Let’s start with 10% of your brain

You have probably heard that we use only 10% of our brains? There is absolutely no scientific evidence, even of moderate quality, to support this absurd claim.

In recent years neuroscientists have scanned the brain with sophisticated big-name machines such as electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), computerized axial tomography (CAT) and positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and have pinpointed numerous psychological functions to its specific parts. Their scans have not revealed any portions of the brain, which are in a vegetative state. Besides, if 90% of our brains were doing nothing, there would be large areas of dead cells in our brains. No autopsy has ever revealed it to be true.

At any given time, not all neurons, the basic working units of the brain, are active; but no neuroscientist has ever found that 90% of our brain is perpetually on vacation. Even at rest, the brain works at full capacity. Brain scans show that our brains have a ‘default network’, a sophisticated network of brain areas that remains active when we are supposedly doing nothing. Of course, some parts of the brain are more active than others at any given time or during a particular activity.

For our body, the brain is an expensive organ to maintain; it uses too many resources: about 20% of our body’s daily calories intake. Evolution (or if you prefer intelligent design) would not have allowed such a wasteful organ to survive.

Yet, the myth of 10% brain refuses to die.

A survey conducted by Paul Howard-Jones of the University of Bristol reveals that 59% of Chinese teachers agree that we use only 10% of our brains. A study by Sanne Dekker of VU University Amsterdam informs that this figure is 48% and 46% for teachers in the UK and the Netherlands respectively.

Not convinced by these results? Conduct your mini-survey. Ask 10 people in your workplace or anywhere else, and you would be surprised by the high percentage of people who believe in this myth. When someone tells you that we use only 10% of our brains, they are probably using only 10% of their brains.

Where does this myth come from? Some suggest that it came from William James, often referred to as the father of American psychology, who in 1907 wrote in an essay, titled ‘Powers of Men’: ‘As a rule men habitually use only a small part of the powers which they actually possess and which may they use under appropriate conditions … We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.’ In 1936, in his preface to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, one of the best-selling self-help books all time, the famous journalist Lowell Thomas attributed the claim ‘we use only 10% of the brain’ to William James.

The myth has been a boon to self-help gurus. Probably they would have to invent it if it didn’t exist. A whole industry is based on this myth.

To be fair, the myth has an uplifting advantage. ‘The 10 per cent myth has undoubtedly motivated many people to strive for greater creativity and productivity in their lives – hardly a bad thing,’ observes Barry L. Beyerstein, an American psychologist. ‘The comfort, encouragement and hope that it has engendered help to explain its longevity.’ There is another reason for its persistence: blockbuster movies like Lucy, released in 2014, are helping to perpetuate it.

Found the lost 90% of your brain? You can now use 100% of it to focus on the task ahead.

© Surendra Verma 2015

Heavenly reviews

Reviews and opinions (not) found on TripAdvisor of places you must visit after you die.

“Could not wish for a better place to rest forever, but …”

The place is rather large, larger than the largest expanse of sand I had seen when I was a teenager. It has a lake, so vast that it requires a month’s journey to go around it, and a tree under the shadow of which a fine horseman would travel for a hundred years without covering the distance completely. I walk into my tent, promised to every believer, a tent of single hollowed pearl, the breadth of which is sixty miles from all sides. My tent has seventy-two houses of rubies, each house has seventy-two rooms of emerald, each room has seventy-two couches, each couch is covered with seventy-two carpets of every color and a large-eyed houri with full breasts and hourglass waist and retiring glances is sitting on each carpet. Each houri is wearing seventy-two see-through silk dresses and I can look through all of them and see her alabaster skin. Every room also has seventy-two beautiful maids serving wine flavored with musk. Before a maid could offer me wine in a gold goblet, came in angel Gabriel. He dragged me out of the tent and then pushed me outside the gate. ‘Your booking is for the other side of the gate,’ he scowled, ‘where you’ll drink, like thirsty camels, boiling water from a boiling spring.’ – ObL

“Nice place, for sure, but depressingly empty.”

Though I’ve never been to this whatever-they-call-it place, my old buddy DC’s ever-reliable intel informs me that the place is almost empty and the owners are thinking of closing it down. I wonder where would all those jihadists beheading infidels or blowing themselves up go? I’m a great believer in forward planning (as evidenced in that goddamn Eye-raq) and opened up a new facility for these heaven-less people, but the current regime is bent upon closing it down. – GWB

“A new bushfire.”

Not to worry, GWB, your little brother is ready to start a new bushfire. I-ran. It sounds great, isn’t? – JB

“Strike them down.”

‘Forum moderator take note: this forum is only for true believers who have truly departed. Delete the comments of GWB and JB and ban them forever.’ – TA, was and will always remain SH’s loyal (dis)information minister

“Sea-bed paradise.”

Hello ObL! You were never my kind of guy (that moron GWB thought otherwise), but I’m sorry to hear angel Gabriel wouldn’t let you in. He wouldn’t let me in either. At least, a sea-bed is a cool place to rest and plan your next fiery jihad. For me, it was simply dust to dust. – SH

“Six-hundred-year orgasm.”

They say Aldous Huxley writes in Moksha that in Paradise each orgasm would last six hundred years. They also say in Paradise I’ll have the strength of making love with each of the houris and maids present there. Is it all true, really?  – a (young and curious) IS fighter

“A better place than Paradise.”

Only bearded men living on the other side of the border (that line whimsically drawn up by the British when they left the subcontinent) think of Paradise when they kneel down and pray. On this side of the border we have our own heaven. Here’s my tongue-in-cheek account of it:

“Yama, the god of death, leads me to Mount Kailasha, the abode of Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati, daughter of the mountain. Nandi, the bull who watches over their gate, lets me go in. As I enter the gate Ganesha, the four-armed, elephant-headed god of wisdom, the son of Shiva and Parvati, directs Nandi to take me first to Dharma Rai, the divine accountant. Dharma Rai takes into account our past deeds, makes sure that we have paid our karmic debts and accordingly decides when, where and how we have to be born again. “As you have not practised your religion,” he says. “I deny you nirvana. You’ll be born again; but because of your good karma in the past life, in a higher form of life than a human.” “I would be born as a Bollywood demigod then, Dharma Rai,” I cry with joy. “No,” says Dharma Rai in his beancounter’s flat voice, “you would be reborn on the planet of the apes.” “As Hollywood god Charlton Heston on Planet of the Apes?” I ask anxiously. “I’m sorry,” replies Dharma Rai with a slight smile, “your karma gives you only an extra’s role as a chimpanzee.”

I was surprised not see any saffron-robed gurus outside the gate manned by Nandi, the bull. Is there a VIP gate for them? We have so many VIPs (and bribe-offering non-VIPs) in our country, I worry the queue outside the VIP gate would be a very long one, indeed. – a not-so-devout Hindu

“We demand a total ban on TripAdvisor website.”

Our country now has a Hindu nationalist party government and we demand that the prime minister should immediately ban all websites that mock our ancient religion. A peaceful demonstration in front of the American embassy is being planned. – a BJP supporter

“This pearly-gate Heaven is like any posh Las Vegas resort, but no guns allowed. ****”

The place has a great, high wall with twelve gates, each made of a single pearl, and with twelve angels at the gates. The wall is made of jasper and the rest of the place of pure gold, as pure as transparent glass. The place doesn’t need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the divine glory lights it up brilliantly. The gates are never shut, for there are no nights. Nothing impure is allowed to enter, not anyone who has done what is shameful or deceitful. I would have given it five stars if I had not been forced to leave my gun with the angel at the gate. Where are you NRA? What death has to do with our constitutional right to carry guns? – a disgruntled NRA member

 Fox News flash: Watch tonight our panel, totally blond and blinkered, pretending to grill GOP presidential pretenders how they plan to protect our fundamental right to carry firearms afterlife.

© Surendra Verma 2015

Fostering inner peace and relaxation

Meditation cultivates consciousness by calming the mind, which helps us gain control of our own health and happiness.

In Rig Veda, the oldest scripture of Hinduism, sages pray for binding the mind with inner reflection, ‘Invigorate our meditations, invigorate our insights.’ To them, the ultimate purpose of mediation was to ‘manifest the sun’; the sun being a symbol of higher consciousness. The Vedic meditators focused on the in-and-out cycle of breathing.

The ancient Buddhist texts speak of mindfulness – training the mind to focus on the present moment without emotionally reacting to it and without thinking about what happened earlier or what’s to come – as the path towards inner reflection to know yourself better. Mediation is an essential means to achieving mindfulness, but we can work or learn mindfully.

Decades of research shows multitude of benefits for both body and mind in meditation and mindfulness.

In our brains, a large mass of grey matter called thalamus acts as the gatekeeper by relaying sensory information. It focuses our attention by funnelling data into the brain and stopping other signals in their tracks. Brain scans during meditation show that the flowing of incoming information in the thalamus reduces to a trickle. This is a sign that meditation has not shut off the brain but rather it has blocked information from coming into the part of the brain responsible for processing it.

Brain imaging of long-term meditators also shows an increase in volume of brain tissues in the prefrontal cortex, the ‘decision-making’ region of the brain, and decrease in the volume of amygdala, the region of the brain involved in fear processing. These changes not only reduce chronic pain but also psychological stress.

A meditating mind is opposite of a wandering mind. During meditation we try to train our neurons to direct activity in the concentration oriented area of the brain. In other words, we train our minds to get used to learn to be totally aware of the moment. How can you train your mind to strike a balance between awareness and distraction so that you have control over attention? Simply by meditating daily.

Try this simple technique which begins by focusing on your breath. You do not have to sit cross-legged on the floor. Just sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor. Keep your back straight and body relaxed. Close your eyes. Take in a slow deep breath. 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 on the sensation of air moving in and out of your lungs. Thoughts will come and go. Do not force your attention to breathing. Quietly return to it. If you hear a noise, just listen to it rather than thinking about it. The idea is to pay attention to sensory experience; not to think about it. The goal of any type of mediation is getting used to not thinking.

Meditation should last at least 10 minutes. Try it twice a day, if possible. After a few sessions, you will start noticing the calming effect on your mind.

© Surendra Verma 2015

The things you control and the things you don’t

Don’t ask that events should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.

When in Tom Wolfe’s novel, A Man in Full, Charlie Croker, an ageing, real estate tycoon who has been involved in one too many risky ventures and is going bankrupt, and Conrad Hensley, a young, menial worker who ends up in prison after losing his job as a result of Crocker’s financial problems, both accidentally discover teachings of Stoic philosopher Epictetus, they learn what it means to a be ‘a man in full’.

In prison, Hensley stumbles upon a book titled The Stoics, a collection of writings of Epictetus and other Stoic philosophers who flourished in Athens and Rome 2000 years ago. When he reads that Epictetus was born as a slave and imprisoned, tortured and crippled as a young man, he becomes curious and leafs through the pages to find Epictetus’ own words, such as: ‘If someone handed your body to a passerby, you would be annoyed. Aren’t you shamed that you hand over your mind to anyone around, for it to be upset and confused if the person insults you? … If anyone is unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone.’ Hensley slowly learns to be free from emotions that so often control us, when we should control them.

Our emotions are not passive reactions, they can be controlled by the mind – they are a matter of our own responsibility. After leaving the prison, he works as a nursing aide and sent to aid – of all people – Croker who is convalescing after an illness. Hensley introduces Croker to Epictetus’ teachings and Croker realises that not his wealth but mental and moral strengths are the only real goods, since they alone cannot be lost through bad luck.

Epictetus (AD c. 55–135), an emancipated slave, lived in the Roman Empire. He started a school of philosophy in Rome, but when in 95 Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome, Epictetus moved his school to Nicopolis, in what is now western Greece. He was revered by his contemporaries and many prominent figures visited his school, including Emperor Hadrian. Like his hero Socrates, he never recorded his teachings. Discourses, the only written account of Epictetus’ teachings, were compiled by his most famous pupil, Arrian. Discourses were a profound influence on Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic Meditations. Aurelius ruled from 161 to 180.

From Epictetus we learn that before we try to control our circumstances we have to control ourselves first; and nothing lies completely in our power except our judgments, desires and goals. Even after nearly two millenniums this message has not lost its relevance. Learn to appreciate the world as it is, not how you would like it to be.

‘Epictetus is a thinker we cannot forget, once we have encountered him, because he gets under our skin,’ says classicist Anthony A. Long. ‘He provokes and he irritates, but he deals so trenchantly with life’s everyday challenges that no one who knows his work can simply dismiss it as theoretically invalid or practically useless.’

In times of stress, Epictetus’ recommendations make their presence felt. Recent scientific research supports this assertion. Physicians have known for centuries that fake pills disguised as medicines – placebos – can help some patients. A new study that appears in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology shows that placebos do less for people who tend towards hostility and work best for those who are naturally resilient and altruistic. That’s good news for those who follow teachings of Epictetus.

© Surendra Verma 2015