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The Reading Brain

When asked why he did not introduce a iPod like book reader, Steve Jobs arrogantly said, “the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.” He was being dismissive of Amazon Kindle, which was sold out in a day and was buying time to develop the Kindle killer. Still the point that Americans read less is a valid one.

Tom Ashbrook recently had an interview with Maryanne Wolf, the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, which explains that reading shapes the human brain and by reading less we are going through devolution.

Thus the reading brain is part of highly successful two-way dynamics. Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually. For example, at the neuronal level, a person who learns to read in Chinese uses a very particular set of neuronal connections that differ in significant ways from the pathways used in reading English. When Chinese readers first try to read in English, their brains attempt to use Chinese-based neuronal pathways. The act of learning to read Chinese characters has literally shaped the Chinese reading brain. Similarly, much of how we think and what we think about is based on insights and associations generated from what we read. As the author Joseph Epstein put it, “A biography of any literary person ought to deal at length with what he read and when, for in some sense, we are what we read.” [Reading Lessons From Proust and the Squid]

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Best Medicine for Depression

The surfer, Steven Kotler, was making his living as a writer, with the perfect apartment and perfect girl friend. Then he got the Lyme disease. On days he could make it to the kitchen from the bed, he would end up standing with a coffee pot in one hand and the tap running not sure what to do next as he had forgotten to do the most basic tasks. He lost his job, woman and his mind and started thinking of suicide. So he decided to do the best thing possible – go surfing in Costa Azul, Mexico and to his surprise he started feeling better.

In the book, West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief Steven wondered why he got better. Another book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, explains the science and it has something to do with neurogenesis.

While it was known that our skin, liver and bones constantly regenerate, it was believed that neurons could not. Ramon y Cajal, considered one of the founders of neuroscience and a Nobel Prize winner wrote in 1913, “In the adult centers, the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, and immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated. It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.”

The science of the future did not have to do anything to change this since the assumption itself was incorrect, but Cajal’s theory was held as dogma till 1962 when a scientist at MIT, Joseph Altman, decided to challenge it. Altman found that brains of adult rats, cats and guinea pigs generated new neurons. Later experiments by Michael Kaplan on the brains of adult rats, Fernando Nottebohm in bird brains and Elizabeth Gould in primates confirmed this theory.

The scientific community still did not accept that human brains could create new neurons but soon that Berlin wall too crumbled. Fred Gage and Swedish neurologist Peter Eriksson found through experiments conducted on the brains of terminal cancer patients that neurogenesis happened in humans; new neurons were born even in people who were in their fifties and seventies. The discovery that these new neurons matured and became part of the brain circuitry with new connections overturned conventional wisdom.

Researchers focused on finding the optimal conditions for neurogenesis by comparing the brains of mice with sedentary life style with physically active ones. Not surprisingly they found that ones which were physically active produced twice as many cells in their hippocampus than the armchair quarterbacks. Also observed was that it was voluntary exercise that produced brain cells and not coerced ones. This means that if your take a TV watching Google Reader addict and tie him on a treadmill his brain will remain unchanged whereas if he voluntarily registers for Ekal Marathon, there could be a burst in neurogenesis.

These new neurons were found to colligate in the dentate gyrus, a part in the hippocampus which forms distinct representations of multiple contexts, places and episodes. These neurons were also found to have more dendrites making it better connected and as a result enhanced the ability to connect new facts with old, retrieve memories and find patterns in disparate events.

Finally it was found that in people suffering from depression, the dentate gyrus had shrunk; such people were not able to find any novelty in life resulting in the philosophy, “Life sucks.” With exercise and the resulting neurogenesis the dentate gyrus was able to recognize novelty, recognize new experiences and bring back excitement into life. Consumer Reports advices, “Regular aerobic exercise is another effective antidote. It provides a time-out from unpleasant thoughts, generates feelings of well-being, and reduces depression.”

Exercise is what Steven Kotler did and he survived.

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Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves

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Conquering Attention Deficit Disorder


(Image by altamar)

I decided to wash my car. As I start toward the garage, I spotted the mail on the hall table. I should go through the mail before I wash the car. I lay the car keys on the table, put the junk mail in the trash can under the table, and notice that the trash can is full. So I put the bills back on the table and take out the trash first. Since I’m going to be near the mailbox when I take out the trash anyway, I might as well pay the bills first. I see my checkbook on the table, but there is only one check left. My extra checks are in my desk in the study, so I go to my desk, where I find the bottle of juice that I had been drinking. I’m going to look for my checks, but first I need to push the juice aside so that I don’t accidentally knock it over.

At the end of the day: the car isn’t washed, the bills aren’t paid, there is a warm bottle of juice sitting on the counter, the flowers aren’t watered, there is still only one check in my checkbook, I can’t find the remote, I can’t find my glasses, and I don’t remember what I did with the car keys. [Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder]

For a software engineer who is also an information junkie, life is equally hard due to attention deficit disorder. In the few minutes it takes to compile code, there is an urge to check Google Reader for updates. While going through blogs like Engadget, which has as many updates per day as the number of times N. Ram bows before China’s Ambassador to India, there is an impulse to skip most of the posts to reduce the unread count. By then Google News has updated and then you are deeply interested in what Nana Patekar did to Tanusree Dutta by which time the compilation is over and you forgot the code changes you made. And remember, the software engineer has not touched his Blackberry till now.

Multitasking essentially messes up the brain. The constant switching of tasks makes us concentrate on the act of concentration instead of the task. Immediately after the task is done, there is no recollection of what was done, like the case of the software engineer who read news during compilation and could neither remember the bug he had fixed nor the news he had read. Multitasking also boosts the stress related hormones and makes us grey earlier than our parents.

Constant multitasking results in the brain expecting you to perform many tasks at the same time. Soon you feel bored when you are just reading news. Eventually you might end up like actress Jenniffer Connelly who said, “I do like to read a book while having sex. And talk on the phone. You can get so much done.”

Before it gets that bad, something has to be done. You can remember fondly of your childhood when there were no iPods, cell phones or 24 hour news channels and delate technology for the distractions, but that does not solve the problem. To kick the multitasking habit effort is required and blogger John Richardson found a simple non-tech way.

Here’s how it works… Set a timer for 48 minutes. Close out all distractions and work continuously for 48 minutes. When the timer goes off, get up and stretch, get coffee, use the restroom etc, in the following 12 minutes. Repeat as necessary. [The Power of 48 Minutes]

There is nothing magical about 48 minutes; you could pick any convenient number. The point is to spent the time focused on the task. As sports psychologist H.A. Dorfman noted, “you have to build a structure of behavior and attitude. Behavior shapes thought. If a player disciplines his behavior, then he will also discipline his mind.” The goal should be to focus on the task, see only the eye of bird as Arjuna did, and let nothing else distract you. As Dorfman says about pitchers, “he should only think about three things: pitch selection, pitch location and the catcher’s glove, his target. If he finds himself thinking about something else, he should step off the rubber.”

In the article about Dorfman, David Brooks mentions, “there were intellectuals who thought the mind existed above the body, but that’s been blown away by evidence.” Buddhist monks will laugh at this confident assertion from the clerisy. According to Buddhist philosophy, sensations constantly arise in our mind which on repetation becomes strong emotion. When the cravings are strong, they over power the mind; we suspend judgement and act on the strongest impulse. Thus when the strong impulse to read news arises, we succumb to the craving unable to stop[1]

If by some means we are able to observe the sensation without reacting, the mind can remain balanced, peaceful and under our control. This control is possible by practicing mindfulness, and neuroscience has shown that mind can act on the brain and through pure thought brain activity can be changed. Through mindfulness it is possible to sustain attention on a task, re-orient the mind to the task when the attention is slipping, and exclude things which are not required for the task through executive control.

This is a problem that affects all of us and as Larry Wall says, “there is more than one way to solve it”, else…sorry, I just went to check news.


  1. William Hart, The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation: As Taught by S. N. Goenka, 1 (HarperOne, 1987).

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Looking for Galileos

So, was there a Big Bang from which the universe expanded into the present form.? The Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker metric, analysis of light spectrum from galaxies and the cosmic microwave background radiation all indicate that there was an initial state of infinite density and temperature.

But computational physicists like Neil Turok believe that the universe is anādi (without begining or end) and Big Bang is just one stage in infinite cycles of expansions and contractions.

Within a school of string theory known as m-theory, Turok said, “the seventh extra dimension of space is the gap between two parallel objects called branes. It’s like the gap between two parallel mirrors. We thought, What happens if these two mirrors collide? Maybe that was the Big Bang.[Physicist Neil Turok: Big Bang Wasn’t the Beginning]

The Catholic Church, always in search of Galileos, is against this theory. It is not that the priests have groked D-branes and NS-branes and all the extra dimensions to come with a scientific objurgation, instead they just dusted a timeless tactic: it goes against the scriptures

Wired: The Catholic Church hasn’t been very receptive to your ideas, either.

Turok: I think they like the Big Bang for obvious reasons. It’s a creation event, and they find that appealing. Whereas if you talk to most physicists, they’d prefer that there was not a creation event, because there are no laws of physics that indicate how time could begin. I’m not motivated by [theological considerations]. I’d be perfectly happy with a mathematically precise description of how time began. I see science and religion as being two completely different things. I don’t see science as relevant to the question of whether or not there’s a God.[Physicist Neil Turok: Big Bang Wasn’t the Beginning]

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Mindfulness for Stress Reduction

Historian Garry Wills was on stage with Dalai Lama one day and he asked the Buddhist monk what he would do if he ever got Tibet back. The Dalai Lama replied that he would enforce the separation of the Church and State, the American way. Gary Wills replied that a pre-requisite would be Enlightenment (not the Buddhist one, but the 18th century movement which includes Deism). The Dalai Lama smiled and went and wrote a book, The Universe in a Single Atom which is about the need for a dialog between scientists and those interested in spirituality.

Partly due to the efforts of the Dalai Lama and partly due to the adoption of Buddhist spiritual techniques by Americans there has been a scientific enquiry into what happens to us during meditation. These studies are being conducted in reputed universities and also at the National Institute of Health. Also there has been an adoption of mindfulness as a practice for stress reduction and this program is now offered in hospitals around the country.

In this video, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction talks about the program and the results.

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