerve cell development among older adults. Known as neurogenesis or brain plasticity, this new knowledge is showing us that the brain has the ability to CHANGE throughout life by forming new connections between brain cells, and to alter function. For a long time, it was assumed that as we become older, the connections in the brain became fixed, and then it was just a matter of time that we started “losing” brain cells. However this assumption is being aggressively challenged by recent studies showing that the brain never stops changing."  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/iage/201304/brain-plasticity-in-older-adults  

This belief that the "create" wire is only present in some people and not others is a tricky and pernicious one.  As our economy shifts to a "Creativity Economy" we are seeing many more thinkers and researchers trying to define what creativity is (so that they can tell us how to foster it in employees).  

Some "experts" are busy creating "life hacks" designed to turn up the flow of current through that creative wiring to 11 so that we can "get 300% more creative by this time next week!"  (Spoiler alert:  I find this direction for thinking about creativity really wrong-headed and damaging - I'll come back to that another time.) 

Many others are starting to argue that we all have the capacity to create, but that we jam up our natural creative wiring through our anti-creative education practices - I think that is at least part of the puzzle, for sure.

Though we're making progress on understanding that all people are wired to create, there's one last bag that many people are still hung up on that prevents us from moving forward to see how we might support the development of all people's creative wiring - and here it is (see that colorful suitcase over there? )

Our internalized understanding of what creativity is is still so closely tied to "The Arts" that we have some significant additional unpacking to do before we can really begin to understand that third part of our Basic Human wiring.  

To Recap:

What have we learned in this post?

  1. Sara Saltee has incredibly cute nephews.
  2. For all their many differences, they - like all of us humans - are wired with a three-pronged set of mutually reinforcing and interdependent drives.  For the alliteration-lovers among us, we'll call those capacities Caring, Consciousness, and Creativity.
  3. Sometimes you have to paw through a bunch of crappy old vintage luggage to see the simple truth about what makes us human.
  4. We've made good progress toward ditching some key old thinking about our wiring around caring and learning...but our basic understandings about our wiring to create are still a bit muddled.
  5. So, on the creativity front, we've got some more digging and defining to do.  Won't that be fun?

I'll be back in this space in a couple weeks with a new post.  Until then, I wish you a Happy Fudge Metabolization Week!