COLUMN BY MICHAEL E. HILL
As we enter Week Eight of our season, I am struck by the complexity of the issues we’ve covered during this Chautauqua Summer Assembly. China, “Bridging our Divides,” empathy and our just-concluded look at “The State of the Economy.” All of these — and the many others — have an ingredient in common: our human ability to be curious and to learn. But have we ever considered what’s behind it all? This week we take a stab at that as we explore “The Human Brain: Our Greatest Mystery.”
Neurophysiologist and Nobel Laureate David Hubel once asked, “Can the brain understand the brain? Can it understand the mind? Is it a giant computer … or something more?” In this week, we explore the folds and recesses of this distinctly human mystery, bringing together neuroscientists and psychologists to chart a path through the enigma of our consciousness, through the impacts of trauma and stress on our health, through the gray matter and the white matter, neurons and synapses, the wiring that embodies our cognition, that sparks our selves.
I’m grateful for our guides who will help us unpack this very “heady” week. Angus Fletcher is one of the foremost scholars on the neuroscience of storytelling and starts our week in a very Chautauqua way, by blending two disciplines: science and literature. Longtime Chautauqua program contributor Norman Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, will lead a conversation with former director of the National Institute of Mental Health Thomas Insel and judge Steven Leifman that looks at the brain and mental health as the start of a series of conversations we will continue beyond the Summer Assembly on CHQ Assembly. We then move to neuroscientist Bianca Jones Marlin, whose research investigates the relationship between the innate and the learned, and we close out the week with neuro-ethicist Nita Farahany, who explores the ethical dimensions of what we know and where it goes. While the Chautauqua Lecture Series tackles this cerebral puzzle, we look to perhaps a deeper frame in our companion Interfaith Lecture Series, which examines “The Human Soul: Our Ineffable Mystery.” Most people sense and recognize another dimension beyond the physical plane of our existence and call the personal inner reality that this dimension connotes the human “soul,” known also as the “spirit” or “life force.” Recognition of this inner reality is the basis of most religions, but remains difficult to define or explain. In this week we will hear various interpretations of this ineffable human experience. I think this blending of head and heart provides a powerful frame as we enter the latter part of our Chautauqua season.
There’s so much more happening on the grounds. This week we welcome back the incomparable Capathia Jenkins with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra under the baton of our Principal Pops Conductor Stuart Chafetz as well as Black Violin, the Grammy-nominated duo that blends classical and hip-hop music to overcome stereotypes of what it means to be a classical musician, while proving there are no limits to what we can achieve. We also get to celebrate the continued work of our student artists with the second School of Dance Student Gala. The first one brought rave reviews of these talents, and I know you’ll enjoy this one just as much.
We offer a special welcome to the Sphinx Artists on Thursday, a quintet from the nation’s most dynamic professional chamber orchestra composed of top Black and Latinx classical soloists. This presentation is a manifestation of a wonderful partnership with the Sphinx organization that has come to life both here on the grounds and on CHQ Assembly over the past few years. Chautauqua Theater Company’s Thurgood at the Pavilion, Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle and African American Heritage House lecture presentations on CHQ Assembly, and a Friday night with The Wood Brothers make Week Eight a wonderfully diverse and week of experiences that will, no doubt, get the synapses firing!
As we journey through this week and look toward Week Nine, I want to thank all of you for your care and patience as we continue to navigate the impacts of COVID-19 on staffing levels and on new protocols. I am so grateful we’ve been able to convene in person this year together. Let’s continue to be kind and patient with one another, recognizing that Chautauqua only works when we all work together as a community. In the spirit of this week, thanks for bringing your head and soul to that endeavor. Have a great week!