Friday, March 30, 2007

Science and belief

I read this article somewhere, some time back. I thought people will be interested.

Where belief is born

Scientists have begun to look in a different way at how the brain creates the convictions that mould our relationships and inform our behaviour. Belief can make people do the strangest things. At one level, it provides a moral framework, sets preferences and steers relationships. On another, it can be devastating. Belief can manifest itself as prejudice or persuade someone to blow up themselves and others in the name of a political cause.

"Belief has been a most powerful component of human nature that has somewhat been neglected," says Peter Halligan, a psychologist at Cardiff University. "But it has been capitalised on by marketing agents, politics and religion for the best part of two millennia."

That is changing. Once the preserve of philosophers alone, belief is quickly becoming the subject of choice for many psychologists and neuroscientists. Their goal is to create a neurological model of how beliefs are formed, how they affect people and what can manipulate them.
And the latest steps in the research might just help to understand a little more about why the world is so fraught with political and social tension. Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of California, recently showed how beliefs help people's brains categorise others and view objects as good or bad, largely unconsciously. He demonstrated that beliefs (in this case prejudice or fear) are most likely to be learned from the prevailing culture.

When Lieberman showed a group of people photographs of expressionless black faces, he was surprised to find that the amygdala - the brain's panic button - was triggered in almost two-thirds of cases. There was no difference in the response between black and white people.
The amygdala is responsible for the body's fight or flight response, setting off a chain of biological changes that prepare the body to respond to danger well before the brain is conscious of any threat. Lieberman suggests that people are likely to pick up on stereotypes, regardless of whether their family or community agrees with them.

The work, published last month in Nature Neuroscience, is the latest in a rapidly growing field of research called "social neuroscience", a wide arena which draws together psychologists, neuroscientists and anthropologists all studying the neural basis for the social interaction between humans.

Traditionally, cognitive neuroscientists focused on scanning the brains of people doing specific tasks such as eating or listening to music, while social psychologists and social scientists concentrated on groups of people and the interactions between them. To understand how the brain makes sense of the world, it was inevitable that these two groups would have to get together.

"In the West, most of our physical needs are provided for. We have a level of luxury and civilisation that is pretty much unparalleled," says Kathleen Taylor, a neuroscientist at Oxford University. "That leaves us with a lot more leisure and more space in our heads for thinking."
Beliefs and ideas therefore become our currency, says Taylor. Society is no longer a question of simple survival; it is about choice of companions and views, pressures, ideas, options and preferences.

"It is quite an exciting development but for people outside the field, a very obvious one," says Halligan.

Understanding belief is not a trivial task, even for the seemingly simplest of human interactions. Take a conversation between two people. When one talks, the other's brain is processing information through their auditory system at a phenomenal rate. That person's beliefs act as filters for the deluge of sensory information and guide the brain's response.
Lieberman's recent work echoed parts of earlier research by Joel Winston of the University of London's Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience. Winston found that when he presented people with pictures of faces and asked them to rate the trustworthiness of each, the amygdalas showed a greater response to pictures of people who were specifically chosen to represent untrustworthiness. And it did not matter what each person actually said about the pictured faces.

"Even people who believe to their core that they do not have prejudices may still have negative associations that are not conscious," says Lieberman.
Beliefs also provide stability. When a new piece of sensory information comes in, it is assessed against these knowledge units before the brain works out whether or not it should be incorporated. People do it when they test the credibility of a politician or hear about a paranormal event.

Physically speaking, then, how does a belief exist in the brain? "My own position is to think of beliefs and memories as very similar," says Taylor. Memories are formed in the brain as networks of neurons that fire when stimulated by an event. The more times the network is employed, the more it fires and the stronger the memory becomes.
Halligan says that belief takes the concept of memory a step further. "A belief is a mental architecture of how we interpret the world," he says. "We have lots of fluid things moving by - perceptions and so forth - but at the level of who our friends are and so on, those things are consolidated in crystallised knowledge units. If we did not have those, every time we woke up, how would we know who we are?"

These knowledge units help to assess threats - via the amygdala - based on experience. Ralph Adolphs, a neurologist at the University of Iowa, found that if the amygdala was damaged, the ability of a person to recognise expressions of fear was impaired. A separate study by Adolphs with Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge University showed that amygdala damage had a bigger negative impact on the brain's ability to recognise social emotions, while more basic emotions seemed unaffected.

This work on the amygdala shows it is a key part of the threat-assessment response and, in no small part, in the formation of beliefs. Damage to this alarm bell - and subsequent inability to judge when a situation might be dangerous - can be life-threatening. In hunter-gatherer days, beliefs may have been fundamental to human survival.

Neuroscientists have long looked at brains that do not function properly to understand how healthy ones work. Researchers of belief formation do the same thing, albeit with a twist. "You look at people who have delusions," says Halligan. "The assumption is that a delusion is a false belief. That is saying that the content of it is wrong, but it still has the construct of a belief."
In people suffering from prosopagnosia, for example, parts of the brain are damaged so that the person can no longer recognise faces. In the Cotard delusion, people believe they are dead. Fregoli delusion is the belief that the sufferer is constantly being followed around by people in disguise. Capgras' delusion, named after its discoverer, the French psychiatrist Jean Marie Joseph Capgras, is a belief that someone emotionally close has been replaced by an identical impostor.

Until recently, these conditions were regarded as psychiatric problems. But closer study reveals that, in the case of Capgras' delusion for example, a significant proportion of sufferers had lesions in their brain, typically in the right hemisphere.
"There are studies indicating that some people who have suffered brain damage retain some of their religious or political beliefs," says Halligan. "That's interesting because whatever beliefs are, they must be held in memory."

Another route to understanding how beliefs form is to look at how they can be manipulated. In her book on the history of brainwashing, Taylor describes how everyone from the Chinese thought reform camps of the last century to religious cults have used systematic methods to persuade people to change their ideas, sometimes radically.

The first step is to isolate a person and control what information they receive. Their former beliefs need to be challenged by creating uncertainty. New messages need to be repeated endlessly. And the whole thing needs to be done in a pressured, emotional environment.
"Beliefs are mental objects in the sense that they are embedded in the brain," says Taylor. "If you challenge them by contradiction, or just by cutting them off from the stimuli that make you think about them, then they are going to weaken slightly. If that is combined with very strong reinforcement of new beliefs, then you're going to get a shift in emphasis from one to the other."
The mechanism Taylor describes is similar to the way the brain learns normally. In brainwashing though, the new beliefs are inserted through a much more intensified version of that process.

This manipulation of belief happens every day. Politics is a fertile arena, especially in times of anxiety.

"Stress affects the brain such that it makes people more likely to fall back on things they know well - stereotypes and simple ways of thinking," says Taylor.
"It is very easy to want to do that when everything you hold dear is being challenged. In a sense, it was after 9/11."

The stress of the terror attacks on the US in 2001 changed the way many Americans viewed the world, and Taylor argues that it left the population open to tricks of belief manipulation. A recent survey, for example, found that more than half of Americans thought Iraqis were involved in the attacks, despite the fact that nobody had come out and said it.
This method of association uses the brain against itself. If an event stimulates two sets of neurons, then the links between them get stronger. If one of them activates, it is more likely that the second set will also fire. In the real world, those two memories may have little to do with each other, but in the brain, they get associated.

Taylor cites an example from a recent manifesto by the British National Party, which argues that asylum seekers have been dumped on Britain and that they should be made to clear up rubbish from the streets. "What they are trying to do is to link the notion of asylum seekers with all the negative emotions you get from reading about garbage, [but] they are not actually coming out and saying asylum seekers are garbage," she says.

The 9/11 attacks highlight another extreme in the power of beliefs. "Belief could drive people to agree to premeditate something like that in the full knowledge that they would all die," says Halligan of the hijacker pilots.

It is unlikely that beliefs as wide-ranging as justice, religion, prejudice or politics are simply waiting to be found in the brain as discrete networks of neurons, each encoding for something different. "There's probably a whole combination of things that go together," says Halligan.
And depending on the level of significance of a belief, there could be several networks at play. Someone with strong religious beliefs, for example, might find that they are more emotionally drawn into certain discussions because they have a large number of neural networks feeding into that belief.

"If you happen to have a predisposition, racism for example, then it may be that you see things in a certain way and you will explain it in a certain way," says Halligan.
He argues that the reductionist approach of social neuroscience will alter the way people study society. "If you are brain scanning, what are the implications for privacy in terms of knowing another's thoughts? And being able to use those, as some governments are implying, in terms of being able to detect terrorists and things like that," he says. "If you move down the line in terms of potential uses for these things, you have potential uses for education and for treatments being used as cognitive enhancers."

So far, social neuroscience has provided more questions than answers. Ralph Adolphs of the University of Iowa looked to the future in a review paper for Nature. "How can causal networks explain the many correlations between brain and behaviour that we are discovering? Can large-scale social behaviour, as studied by political science and economics, be understood by studying social cognition in individual subjects? Finally, what power will insights from cognitive neuroscience give us to influence social behaviour, and hence society? And to what extent would such pursuit be morally defensible?"

The answers to those questions may well shape people's understanding of what it really means to believe.

Monday, March 19, 2007

New Year and Change

New year and Change

కొత్త సంవత్సరం
కొత్త ఉత్సాహాన్ని ఇస్తుందని
మనసారా నమ్ముతున్నాను.
-- మీ విజయగోపాల్

మనవారికి ప్రతి విషయంలోనూ అనుమానమే. పండుగ ఎన్నడా అని అనుమానం వచ్చింది. పెద్దలను అడిగితే తలొక తీరు చెప్పారు. ఇక మిగతావారు కీచులాటలకు దిగారు. టీవీ వాళ్లకు సంబరం. కెమెరా ముందు కాట్లాట ముగిసిన తర్వాత, “మీ యిష్టం వచ్చిననాడు పండుగ” అని తేల్చి చెప్పారు.
ప్రపంచం మారిందనడానికి ఇంతకన్నా మంచి ఉదాహరణ కావాలా?

I know some people are not able to see my new year message here.
I am bringing you the good wishes for a new year which started today!
Many people have many new years!
That itself is a testimony of the diversity that there is, in the human beings.
New year is supposed to bring new cheer into the lives of people.
After all it is in our calculations.
If you are not aware that a new year starts for some people, you are happily living in your own old year.
It is only the calendar that changes on a new year.
You can still choose to feel happy baout it and look forward to better days.
Change is a matter of mind.
If you want to change, you can do so on the last day of the old year1 That is the right occassion to change.
I bring to you another story that I read recently. It is once again about change. Tell me what do you feel in this regard!!!

Carrot, Egg, Coffee
A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed as one problem was solved a new one arose.

Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to a boil. In the first, she placed carrots, in the second she placed eggs and the last she placed ground coffee beans. She let them sit and boil, without saying a word. In about twenty minutes she turned off the burners.

She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl. Turning to her daughter, she asked, "Tell me, what do you see?"

"Carrots, eggs, and coffee," replied her daughter.

The mother asked her daughter to feel the carrots, who did and noted that they were soft. The mother then asked her to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, the young woman observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, the mother asked her to sip the coffee. The daughter smiled as she tasted its rich aroma.

The daughter asked, "What does it mean, mother?"

Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity--boiling water--but each had reacted differently.

"Which are you?" the mother asked. "When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity, wilts and become soft and loses strength? Are you the egg that appears not to change but whose heart is hardened? Or are you the coffee bean that changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, your very essence will change your environment for the better, making it sweet and palatable."

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A chinese Story

I bring you a Chinese story which I read long back.
I have a large collection of such stories which we should be reading and discussing too.
Here is the story.

The Four Dragons

Once upon a time, there were no rivers and lakes on earth, but only the Eastern Sea, in which lived four dragons: the Long Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, the Black Dragon and the Pearl Dragon.
One day the four dragons flew from the sea into the sky. They soared and dived, playing at hide-and-seek in the clouds.

"Come over here quickly!" the Pearl Dragon cried out suddenly.

"What's up?" asked the other three, looking down in the direction where the Pearl Dragon pointed. On the earth they saw many people putting out fruits and cakes, and burning incense sticks. They were praying! A white-haired woman, kneeling on the ground with a thin boy on her back, murmured:
"Please send rain quickly, God of Heaven, to give our children rice to eat.."

For there had been no rain for a long time. The crops withered, the grass turned yellow and fields cracked under the scorching sun.

"How poor the people are!" said the Yellow Dragon. "And they will die if it doesn't rain soon."
The Long Dragon nodded. Then he suggested, "Let's go and beg the Jade Emperor for rain."
So saying, he leapt into the clouds. The others followed closely and flew towards the Heavenly Palace.

Being in charge of all the affairs in heaven, on earth and in the sea, the Jade Emperor was very powerful. He was not pleased to see the dragons rushing in. "Why do you come here instead of staying in the sea and behaving yourselves?"

The Long Dragon stepped forward and said, "The crops on earth are withering and dying, Your Majesty. I beg you to send rain down quickly!"

"All right. You go back first, I'll send some rain down tomorrow." The Jade Emperor pretended to agree while listening to the songs of the fairies.

"Thanks, Your Majesty!" The four dragons went happily back.

But ten days passed, and not a drop of rain came down.

The people suffered more, some eating bark, some grass roots, some forced to eat white clay when they ran out of bark and grass roots.

Seeing all this, the four dragons felt very sorry, for they knew the Jade Emperor only cared about pleasure, and never took the people to heart. They could only rely on themselves to relieve the people of their miseries. But how to do it?

Seeing the vast sea, the Long Dragon said that he had an idea.

"What is it? Out with it, quickly!" the other three demanded.
"Look, is there not plenty of water in the sea where we live? We should scoop it up and spray it towards the sky. The water will be like rain drops and come down to save the people and their crops."
"Good idea!" The others clapped their hands.
"But," said the Long Dragon after thinking a bit, "we will be blamed if the Jade Emperor learns of this."
"I will do anything to save the people," the Yellow Dragon said resolutely.
"Let's begin. We will never regret it." The Black Dragon and the Pearl Dragon were not to be outdone.

They flew to the sea, scooped up water in their mouths, and then flew back into the sky, where they sprayed the water out over the earth. The four dragons flew back and forth, making the sky dark all around. Before long the sea water became rain pouring down from the sky.
"It's raining! It's raining!"
"The crops will be saved!"

The people cried and leaped with joy. On the ground the wheat stalks raised their heads and the sorghum stalks straightened up.

The god of the sea discovered these events and reported to the Jade Emperor.
"How dare the four dragons bring rain without my permission!" The Jade Emperor was enraged, and ordered the heavenly generals and their troops to arrest the four dragons. Being far outnumbered, the four dragons could not defend themselves, and they were soon arrested and brought back to the heavenly palace.

"Go and get four mountains to lay upon them so that they can never escape!" The Jade Emperor ordered the Mountain God.

The Mountain God used his magic power to make four mountains fly there, whistling in the wind from afar, and pressed them down upon the four dragons.

Imprisoned as they were, they never regretted their actions. Determined to do good for the people forever, they turned themselves into four rivers, which flowed past high mountains and deep valleys, crossing the land from the west to the east and finally emptying into the sea. And so China's four great rivers were formed -- the Heilongjian (Black Dragon) in the far north, the Huanghe (Yellow River) in central China, the Changjiang (Yangtze, or Long River) farther south, and the Zhujiang (Pearl) in the very far south.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Will my language become extinct?

Many people speaking many languages and belonging to many cultures are asking this question. No language or culture would really disappear. They may at best undergo a big change whereby become hard to identify. Like the Ranga who turned Ringa in Mauritius

The language that remains will sound some thing different for those who know the present form of it. Same is the case with any vernacular world over.

It is the tongue, style, traditions and practices that make a culture. They continue for generations and give an identity to a group. People very proudly claim they belong to a particular culture or a language group. They take pleasure in speaking the language wherever they are. All this depends on the memory and intellect of the people.

We remember the festivals had their own distinct identity in the past. Now, particularly in cities all of them are celebrated in the same fashion and perhaps with the same food. Those who have not witnessed the diversity of the past can even feel the number of festivals redundant. They do not remember and distinguish one from the other.
They refuse to equate the new ethos with that they knew.

We can not even complain against them. After all they are also true. There are many standards for the diversity in a culture. One of them is the religion. Language is perhaps the most important.

We can even say the change in the language is a pointer to the change in the culture.

Some languages are spreading like the plague of the yore. There are many who do not have an idea about this word plague. In the name of science knowledge, business, politics, and the universalisation or is it globalisation, English is spreading dramatically. The other languages are receding equally fast. There are around 6000 languages spoken around the globe at present. It is estimated that half of them would not last till the next decade. This fact is corroborated by the officials of the trust looking after the languages threatened with extinction. Half of the languages are spoken by less than ten thousand people each. Such of them will disappear very easily. A quarter of the present languages are spoken by only a thousand each. They are as good as gone.

We must be aware that none of the Indian languages fall under these categories. People speaking Maori dialect in New Zealand have opened special schools to spread their language.

There are many, complaining about the disappearance or the changes in Telugu or other Indian languages. As long as you also share such a feeling your mother tongue will never disappear.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Self and not Self

What is change?

The true portait of a man is a fusion of what he thinks he is, what others think he is, what he really is and what he tries to be. says, Dore schary. It is tue. we are all a clmination of a jigsaw puzzle pieced together sometimes with gaps. Why sometimes? Most of the times!!

We grow old and change. This is something we never realise. We think that we are seeing the same face everyday in the morning! We never realise that the face is changing bit by bit! We have grown old even comapred to yesterday!You maight have become better in appearance and in other respects. You might have grown some characters unwanted. You may be pleasing on one day and irritating on the next day.

You are doing all these things without the awareness. If you are aware of your mental attitude, the life will be much better. You cannot do much about the physical appearance. May be avoid eating too much and be careful about the health. Even then may be a paunch will come about.

Be aware that we are changing. We think we are not. People tell us we are changing. We try not to change. But what is the reality?

Make your choices wisely. Tread your steps carefully. Be what you want to be and tell the world the same. Don't do something and say something else!!



That is the way people in my part of the country greet each other.
It is the Sanskrit equivalent for Salutation.
So, some of my people make it plural and say, Namaskaralu.
Some elders say it is wrong. There could be only one Namaskaram at a time.

When you look into this word from a spiritual point of view, it is said that it it declares your surrender to the other person whom you are greeting.
Na maha!
means I am nothing. No capital I. No ego.
What a way of greeting!
Sastram has also told that you can and have to greet people of all ages both young and old alike.
Tradition does not agree with this idea. Only elders are greeted with a Namaskaram.
It is the youngsters who always are to greet first.
However, the new age thinking is in agreement with the Sastram.
Greet people, because there is God in them irrespective of age.