A sure thing, but no sure answers

The issue of legalised assisted dying to the forefront of our consciousness.

But before we talk about dying with dignity, we must talk about death.

Why do we age? The answer to this question lies in the genes. Even if we have the right genes, they cannot help us to live forever. Cells are damaged all the time; sometimes they began to replicate uncontrollably and become cancerous. This damage is accumulated over time, leading to the breakdown of healthy functions of the body, which ultimately results in death.

Brain death is arguably the most accurate biological and philosophical representation of death. Heart failure, in itself does not constitute death. Pumping of blood is important, but it only supports the functions of the brain. Brain death means the cerebral cortex is destroyed forever. This largest part of the brain controls everything that makes us human: sensory analysis, spatial location, language, memory, attention, emotion, motivation, thought and consciousness.

Is death instantaneous? No, we take from a few seconds to a few minutes to go through the dying process. “The last breath is taken, death takes hold and life is over,” writes English biologist Thomas Kirkwood, in Time of Our Lives: The Science of Human Aging. “At this moment, most of the body’s cells are still active. Unaware of what has happened they just carry on … In a short while, starved of oxygen, the cells will die.”

In the fourth century BC, Epicurus said that death is the primary cause of anxiety among human beings. He argued that death involves neither pain nor pleasure. The only thing that we should fear is pain. Therefore, we should not fear death. Shelly Kagan, a professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of Death, echoes Epicurus when she says fear is one of the most common reactions to death. “Indeed, ‘fear’ may be too weak a term: terror is more like it,” she adds. It’s reasonable to be afraid of the process of dying, but most people are terrified of death itself.

It’s evolution that inculcates our desire to live. It’s also evolution that cruelly takes this desire away from some of us, for it has failed to equip us with a mechanism to cope with excruciating and continuous pain. When this pain becomes unbearable, it’s understandable to me at least, that desire to end life overtakes millions of years of genetic programming designed to perpetuate life.

My belief system, which has been shaped by science and philosophy and not by any religion, can easily embrace the idea of dying with dignity. But it fails to reconcile with the idea of a person placing a limit on their life.

Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an American oncologist and bioethicist, says that 75 years is all he wants to live: “By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life … I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make.” He makes his compelling argument that society and families will be better if nature takes its course swiftly and promptly in an article in the October 2014 issue of the prestigious The Atlantic magazine.

We are now living longer but not necessarily healthier as the ageing cells put breaks on our mental and physical abilities. In spite of all the medical advances, there is also no getting away from the pain that Epicurus advises us to fear and not death.

Emanuel says that he won’t be actively ending his life when he turns 75, but won’t try to prolong it, either. He plans to stop getting any regular preventive tests, screenings and interventions: “Today, when the doctor recommends a test or treatment, especially one that will extend our lives … The momentum of medicine and family means we will almost invariably get it.”

The ethical questions we face are not only about dying with dignity when pain becomes unbearable but also about prolonging life beyond a certain age.

“I’m pretty much anti-death,” says Hal Incandenza, the protagonist of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. “God looks likely all account pro-death. I’m not seeing how we can get together on this issue, he and I.” Like Hal, most of us don’t know how we can get together with God or our conscience on the issue of death.

© Surendra Verma 2016

Bilingual bliss

Monolingualism may seem like linguistic disability when the list of the benefits of learning another language is getting longer by the day: improved memory, enhanced cognitive abilities, better social skills, delay of the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Until recently it was believed that teaching children a second language too early might impede ‘normal’ learning of their mother tongue. This belief is based on the assumption that the brain has limited learning resources and two languages compete for resources. The belief is reflected in the contemporary education practice which tends to offer formal schooling in a second language in later school years, not in the developmentally crucial toddler years of learning.

Another myth that still perpetrates is that knowledge acquired in one language is not accessible in another language. Everyday experience says something different: if you learn the basic principle of addition in English, you are able to apply this skill to French numbers when you learn French.

Neuroscience has now completely rejected the myths that the brain is set for one language only: learning a second language not only boosts children’s brains during infancy, it also protects against decline in brainpower in old people.

Brain imaging of monolinguals and bilinguals shows that both process their individual languages in a fundamentally similar way: monolinguals (in one language) and bilinguals (in both languages) show increased activity in language processing areas of the brain. The one important difference is that bilinguals appear to recruit more of the neurons available for language processing than monolinguals. This provides a fascinating insight into the language processing potential not used in monolingual brains.

Bilingual parents often opt to ‘hold back’ one of the family’s two languages in their child’s early life. ‘They believe that it may be better to establish one language firmly before exposing their child to the family’s other language so as to avoid confusing the child,’ says Laura-Ann Petitto, an American cognitive neuroscientist who is a leading researcher in the new discipline of neuroeducation. They also worry that earlier bilingual exposure may put their child ‘in danger of never being as competent in either of two languages as monolingual children are in one’.

Her research supports the idea that bilingualism can invigorate rather than hinder a child’s development. It also rejects the flip side of this myth – later exposure is better.

Other studies show that young bilinguals are more flexible learners. Although infants in bilingual households have to learn roughly twice as much about language as their monolingual peers, the speed of learning is nearly the same for both. It seems that, far from being confused, infants in bilingual households develop superior mental skills which play a critical part in complex social behaviour.

Bilinguals also excel on tasks that require dealing with conflicting information. The brain can perform automated processes quickly and unconsciously; but when it has to process information for more than one task simultaneously, it manages its limited attention resources by inhibiting or stopping one response in order to say or do something else.

Bilingual people often perform better than monolinguals on the classic Stroop test (naming aloud the colours of words printed in incompatible ink colour; for example, word ‘blue’ printed in red ink): everyone takes an additional fraction of a second to accomplish than if both the word and colour are the same. But the lag for bilinguals is measurably shorter; this gives bilinguals lifelong advantage.

Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Canada, has found that bilingual people tend to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, four to five years later than monolinguals. She believes that switching between languages strengthens the brain’s ‘cognitive reserve’ – it can be compared to a reserve in a car tank which keeps you going a little longer when you run out of fuel.

A study by Thomas Bak of the University of Edinburgh also supports the Canadian finding that those who are fluent in two languages begin to show symptoms of dementia more than four years later than those who only speak a single language. Bak’s results were also true for a group of people who were illiterate, suggesting that the benefits of bilingualism are independent of education.

The bilingual brain is constantly suppressing one language and switching between the two. The permanent switching and suppressing offers the best brain training. Older people are encouraged to start new brain-challenging activities such as playing bridge or solving Sudoku puzzles. These activities can engage your brain only for a few hours a day, while bilingual brain is always engaged as it tries to limit interference from the other language to ensure the continued dominance of the intended language.

The most recent findings on bilingualism come from psychologist Katherine Kinzler of Cornell University and her colleagues. Their conclusion: learning more than one language not only improves children’s cognitive abilities but also their social abilities. ‘Children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others,’ Kinzler says. ‘They have to think about who speaks which language to whom, who understands which content, and the times and place in which different languages are spoken.’

To ensure that children’s social abilities were not just another instance of greater cognitive skills that bilingual children have been observed to have, the researchers gave extra tasks to their study group of American children, ages 4 to 6, from different linguistic backgrounds. The results showed that something other than cognitive skills — something more ‘social’ — must explain children’s facility to adopting another’s perspective.

English has now emerged as a global language and translation apps on smartphones are becoming smarter day by day, yet learning another language has benefits other than simply communicating with non-English speakers.

© Surendra Verma 2016

The fear of failure

Failure is an inevitable part of students’ lives, but they must learn to overcome the fear of failure.

When in Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist, Santiago, a shepherd boy, says, ‘I have no idea how to turn myself into the wind’, the alchemist replies, ‘There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.’

Once seeded fear of failure sprouts in the brain making it incapable of making decisions. This stagnation ensures that we only meet failure.

Carol Dweck, an eminent psychologist and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, has spent decades studying how people cope with failure. She came up with the idea of mindset when she was sitting in her office studying the result of the latest experiment with one of her graduate students.

The results showed that people who disliked challenges thought that talent was a fixed thing that you were either born with or not. People who relished challenges thought that talent was something you could nourish by doing things you were not good at all. ‘There was this eureka moment,’ recalls Dweck.

She later came up with the terms ‘fixed mindset’ to identify the former group and ‘growth mindset’ for the latter group. If you believe you can develop your talents over time (a growth mindset), you’ll never be paralysed by fear of failure.

If you believe you were born with a certain amount of talent (a fixed mindset), that’s the end of the road for you. A growth mindset benefits us throughout our life. ‘It allows you to take more challenges,’ she says, ‘and you don’t get discouraged by setbacks or find effort undermining.’

We all can learn to change our mindsets and make dramatic stride in our performance. But the process is slow. First, you have to learn that talent is like a muscle which grows stronger through exercise, and then train yourself to master new things. Proverbial practice may not make you perfect but it will certainly improve your performance.

Are you burdened with fear of failure? Write true or false against the following statements whether they are generally like you or not. This is not a diagnostic test; it may help you in finding out the areas you need to work to change.

  1. Failure makes me worried what other people would think about me.
  2. I’m afraid of looking dumb.
  3. I’m uncertain about my ability to avoid failure.
  4. I like to play it safe as I can’t afford to be vulnerable.
  5. I always put off tasks for tomorrow.
  6. I become anxious when not certain.
  7. I live in self-doubt.
  8. I’m afraid of disapproval.
  9. I worry that I won’t do well.
  10. I worry that failure would disappoint people whose opinion I value.

Any true answer suggests that you might like to examine the issue further. But don’t be too hard on yourself. Failure to act correctly is an inevitable part of life; that’s why computer keyboards have delete keys. You can always delete a failure from your memory and start again.

Here’re some of the ways to lose your fear of failure:

Maintain perspective. Take a long-term view of your failures; they are not final. A failure is a single incident; it doesn’t make you incapable of success in the future. Failure is a relative term. Was Vincent von Gogh’s inability to sell more than one painting in his lifetime a failure? If he had fear of failure humanity would have been deprived of the eternal beauty of his nearly 2000 paintings, drawings and sketches.

Think of failure as a learning experience. Put aside old ideas and past efforts and start anew. Visualise your goals; workout your milestones. Develop a strategy – a step-by-step plan that makes sure than your actions lead you towards your objective – and execute it efficiently. Let Thomas Ala Edison inspire you: after experimenting with thousands of different sorts of fibres (including the hair from the beards of some of the men in his laboratory) he at last found the right filament for his newly invented incandescent light bulb. He hadn’t failed thousands of times; he had found thousands of ways that didn’t work. The one that worked brought sunshine into our darkened rooms.

Identify things that are in your control and focus on them. You may not be good at figures (of mathematical type), but if you like to draw you can focus on figures (of curvaceous type). Everyone has talents they are not sure about or even do not know about. Once you know of your unique gift, you know of one thing that is under your control. Just focus on it.

Failure is not defeat and success is not excellence. Plunge right into what you really want to do. It’s better to enjoy partial success than nursing regrets of not doing it at all.

To avoid emotional bruises caused by failure, learn to own the fear. Find trusted people with whom you can discuss your demoralising feelings of shame and disappointment. ‘Bringing these feelings to the surface can help prevent you from expressing them via unconscious efforts to sabotage yourself; and getting reassurance and empathy trusted from others can bolster your feelings of self-worth and minimize the threat of disappointing them,’ advises psychologist Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid.

The following advice comes not from a psychologist but from an acclaimed writer of short fiction: ‘When we begin to take our failures non-seriously, it means we are ceasing to be afraid of them,’ writes Katherine Mansfield in ‘A Shot of Laughter’.

Instead, many parents take failure seriously, so seriously that they try to scrub failure from every step of their children’s lives: from rushing breathlessly to swing that nobody gets hurt to doing the children’s homework.

When parent try to engineer failure out of children’s lives, warns Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure, children feel incompetent, incapable, unworthy of trust and utterly dependent. Obviously, these children will never learn that failure packs enormous power, especially when we learn from it.

© Surendra Verma 2016

A tale of two brains is more fiction than fact

Don’t let the left brain/right brain myth stereotype children’s capabilities and limitations

The famous opening sentence in Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …’, aptly applies to this modern tale of two brains.

In this age of wisdom, many of us still believe in the foolish idea that rationality, logic and verbal skills are located in the left hemisphere of the brain, while creativity, emotions and visuospatial skills are located the right hemisphere. This assumption leads us to believe that left-brained people are logical and good at mathematics and right-brained people are artistic and bad at mathematics.

The erroneous thinking that information is processed in different ways in the two hemispheres of the brain is still reflected in our schools: the best teaching techniques for left-brained people should involve verbal instructions, talking and writing, and multiple-choice questions; while demonstrated instructions, drawing and manipulating objects, and open-ended questions are best for right-brained people. This notion has led to the idea that education programs should synchronise the two hemispheres by including both left-brained and right-brained activities. ‘Show and tell’ activities of your early school days are the result of this thinking: instead of only reading a ‘left-brained’ text, your teacher also showed pictures and graphics to stimulate your right hemisphere.

The left brain/right brain myth can be traced back to the days of the 19th-century craze of phrenology. Phrenologists believed that different mental functions were located in different organs of the brain, and the growth of the various organs was related to the development of associated mental abilities. As this growth would be reflected in the shape of the skull, personality traits could be determined by reading bumps and depressions on the skull.

In 1844 this mumbo jumbo became popular when a book described the two hemispheres of the brain as independent parts having an independent way of thinking. The idea even found a way into Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous story, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, published in 1886.

In the 1960s the myth found its way into the modern scientific literature when American scientists Roger Sperry, Joseph Bogen and Michael Gazzaniga embarked on what is now known as split-brain studies: how the brain’s left and right hemispheres are specialised for different tasks. Their conclusion was based on the study of patients, usually, epileptic, who had undergone a surgical procedure that severed the whiter matter neural fibres that link the two hemispheres of the brain.

However, in the hands of psychologists these findings took life of their own. In his 1972 best-selling book, The Psychology of Consciousness, psychologist Robert argued that we place too much emphasis on rational, left-brain thinking and not enough on intuitive, right-brain thinking. Psychologist Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain stressed the benefits of creative, right-brain thinking.

The split-brain research has now moved from a static view of what happens in a particular hemisphere to a much more interactive view how the whole brain, interacting through white matter fibre systems, orchestrates the entire cerebral network into coherent and apparently seamless cognitive action.

It amuses Gazzaniga that his split-brain work has now becomes such a part of popular culture. He laments that it has become ‘mixed up’ with sound psychological and educational work that demonstrates that children use a variety of cognitive strategies to solve problems.

‘There are some kids who visualise problems and other kids who verbalise them,’ he says. ‘That reality has been mapped on left brain/right brain anatomy as an explanation. But that’s where it falls down.  Cognition, in general, is much more complex than that. That’s what we have learned over the years and continue to learn as we study hemispheric differences.’ In brief, the brain’s two hemispheres do not work independently; they work in a highly coordinated fashion.

Sophisticated brain-imaging techniques also reveal less romantic sides of the brain: there is no evidence that the left brain is ‘mathematical’ and the right brain ‘musical’. Yes, the brain is divided into two hemispheres. They look almost identical anatomically, but they are not independent. They are connected by thick bundles of nerve cells which carry information from one side to the other.

The two hemispheres differ not so much in what they do, but in how they process tasks. The left hemisphere is better at details (such as recognising a particular face in a crowd), whereas the right hemisphere is better at dealing with a general sense of space (the relative positions of people in a crowd). In the case of language, for example, the left hemisphere focuses at step-by-step processes, such as grammar and word generation, whereas the right hemisphere focuses at feeling a rhythm, such as intonation and emphasis of speech.

There are no specific ‘left brain’ or ‘right brain’ cognitive functions. Both hemispheres work in concert with each other, whether we are reading, painting or solving an algebra equation. It’s time we used our whole brains to learn that like Chinese Yin Yang symbols the two hemispheres of our brains are in perfect harmony.

Don’t let the left brain/right brain myth stereotype children’s capabilities and limitations. Individuals do have relative strengths and weaknesses but it doesn’t mean that we let Jane think that she is not good at mathematics because she is right-brained. It would be foolish to think that our strengths and weaknesses come from the dominance of one hemisphere.

There is no program or technique that can boost capabilities of your right or left brain. Similarly, no scientific study supports the claims made by ‘whole brain’ training programs. Why waste money on such programs to exercise your brain, when you can exercise your brain on your own for free by learning a new language or learning to play bridge, chess or a musical instrument?

© Surendra Verma 2016