Archive for March, 2010

(Vilayanur.S. Ramachandran is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. Ramachandran initially trained as a doctor and subsequently obtained a Ph.D. from Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. Ramachandran’s early work was on visual perception but he is best known for his experiments in behavioral neurology which, despite their apparent simplicity, have had a profound impact on the way we think about the brain. He has been called “The Marco Polo of neuroscience” by Richard Dawkins and “The modern Paul Broca” by Eric Kandel.  

 Most recently the President of India conferred on him the second highest civilian award and honorific title in India, the Padma Bhushan. )

I drove over to UCSD unable to suppress my excitement about the impending interview I had with Dr. Ramachandran. Having watched several of his TED talks and after reading up extensively about his research I must confess I was excited with the prospect of meeting him.

I was pleasantly surprised and amused to see Prof Ramachandran with a nice cap  and a long black overcoat, reminding me Sherlock Holmes and I mentioned it to him. He laughed and said that his son thought he looked like a hobo in New York City, who plays the violin on the streets to make money. That broke the ice and I knew instantly here is a man with amazing grace and very candid about everything; qualities I admire a lot in people.

 Little did I know that the conversation would carry itself through, on its own, considering that Prof. Ramachandran has an interesting opinion about everything.

A brief excerpt from the Interview on a few topics:

 Q: You have done pioneer research in the phenomenon of ‘Phantom Limb’. How has that research progressed and benefited the world?

Prof: We started this research in 1993. Now they have sent out hundreds of the Mirror boxes to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti & Thailand along with lectures and demonstration materials. I have not patented it and hence not made any royalty from it. The Walter Reid medical Institute uses it to treat patients coming back from Iraq, with a controlled placebo and have shown substantial improvement in Phantom Pain, Stroke Pain and CRP.

Q: The same treatment can be used in stroke patients with paralysis?

Prof: We are using vision to revive the damage in stroke patients. Some are permanently damaged while others are partially damaged. We can revive those surrounding areas by inputs from visual stimulus. Complex region pain affects 10% of stroke patients. Painful conditions and inflamed or immobilized limbs can be cured by the mirror treatment and it has helped people with these conditions

Q: How will this be effective in treating Autism?

Prof: Mirror neurons are involved in imitating and empathizing which are messed up in Autistic individuals. We have pinned it down to a specific part of the brain. Reactivating them and exploring the possibility that we can bring about subtle changes is part of our research. There is a genetic basis for this too. Reduction of Prolactin (affiliation hormone) and Oxytocin is a key to understanding the mechanism. Since they are involved in picking up smell and sending it to the brain and are involved in social interactions. When the olfactory bulb is damaged then the transmitter involved are messed up. So we are looking into this aspect for further studies.

Q: Are there conflicting discussions among people regarding spirituality and scientific theories when they meet you?

Prof: No such conflicts. It is like Shiva and his cosmic dance. There is something beyond all the turbulence and chaos in the cosmos; something that cannot be defined.

Q: How effective is initial exposure to music in children?

Prof: Learning music/ Poetry is good and improves creativity with a temporary increase in the IQ immediately after listening to the music. Repeated exposure is good. There might be different kinds of intelligence different from the IQ, something that enriches the mind or creativity. Nobody has studied it in depth. Poetry involves making links. I used to write terrible poetry but the more I wrote I could see the links in the poems. All great art requires these links. So teaching child poetry at an earlier age might have beneficial effect on their learning areas.

Q: Some people are left handed, some right handed any studies you have worked on related to the brain?

Prof: We have not worked on that but left-handed people may be better at judging emotions. 5-6% is left handed and the geneticists might have a better explanation for it. In India they try hard to make them right handed which is totally unnecessary.

Q: What kind of images do blind people see in their dreams if they do?

Prof:  Vision does not exist in their world. Something like sonar in bats that rely on sound. They dream in sounds. It has not been extensively studied so I cannot say exactly how it all functions..

Q: Regarding ‘Synesthesia’ and your research on it?

Prof: One out of 30-40 people have it and 8 times more. It does not hurt them in any way. Colored numbers and faces having halos are the common aberrations they see. We first figured it must be something going on in a particular part of the brain where the color area is. Different functions like seeing depth, motions, and colors are taking place in different areas of the brain. They see numbers as colors. The questions we are studying is why such a cross wiring happens and studying the genetics and the mutation of the gene involved in modulation of these signals. The Fusiform Gyrus is involved in it. In creative people 1 out of 20 people have Synesthesia or it is eight times more common in creative people. The gene gets expressed in a quirky manner- so metaphorical expressions and analogies are more common in such creative people; who can make such links in their brain, which only a few people can do.Q: How often do Freudian concepts apply to these studies or theories?

Prof: Deep inside human nature there are certain suppressed characteristics and a cauldron of emotions done with an unconscious mind which might manifest as Freudian slips. Some of his ideas are valid. The manner in which these interactions occur is not explained. Freud also wrote a lot of nonsense regarding ‘Oedipus complex’ but we do not want to throw the baby out with the bath water and will accept some of his theories even if there aren’t enough evidences to prove them. I personally do not subscribe to all his theories.

Q: Psychotherapy vs evidence based research; which might give better results considering so much importance given to Freudian concepts etc?

Prof: Psychotherapy is not necessarily Freudian. It is a mixture of cognitive therapy, empathetic therapy by existential re-alignment of the mind, not necessarily very scientific but it helps a lot of people with philosophical approaches. Each patient is different and the therapy has to be tuned with effective medication and sustained therapy brings a radical internal change in reasoning. Both are needed for effective treatments

Q: Why does  negativity occur in society. Is it nurture vs nature…?

Prof: There are transmitters in the brain responsible for several issues related to the brain. We are highly social people since we try not to isolate ourselves, accepting every stage of life as it comes and dealing with aging too. By the time people reach 50 they think it is the end of their life and wait for it. It is a push-pull of observations, analysis in the brain is balanced and an even keel is maintained without over-reacting or being anxious about surroundings. When balance is lost negativity sets in and there is also a genetic pre-disposition to some of it.

Q: Regarding India and its changing, thinking and evolution; what are your thoughts?

Prof: India is a global economy now and corporate sectors are playing a major role in their lives. The middle class are the biggest movers and shakers of society and make an impact with their life-style. But I find that the continuity in our culture is ever present but it appears that the intellectual class is on a decline and the politicians seem to be running the show in the country; diluting everything else.  Somehow it all survives and moves on.

Q: You are Speaker at the Indian dance and Music Festival. What are your thoughts on the musical scene in India?

Prof: I am not a musician but I have been raised around music and understand and appreciate it. I feel that the essence of music is lost currently in India with more and more people leaning towards westernization our cultural heritage is slowly being lost. Even the current artists seem very different in their execution of music. We miss that originality and sincerity as in the singers of yesteryears. There are fewer people going to our concerts and youngsters are more into western music than Indian classical music. I hope we don’t completely sidetrack our legacy but give it its due respect and place in society.

Q: You have two books to your credit. ‘Phantoms in the Brain’ and ‘A brief tour of Human Consciousness’. Are you planning on your next one?

Prof: Yes my new book will be out in December called the ‘Tell-Tale Brain’. It will be a comparison and evolution of the human brain from chimpanzees and the special attributes that our brain has such as creativity, Synesthesia and language.

We sat there along with Dr. Shekar Vishwanathan an Engineering professor and Sri Venkatachalam a music maestro; who regaled us with stories about his Guru Chembai Vaidyanatha Baghavathar and old musical folklore. I was transported to another world and immensely enjoyed the conversations as we sat around drinking coffee. His opinions on issues from deteriorating appreciation of Indian classical music ; to freedom of expression in art, were as interesting as his scientific talks. He repeatedly told me it was off the record and I must respect his request. So I won’t quote his opinions on M.F.Hussein or freedom of expression in art, or religion or the Slumdog movie…

I just had a blast listening to him…

————–

(Edited article in Indian Express– west coast edition…)

His TED Talk:  A must watch to understand concepts of Phantom limb, Synesthesia etc…

http://www.ted.com/talks/vilayanur_ramachandran_on_your_mind.html

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Prof V.S.Ramachandran

Posted: March 18, 2010 in Uncategorized

A PROFILE

Vilayanur.S. Ramachandran is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. Ramachandran initially trained as a doctor and subsequently obtained a Ph.D. from Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. Ramachandran’s early work was on visual perception but he is best known for his experiments in behavioral neurology which, despite their apparent simplicity, have had a profound impact on the way we think about the brain. He has been called “The Marco Polo of neuroscience” by Richard Dawkins and “The modern Paul Broca” by Eric Kandel.

 In 2005 he was awarded the Henry Dale Medal and elected to an honorary life fellowship by the Royal Instituion of Great Britain. His other honors and awards include fellowships from All Souls College, Oxford, and from Stanford University; the Presidential Lecture Award from the American Academy of Neurology, two honorary doctorates, the annual Ramon Y Cajal award from the International Neuropsychiatry Society, and the Ariens-Kappers medal from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences. Most recently the President of India conferred on him the second highest civilian award and honorific title in India, the Padma Bhushan.

 Ramachandran has published over 180 papers in scientific journals (including five invited review articles in the Scientific American). He is author of the acclaimed book “Phantoms in the Brain” that has been translated into nine languages and formed the basis for a two part series on Channel Four TV (UK) and a 1 hour PBS special in USA. NEWSWEEK magazine has named him a member of “The Century Club” – one of the “hundred most prominent people to watch in the next century.”

 In an interview at his office at UCSD Dr. Ramachandran talked extensively about his research and about other worldly matters. His opinions on issues from deteriorating Indian classical music with Westernization taking over; to freedom of expression in art were as interesting as his scientific talks.

My  interview with him in the next blog:

His TED Talks: A must watch-

http://www.ted.com/talks/vilayanur_ramachandran_on_your_mind.html

http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/vs_ramachandran_the_neurons_that_shaped_civilization.html

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You are walking down the street. There’s a man doubled over, lying face down on the ground. His few belongings are scattered all around him. He is unable to get up. You are rushing to work. You see this sight before you. You are trying to look at it from your peripheral vision. You don’t want to stop the smooth strides taking you to your work. There will be someone behind you who will take care of the fallen person, you think.

You move on. You walk a few blocks then you stop dead in your tracks.

 ‘What is wrong with me’, you ask. Why didn’t I stop for this person? What if the few precious moments that elapsed caused a life or death situation for him. You turn around and walk with even quicker strides, your conscience pricking even more. You reach the same spot but find the person is no longer there. You don’t know what happened! Did someone take care off him? Did someone rush him to a hospital? You walk away albeit slowly. You do care! You took more than a moment to realize it and act on it.

You are jogging in the park. The crisp morning air is rejuvenating. You are calm, happy and satisfied with whatever life offered you. You are running at a steady pace inhaling the fresh air, filling your lungs with it. The sun has risen too and spreading its glow filling you with vitality. Alone on the bench sits a small boy looking lost and subdued. His thin shirt protects him from the wisps of cold air.

You are running and don’t want to stop because you have to take the 8 A.M train to somewhere where you have an important job to do. So you keep running, your mind thinking about the meeting with the group and the presentation you need to deliver. You stop at the last bench. You sit down. Then an image flashes onto your inner eye. An image of a small boy lost in the world having nowhere to go. Your heart strings are pulled. You feel guilty for not doing anything and retrace your steps to find him. He’s gone…You don’t know where. ‘Where did he go?’ You ask. Is he safe? Did someone take care of him or abduct him? You carry on feeling a little disturbed.

That’s because you care! You took more than a moment to realize it and act on it.

You are driving down the road. It’s rush-hour traffic. The acrid smell from the automobiles fills the air. You are sweating with the humidity in the air.

You open the windows hoping some air will flush the heat out. But the air is still. Then a small black arm thrusts itself through the glass windows. The hand is moving around hoping to get your attention. You ignore it but it is persistent, hopeful. Then you slowly pull up the glass window still avoiding looking at the little face with a hungry look, by the side of the car. The traffic moves and the boy disappeared amidst smoke and squealing tires.

You look in the rear view mirror. No sign off him. You wonder where he disappeared. Would some money in his hands have helped him eat something? Would it be snatched by his pimp standing by the road waiting? You drive on. The mind is sufficiently numbed. You turn on the radio, hoping the music will dispel the irritable thoughts. But you had stopped for a moment to think about it. You do care! But the moment was lost in the traffic snarl…

Everyday you find yourself at the crossroads of life. Those moments of truths rear their head but the head is turned away. You care about that moment and think about it but it always end’s up being a tad too late to have an effect. You hope that the next day you wake up and the blue skies and warm weather bring a refreshing change along with a few drops of rain. But it does not. Then you have this realization that if you don’t live in that moment it will disappear and will never come back. So you try harder to stay and make a difference so that every moment is not just an ‘after thought’ but a moment that was rescued because you acted on it. Those little moments added up and made a difference in someone’s life.  

Those moments got you late for work but added a golden second to your existing life. You realize that it ‘pays forward’ and soon the entire world is thinking along these lines. A perceptible change is what you notice when you are walking down the street. There is hope for a better world you say to yourself. Many a drops make a mighty ocean and in the ocean of humanity every drop counts.

And it is because you care…but do you care enough to act on it?

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Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

 An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson…

 If there is ever a book I would gladly gift the whole world as a ‘must read’ it will be this one. 192 pages of delight, simple, lucid, touching one’s heart and mind leaving an indelible impression regarding ‘living’. It is not to be ignored as another self-help book on the shelf. A book to be kept in the glove compartment, on the coffee table and gifted on occasions to near and dear ones or to a stranger even.

A story of the heart as told by a writer with soul.

 A story that can be read aloud.

The relationship of a teacher and student.

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Henry Adams

 Do I wither up and disappear, or do I make the best of my time left? Asked Morrie…

 Study me in my slow and patient demise. Watch what happens to me. Learn with me…said Morrie

 A book that cleanses the soul and thoughts; re-thinking life and its priorities and striving for simple pleasures in life.

 A must read…

Immortality (Book Review)

Posted: March 9, 2010 in Book Reviews
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Immortality by Milan Kundera  (Book Review)

Milan Kundera’s Immortality is translated from Czech by Peter Kussi. Kundera needs no introduction; this Franco Czech novelist has written several novels. This one was recommended by a  friend and being a book lover I couldn’t wait to read the book which sounded interesting to me. For people with philosophical inclinations this one is a wonderful read but for others it might be a little heavy. Themes of existence , the ‘here & now’ that trickles often into thoughts of after life , the association and longings that embody one’s imaginations and dreams.

Agnes sees, relates, thinks and wishes along these terms sailing through life with eyes wide open, observing, taking in and assimilating it all only to find herself being disillusioned at times and wishing for alternatives- including death. Then there is Goethe and Bettina, Laura, Paul, Avenarius, Hemmingway and others appearing through the narrative, adding flavorful extensions to his concept and rhetorics.

The book is beguiling in the sense that it lures the reader into accepting the thoughts and the vision that might often sound contradictory or blasphemous but the reality sometimes, explained by Kundera.

 Hard to pick any one line or lines to highlight but they are all over the book in various nuances. ‘Imagologues’ being one of them. A term used and described very well and making sense often as to what is perceived and what is the truth.

 Some brilliant lines:

 “All ideologies have been defeated: in the end their dogmas were unmasked as illusions and people stopped taking them seriously.”

  “Ideology was like a set of enormous wheels at the back of the stage, turning and setting in motion wars, revolutions, reforms. The wheels of imagology turn without having any effect upon history. Ideologies fought with one another, and each of them was capable of filling a whole epoch with its thinking. Imagology organizes peaceful alternation of its systems in lively seasonal rhythms.”

Several such interesting discussions run throught the book. 

Hoping to catch up with some of his earlier published works.

The pen is mightier than the sword’ goes the adage. As appropriate as it may sound I would like to re-phrase it to something that is less violent and more inspiring in my mind.

‘The pen is akin to an artist’s brush that creates a beautiful painting’ sometimes for posterity, sometimes for momentary pleasures but a beautiful piece of art.

Mark Twain was a writer and an artist who remarked “It steeps me in a sacred rapture to see a portrait develop and take soul under my hand...” 

 Expressing life as it appears, thoughts as they flutter in my mind like butterflies waiting to be released from their nets, giving them wings.  

 The intriguing connection between words, images, thoughts and the powerful pen that gives it life, making one wonder what ‘creativity’ is all about, a connection among writers…

The creative urge a writer has to transfer his thoughts to paper, to give it a form and articulate it in the way he chooses to express himself; giving himself an identity that is dear to his heart and soul.

The threads of thoughts, the connectivity and the euphoria of releasing those swirling thoughts onto paper have its own addictive pleasures.

At times the art connects with the viewer in a gallery, in a way that takes them on a journey through another’s imaginative mind. The feeling of a high one gets after reading a good book that could not be put down.

Author Donald Friedman in his book ‘The Writer’s Brush’ wrote biographical sketches of 203 writer-artists from around the world pairing them with reproductions of their artistic works, giving an insight into their minds.

Something divine- akin to a spiritual release of flawless thoughts on a clean white paper.

An immaculate birth- transferred from the mind giving it life and watching it with reverence, giving it an exalted position that only an artist can recognize.

Poet and artist E.E Cummings had included in his book:

“…however ‘the arts’ may differ among themselves, their common function is the expression of that supreme aliveness which is know as ‘beauty.”

I couldn’t agree with him more, a resonance I find in his thoughts as I do in a few others that are often liberating, leaving a peaceful sense of joy that is indescribable.

Quotes: Books/magazines