The neuroscience of meditation

 

I remember reading some time ago that the Indus Valley civilization (one of the oldest known human civilizations) had no concept of Police, or any other violent means of controlling internal behaviour (different from the notion of a standing army which is meant for repulsing outsiders). The historian-author of that book speculated that internal order was likely maintained by a system of mental conditioning of citizens and not by violence.

This came to mind while recently watching a Google TechTalk video that explored the Neuroscience of meditation (see that excellent – but long – video above). One of the points made by scientist Richard Davidson in that talk is that the practice of meditation, even for a duration as short as 3 weeks,  can actually increase ‘virtuous qualities’ such as Compassion in its practitioners. Here is a serious western scientist demonstrating with western scientific approaches and data, the power of calm contemplation to fundamentally alter human behavior.

It then seems to me no huge surprise that the locus of the science of  such contemplation or meditation lies in the East, particularly in ancient India and thereabouts. For, it seems logical to assume that it was this sort of thing that enabled the peoples of the Indus Valley Civilization to maintain internal harmony without policing. And that if they had figured it out 5000 years ago, it is their direct descendants who are most likely to retain the knowledge.

Interior Journeys

No, this is not about a 10 day trek through red-tinged villages in Chattisgarh or anything like that. So if you are looking for pain & suffering of that kind, here is your cue to jump ship.

I am talking different Interiors – the mind, soul & spirit kind.

Over the last month or so I have been reading a curious mix of books, which now in retrospect all have the same theme of Inner Awareness.

The first book is Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.The author gets into Ultra running, the extreme form of running where marathons are what you do for warm-ups. Covering 10s or even 100s of kilometres, this form of very long distance running pushes human endeavour to the limit and has created its own heroes and fables (‘body artists playing with the palette of human endurance’). The centrepiece of the book is the story of the Tarahumara, a tribe of Indians living in an extermely inhospitable part of Mexico and their amazing capability to run very long distances. The story gets particularly intriguing when McDougall tries to deconstruct the mind/spirit/soul context that drives such feats of human endurance. And comes to surprising conclusion that the ability to do ultra running is less about the physical and more about the metaphysical. As one of the runners says, It has to do with the ability( & sometimes the need) to become a better person than just physical capacity. While it all does sound very touchy-feely, Mcdougal is deeply persuasive in his argument as he recounts the experiences of Ultrarunning’s greatest.

The next book is Dr V S Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain. Dr Ramachandran is one of the world’s foremost brain-geeks. As a Professor of Neuroscience, Dr Ramachandran is interested in dissecting the very physical but controlling organ we all have in some measure – the Brain. Dr Ramachandran’s approach is to look for patients with peculiar manifestations of neurological illnesses and using these oddities to explore how the human brain really works. Fascinating stuff. Early on in the book, the author comes to the extraordinary conclusion that human perception is not an unalloyed recognition of things as they are (ie. reality) but massively influenced by the Brain’s underlying assumption of what should be. In short, what one of modern science’s great exponents is telling us is that all ‘scientific’ evidence points to the accuracy of one of the most enduring metaphysical truisms of all time : Perception is Reality and not the other way.

Which brings to me the last book. The Hindus, An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger. Ms Doniger is an American with a PhD in Sanskrit from Harvard and another PhD in Indian Studies from Oxford. The book tries to explore one of the oldest human cultures through an alternative prism. As can be expected with an enterprise of such nature, this leads to massive disagreements all around and the fact that she had egg thrown at her at a conference reinforces her ability to discomfit. But that is not quite what I got out of the book. What the book shows is that from the very early stages of their evolution, the people now called Hindus seemed to have focused deeply inward to find rules and paradigms that explain stuff around us. And insofar as we can see from evidence that has survived, succeeded in large measure. Modern science is an artifact of empricism which is just a fancy word for Observation. And keen observation over millennia of the human being’s inner workings is undoubtedly what Ms Doniger brings to light as one of the defining characteristics of her subjects.

The world of the inside is at least as interesting as the physical world around us. However, what is truly intriguing is how interconnected they seem to really be.

Why great blogging is like good exercising

I posted a lot on this blog all across 2008 & 2009 and for various reasons slowed it down to a trickle in 2010. And in so doing committed a cardinal sin of blogging. Inconsistency. A number of regular readers made a few quiet comments on the falling rate of posts. And when nothing changed, left.

Blogging, like exercising should be a sustainable activity. The simplest way to assess whether you are doing too much or too little exercise is to ask yourself the simple question : ‘how much exercise can I expect to reasonably do when I am 65 years old?”. Whatever the answer is, is  how much you should do today. And so with blogging.

I think my sustainable limit is 1 to 3  posts a week. I shall try to adhere to it.

Outliers, Roseto & Evolution

I happened to read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers over the weekend (as part of my initiation to Amazon’s lightweight Kindle, a cool device about which more some other time). And found the most interesting part to be the Prologue before he even gets to Chapter 1.

In that section Gladwell describes how a small town in America called Roseto was found to have one of the lowest rates of degenerative heart disease in spite of the fact that residents there had the most dreadful of dietary and physical habits. For example, researchers found that fully 40% of the calories ingested by the Rosetans was from Fat. And as Gladwell puts it, “nor was this a town where people got up at dawn to do yoga and run a brisk six miles”.

But what the researchers discovered in the early 1960s when this study was done, was that this was a town with a great, laid-back community. Rosetans visited each other regularly. They stood in the street and chatted and went to church regularly. Multiple generations lived together and old people were valued. Flaunting wealth was frowned upon and everyone was encouraged to “help the unscuccessful obscure their failures”.

In short, a bunch of losers. But here is the catch – they were not losers at all. In fact, they lived longer and healthier than most people in contemporary America.

Now let me jump to another thread. Over the last few years I have been firming up this hypothesis that a new, smarter breed of human beings are evolving before our very eyes. Capable of significant feats of intellect and displaying enormous ‘drive’, a new group of men and women of the classic Type A were slowly but inexorably drawing away from the mass of humanity to become a super race that would eventually lord over human beings the same way we ‘control’ all other animals today. Sci-fi, Bill Gates, Francis Fukuyama’s treatise on the demise of non-capitalist ideologies and the Economist magazine helped me push the idea along.

Till I stumbled upon the Roseto example and began a new stream of thought. Suppose I have got the whole thing in reverse? Aggressive, go-getting personalities push themselves hard in myriad ways that lead to the two dominant themes of today’s Success – rampant lifestyle diseases & no kids. Not the most obvious ingredients for evolutionary success. Was it that evolution is quietly but surely identifying and eliminating those genes that lead to ‘success’ among human beings? And that any amount of tinkering with diets and fads will not change this? Thinking like this, it seems to suggest that the ‘successful’ around us are in reality evolution’s losers.

Biblical, isn’t it? The meek shall inherit the earth.

It is entirely personal

Steve_jobs_photo

Steve Jobs of Apple recently came back to work after a long break for a Liver transplant. He received a standing ovation at the annual Apple show. I wasn’t there but I rooted for him too. For he represents what I think are the two most desirable characteristics for a modern businessman – Passion & Creativity.

Jobs wasn’t standing there because that would light up Apple stock and make the bean-counters happy (which of course, it always does). He was standing there to transmit the excitement that he has for his products. And since he makes insanely great products, the excitement does get transmitted.

If you love what you do, two things are likely to happen. First, you are likely to make good stuff, because you want a lot of people to enjoy what you have made (for Hollywood directors, these people constitute an ‘audience’, for most businessmen, ‘customers’). Secondly, you are likely to make a lot of money because that is, for you personally, a vindication of your own creative efforts. Once agan, the parallels to a successful movie director are obvious.

Remember, we are transiting to the Experience Economy . And it was not by accident that Joseph Pine the creator of that phrase titled his book – ‘The Experience Economy : Work is theatre and every business a stage”

Don’t have enormous Passion & Creativity for the business you do? Move on – right away.

Gaia hypothesis : human limitations : hindu philosophy

in which I promised to tuck away all things not tourism, not travel, not food & likely not of interest…

This morning I read that scientists believe that the Sahara desert might be in retreat with water & life slowly reclaiming it.

The Mahabharata (as most other expositions of hindu thought) talks of life as an endless cycle of Cause and Effect. I remember reading in primary school that the Sahara desert was once (a few million year ago) a lush green landscape. The wheel seems to be turning.

It was in the 1970s that James Lovelock proposed the Gaia hypothesis, whereby he suggested that the Earth’s biosphere and its physical components are all so closely linked in a manner that keeps the balance on earth (‘homeostasis’) enabling Life to flourish. Effectively, he said that we needed to think of the Earth and its biosphere as one huge organism. This is not an easy thought to hold for most of us. And if you extend this idea to saying that the whole universe is actually a single organism and everything is closely linked to create the same homeostasis, then the problem of holding this in one’s head becomes bigger.

Human beings seem to have a problem of scale. Our cognition seems to be finely tuned to the scale at which we operate. Scale can be across many dimensions – the most obvious ones that cause us regular grief seem t0 be Size and Time. It seems to me that we cannot recognize and therefore cannot understand things much much larger than ourselves  or much smaller than ourselves. Modern Science, which is after all a product of human observation (‘empirical‘) was forced to take many a fall, when it was faced with the very small – and the new body of knowledge of the very small is now called Quantum Physics. It is my belief that the very same experience is likely to recur when human beings expand our horizons to be able recognize (however dimly) stuff much larger than ourselves. The same is true of things that occupy much longer or much shorter time spans in relation to human beings.

So, while I appreciate the temporary benefits that accrue to the human race from the energetic work of Mr Al Gore et al, I am unable to get terribly enthusiastic. There seems to be too much going on that we do not understand.

Here is another earlier post I did on the subject of Scale.

Hooptedoodle 3 : Cosmo sounds

in which I promised to tuck away all things not tourism, not travel, not food & likely not of interest…

A couple of months ago I achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the last person in urban India to subscribe to Worldspace.

For those of you who have been training for a Mars mission for the last 3 years and missed out on earthbound news, Worldspace is a worldwide satellite radio that has got a huge number of subscribers in India.

I have a pretty catholic taste in music. And Worldspace indulges me no end, which I love. I close the day on either the Hindustani Classical or the Urdu channel – amazing soporifics, incidentally. And the first light of dawn (8 am or thereabouts to be more exact) brings up Shruti, the Carnatic channel. As the day progress, I then move from Country to International Amore to Classical Rock and on to Hindi flim music till I complete the circle, back in the capable hands of kishori amonkar or ghulam ali.

Religion, Spirituality and Science meet in a unique consensus on the primacy of sound in Creation – whether it is the Aum of Hinduism or the Big Bang of Physics.  And the thing that we call Music is simply the arrangement of sounds that connect us to those mysterious forces that gave us our Life.