THE JOURNEY OF SURVIVORS

70,000-year history of Indian sub-continent

REDISCOVERING INDIA

Unraveling the mystery of our roots to understand the present and predict the future.

WOMEN, SEX AND PREJUDICE

Do we have it in us to give the fairer sex the place they deserve?.

CURRENT AFFAIRS

Change of world order. Religious Terrorism. Where are we heading?.

INCREDIBLE INDIA

Wanderlust Hodophiles.

Welcome to KHOJ: The search to know our roots and understand the meaning of our existence.

Prejudice is the biggest problem in the society. It can be it in terms of religion, cast, sex, skin-colour, status etc. Prejudice can also be in form of the feeling that human beings are the greatest creation, or even patriotism about artificially created borders. The motto of KHOJ is to gain knowledge and break that prejudice. But there is a word of caution for the readers. To break the prejudice KHOJ might throw upon you the concepts it believes in. If the reader believes on KHOJ’s perception without question, then KHOJ itself might incept a prejudice in the readers mind thus failing in it own motto. KHOJ is trying to break its own world of prejudice, but at times that prejudice might get reflected in its writing. Please do challenge them.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

How we came to be

Life Takes Shape


Before we understand human beings, we need to understand how we came to be. One of the most thrilling experience of my life happened in one of the holiest places of India, Chitrakoot. Legend has it that King Rama, his wife Sita, and brother Lakshmana spent eleven out of their fourteen years of exile here. My group and me were also out there for a fourteen-day exile, looking at the outcrops of Vindhyan. I was standing over the Tirohan Dolomite of the Lower Vindhyan and staring down at one of the oldest evidence of life. I was looking at our tiny ancestors- the phosphatized stromatolitic microbialites, a variety of red algae- that was 1.6 billion years old. They are one of the oldest direct evidence of life. Isn’t that fascinating? What’s more fascinating is to trace back the evolution of the complex humans from those tiny creatures.
 
Stromatolites
The earliest evidence of life dates back to 3.8 billions years. 3.8 billion years is too long to preserve direct evidence of micro life. Scientists need to depend on indirect evidence, which came from the carbon-isotope analysis of rocks from the Isua and Akilia greenstone belts of southwest Greenland. There are also structures within the rocks, which according to some geologists, look like stromatolites. How life started is still a big puzzle that needs to be solved. Did a creator design it? Was it just a chance episode? Or is it that we can ask this question because we happen to be in one of the infinite universes that happen to have the right conditions for life? Was it an obvious outcome of the initial conditions of our universe? Unfortunately, as things stand now, we are not going to have an answer anytime soon.

Hungarian Nobel prizewinner Albert Szent-Györgyi once said, ‘Life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest’. As long as it is ‘looking’, we are good. As long as the electrons are snatched and transferred from one atom to another, life will continue. For example there are bacteria’s, which strip electrons from hydrogen, and attach them into carbon dioxide generating methane and water. All living things do that. Strip electrons from something and attach them to something else to tap the energy required to live. Electron transfer was the first process that happened when life was born, in the primordial soup or deep-sea hydrothermal vent, or wherever it started. In the process it was creating information about its own identity.

Miller-Urey experiment showed that biology could be cooked out of chemistry, given the right ingredients and a spark. Jeremy England, a biophysicist, thinks that complex structures like living things can naturally grow from restructuring effect, which he calls dissipation-driven-adaptation. Atoms try to restructure themselves in order to burn more and more energy resulting in the rise of entropy, as required by the second law of thermodynamics. And the most effective way of doing it is replication. However, the conditions on early earth or inside a cell are very complex and cannot be predicted from first principles. All experiments done so far are only speculations. Whichever way life formed, it was using geochemical energy (water-rock reactions) to survive.

The next step life required, after it was “created”, was replication of the information that made the blob of protein. One of the popular theories suggests that self-replicating nucleic acids were the first replicators, from which RNA took shape. Recent findings propose that Mars was the best place for these replicators to form. Martian or not, our tiny ancestors must have been cannibals. Proteins required eating protein to survive, thus arose the first predators and their preys. As if creation of replicating proteins was not enough a miracle, there was an even bigger miracle that made us - endosymbiosis between two prokaryotes. According to biochemist Nick Lane the miracle of one bacteria getting inside another and surviving there for generations has helped develop complex life like us. One such bacterium is the mitochondria living inside our cells. This triggered a chain of events, including formation of nucleus, sex, two sexes, predators and preys.

These early autotrophic forms of life soon turned to heterotrophic by feeding on the dead cells of others. This suddenly triggered a race of survival between the predator and the prey, making way for Darwinian evolution where the fittest gene survived and spread. While the preys developed hard shell or became agile, the predators developed stronger teeth to crush their prey. Sometime, before the more complex predator prey evolved, some of these early life forms learned to utilize the energy from the sun to power life. This is when we find stromatolites and banded iron formations in different parts of the globe. From anoxygenic photosynthesis, life learned to take in oxygen by breaking down water molecules. This aerobic photosynthesis started to increase the oxygen content in the atmosphere. This resulted in the Great Oxidation Event around 2.2 billion years ago. Red bed outcrops found around the earth are evidence of this global event. Rise of oxygen created the Ozone layer, making earth more habitable. Oxygen is the most efficient element in terms of the amount of energy released per electron transfer, apart from the much less abundant chlorine and fluorine. This helped in the creating of complex life form.

The first single celled eukaryote evolved around 1.6 billion years ago. During the Snowball Earth, that happened 750-600million years ago, oxygen level rose rapidly to modern day concentrations. Oceans were oxygenated and the earliest know complex multicellular organisms, called Ediacarans, took birth. Multicellular organisms developed special systems, like the nervous system, that helped them perceive the world in a more advanced way. Desires were developed that helped the organisms to survive and reproduce. After a pause of a century or so since the first Ediacarans, life began to explode. This period, as recorded in the fossils of around 541 million years, is known as the Cambrian explosion.

The best evidence of Cambrian explosion in India is preserved in the Blue City of Rajasthan. We went to Jodhpur as part of a fieldtrip to look at the rock outcrops and understand the reservoirs that hosts the largest onland oil discovery of India. The pink Jodhpur sandstones are too old and too tight to interest a petroleum geologist, however they would fascinate any geologist. These famous sandstones have been queried and the slabs sold as building materials all over the world. While we are loosing these rocks, that have survived for over 540 million years, rapidly, it also gave us the opportunity to look at some fresh rock faces. In one of those fresh rock faces were some weird looking disk-shaped fossils. These discoidal fossils are the most common and youngest Ediacaran fossils in the world. Since Cambrian, life never looked back.

The first dominant vertebrates were the prehistoric fishes that swam the ancient ocean 500 to 400 million years ago. From these ‘fishes’ evolved the adventurous tetrapods at around 400-350 million years ago. They were the first animals to get out of the ocean and colonize the dry lands. For the next 50 million years the amphibians dominated the land and had the better of the evolving reptiles. But soon the tables were turned. Reptiles grew big and became the glamorous dinosaurs, while the amphibians shrunk into frogs and toads. Our tiny furry warm-blooded ancestors evolved around 230 million years ago. They lived under the shadows of the mighty dinosaurs. While these first mammals were no matches for the giant reptiles, they were the masters of hiding, running, and most importantly, surviving. Our ancestors survived what even the dinosaurs could not – the K-T extinction. As the reptile menace perished, it was time for the mammals to flourish. Filial emotions evolved in mammals to help then bind with each other. Unity was the key to mammal’s survival. Primates evolved from the tree hugging mammals of the tropical forests. They are the most social of all animals and the social emotions, like guilt and pride, became a dominant part of their brain. Strong emotions created a highly sophisticated animal. Who knew what these innocent looking animals would soon be up to.

The Smart Ape


Primates and emotions

So far we saw how apes evolved from the single celled organisms. In this section we will see how we evolved from apes. It all began more than 30million years ago, ~200kms below the surface of earth, at a temperature of 1500°C, somewhere under the Mountain of Moon. That was where a dangerous force was unleashed, that changed the world forever. The heat, 200kms below the earth (geologists calls it magma plume), was slowly tearing Africa apart (rifting). The force that was soon going to change our fate was first changing the geography of East Africa. The landscape slowly evolved into The Great African Rift Valley. It created deep lakes like Lake Tanganyika that is 1470m deep, to high mountains like the 5109m tall Mt. Rwenzori, within next 20 million years. The high mountains blocked the clouds creating a rain shadow in the eastern part of Africa making it more arid. A kilometer reduction of topography would have meant I would not have been here to write this book, the world would have been lot greener, and no one would have been there to worry about global warming.

The single most important thing that separates us from other primates is that we walk upright. According to the most popular theory the colossal change of climate initiated by the tectonic forces triggered evolution of apes. The climate in which our ancestors became so comfortable changed from rainforests to savannas. These changes meant that the apes themselves had to change to adapt to the new conditions. One of such change was the decision to walk upright. The reduction of trees meant that they were forced to come down from the comfort of the trees into the unsafe land and also had to cover huge areas for food. What actually influenced bipedalism is debatable, but one thing is for sure, it gave us an immense advantage. Bipedalism is effective in terms of energy conservation making us more agile. It not only helped us catch preys but also helped us run away from the predators. But the most significant aspect of bipedalism was that it freed our hands. This meant that now we were ready to go on the offensive. Free hands were the most powerful weapon any animal ever had. Use of hands made us more intelligent as we used it to create tools that were useful for survival. We were ready to take our future into our own hands. Use of tools required hand eye coordination, fine motor skill development, and process of large volumes of information. It required powerful brain. Bipedalism happened about 5 million years ago and it corresponds to the time when human brain began to develop, not just in size but also complexity. Desires were the first to develop, followed by emotions. Now the third and the most powerful part of the brain were evolving. This part is call intelligence.

The next big step our ancestors took was control of fire. The oldest evidence of control of fire dates back to 1.7 million years, but the definitive evidence of controlled use of fire dates back 600,000 years ago by Homo erectus. By 125,000 years anatomically modern humans were masters of controlling fire. Fire gave us big advantage over other animals. It warmed us at night and helped us spread to colder places. Fire not only helped us forge better weapons, it also helped us create works of art like terracotta statues and pottery. Fire helped us scare predators and cook preys. Had we not been playing with fire, mammoths would probably be still around and we would probably be still in caves. The cooked food was healthy as it killed unhealthy bacteria’s like E.Coli and salmonella. Cooked food was easier to digest. As a consequence our stomach, teeth and mouth became smaller and there was a decrease is the size of our gastrointestinal track and organs in the digestive system. Richard Wrangham suggests that the brains now used this freed up energy, making it bigger and us smarter. Change in food habit also helped. Increase in meat and shellfish consumption increased dopamine secretion in the brain making us smarter. The intelligent human beings had a better chance of survival and finding mates. The genes that preferred intelligence and bigger brain size rapidly spread in the population by natural selection.

The bigger brain did come at a cost. While being just 2% of our body weight, human brains consume 20% of our energy requirement, much higher than any other animal. This increased our food requirement, keeping us busy. Had we been a bit less smart, the world would have a lot more food. There was also less energy to built muscles. Our intelligence came at the cost of our strength. The large brains also meant large skull to contain it. This made childbirth difficult and painful. The birth canal of women grew wider. But it was not enough as the brain of the primates of ‘homo’ genus continued to grow. The solution was in giving early birth, before the skull became too big. The need to take care of infants for a longer period of time bonded the parents together. Emotional part of the brain helped develop the intelligent part by creating the feeling ‘love’.  Partners in love stayed together and cared for their offspring. The brains could now continue to grow, but it made these primates beings less mobile. They stayed in one place for a long time. Females took care of the infants while males went to hunt.

The biggest invention of the “smart” us was probably language. Language not only helped in communication, but also in making and sharing stories. It was a cognitive revolution for our species, which could well have been triggered by some sort of mutation. Noam Chomky would tell you that language is in our genes. One must not get carried away here to believe that we are the only species that communicate using language. We know of birds like parrots that can make sounds just like us. A whale can communicate meaningful words with another whale that is 100s of kms away using sonic waves. Green monkeys has different words to differentiate between ‘Careful! Lion!’ and ‘Careful! Eagle!’ Fellow monkeys reacts appropriately depending on the warning. Homo sapience, however, has developed the most complex language amongst all animals, a language that helps us to gossip. Other animals communicate about immediate danger, while we can teach dangers of predators to our kids through stories even before they face a threat. We can talk and plan ahead to save ourselves from predators, while at the same time strategizing how to kill our next prey. We can gossip about whom you like and whom you don’t, about who is helpful and who is a cheater, about who loves whom and who is sleeping with whom. We created legends, we created myths and above all, we created gods. According to Yuval Noah Harari, none of them would have been possible without language. This great revolution probably happened around 70,000 years ago. That was the time when humans migrated out of Africa (even though some latest research points its fingers towards Europe), improved our art and craft abilities, and drove Neanderthals towards extinction. This time, also known as the “Great Leap Forward”, coincides with climate change resulting from the great Toba eruption. The deadly eruption created a ten-year-long winter. It resulted in an ecological disaster that destroyed most of the vegetation. The long and harsh winter decreased the human population of the world to just 3,000-10,000 individuals. All human beings alive today are descendants from those small numbers of individuals, as proven by genetic studies. In fact, every person alive in this world today can be traced back to a single female who lived 140,000 years ago and to a single male living 90,000 years ago.
 
Arts and Intelligence went hand in hand

Once they were out of the comfort of their ancestral home in Africa, they required innovation to survive. They took risks and ended up discovering more. These new adventures were changing their brain. The once apes, were now slowly rising up the food chain. Homo sapience’s were evolving into a perfect killing machine. The cave paintings by this early sapience revealed their love for hunting, music, and dancing. As the ice age melted away and earth became more hospitable, people started getting organized into groups and settled down in a fertile land. Human beings started to tweak the rules of nature. In nature, the big fish eats small fish, and the fittest survive. Humans created a world where even the weak could survive. They named this world ‘civilization’. In the new world they were making, unity was strength. Civilization needed a tool—an idea—to bind people together. The idea came in the form of society and religion. Some among the clans claimed to be closer to god and declared themselves priests. Some of these priests specialized in healing the sick, some in predicting the future, while others at changing it. The first temples (dolmens) were created out of stones and menhirs. The logos of intelligence and mythos of emotions was growing together. From the single cells of Isua and Akilia to a complex organism that can read and write, we have come a long way.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Decoding Happiness

Search the internet and you will find thousand advices that are suppose to make you happy, from buying a cat to donating an organ. Obviously, happiness is something that is damn important to all of us. But, like the “Holy Grail”, the search for eternal happiness has eluded us. Web defines happiness as “state of well-being characterised by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy”. I know this definition is open to a debate, let’s just pretend it is true. But the real questions are - why is happiness so important to us and what make us happy!


In no other era in the history of mankind did we have so many reasons to be happy than the one we are living in. Recent statistics, including the one by Steven Pinker, shows that violence is at an all time low. There is dramatic reduction in war deaths, domestic violence, racism, rape and murder globally (Figure 1). For the first time ever more people kills themselves then getting killed by others. World energy consumption, an indicator of our lifestyle, is also increasing exponentially (Figure 2). Energy consumption increased six times since 1960, while the population grew just 2.2 times. The middle class now has more luxury than a Medieval king. With all the reasons we have to be happy, are we any happier?





Figure 1: Decrease in deaths due to conflicts. 


Figure 2: World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent years. [http://www.doomsteaddiner.net]


Figure 3: GDP vs per capita power consumption. [http://www.ourenergypolicy.org]

While there is a direct correlation between GDP and per capita energy consumption (Figure 3), the relation between Human Development Index (HDI) and per capita energy consumption is a bit tricky (Figure 4). HDI is calculated from various factors including life expectancy at birth, years of schooling, and per capita gross national income. Overall the HDI gets better with per capita energy consumption. However, there is a lot of scatter at the lower energy consumption area, and above a particular amount of energy consumption it does not improve the HDI. While poverty does indeed make us unhappy, wealth does not necessarily make us happy.


Figure 4: HDI vs per capita power consumption. [http://www.ourenergypolicy.org]

Surveys done over time in developed countries have shown that, despite increase in income, people are not getting happier. Once the basic needs are fulfilled, money doesn’t really make you happy. People are in fact getting lonelier and depressed. As a result, suicide rates are increasing at an alarming pace (Figure 5). Self harm is the leading cause of death in today’s world (Figure 6). India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world (Figure 7) and it is going to get worse unless something is done. Despite the luxuries, why is happiness eluding us?




Figure 5: Increase in global suicide rate (https://www.vitamindwiki.com/)


Figure 6: How we die.

Figure 7: Suicide problem of India.

In her paper ‘Money Giveth, Money Taketh Away- The Dual Effect of Wealth on Happiness’ published in 2010, Quoidbach et al. demonstrates that ‘having access to the best things in life may actually undercut people’s ability to reap enjoyment from life’s small pleasures’. She came to that conclusion after two different experiments. In the first experiment she found out that wealthy people savoured chocolate less than the less wealthy ones. In the second experiment one set of people were primed by showing them pictures of money, while the other was not. Despite similar economic background, those who saw pictures of money before tasting chocolates savoured the chocolates less than those who were not shown pictures of money. Despite some odd possibility of alternate explanations, like people lost apatite for chocolates after seeing money and thinking of germs, I believe her results were right. It was not just her experiments, but the results of a survey done in US (Figure 8) and some other countries have shown that increase in income is not making people happy. The results are not surprising if one understands what happiness is. 


Figure 8: Consumption and happiness in US.

A bacteria in the soil in your backyard can actually make you happy (read get you high). The culprit here is a bacterium named Mycobacterium vaccae. This was discovered quite accidentally in 2004 by an oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital named Mary O’Brien. She was injecting lung cancer patient with serum from Mycobacterium vaccae because the bacterium was thought to have immune boosting response on patients. While it failed to heal the cancer, instead it made the patients happier and improved their lifestyle. It has been found that bacteria and bacterial products can have effect on brain and the neural pathways in a way that it affects human behaviour. That is how our emotions work. It is controlled not by the external situation you are in, but by your internal biochemistry. 

Chemicals inside you effect your emotions, external factors can only activate those chemicals. Nicole Lazzaro explains that there are four different chemicals released by the brain (neurotransmitters) that can make you happy - dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins. Dopamine is released on anticipation of happy event or stress. It controls human emotions, including desires, achievements, pleasures, mood, sleep and happiness. Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone”, is released by the pituitary gland, especially when one come in close proximity to another person. It sometimes has the affect of falling in love and is also called as the “cuddle hormone”. It helps in relationships and bonding and the resulting feeling of happiness caused by oxytocin secretion is different from the happiness due to pleasure or achievement created by dopamine. Serotonin’s affect on happiness is debatable, however it has been proven that this hormone helps us in learning. Some people claim that it affects mood, and lack of it can make one feel low. Endorphins are known to mask pain and discomfort. They can be released during vigorous exercise and lead to an effect termed as “runners high”. There must be several other chemicals that affect our mood than the four described by Lazzaro. The secretion of these chemicals may or may not be caused by external situations. It can be artificially triggered by drugs or meditation. And, more importantly, it does not depend on the amount of energy you consume, or how luxurious life you live. Instead, it depends on your expectations - the deviation of what you get from what you expect. Unfortunately, when a person gets richer, his or her desires and expectations also rise. Thus, soon the difference between expectations and happiness reaches the base level. Psychologists call it “hedonic treadmill” affect.

Happiness is not external, but internal. It is a result of trials and errors of millions of years of evolution, just like the ones that made giraffe’s neck long. Professors Meike Bartels and Philipp Koellinge have found in 2016 the genes that might be responsible for happiness after studying DNA samples from 298,000 people from around the globe. They found that prevalence of FAAH gene, which makes a protein that affects feelings of pleasure and pain, correlates fairly well with “happiness” of different countries (Figure 9). Some research even claims that happiness is 50% genetic. If evolution indeed favoured happiness, the question is why?


Figure 9: Correlation between FAAH gene and happiness (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3559114/Is-happiness-DNA-Study-finds-genes-affect-mood-prone-depression-neuroticism.html#ixzz4tEq7nVhd )

According to evolutionary psychologists like Robert Cummins of Deakin University of Melbourne happiness, just like the negative emotions of fear, anger and disgust, evolved because it gave us adaptive advantage. Negative emotions are stronger because it keeps us alive. Fear helps run away from predator, anger helps us beat our opponents and disgust helps us avoid poisonous food. Experiments done by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky demonstrated that ‘pain is more urgent than pleasure’. Once we are safe, however, happiness increases our want to survive. Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory propose that happiness helps us build resource and store for the future. If we were not happy eaters we would have starved to death, if we were not happy ‘maters’ we would have died long before killing the beautiful dodo birds. We are not going to survive for long if we become equally happy to see our enemies as we are when we see our friends. Positive feelings like happiness change the way our brain works and helps us gather more information. Happy people are also healthier. In short, happiness helps us survive.

While small wonders like a child’s smile, pleasant weather, a birds song, the snow capped peak, the green forest, the blue sky, food, beer and sex, can make us happy, we somehow end up confusing ourselves asking the question, ‘what makes us happy?’. Even the religions that guarantee happiness have no unique solution. The ancient philosophies of Asia declared renouncing materialism makes one happy. The idea being to reduce expectations, and thus increase the gap between what you want and what you get. Thus one would be happier. Try poverty when you have hungry mouths to feed. The medieval philosophy of West and ‘Middle-West’ (I prefer it to the term Middle-East) goes one step further and proclaims that our life is a result of sin. Death is the only way to happiness. That idea is definitely not for me. After the Renaissance people started to reject the idea of being controlled by an invisible force and started to believe in free-will. Individualistic happiness gained importance. As economies of countries grew stronger, materialistic happiness ruled the mind. The new model for strong economy was to spend more. So you had loans and credit cards along with the luring malls to make you happy. It does make you happy, but only for a very short time. All it does, is raise your expectations. We now know what rising expectations does to happiness. 

In this growing materialistic world, how do we become happy? Maslow would say self actualisation, a priest would say salvation, Buddha would say renunciation. Most of them would be about reducing expectations. There are other things that has been proven to make a lot of people happy. It is listed in Figure 10.

Figure 10: What makes us happy.

Science has finally found the pill that fills your life with happiness. The secret pill they called ‘Love’. As if we are supposed to be surprised. People who are in a stable+happy+long relationship are the people who are happy. Love can even erase unhappy childhood memories. And sometimes, experiments showed, replace unhappy memories them with happy ones. Altered reality makes you unknowingly lie about your past. But then lying isn’t a bad thing when it makes you happy without harming anyone. People in love also live longer and healthier. The best way to be happy ,then, would be to love as many people as you can, but do not expect much in return.



Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Seat Thief

How often have it happened that you met an idiot who turned your usual bad day into a horrible one? How often have you argued with someone who countered your perfect logic with absolute bullshit? The other person just don’t get your point of view because they are too rigid about their own view and no matter how good your argument is, they just don’t get it. If you happen to be from this world, then you must have been in such a situation. Unless, of-course, you are Kim Jong-un. Then nobody argues with you. That day was one such day.


It was a rainy morning, not quite the day I was looking forward to. I had to catch the morning Shatabdi to Bhopal and the rain made the Delhi roads choke. Being used to the capital of India, I started two hours early; which also meant that I did not get my full quota of sleep. Thank goodness I did so. Just after I boarded the train, even before I could reach my seat, the train started. Things here happen on time whenever you least want it to.

Half wet, I struggled through the narrow compartment to reach my window seat, only to find it occupied by a young man. The young man, in his mid-twenties, looked at me bluntly, happy to steal my seat and with it the view. After a failed attempt at logic with him, and his equally adamant father, I resigned to my fate and chose peace in the aisle seat.

As if sitting on my allotted seat was not enough, it seemed like the guy derived some sort of pervert pleasure by irritating me. He kept staring at me and smiled, without uttering a single word. When the food was served, he stared at his food, and mine, in a way as if he was seeing food for the first time. Everything seemed to make him happier than it would to a normal person. His smile was so out of sync with my horrible day that my jealousy about his happiness seemed to make me even angrier.

As the rain stopped and the sun shined through the broken clouds, the view of the outside became clearer. The guy on my seat called his father and said, ‘Look Dad! The sun is chasing us and the trees are moving backwards!’ That is when I realised that there was something ‘wrong’ with him; something more than the usual ‘wrong’ within most of us. I quietly asked his dad if everything was all right. What he said made me feel bad, not about him, but about myself. There was nothing 'wrong' with him. If at all, there was something wrong with me. My seat thief was not a mentally unstable person, but a perfectly normal young man. Until just few days back he was blind. He was returning home today after a successful eye operation. It was indeed the first time he could relate to all that he felt throughout his life with the new found visual pleasure. Who can blame him for taking my damn seat!


How often have we failed to look at the world through the perspective of someone else? How often have we blamed others for our bad day? How often have we failed to see the truth, blinded by our prejudice? In an argument when one thinks that the opponent is completely wrong, he automatically assumes that he himself is absolutely right. He assumes that he knows everything about the topic of the argument, and there is nothing more that he needs to know. Needless to say, such egoistic feelings are often wrong. When we keep arguing, thinking that the other person is not getting our point of view, we often ignore the fact that we are also not getting his either. There is always more to learn. The want to know more is what prevents science from becoming religion. It is OK to be not right at times.

Based on a heard story.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Seeing is believing! Or is it?

Seeing is believing? Right?

We tend to believe in what we see. 

Which is alright, as long as we remember that what we see is just an interpretation of our brain based on the information it receives. It is not, and I repeat, it is NOT the information that we see. We see the interpretation. You might think that you are seeing me, but in truth you are seeing your interpretation of me.

To understand it better I played a simple game with my fellow colleagues. I  asked them few easy questions. I will ask the same to you. Do not think too much to answer them. Just answer what you feel. These are not brain twisters or puzzles…just simple questions that has simple answers.

Question 1: What do you see?


Question 2: How many colours are there in a rainbow? 


Question 3: This is a world map. Which side is up?




And finally Question 4, this is the most difficult one: What are the two colours you see in this dress?


OK. Good. Now let us go back to the questions and try to find out how our brain works.


Question 1: When I asked my colleagues this question, I took a printout of the picture above. 80% of them answered - black circle or dot. Which is correct.
But I also showed them a piece of paper. And that piece of paper is filled with a white background. The white takes more space than the black. Just because it is white it is not nothing. As a matter of fact, you do not really see the circle. The circle is black, and hence no light is being emitted. How can you see without light?

What information you receive is that of the white background. But what most of us "see" is just the circle. Why? Because our brains are particularly good at finding anomalies. Anomalies could be threats and identifying them in advance helps us survive. Our brain does not always interpret all the things we see. It ignores the routine background. It focuses on interpreting anomalies. Seeing isn’t always the complete truth. That is why first impressions are mostly wrong.

Question 2: I asked how many colours are there in a rainbow. Almost unanimously everyone said seven. Again it is not wrong. Technically it is a correct answer. But have we ever asked ourselves why seven?

In truth it is a continuous electromagnetic spectrum, and not discrete seven bands.

Why seven then? Because we were told so.

Indians and Greeks have been fascinated by the number 7. When you get obsessed with something you see it everywhere. We are biased towards things we hold close. We were so biased that we made seven oceans, seven continents, seven heavens, seven days, seven sins, seven ‘classical’ planets and seven wonders. We can as well make 6 or 20 oceans. We can club Europe and Asia into one continent. Why make Australia a new continent and leave our Greenland? Why seven wonders? A lot of our faiths are actually priming. The truths on which we stand is often a slippery ground.

Question 3: Again unanimously the top one came out as the right answer.

When a lie is repeated over and over again it becomes truth. It is called anchoring.

This map has been shown to us like this since our child hood, and now we cannot think of an alternate possibility. Earth is a sphere. Both this and this map is incorrect as it is correct. Firstly, it is a projection of a sphere in a plain paper and hence it is distorted. leaving that apart, both maps are correct. Just because Europeans who made this maps for the first time were from the Northern hemisphere, this version became a norm. If we overturn the map, then also it is equally correct. In fact Up is a direction opposite to gravity. We stand on earth perpendicular to the ground. So the real up is this direction, away from the map. It is very local and the universe does not have an up direction. The penguins of Antarctica being on the top of the world is also a right version Happy Feet!


Question 4: This one is the most interesting. Most of us has seen this picture before and it became viral globally. While half of the crowd answered white and golden, others said blue and black. Our brain has this uncanny ability to look beyond and interpret the colours not as we see, but as it thinks it should be. Remember ‘Interpretation’ not ‘information. 

Let me show you what happens.


The shaded area (one blue shade and other yellow shade) has the same colour, even though our brain shows it as different. 

Our brain does not show us the actual colours. It tries to interpret what it thinks is the true colour. So, it tries to remove filters, it removes the effect of sunlight and shadow, and other things that might affect the picture. It does a wonderful job. But this time it had a problem. A yellow filter on blue and blue filter on yellow shows the same colour. There are two different solutions to the same problem, but our brain can have only one solution. So, it interprets it one way for one person, and other way for another. 


Our brain is very powerful organ that can easily get biased. It makes sense of the world by comparing with memories that we already have. It identifies anomalies and ignores the background, it can be easily primed, it is anchored to the information we already have, and it interprets things it’s own way. Like i said, we see "interpretation" and not "information".

We need to keep asking ourselves questions…we need to keep challenging our faith…because seeing is believing,  but our beliefs are not always correct. 


Don’t be a cynic, but be a skeptic, because skepticism is the only path towards truth.

The moment you stop asking questions, you stop to learn.




Thursday, May 18, 2017

Split Personalities that we all have


https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dissociative_identity_disorder.jpg

Three Faces of Eve is a Joanne Woodward starring film released in 1957. It was a first of it’s kind movie based on the true story of Eve White. Eve suffered from multiple personality disorder (MPD). MPD has been a topic of debate for ages. While it was widely accepted in America, MPD got it’s share of resistance from Britain. With time, however, MPD became widely accepted with reports of one particular case claiming 4000 alter egos (1). Someone definitely have personality issues.

When I think of it, I believe we all have at least two different personalities, one being instinctive and the other being acquired. Instinctive personality (IP) are the genetic traits that we were born with. Our basic instincts are part of IP and are often ‘wrongly’ called as controlled by heart. (Heart, however, do have neutrons that can learn, remember and take decisions. Heart and brain are intricately connected and both responds to each other. How romantic is that! 2) The acquired personality (AP) develops as we grow. AP is not just what we perceive ourselves as, but also what we want others to perceive us as. It is a mental perception and is governed by our mind. Those who have suffered mental/physical abuse as a child might develop multiple APs. Comparing it to Sigmund Freud's structural model of the psyche, IP is comparable to id and AP to superego. Freud thinks we live our life trying to balance between the two with help of our ego.

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow (3) introduces us to the two systems in the mind: System 1 and System 2. According to his definition:
System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

Kahneman demonstrates the presence of the two systems with help of a simple maths problem-

The total price of a bat and a ball is 1$ 10 cents.  If the bat costs 1$ more than the ball, what is the price of the ball? 

The instinctive answer that most people give is 10 cents. System 1 is answering for you if that’s your answer. After doing careful calculations one finds out that the actual price of the ball is 5 cents. Those who curbed their instinct (System 1) to think about the correct answer were governed by System 2. System 1 is controlled dominantly by IP, while System 2 is controlled dominantly by AP. 

Most of the stresses in our life arise from the conflict between AP and IP, between our heart and mind if you want to put it that way. It is important for us to understand these two personalities that exists within us so that we can make a healthy balance between the two.

 Dan Ariely, in his book Predictably Irrational (4), mentions about an experiment done by asking questions to a group of men while they were having orgasm. They were asked the same questions when they were not in an aroused state. The conclusion of the experiment was stunning. In aroused state the preference of these men for odd sexual activities, including having sex with animals, were twice as high. They were 20% more likely not to have safe sex and five times more likely to slip a women a drug to increase their chance of having sex when in aroused sex then when they were normal. These people, who are just like you and me, were two entirely different personalities at two different levels of emotional state.

Why does morality takes a back seat when one is in aroused state? In aroused state IP takes over AP. The moral values that you acquired over the ages are forgotten. The act of murder or rape is most likely to be controlled by IP than AP. ‘Thinking from your heart’ is not always the morally correct decision. However, without the emotional part of your brain you probably would not be able to make any decision. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s research on people whose emotional part of the brain have been damaged showed that these otherwise perfectly normal people were not able to take simple decisions (5). It is IP that decides whether to fight or flight, it is IP that makes you fall in love without reason and it is IP that tells you to be in the present and enjoy your life. IP is neither your guardian angel nor a devil. It is the way you want it to be.

AP is something one learns over the years. It is influenced by your family, school and the environment that you grow up in. It teaches you not to cheat, not to hurt others, and not to look at your neighbor's wife. Remember the Ten Commandments? AP can be either governed by social norms or market norms. The warm and fuzzy social norms gives you a sense of community, and is important between friends and family. Market norms govern the decisions you take professionally and generally involves money or something of value. As long as you do not mix the two, like expecting monetary gains in return of your love or love in return of your professional work, you are doing good. These learning are essential part of our society. If you let your system 2 take the decision, more often than not it will be a wise decision.

Depending on our social conditions we create a mental image of ourselves. This perceived self is a myth that helps us become part of a society. We develop this concept of ourselves right at the childhood and it influences the choices we make in our life right till the very end. AP gives us an identity and it is not a bad thing as long as we understand that it is nothing but an 'essential' myth. Religion, nationalism, casteism etc are all part of our AP. The moment we become too rigid about our identity we loose our minds, like the religious fanatics. Thinking too much isn't always a good thing, especially when the thought is about yourself. This is because most of the time when you over-think you start to create fictitious situations and unnecessarily worry about your future. Sometimes it is a good idea to just be, let IP take over (as long as you do not harm anyone).


When we realize that we have two different personas and understand the strength and weakness of both we can learn to control them. We can use them the way we want and reduce the conflicts. It is important to mention here that these two personalities are not entirely split. They are interconnected and influence each other just like the heart and the brain. Peace is when both AP and IP dance in the same rhythm.