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COMPLETELY REVISED AND UPDATED 2022 EDITION

The first edition published in 2007 by Icon Books, UK, as ‘Why Aren’t They Here? The Question of life on other worlds’

Is there anybody out there? Are other life forms lurking in outer space – or are they already here?

This calm, intelligent and witty survey of the history of humankind’s search for extraterrestrial life brilliantly outlines the historical, fictional, speculative and emerging scientific opinions on what alien life might be like.

The fast-moving narrative examines facts, dispels myths and focuses on the possibilities lurking in space. In a popular and easy-to-read style, the author uses current research to speculate what life is like on exoplanets (or extra-solar planets), how we might communicate with it, and what Earth might seem like to visitors.

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COMPLETELY REVISED AND UPDATED 2021 EDITION OF THE MOST POPULAR BOOK ON THE RIDDLE OF THE GREAT SIBERIAN EXPLOSION OF 1908

The first edition published in 2005 by Icon Books, UK

At 7.14 a.m. on June 30, 1908, a huge fireball exploded in the Siberian sky. A thousand times the force of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, it flattened an area of remote Tunguska forest bigger than metropolitan New York, forming a mushroom cloud that almost reached into space.

What was it? A wayward black hole, a crashing comet, a rogue asteroid, an exotic rock of antimatter or mirror matter, a methane gas blast from below, an alien spacecraft, a laser beam fired by extraterrestrials, or an early experiment in nuclear physics which got out of hand?

More than a century on, this grand dame of science mysteries still fascinates scientists and charlatans alike.

Australian science journalist and author Surendra Verma tells the incredible story of this famous fireball. He also examines the major theories – scientific and fanciful – and evaluates the new evidence that claims that the mystery has at last been ‘solved.’ Or, is it?

Hardcover, paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon

A murderous Nazi on the run now masquerading as a holy man, a crazy woman and her bewitched plants, a lonely and sad actress struggling to walk out of the ghastly shadows of her tormented past as a teenage girl, an artful master of misinformation dodging the officialdom with fake news, a mischievous Tibetan refugee girl and her pranks, depravity disguised as tantric sex, and buff envelopes stuffed with cash which make greedy officials run.

In this weird world, when a young woman starts on a journey to seek justice for the cold murder of her benefactor and the brutal rape of two destitute children she comes to a head with pure evil. The anguish of a child’s trauma penetrates deep into every human heart. But evil has no heart.

A touching tale of empathy and compassion of a woman as strong as the mountains surrounding her small, scenic hometown in the foothills of the Himalayas, in 1965 and earlier. When you put it down, you will feel you have been to a different world, a grim but real world that sadly still exists with a new cast of characters.

A conversation with a river red gum tree on “saving the planet”

The silly slogan

When for a few days, I heard a soft whimpering voice from the sky as I walked on a lonely track along a creek, I worried that I was suffering from psychosis.

The creek once was part of the walking track followed by the Australian Aboriginal Boon Wurrung people for many thousands of years. As I walk, I see an Aboriginal flag flying on a flagpole in a little park. A yellow circle in the centre of a rectangle divided in half horizontally, the upper half black and the lower ochre red reminding anyone who cared to find out about an ancient culture’s spiritual relation to the land and the sun — the planet and the cosmos.

The ancient spirits sending me a message?

One day the voice was louder, “Hey mate, I’m talking to you.” I looked around and saw nothing. “Look up, mate.” The only thing I could see was the high canopy of a huge river red gum tree, a common eucalyptus species in these parts. Oh, the tree was talking to me, I realized. “What can I do for you?” I said, struggling to find the right word to address this old, majestic tree; “mate” seemed so ordinary and disrespectful.

“Could you please remove this plastic banner some idiot has wrapped around my trunk?” the tree asked gasping. “It’s killing me.”

I removed the banner and looked up. “From here I can’t read the writing on the banner,” the tree said. “What does it say?”

“Save the planet.”

“Is the planet dying?” the tree asked anxiously.

“Not really. The planet has been around for 4.5 billion years and still be here for another 4.5 billion years even if its atmosphere heats up by hundreds or even thousands of degrees. A big, rogue asteroid may disturb its orbit a bit if it hits it hard. That’s all.”

“Why then this silly slogan?” the tree exclaimed. “You should be shouting, save our species. Better still, save us from our silliness. Your stupid species is indiscriminately destroying the land and water with imperishable plastic and choking the air with noxious carbon. How could you save yourself from your excesses when you print a silly slogan on a plastic banner and leave it around to kill other species?”

My human mind had no answer. I nodded to show my concern.

The tree seemed genuinely angry. It continued, “I have been here for more than 200 years, and I’ve noticed the air becoming warmer. Too much carbon dioxide for us trees to breathe in and not many of us to breathe out oxygen.”

“Well, the level of carbon dioxide is going up every year,” I said. “Now there are 415 molecules of carbon dioxide molecules in every million molecules in the air. It was 400 in 2013.”

“I don’t care about these numbers, but I do care about the numbers of our species of river red gum trees decreasing dramatically. I give a damn about your species. As you say, mate, the planet, though its atmosphere is a little bit warmer, will still be here for another 4.5 billion years. I’m sure once your self-indulgent and self-destructing species have disappeared forever the planet will look forward to hosting a truly intelligent life that respects its own kind and the other kinds and its environment.”

Lost for words, I took a sip of water from my reusable water bottle.

“What’s that green sticker on the bottle?” the tree asked. “It looks like a eucalyptus leaf.”

“It says, save 2000 plastic bottles by using this reusable bottle and save the planet.”

I heard a loud laugh and then the tree saying, “Silly slogans and symbols won’t save human beings; a little respect for the environment and the other species may. Where are the blackfellas who had a spiritual connection with the land around this creek?”

© Surendra Verma 2020

NOW the first THREE chapters

Serenity Sensibility Success

Stimulating Strolls in Science of Things We Do Every Day

By Surendra Verma

🔅 INTRODUCTION 🔅

Success summed up in serenity, not silver

My favourite uncle gifted me a leather wallet when I was a schoolboy. As I hardly had any money, I stuffed it with pieces of paper, banknote sized. It seemed impressive to pull out a thick wallet in front of school friends and even take out a coin to buy a sugary ice drink from a hawker.

The paper pieces in my wallet were not blank; each was inscribed neatly in blue-black ink with a fountain pen with an inspiring quote. Out of two dozen or so quotes, two I still remember after nearly seven decades.

The motto of the sundial: I record only hours of sunshine.

and

The breeze whispers to the lotus,

‘What is thy secret?’

‘It is myself,’ says the lotus,

‘Steal it and I disappear!’

I have never been able to find out the source of the first quote, but the second one is from Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s book of poems, Fireflies (1928).

I like to believe that the two quotes turned my uncle’s gift into a lifelong contribution to my wellbeing—for they subconsciously became my role models. A sunny outlook and early self-realisation that is the secret to my success in life is within myself. Success not measured in silver but in serenity.

I also like to believe that the source of contentment in my long, simple life comes from an unknown hawker. When I think of the slushy hawker, my mind goes back to a summer in a space-time not polluted by plastics and phones: An old man with a bicycle-wheel cart, a swarm of poor kids around his rickety cart, eagerly waiting for their favourite, bright-coloured sugary syrup poured over ice flakes shaved off by a rustic wooden hand planer from a block of ice. When not surrounded by kids, I still remember watching the hawker folding leaves of peepal trees, sacred fig trees common in India, and tying them together with toothpick-like sticks of bamboo to make disposable and biodegradable cups for serving his ice concoction. Peacefulness exuded from his wrinkled face as he went about this daily task humming softly to himself. What was the secret of his contentment? Obviously, not money. It was the great satisfaction he derived from his daily activity of selling ice lollies that made kids happy. At least one kid’s mind calmer, even remembering his contentment after decades.

Walking, thinking, learning, creating, worrying, sleeping, daydreaming and procrastinating are many things we do every day. The way we do these things sums up our lives. This book focuses on what science says about what we do every day. Though I have inserted myself in some stories, they point towards a strictly scientific route to serenity, sensibility and success—not personal or spiritual.

Reading them requires absolutely no background in science. Happy reading!

🔅 1 🔅 WALKing

WALK AS IF YOU ARE KISSING THE GROUND WITH YOUR FEET

Whenever I walk along a creek near my house, I’m awed by the sight of the giant red river gum trees that line both sides of the water. The trees are a common eucalyptus species in these parts. They can stand majestically for more than 200 years. The creek was once part of the walking track, followed by the Australian Aboriginal people for thousands of years. As I walk, I see an Aboriginal flag flying on a flagpole near the creek. A yellow circle in the centre of a rectangle divided in half horizontally, the upper half black and the lower ochre red, reminding anyone who cared to find out about an ancient culture’s spiritual relation to the land and the sun—the planet and the cosmos.

An unusual calmness descends upon my mind when suddenly I remember a day more than sixty ago when I was a teenager and a keen walker. I was walking in a lonely street in a scenic town in the foothills of the Himalayas. When I saw an old Tibetan monk pacing in the front yard of a large house, I pressed my palms together and bowed my head a little as a sign of respect.

His solemn face shining in the weak wintery sunlight, the monk smiled and said something like, ‘My  young friend, walk as if you are kissing the ground with your feet.’ I couldn’t understand what he said then, but now I know he was talking about mindfulness walking—the spiritual interconnectedness between the land and the mind. An idea the enlightened Australian Aboriginal people have practised for millenniums.

By ‘kissing the ground,’ the old, wise man meant, ‘focus on the present and not let your mind wander’.

When we are mindful, our minds focus on the present, and we respond with reason before emotion. There is still no good scientific definition of mindfulness. Nevertheless, scientists agree that it’s no magic bullet but does help our well-being. When we are mindful, we are aware of every sensation as it unfolds at the moment. While walking, focus on the body’s sensations by mentally scanning every body part engaged in walking.

I also know now that the monk was part of the entourage of the Dalai Lama when he sought refuge in India. The year was 1959, and the Dalai Lama was only 23 then. He disguised himself as a soldier and slipped through the crowds outside his palace in Lhasa. He then embarked on a dangerous journey to India, crossing the Himalayas on foot with a small number of Tibetan soldiers and officials. They travelled only at night for two weeks to avoid detection by Red Chinese soldiers.

Inspired by the Dalia Lama’s long walk in the Himalayas from Lhasa to the India-Tibet border, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’. A cloud saturated with serenity, watching William Wordsworth walking in the fields and woods of England’s picturesque Lake District. His mind calm yet fiercely active in creative thinking and composing poems. The poems are now as old and overpowering as the red river gum trees surrounding me.

When Wordsworth achieved literary fame in the last years of his life, he began to receive many gifts, letters, and requests for autographs or meetings. Sometimes travellers would arrive at his house unannounced. One such traveller came when Wordsworth was away. He requested the maid to show him the celebrated poet’s study. She took him inside and said, ‘Here’s his library, but his study is out of doors.’

In 1862, twelve years after Wordsworth’s death, Henry David Thoreau wrote more than 12,000 words in The Atlantic magazine extolling the virtues of walking in natural environments. Not a word about science, but a fascinating read.

The Brontë sisters—literary geniuses Charlotte (Jane Eyre), Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall)—went walking on the moors almost every day. ‘To the great damage of our shoes, but I hope, to the benefit of our health,’ notes Charlotte in a letter to a friend.

Charles Dickens was famous for his love of walking. The long hours he spent at his desk agitated him tremendously, and walking helped his mind to calm down. If he walked all night, he could write all day, G.K. Chesterton remarks in his biography of Dickens. Not unexpected from the author of Great Expectations.

A simple but smart message

These of our perennial favourite writers were avid walkers and somehow knew walking benefits health. They had no idea that regular brisk walking reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, breast and colorectal and other forms of cancer, depression and many other ailments (it even helps people with Parkinson’s disease, as some studies suggest). But we do.

Walking is a ‘moderate’ exercise while running is a ‘vigorous’ exercise. Walking is as good as running if we walk twice as long. Any exercise makes our brains smarter by boosting our mood, memory and learning. We know this because we have now learned a lot about the hippocampus. This seahorse-shaped centre of learning in the brain is also closely linked to the limbic system that controls emotions and motivation. So, it truly takes care of our well-being. Our well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of our hippocampus (you may bow to Sir Hippocampus).

When we exercise, brain cells, or neurons, in the hippocampus rev up, which in turn improves our cognitive abilities. The revved-up neurons also lift the mood by releasing feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphins that make us happy. Exercise also helps us eliminate chemicals that make us feel stressed and anxious. If you have a mental block, go for a walk or jog. The exercise would help you pull out of your funk.

It might also help increase the size of your hippocampus, which tends to decrease in old age. It used to be thought that ageing was a one-way process going the wrong way, but that’s not the case. Studies show that the hippocampus is as much as 2 per cent larger in older people who regularly walk, jog or engage in aerobic exercises. Any shrinkage in the hippocampus can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in general. Motivation and drive suffer in most types of dementia. Exercise can improve the brain’s decline, or at least it can slow it down.

For the elderly, walking is the best way to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The benefits of walking accumulate once it becomes a routine habit. Unlike many other sports, walking never becomes impossible with advancing age.

Exercise also causes the release of specific proteins known as growth factors. As the levels of these beneficial proteins build up, neurons branch out and start building new connections in the hippocampus. These connections signify a new fact or skill learned and stored for future use. As we age, individual neurons start to die. This loss is not permanent: the brain can make new neurons. Again, these proteins play a role in growing new neurons—and exercise helps build up their levels by increasing blood volumes.

Walking is an aerobic exercise. So are running, cycling, dancing and swimming. Recent research suggests that yoga also qualifies as an aerobic workout besides its meditative side, at least if done rapidly. Fitness training is usually divided into cardiovascular, flexibility and strength. Aerobics counts as cardio; Pilates doesn’t, as it helps boost our flexibility and joint mobility. Weightlifting is strength training.

Aerobic exercise gets our blood flowing faster and our heart pumping more of it, thus increasing the body’s use of oxygen. This increase in oxygen is known as VO2 max, or the maximum volume of oxygen a person can use. The higher our VO2 max, the more fit we are. The higher VO2 max is also a boon for the brain, the biggest consumer of oxygen in the body. Oxygen helps food to convert into energy, and the brain consumes about 20 per cent of our daily calorie intake. More oxygen to the neurons means they are better nourished. Many large-scale studies now closely correlate VO2 max with a significant increase in life spans, even among the elderly or overweight.

Walking has another unexpected benefit for people with osteoarthritis. It can keep off the knee pain. Osteoarthritis, also known as wear-and-tear arthritis, happens when the joint cartilages break down and underlying bone changes. Regular walking can help create muscle mass, strengthening ligaments around osteoarthritis joints.

Guilt-free walking

We are never too old, too young, pregnant, or ill to reap the benefits of brisk walking. The science of walking is now overwhelmingly convincing. It has only one simple message: Walk briskly for at least 150 minutes per week or walk casually for thirty minutes every day. Even walking casually for as little as two minutes per hour will go a long way to improving physical and mental health. It’s much better than merely sitting. Walking involves nearly four times more energy than sitting. Any activity that uses more energy than sitting on the couch is good for our health.

After analysing eight earlier studies, an international consortium of researchers has unequivocally shown clear scientific evidence that higher levels of total physical activity—regardless of intensity—reduce our chances of dying prematurely. In the British Medical Journal, they suggest 25 minutes per day of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, or 300 minutes a day of light, gentle activity such as cooking and cleaning.

Ten thousand steps a day has always been the mantra of walking enthusiasts. Well, at least since 1964, when a Japanese clockmaker decided to mass-produce a pedometer to capitalise on fitness fetish after the Tokyo Olympics. In Japanese characters, the pedometer’s name looked like a walking man. In English, it is also translated as ‘10,000-step meter’. Not surprisingly, the 10,000 steps a day goal has become the standard on many fitness apps on our smartphones. However, experts on steps counts and health suggest 8,000 steps to be the step-count sweet spot, and we gain no benefits beyond this magic number.

The number 10,000 is so deeply rooted in our consciousness that science will find it hard to erase. Science also tells us that our brains are inherently lazy; they accept too much at face value, and if something is familiar is also safe.

Thought and sweat in equal measures

In our times, Steve Jobs, Apple’s legendary co-founder, was indeed an inveterate peripatetic. His preferred way to have a serious discussion was to take a long walk together. As a high school student, ‘he had developed a love of walking, and he walked the fifteen blocks to school by himself each day,’ Walter Isaacson writes in his highly acclaimed book, Steve Jobs

In times that our history books tag as BC (or BCE in politically correct language), Aristotle was the first peripatetic. At 17, Aristotle travelled to Athens, where he enrolled in the Academy of the renowned philosopher Plato.

Young Aristotle blossomed in the Academy’s stimulating intellectual environment; Plato nicknamed him ‘the mind of the Academy’. Plato, an athlete and a skilled wrestler, also inculcated in the mind of his young pupil the virtues of physical activity, besides ‘cultivating the mind’. ‘Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together … bring the two elements into tune with one another by adjusting the tension of each to the right pitch,’ he said. Thought and sweat in equal measures, in other words.

Years later, Aristotle also set up his Academy in Athens at the Lyceum, a temple of the sun god Apollo. He never forgot his teacher’s emphasis on combining education with physical activity and walked with his students up and down the Academy’s main avenue while teaching and discussing. The Academy soon became known as the Peripatetic School (from the Greek peripatētikos, ‘walking up and down’).

Aristotle’s regular walks led him towards becoming science’s poster boy of antiquity. What about your walks? Before you answer, say bonjour to the little prince. Born in 1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince has inhabited the homes of 150 million who bought the book (in original French or one of the 300 official translations). But, like Aristotle, the little prince is not homebound; he is peripatetic. When a merchant tried to sell him pills that had been invented to quench the thirst, he asked:

— Why are you selling those?

— Because they save a tremendous amount of time, said the merchant. Experts have calculated that with these pills you save fifty-three minutes in a week.

— And what do you do with those fifty-three minutes?

— Anything you like.

‘If I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I would walk slowly towards a spring of fresh water,’ the little prince said to himself. What would you say to yourself if you had fifty-three minutes to spend as you like?

Walk in nature towards a spring of longevity

A team of Harvard researchers monitored 108,630 women who, over eight years, completed a regular detailed questionnaire about what they eat, when they exercise, how they live and what they do in their spare time. During this period, 8,604 died.

The researchers, led by Peter James, report in the journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, that when they used satellite data to see how green each woman’s surrounding was, they discovered higher levels of greenery were associated with decreased mortality. Women living in the greenest area were 34 per cent less likely to die from respiratory illness than women living in the most paved-over areas. The rate of dying from cancer was 13 per cent lower. The greenness did not affect the mortality rate related to coronary disease, diabetes, stroke or infections. The association between green space and good health stayed even after accounting for socioeconomic status, age, race, ethnicity, smoking, body weight, and other health factors.

The results are unsurprising as living near parks and gardens encourage walking and other aerobic exercises. Four aspects of greener areas help explain the study results: less air pollution, more physical activity, more social engagement and, most significantly, better mental health, as measured by a lower prevalence of depression. To reap the benefits of nature, we need not move to the country. For example, increased vegetation—more street trees—seems to help us live longer.

Walk in nature towards a spring of calmness and fresh ideas

When Aristotle, Wordsworth and Jobs took their study out of doors, they didn’t know walking changed their brains. But they knew walking was more pleasurable than not, and sublimely, it made their minds calmer and creative. Science now stamps its approval for the walking meeting. Multiple studies have shown that walking outside is much better for creativity than sitting inside a dreary office. That’s thinking positively outside the box.

City dwellers with little access to green spaces have higher incidences of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living near parks and the woods, claims an interesting US research study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Gregory Bratman and his colleagues conclude that city dwellers have a 20 per cent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 per cent higher risk of mood disorders than people living in rural areas.

 The highfalutin title of the study, ‘Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation,’ means simply: walking in nature changes the brain.

Brooding is a mental state in which we deeply think about something that makes us sad, angry or worried. But repetitive thinking focused on negative emotions (or morbid rumination) is associated with higher risks of depression and other mental illnesses. The subgenual prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain, is active during rumination. As opposed to walking in a high-traffic urban area, walking in nature decreases activity in this region of the brain, thus reducing the risk of depression.

In an earlier study, the researchers found that volunteers who walked briefly through a quiet and leafy part of the Stanford University campus were more attentive and happier afterwards than the volunteers who strolled for the same time along a noisy and busy highway. This result was based on fill-out questionnaires, not on brain scans.

In the current study, the researchers checked for brain activity in two groups of volunteers, using scans that track blood flow through the brain. One group walked for 90 minutes in a grassland area scattered with oak trees and shrubs, and the other walked along a traffic-heavy four-lane highway. There was little difference between physiological conditions but marked changes in brain activity.

Lesser blood flowed to subgenual prefrontal cortex regions of the volunteers’ brains who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment. The lower flow of blood to this brain region shows less activity in this area, meaning the brain is calmer.

Many other studies have shown that walking in nature reduces stress and boosts well-being.

A message to city dwellers from the little prince: To improve your mood, throw away your pills and walk, slowly or briskly, in a park or woods for at least fifty-three minutes towards a spring of fresh ideas. It may stifle your subgenual prefrontal cortex. Don’t brood over whatever or wherever this thing is in the brain.

And a few words from Henry David Thoreau’s 1862 article in The Atlantic: ‘When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: What would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?’

Get a dog and a backpack

To increase the duration of positive experiences of your walking, get a dog. Many studies have found that those who owned a dog walked an extra twenty-five or more minutes than those who didn’t. Other studies suggest that if you believe walking makes your dog happy, you are more likely to walk your dog. It will, in turn, make you happy. You can also take heart from American Heart Association studies that link dog ownership with living longer. These people walked with their dogs, not letting them roam freely outside as some dog walkers do in Australia and the US.

Some studies suggest that carrying a backpack builds muscles as you walk.

I walk, think, therefore I am

In his early years, René Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher, was sceptical of almost everything, even his existence. He lost this scepticism after he concluded: Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)—arguably the single best-known philosophical statement.

When he went to a boarding school at the age of eight, Descartes enjoyed exceptional privileges because of his poor health. ‘My philosopher,’ as his father used to call him, was excused from morning school duties and allowed to stay in bed until late morning. This habit of morning reflections in bed clung to him throughout his life.

Though the great philosopher loved lying in his bed, if he were living today, he would have undoubtedly reasoned that walking energises the brain to fire up chemicals that dull pain, lighten the mood, and relieve stress. We can experience this bliss only when exercising, not lying in bed.

Every morning Descartes would have left his bed for a brisk, long walk along the canals near his house, muttering in impeccable Latin, ‘I walk, think, therefore I’m.’ An admiring Aristotle following him, purring in passable French, ‘It’s all Greek to me, mon cher philosophe.

Descartes would have also agreed that long walks—or any other aerobic activity for that matter—do not cancel out the negative impact of sedentary time. Randomised, controlled trials provide only a partial picture of the benefits of aerobic exercise. Epidemiological evidence, however, shows a complete view. For better health, it’s not the time we spend exercising but the time we spend not moving at all.

Time spent sedentary is associated with many common chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and osteoarthritis, and mortality. As far as heart disease is concerned, evolutionary biologists tell us that our hearts have evolved to allow us to be in steady, regular, aerobically based motion. Heart disease is not only related to ageing; the hearts of sedentary young people also show the hardening of arteries and high blood pressure.

Put simply, humans were built to walk and run, not sit and engage with a screen.

Time to stop reading, to stand up and wander around ‘lonely as a cloud’. After a long brisk walk, you may experience a sudden eureka moment. Whatever follows (an innovative idea, poetic or practical), you’ll cherish it for a long time.

Creativity and healthiness follow you like two inseparable shadows when you go on a long walk—kissing the ground with your feet.

© Surendra Verma 2022

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🔅2🔅 BREATHING

Take a long, slow breath in a mindful way

Speaking metaphorically, I learned to walk from a Buddhist monk and to breathe from a Hindu holy man. Their lessons may have origins in some ancient scriptures but what they taught me was not religious or spiritual. They just showed me the right way to walk and breathe. It was a way of life to them. A way of life that has now earned the respect of science.

After my brief encounter with a Tibetan monk in a Himalayan town, I met a maharishi (a Sanskrit word meaning ‘great seer’) in another scenic town about forty miles (and seven years) away. This small town by the River Ganges is now renowned for its ashrams, but in those days, it was a sleepy town, and this particular maharishi has yet to become the darling of rock and Hollywood megastars.  

I was at the maharishi’s ashram to interview him for a magazine. I found him amicable but a man of few words. He became voluble when he learned that the young reporter in front of him was a science graduate. The maharishi was also a science graduate from another prominent university in the same state. He then went on and on about how and why the new meditation technique he had perfected was genuinely scientific.

Science demands hard evidence, not mere convictions. However, many recent studies show that regular meditation—of any kind, not necessarily chanting Om or another mantra with a saffron-robed guru—benefits both body and mind. I will describe the essence of these findings later, but first, the gist of the maharishi’s pep talk to a natural-born sceptic: ‘Breath is life. How you breathe reveals the state of your health, thoughts, and feelings. Controlled breathing enhances your self-awareness, releases you from ordinary thoughts and improves your well-being. Always breath slowly through your nose, not your mouth.’

My impromptu giggling guru (the maharishi, indeed, giggled a lot) then taught me his technique of meditation, which he called transcendental meditation.

You are required to sit cross-legged on the floor and then silently repeat a word given to you by your guru. After about half a minute of normal breathing, think the word, and then let it go. Do not say the word repeatedly; do not chant it. Do not focus on the word; do not try to say it. Just think about it. The word is just a faint idea. The word may become louder, softer or quieter. It may speed up or slow down. Just take it as it comes. The word will not make your mind empty. Thoughts will come and go. Do not repress them or push them away. Let them pass through your mind. Do not use the word to push them out of your mind. If you become aware that your mind is not thinking the word, quietly go back to the word. Eventually, thoughts may not come at all, and you will achieve a state of deep transcendent absorption; that is, you will ‘lose’ yourself untouched by day-to-day worries.

The word, or mantra as it is called in the Vedic literature, has no religious connotation; you don’t need a bearded guru to give it to you (after performing a pseudo-religious ceremony and charging a hefty fee). Anyway, the maharishi’s transcendental meditation did make him famous and his followers either serene by practising meditation or wealthy by running meditation schools. Maybe both.

Meditation without a mantra

If this word or mantra business sounds silly or difficult, try this simple version of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness has its roots in the teachings of the Buddha, the Enlightened One. You do not have to sit cross-legged on the floor, but most practitioners do. You may sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor. You may even lie down on the floor but keep your back straight and body relaxed. Shut your eyes. Breathe normally.

Take a deep breath slowly. Pause for a few seconds, then breathe out gently. Observe the entire course of your breathing and let it settle to its natural flow. Focus your mind on the flow of your breath. Thoughts will come and go. Do not force your attention to breathing. Quietly return to it. If you hear a noise, listen to it rather than think about it. The idea is to pay attention to sensory experience, not to think about it. The goal of any mediation is getting used to not thinking and achieving focused awareness of what is happening from moment to moment. You become an outsider looking in. Soon you will be submerged in the rhythm of your breathing.

Mindfulness (inner focus) has its advantages, but at times it’s better to let our minds wander the universe (out of focus). Did Buddha let his mind wander to come up with the idea of the ‘middle path’ between the extremes of worldly and spiritual concerns? I believe he knew when we needed to focus the mind and when to let it wander. If you continue strolling with me, you will soon find me raving about the wonders of the wandering mind in Chapter 4: You may daydream now, permission granted (by my eccentric teacher).

Breath-focused meditation of any type should last about twenty minutes. Try it twice a day, if possible. After a few sessions, you will start noticing the calming effect on your mind.There is no magic, miracle or mystery in meditation. It makes our minds tranquil, but we must practice it almost daily to reap long-term benefits.

Congratulations! You are on your way to owning the mind of the meditator.

A micro-lesson on ‘just right’ breathing

If you think you are not cut out to be a meditating type, there are other methods to relax by merely breathing. Learn to take deep breaths, the way you were told when, as a child, you were too excited. Close your mouth and then breathe in slowly for five seconds. Now breathe out gently for five seconds. Repeat it five times. What would you gain from this micro-meditation of six slow breaths per minute? Instant loss of anger, anxiety, depression and fear of the unknown—in micro-measures.

The way we breathe directly affects the chemistry of the brain. As we breathe, the level of a chemical known as noradrenaline increases slightly, and as we breathe out, it decreases. Noam Sobel and his colleagues at the Weizmann Institute in Science in Israel support this observation. The participants in their study did better on some tasks when they inhaled before the task, not when they exhaled. The brain processes things differently from inhaling to exhaling, Sobel says.

When the level of noradrenaline is ‘just right’—like Goldilocks’s porridge—our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer. By focusing and regulating our breathing, we can stay on that sublime spot of noradrenaline and enjoy the spring of serenity.

The meditator’s brain

Brain scans of long-term meditators show changes in the actual structure of the cerebral cortex, the outer parts of the brain usually referred to as the grey matter or thinking cap. Associated with reasoning and sensory perception, these parts are thicker in meditators than in non-meditators. The thickening was more pronounced in older than in younger people.

This has intrigued researchers because these parts of the cerebral cortex usually shrink as we age. Those deeply involved in meditation show the most significant thickening, confirming that it was caused by extensive practice. People who meditate not only have more grey matter they also have stronger connections between different regions. These connections increase the ability of neurons to rapidly relay signals in the brain. Studies show the increase throughout the brain, not just in certain areas.

These findings relate only to experienced meditation practitioners, and it’s not yet clear how these changes help improve health. This is hard to test objectively by brain scans as all humans are not wired in the same way.

What about the brains of ordinary people like you and me? Most studies support that regular meditation of any variation improves well-being. It’s a good habit to have.

Be mindful

In an article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the US Association for Psychological Science, a group of fifteen experts warn that the hype of the mindfulness industry is running ahead of science. The point of their article is not to disparage mindfulness and meditation practice and research. Still, mindfulness’s widespread use in mental health, schools, workplaces and apps needs to be more reflective of scientific evidence, which is yet to be firmly confirmed by rigorous studies.

Nevertheless, everyone agrees: deep-breathing exercises do keep us calm by reducing anxiety and depression. Every time we take a deep breath, we take a complimentary serving of serenity in an invisible capsule. Take a slow, long breath before you turn or scroll the page.

© Surendra Verma 2022

🔅CHAPTER 3🔅SLEEPING

Sleep well to keep yourself sane, smart, stimulating—and slim

The story of learning encounters in my early life continues. When I had just turned 14, I published my first article in a national weekly magazine. The little money I earned, I decided to invest in books (second-hand, of course), mostly classical novels. It was then I learned—not how to sleep—but the importance of sleep in our lives.   

My English edition of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote was not an easy read, especially for someone for whom English was a second language. The richness of the novel paid off my persistence handsomely. Thank you, Sancho Panza, for enlightening a teenager about sleep. May I join you in saying, in your sweet Spanish, Bien haya el que inventó el sueño (Blessings on the one who invented sleep)?

Nearly four centuries before scientists earnestly started studying the mysteries of sleep, Don Quixote’s squire sang praises of sleep as ‘the cloak that covers our thoughts, the food that cures all hunger, the water that quenches all thrust, the fire that warms the cold, the cold that tempers the heart … the balancing weight that levels the shepherd with the king, and the simple with the wise.’ No wonder the simple and the wise all want to crash into sleep and, while awake, contemplate the mysteries of sleep.

Simple Sancho Panza thought sleep ‘has only one fault, that it is like death; for between a sleeping man and a dead man there is very little difference’. Wise scientists know that, unlike the dead brain, neurons in the sleeping brain are hard at work: they fire nearly as often as they do in the waking state and consume almost as much energy. During sleep, new synapses—the junctions between communicating neurons—are formed, and the old ones are pruned. This task helps the brain to clean out obsolete information and consolidate memories.

The brain has a cleaning system that sweeps out neurons’ waste products. This system works more efficiently while we sleep. Scientists are still trying to completely understand how it works. Once they know, it would enable them a new understanding of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Sleep also regulates automatic nervous activities such as heart rate. It lets the heart have a break. No, our hearts do not stop pumping blood while we sleep. The heart slows down by reducing heart rate and blood pressure. Breathing also slows down and becomes regular. Like Sancho Panza, a hard-working heart and lungs also bless the inventor of sleep.

The lack of sleep is linked to metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes and mental health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. We compromise our physical and psychological health if we do not get enough sleep. Sancho Panza was not worried about this aspect of sleep (‘all I know is that so long as I am asleep, I have neither fear nor hope, trouble nor glory’). We are.

How much sleep do we need?

A person’s sleep needs vary depending on age, genetics, lifestyle and environment. But adults who sleep seven hours a night are healthier and live longer.

If you don’t want to walk around like a sleep-deprived zombie, follow the US National Sleep Foundation’s sleep duration recommendations, revised in 2015. In the below table, you may add one hour on either side to account for natural variation.

Newborn (0-3 months)14-17 hours
Infant (4-11 months)12-15 hours
Toddler (1-2 years)11-14 hours
Preschool (3-5 years)10-13 hours
School-age (6-13 years)9-11 hours
Teen (14-17 years)8-10 hours
Young adult (18-25 years)7-9 hours
Adult (26-64 years)7-9 hours
Older adult (65+ years)7-8 hours
Sleep on it, or take a nap, but don’t stay awake (reading on a screen about alpha consciousness)

You will soon learn many other ways how sleep can help you if you do not doze off, assuring yourself, for the next seven hours, at least, ‘Sleep is my lover now, my forgetting, my opiate, my oblivion’ (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger).

But first, a word of warning from experts who study sleep: Adults who sleep for less than five or six hours are at higher risk of being overweight, and even losing just a few hours of sleep a few nights in a row can lead to immediate weight gain. Who wants to become another number in the global epidemic of obesity by being awake and counting sheep? These days those who stay up late, usually sit on a couch, staring at a screen and gobbling carbohydrate-rich snacks. A perfect way to gain weight if you’re looking for one.

Our memories need sleep. Most scientists agree that sleep is essential for forming and retaining memories. Whenever we hear, see, read or feel something, millions of neurons fire in a highly coordinated way. The memory of that event is a group of connections among all those neurons. Whenever any of those neurons is reactivated, the whole group is reactivated to create the memory of that event.

Until recently, it was believed that newly formed memories were replayed during sleep, strengthening neural connections and, in the process, memories became more sharply etched on the brain. New evidence shows that neurons in the hippocampus, the centre of learning in the brain, fire backwards during sleep. This backward firing weakens neural connections freeing up space in the brain to store new memories on waking. If you want to memorise some new information, the best time to learn it is just before going to sleep. The adage ‘sleep on it’ is still worth sleeping on it.

On the other hand, a sleepless night results in poor subsequent retention of information. Staying up all night to cram for an exam may work for you, but most likely, you will forget what you have learned in a few days.

Learn while you sleep. No, you can’t place a pile of receipts from your shopping spree under the pillow and know the total amount of money you have blown away in the morning. But experiments by Israeli researcher Anat Arzi prove that we can learn entirely new information while sleeping. She and her colleagues used a simple form of learning called classical conditioning to teach fifty-five participants to link smells with sounds as they slept. They exposed sleeping participants to various pleasant and unpleasant odours such as deodorant and rotting fish and played a specific sound to accompany each smell. The sleep conditioning persisted even after the participants woke up: a relevant sound caused them to sniff even if there was no smell. The participants didn’t know they had learned the link between smells and sound during sleep. Arzi says that sleep learning could lead to sleep therapies to modify behaviour to overcome phobias. Other researchers have already used certain smells to lower people’s fear levels by triggering and re-channelling frightening memories into harmless ones during sleep.

In an experiment at Northwestern University in the US, participants learned how to play two musical tunes in time with the moving sequence of circles that showed which key to strike. They then took a 90-minute nap, during which they were repeatedly exposed to one of the two tunes during slow-wave sleep, a sleep stage thought necessary for cementing memories. Tests after the nap revealed that participants performed the tune played during slow-wave sleep more accurately than the one they were not exposed to. ‘If you were learning how to speak a new foreign language during the day, for example, and then tried to reactivate those memories during sleep, perhaps you might enhance your learning,’ says co-researcher Paul Reber.

Sleep helps in making better decisions. Taking a night to sleep when facing an important decision is the conventional wisdom which has now been confirmed by science. During REM sleep, the brain is highly active and creative. This sleep benefit in making decisions is due to changes in underlying emotional or cognitive processes during REM sleep.

In short, there are five stages of sleep:

Awake: Relaxation

Stage 1: Light sleep, marks the transition between awake and asleep, lasts up to 7 minutes

Stage 2: Deeper sleep, bursts of brainwave activity, lasts up to 25 minutes

Stages 3 and 4: Deepest stage of non-REM sleep, lasts up to 40 minutes

Stage 5: REM (rapid eye movement sleep), accounts for 25 per cent of our sleep; the brain is very active (it’s on fire), each phase lasts 10 to 15 minutes—first after falling asleep and then every 90 minutes

Sleep stimulates lateral thinking. Jan Born of the University of Lübeck in Germany and colleagues gave a group of volunteers a series of numbers with a simple rule to generate a second series of numbers from the first. They then asked them to deduce the final digit in this sequence. A shortcut could calculate the final digit immediately, but volunteers were not told about this hidden shortcut. Those who tackled the problem in the evening and returned refreshed after a good night’s sleep were more than twice as likely to sport the shortcut as those who had stayed awake.

Another group that tried the problem first in the morning and then spent an average of eight hours of the day awake was just as bad at spotting the trick as the group that stayed awake at night. This ruled out that poor performance wasn’t simply due to being tired. It was most likely that the volunteers who found the solution in their sleep were dreaming about the puzzle during their REM sleep which is associated with dreams.

An example of one of the greatest breakthroughs in science that came during sleep is that of the periodic table. In 1869, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev was struggling with the problem of the order in which to introduce the sixty-one elements then known in his new textbook of chemistry. He listed the names and properties of the elements on individual cards and began a lengthy game of solitaire (patience), trying to arrange the cards in different ways. Tired, he fell asleep at his desk and dreamed. ‘I saw in a dream a table,’ he wrote later, ‘where all the elements fell into place as required.’ The table he saw in his dream eventually became the iconic periodic table.

It’s a misunderstanding that the sleeping brain isn’t doing anything; it’s busy organising memories and picking out the most important information making you come up with new ideas.

Lack of sleep may make us unethical. Lack of sleep may promote unethical behaviour by diminishing self-control. This is the conclusion of a field study examining unethical behaviour in various work settings. Low levels of sleep and low perceived quality of sleep were both positively related to unethical behaviour, say American management expert Christopher Barnes and colleagues. They believe organisations may benefit from providing work schedules that provide better sleep. Other research has highlighted the impact of poor sleep on workers’ health, morale and safety. Brain scans of sleep-deprived but otherwise healthy people show increased activity in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional centre, but decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the decision-making region of the brain that makes us rational.

There’s, after all, something called ‘beauty sleep’. Sleep-deprived peoplemay or may not become unethical, but they are likely to be perceived as less healthy and less attractive compared with when they are well-rested. A study by a team of Swedish neuroscientists led by John Axelsson involved twenty-three healthy, sleep-deprived adults (age 18-31) who were photographed and sixty-five untrained observers (age 18-1) who randomly rated the photographs. The neuroscientists, who apparently compromised their own ‘beauty and health’ when they lost sleep over their rigorous study, proudly claim in the prestigious medical journal BMJ that ‘sleep-deprived people were rated as less healthy, less attractive and more tired’.

Is there an underlying message in the above two studies for managers to provide sleep pods along with desks or workbenches if they want an ethical and beautiful workforce?

Take points off your IQ. Lack of sleep may or may not dampen your beauty or ethics; it is likely to dampen your children’s IQ. A few years ago, a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University led by Avi Sadeh, sent seventy-five primary school students home with randomly drawn instructions to either go to bed earlier or stay up late for three nights. Each child was given an actigraph, a wristwatch-like device that recorded how much sleep they were getting. The researchers found that the first group managed to get 30 minutes more sleep a night; the other group got 31 minutes less. When the researchers tested children’s IQ after the third day, they discovered that slightly sleepy grade 5 children performed in class like grade 3 children. A loss of one hour of sleep was equivalent to two years of cognitive development. These findings are consistent with other studies, which also point out that missing sleep takes points off children’s IQ.

Stay awake only if you want the common cold. In one study, 153 healthy men and women (age 21-55) volunteered to report their sleep duration and efficiency (percentage of time in bed asleep) for the previous night and whether they felt rested to a team of American researchers led by Sheldon Cohen. After calculating average scores for sleep variables for fourteen consecutive days, the participants were administered nasal drops containing a cold virus and monitored for the development of a clinical cold.

In a later American study, led by Aric A. Prather, 164 men and women aged 18 to 55 were exposed to the cold virus after recording their actual sleep patterns by an actigraph (as opposed to self-reporting in the earlier study).

Both studies show that adults who sleep less than five or six hours a night are four times more likely to catch a cold than those who get at least seven or more hours of sleep. The reason is apparent: a healthy immune system can fight off cold, not a sleep-deprived immune system.

Take a nap. After lunch, forget caffeine, take your shoes off, sit down comfortably and learn something from Charlie Brown’s lovable dog Snoopy: take a short nap. In one of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts cartoon strips, Snoopy contemplates, ‘Learn from yesterday. Live for today. Look for tomorrow. Rest this afternoon.’

Plenty of studies have established that a nap of 10 to 90 minutes boosts brain power (5 minutes is too short for a good nap). Shut your eyes and relax. A 10-minutes can increase alertness and attention for as much as 4 hours. Add extra 10 minutes (a 20-minute nap) to boost your powers of memory and recall. A 30-minute nap gives all the benefits of the REM stage of sleep.

‘When all else fails, take a nap,’ goes an old proverb.

Think you have slept well. Sure, you know about the placebo effect. A patient’s expectations and beliefs can significantly change the course of an illness, and medical researchers now see placebos as a key to understanding how the brain promotes faster healing. Placebo pills fool the mind into thinking that the problem is being taken care of. Similarly, ‘placebo sleep’ is like being told you’re getting enough sleep.

Researchers from Colorado College in the US devised an elaborate ruse in which 164 participating students were told that a new technique—which didn’t exist—could measure their sleep quality from the night before. After hooking them up to a fake machine, some were told their REM sleep from the night before had been above average, a sign that they were mentally alert. Others were told their REM sleep had been below average. Students in both groups got a 5-minute lesson on sleep quality and its importance on mental abilities. The students who thought they got a night’s sleep performed significantly better on real tests that assessed their ability to listen and process information.

That’s the power of positive sleeping.

Forget about ‘alpha consciousness’

When large groups of neurons fire rhythmically, they produce brainwaves. Their frequency tends to reflect how awake and alert we are. Alpha waves, which have a frequency between 8 to 13 hertz, are associated with a relaxed mind or daydreaming; they are quickly produced in the brain when quietly sitting in a comfortable position with eyes closed.

Hucksters encourage people to undergo brainwave biofeedback using commercially available devices to increase their production of alpha waves. People indeed tend to display the heightened proportion of alpha and theta waves while meditating or relaxing deeply. But there is no evidence that you can achieve a deeper sense of consciousness and relaxation by boosting your alpha waves. It may help treat depression and anxiety if done under the supervision of a medical professional.

Instead of hooking up to a machine, it’s cheaper and easier to go for a brisk walk and do some mindfulness meditation.

Sleep time

No need to count sheep, but sing softly, Bien haya el que el sueñ (Blessings on the one who sleeps). Blessings only work when you have turned off those blooming screens (both the little one and the big one). Your brainy brain believes that the blue light on your screen is sunlight. It wants to stay awake to enjoy the blinking view. Bonkers!

© Surendra Verma 2022