A smack that taught me to respect all religions

A personal experience

The memory of the moment is imprinted on some stubborn neurons that refuse to die. Even after more than 60 years when I look at my left cheek in the mirror and remember that moment, it seems deep red and the pain still sharp

I was 10 then, my father had passed away a year earlier, and I was spending my summer vacation with my maternal grandfather in a small, scenic town in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India. One Sunday morning, he took me for a walk through the narrow streets of the town.

As we walked came in view the graceful curves of arabesque motifs on the dome of a majestic mosque, a marvel of Mughal architecture in that corner of the world. After a short walk, through the arched portal, I saw a vast expanse of the checkered marble floor, crowded with men in white skull caps kneeling with their faces towards Mecca. My grandfather, a not-so-devout-Hindu, stopped in front of the mosque, pressed his palms together and bowed his head as a sign of respect. His stern eyes demanded the same from me. I obliged.

After a few minutes’ walk, the street became quieter and steeper, and we were now in front of a Catholic church. Through the large stained-glass windows, I could see Christ on the cross, exquisitely carved in white marble. My grandfather stopped, pressed his palms together and bowed his head. His stern eyes demanded the same from me. I obliged.

Now we turned left into a wider street and walked downhill past a gurdwara, a Sikh temple, a simple whitewashed building proclaiming that elegance is ingeniously simple. From the street, I could see Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scriptures, resting on a low table covered with a white silk cloth. An old man with a long snow-white beard and blue turban sat cross-legged in front of the table. In his right hand was a fluffy white fan that he waved gently over the holy book. Again, my grandfather stopped, pressed his palms together and bowed his head. His stern eyes demanded the same from me. I obliged.

About two hundred yards further on we were now in front an ornate Hindu temple, full of statues dressed in garish garments. Sweet smells of burning incense and enchanting sounds of prayers reminding Hindus of their karma in this world. My grandfather repeated his ritual of respect for places of worship. But I exploded, “Why we have to bow in front of every stupid temple?” I ran inside the temple and spat on a statue of a god.

My grandfather grabbed me and smacked me on my left cheek with a force I thought only Hercules was capable of applying. “I don’t care whether you practice any religion, but you must always respect all religions,” the words erupted from his mouth like lava from a volcano. My grandfather was a man of peace and non-violence, the Mahatma Gandhi of our family. He always exuded happiness and contentment, and I had never seen him angry.

Twelve years passed, and the memory of the childhood incident somewhat dimmed. My grandfather now dead, his body on a funeral pyre a few yards from the River Ganges. A crowd of hundreds of solemn mourners, a Hindu priest chanting a prayer and throwing something on the funeral pyre. I’m watching the ritual from a distance with scepticism, far away from the flames, and then suddenly I felt my left cheek burning and grandfather’s voice thundering in my ears, “You must always respect all religions.” I pressed my hands together and bowed my head in the direction of the funeral pyre.

And then I walked away, wondering, “How could I respect all religions if I don’t know anything about them?” I started reading English translations of scriptures, commentaries and other books on all major religions. I found the books all enlightening and saw no reason I couldn’t respect all the great religions of the world.

I could never learn the divine language that comes so easily to people of faith. But I do know my grandfather would be proud of me. I can be an atheist and still respect followers of all religions. There is no paradox here.

Early this year, I was in my grandfather’s town. The idyllic town of less than 50,000 is now a teeming city of nearly half a million, testimony to the exponential population growth in India. Friends and relatives told me about a less known exponential growth, intolerance of Hindus of people of other religions.

Along with my childhood Muslim friend, I decided to take my “redemption walk”. The majestic mosque was in ruins, the Catholic Church had disappeared giving way to a new car showroom, the gurdwara was still there in all its simplicity. The Hindu temple was larger, gaudier and louder; reveling in the past five years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pro-Hindu government and looking forward to another five years of swaggering.

I burst into tears when my dear friend told me about the heart-breaking experience of his grandson, a Grade 5 student in a class of predominantly Hindu students. One day, his mother put a lamb kebab in his lunch box. At lunch break, when a Hindu girl saw him taking kebab out of the lunch box, she shouted, “He is eating beef.” The teacher grabbed the lunch box and emptied it in the bin. His classmates beat him so severely that the bruises took days to heal. When the little kid was being roughed, the teacher just watched the spectacle and smiled. The children now learn their lessons from anti-Muslim rhetoric of their political and religious leaders on social media and television. The so-called cow-vigilantes would have killed the little kid. Scores of innocent Muslims have been murdered on suspicion of killing cows or eating beef.

We decided to walk through the vegetable and fruit market to get a feel of the new Hindu India. Such markets tend to be narrow streets with stalls on both sides; they are not wide avenues lined up with trees and fancy shops selling designer fruits and vegetables, at least not yet.

This one was no different except the extra charm of hawkers with bicycle-wheel push carts or on foot spruiking their wares; poor little girls from the hills with faces like pink flowers, their mothers with wrinkled faces and wicker baskets on their heads; housewives with cotton bags in their hands haggling over prices, squeezing fruits to test their firmness and the limits of stallholders’ patience while their husbands look the other way; servants with hessian bags shopping for their miserly mistresses, carefully comparing the highest and the lowest prices of a particular produce so that they can pocket a few coins; stallholders touting, haggling, peeling leaves and throwing them on the street for the two cows, one lazing at each end of the street, who presided over this 100-yard long spectacle and put on their own show when they stood up and started walking slowly towards the other end of the street cleaning it like an efficient street cleaner, once they reached the middle of the street, they eyed each other, ruminated for a while and then peed on the street.

The cows were obviously enjoying the freedom and security the nation bestows upon them, more than it does on citizens of other religious persuasions. Then I saw a street cleaner, dipping a finger in the pee and touching it on his forehead as a sign of respect for the cows’ holiness, and praying with bowed head and palms pressed together in front of one of the cows. Perhaps thanking them for doing his job so efficiently.

As we went around the cows knowing fully their absolute sanctity, I didn’t know what to do: follow my grandfather, press my hands together and bow before these aimlessly moving temples or be a belligerent 10-year-old and spit on the cow, shouting, “Why do I have to respect a religion when its followers show no respect for other religions?”

Then suddenly a temple elephant painted with pigments and adorned with bells and necklaces, and his mahout on foot, both with impeccable street manners, appeared at the other end of the street. Hindu stallholders rushed with their best banana or two to feed the elephant for blessings for brisk trade from Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. I saw a smile of scepticism on my Muslim friend’s face, and tiny toddlers in their mothers’ arms screaming with pure joy without any trace of belief or unbelief on their innocent faces shining in the spring sunlight.

I resolved to remain faithful to my grandfather’s simple lesson and to enjoy the pure joy of respecting people of all faiths without any scepticism. A few misguided souls do not define religion.

© Surendra Verma 2020

What a silly slogan!

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

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 a tattered and faded 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 of 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 nudge 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. 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 it’s atmosphere a little bit warmer, will still be here for another 4.5 billion years. Extinction is written in the stars of all species. 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 the tree laughing uproariously and then 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 and knew how to take care of it?”

“They all have gone but their spirits now inspire a Swedish school girl.”

© Surendra Verma 2020

A dash of honey and lemon for body, mind and soul

Singers have known for generations that a spoonful of honey would sweeten their performance. Mothers have always known that honey mixed with lemon juice would soothe a sore throat.  Theese ‘magic capsules of honey and lemon’ would sweeten your body, mind andsoul and relieve you of all everyday irritations.

Prescription for a healthy body, a sharp mind and a tranquil soul: Take one a day until finished. 

Record only hours of sunshine

[This has been my motto since I was 12]

Make your motto in life the motto of the sundial: ‘I record only hours of sunshine’.

Apply the carrot and stick to yourself

If you cannot bring yourself to start a new venture, apply the carrot and stick to yourself. Picture yourself how lively your life would be if you go ahead, and then compare it with the dull life you would have if you do nothing.

Keep your feet on the ground

What Marcus Aurelius said centuries ago still holds true: ‘Never allow yourself to be swept off your feet: when an impulse stirs, see first that it will meet the claims of justice; when an impression forms, assure yourself of its certainty.’

Follow the formula

You’ll find Einstein’s equation for success punches more energy than his famous, E = mc2:

success = work + recreation + meditation

Start with a good thought

This old jingle summarises well how a thought can shape your life:

Sow a thought, reap an act;
Sow an act, reap a habit;
Sow a habit, reap a character;
Sow a character, reap a destiny.

Focus on thoughts

Our actions are usually consistent with our thoughts. Rip negative thoughts out of your mind and replace them with, ‘I’m confident I can do it.’

Act now: laugh

Laughter releases chemicals in the brain that make us feel better. Act now: laugh. If there is no other person to laugh with you, laugh at yourself … laugh at this silly little book.

Ride in a car with shock absorbers

A day without laughter is like a ride in a car without shock absorbers.

Don’t try to please everybody

Heed Bill Cosby’s advice: ‘I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.’

Stimulate your  brain

To stimulate your intellect and memory try to learn a new skill such as music or language, and try to memorise something new each day, say a song, poem or list of new words.

Go and meet the inspiration

When inspiration does not come to you, like Sigmund Freud, ‘go halfway to meet it’.

‘Plant a tree’

When you sit down under a shady tree, remember that someone planted that tree a long time ago.

Don’t despair

Someone said that the darkest hour of our life has only 60 minutes, then why despair?

Make your mind empty

Just for five minutes every day, sit comfortably, shut your eyes, breathe deeply, and silently repeat a word, any word (try the word ‘one’ or Sanskrit ‘Om’).

Reinvent success

Success is not necessarily money, power, career or recognition. It may be freedom, health and wellbeing, self-discovery, financial independence, relationship or community contribution.

Where there’s a will …

Aeschylus is still true after 2500 years: ‘When a man’s willing and eager, the gods join in.’

Consider stress as a challenge

In today’s world you cannot avoid stress in your life. Consider it as a challenge, not a threat. If you do nothing, you will be trapped in the web of events. The moment you commit yourself to action, the stress becomes manageable.

Take the stairs’

Remember, as an unknown wit said, ‘There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.’

Be ‘curiouser and curiouser’

Curiosity is the appetite of the mind. We learn more quickly when information comes in answer to a question. Like Alice in Wonderland, be ‘curiouser and curiouser’.

Take a power nap

After lunch, take off your shoes, sit down comfortably and take a 15-minute nap.

Give yourself a kick in the pants

‘Dreams will get you nowhere, a good kick in the pants will take you a long way,’ shouts a graffiti on a wall. It’s better if the kick comes from you, then someone else.

Work with love

‘Work is love made visible,’ extols Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet, ‘And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.’

Way of action

A person who restrains the organs of action, sits revolving in mind, thoughts regarding objects of sense, is called a hypocrite,’ preaches Bhagavadgita, which stresses the importance of doing one’s duty and faith in God, ‘But, a person who, controls the senses by the mind, unattached directs his or her organs of action to the path of work, excels.’

Avoid anxiety

Live in the present. Don’t dwell on past mistakes. Avoid worrying about what might happen in the future.

Take deep breaths

Take in a slow deep breath. Pause for a few seconds, then breathe out gently. Repeat it 10 times. Try it a few times every day.

Exercise to release tension

A brisk walk daily for 20 minutes. It will make you feel good for hours because of the release of endorphin from the brain.

Draw up a confidence list

Make a list of your strengths, aspirations and achievements. Update this list regularly.

Spice up your food

After analysing the cuisines of 36 nations – based on 4578 ‘traditional’ recipes from 93 cookbooks – a scholarly study reported in The Quarterly Review of Biology has found that the hotter and wetter a country, the spicier its food. This suggests, the study says, that as the risk of food spoilage grows, so does a culinary reliance on spices – a natural source of compounds that kill harmful microbes. By cleansing foods of pathogens, spice users contribute to their health, survival, and reproduction, the study concludes.

Boost your energy

Instead of eating large meals eat five or six smaller meals. It will help to keep your blood level controlled, and energy level high.

Self-monitor yourself

If you monitor what you do, you’re likely to do it better. For example, if you weigh yourself daily, you’ll start to lose weight.

Unleash your creativity

Follow American psychologist Robert Epstein’s simple exercise ‘capturing a daydream’ he has developed to persuade people of their creative potential: ‘Close your eyes. Let your mind wander for a few minutes. Relax and just let your thoughts go without deliberately guiding them.’

Find the best way

‘There is always a best way of doing everything,’ says the American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘even if it be to boil an egg.’

Stop worrying

Worry gives a small thing a big shadow, says a Swedish proverb. Why live under a shadow?

Always do your best

Ponder over Martin Luther King Jr’s advice: ‘If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’

© Surendra Verma 2000

Reading bumps on the head

It makes interesting reading, but it’s all nonsense (except the bit about men with shaved heads). 

In 1798, Franz Gall, an Austrian physician, wrote to a friend:

I have at last the pleasure of presenting you my treatise on the functions of the brain … to show that it is possible by observing various elevations and depressions on the surface of the head to determine the degrees of different aspects of the personality. This work will be of the first importance to medicine, morality, education and the law – indeed to the whole science of human nature.’

The 10-page letter, which was published in a German journal, marked the beginning of phrenology (phrenos is Greek for the mind), the study of the shape and size of the head to determine a person’s character and mental abilities.

Gall made two major assertions. First, he believed that different mental functions are located in different parts of the brain, called organs. Second, he argued that the growth of the various organs is related to the development of associated mental faculties. As this growth would be reflected in the shape of the skull, personality traits could be determined by reading bumps or indentations on the skull.

He even boasted that phrenology would be of the first importance to medicine, morality, education and the law — indeed to the whole science of human nature.

Gall identified 27 discrete organs of behaviour; this number increased over time as new organs were ‘discovered’. If you move your finger on the back of your neck, you will notice a bump formed by the base of your skull. This bump, according to Gall, marked the location of the organ of Amativeness, the organ that defined the attachment of sexes to each other. If a person’s head showed a comparatively large organ of Amativeness, the person was sexually unrestrained. A comparatively small organ of Amativeness showed indifference towards the opposite sex.  

Phrenology is, of course, quackery, but in the early 19th century it was a respected science. People sought the advice of phrenologists not only for diagnosing mental illness, but for hiring employees, or even selecting marriage partners. Even Herman Melville made Ishmael, his Moby Dick (1851) narrator, an amateur phrenologist. Fans of phrenology could practise their skills on characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

The present urban ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ myths — we use the left brain for logical, analytical thinking and the right brain for intuitive, artistic thinking — can be traced back to the days of phrenology. The crude bump-reading nonsense has now been replaced by sophisticated brain-imaging techniques.

While we are on the subject of the head, Albert Mannes of the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton business school says that men with shaved heads are perceived as more masculine, dominant and even with the greater leadership potential. He ran tests in which he showed people photos of the same men in two versions: one showing the man with hair and the other showing him with his hair digitally removed. His subjects reported finding men with shaved heads more dominant, taller and stronger than those with full heads of hair. The growing trend of power buzz haircuts seems to support this assertion. Incidentally, Mannes sports a shaved head.

Bald men definitely don’t have bad hair days, but there are not necessarily more virile as the urban myth whispers.

© Surendra Verma 2016

Another sunny day, another lucky day for skin cancer

Body features that are risk factors for skin cancer are: fair skin; blue, green or hazel eyes; light coloured hair; freckles; and many moles. Mole count is one of the most important markers of risk for skin cancer. 

One in every three cancers diagnosed is skin cancer. Anyone can be at risk of skin cancer, though the risk increases as you get older. The majority of skin cancers are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation in the sun. Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, is associated with sunburn. Sunburn is a sign of short-term overexposure to UV radiation. You can also be sunburnt on cooler or overcast days when you would mistakenly believe UV radiation is not as strong.

UV rays are strongest in areas closer to the equator. Because the sun is directly over the equator, UV rays only travel a short distance through the atmosphere to reach these areas. The ozone layer, which absorbs the sun’s harmful radiation, is naturally thinner near the equator. Australia’s relative proximity to the equator makes it people overexposed to UV radiation. At least two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70. It’s one of the highest incidences of skin cancer in the world, two to three times the rates in Canada, the US and the UK. In Japan and China incidences of skin are much lower.

Everyone, regardless of skin colour, can get a sunburn. Some individual risk factors for skin cancer, according to the World Health Organisation, are:

  • fair skin
  • blue, green or hazel eyes
  • light-coloured hair
  • freckles
  • many moles
  • a tendency to burn rather than suntan
  • history of severe sunburns
  • a family history of skin cancer

When 11 is a critical number

Freckles, small pale brown areas of skin, are often temporary and are usually linked to sun exposure. Moles are small coloured spots on the body and are made of the same melanocytes cells that produce pigment in your skin. They are long-lasting and are not directly linked to sun exposure, but excess sun exposure can make a mole turn malignant increasing risk of skin cancer.

Twenty to 40 per cent of skin cancer arises from pre-existing moles. Hence, the mole count is the most important risk factor for skin cancer. Risk increases by 2 to 4 per cent per additional mole on the body, counting moles on the whole body is time consuming. After studying 3,694 female twins in the UK over a period of eight years, Researchers from King’s College London have now come up with an easier method of counting moles on the entire body. They say that counting moles on the right arm is a good indicator of the total number on the whole body.

More than 11 moles on right arm indicates 100 on the entire body, which indicates a higher-than-average risk of skin cancer. Seven moles on the right arm indicates nine times the risk of having more than 50 on the whole body.

The findings would help medical practitioners to more accurately estimate the total number of moles in patients extremely quickly via an easily accessible body part, says Simone Ribero, the lead researcher.

Health professionals warn that don’t just look at your arms as skin cancer can develop anywhere in the body. Always look for any change in the size, shape, colour or feel of a mole — and also any variation from normal on any patch of skin.

© Surendra Verma 2016

Join the midday snooze club

Meditation – of any kind, not necessarily chanting Om or other mantras with a saffron-robed guru – fosters inner peace and relaxation. This claim has been supported by decades of research showing changes in brainwave patterns during meditation.

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. There is also a decrease in beta waves, waves associated with fully awake mind. At the same time, alpha and theta waves, waves associated with a relaxed mind, are extremely active. In long-term meditators, theta waves dominate the brain during periods of deep relaxation. Recent brain imaging research suggests that meditation is doing more than changing wave patterns in the brain; it may even be rewiring it to reduce stress. If you think that you are not cut out to be a meditating type, take a nap. After lunch, forget caffeine, take your shoes off, sit down comfortably and take a 30- to 40-minute nap. Studies show afternoon napping not only improves health and work performance, but it also increases brain power. It’s time you joined the midday snooze club. You will be in the company of Leonardo da Vinci, Napoleon Bonaparte, Johannes Brahms, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton

© Surendra Verma 2016

Calculus: don’t drink and derive

Pieces of paper known as derivatives have been blamed for the last decade’s global financial crisis. A derivative derives its value from an asset such as a mortgage. ‘A positive derivative means that the graph is rising/And if it is less than zero, the result is not surprising,’ explains a calculus rhyme. When the house prices collapsed in the United States the value of mortgage derivatives approached zero. Not surprisingly, they became financial weapons of mass destruction. As some wit has said alcohol and calculus don’t mix, were these dodgy derivatives derived over gallons of wine?

Calculus is at the heart of financial derivatives. Calculus can be summed up by two basic ideas, the derivative and the integral. Simply put, the derivative is a way of measuring the change in one quantity in response to change in another quantity (the derivative of the position of a moving car with respect to time is its speed at that particular moment). The integral is the accumulation of an infinite number of tiny bits that make up a whole (the distance a car has travelled when only its speed is known).

Mathematician and songwriter Tom Lehrer explains it harmoniously in ‘The Derivative Song’ (The American Mathematical Monthly, May 1974):

You take a function of x and you call it y,
Take any x-nought that you care to try,
You make a little change and call it delta x,
The corresponding change in y is what you find nex’,
And then you take the quotient and now carefully
Send delta x to zero, and I think you’ll see
That what the limit gives us, if our work all checks,
Is what we call dy/dx,
It’s just dy/dx.

© Surendra Verma 2016

Neuroscience. MIND THE GAP. Neuromyths

Neuroscience. A word that exudes intelligence and entices us by offering brain-based explanations. As neuroscientists make advances in our understanding of how the brain functions, all sorts of people are jumping in to use any new brain information – proven or unproven – to justify their ineffective approaches to their work.

Not every research finding automatically becomes truly ‘scientific’; for that label it has to earn the consensus among the majority of scientists in that particular field. The results of brain-imaging studies may appear real and reliable, but these studies are usually done on very small samples because the machines are complex and expensive.

Neuroscientists are aware of the limitations of their studies, but in the hands of popular media and snake-oil sellers the results become ‘scientific proofs’. This has contributed to a ‘gap’ between scientific communication and the application of scientific knowledge.

The adult brain has more than 86 billion neurons and, on average, each transmits electrical signals from one to another five to 50 times per second. These signals are carried by molecules across contact points, called the synapses, with other neurons. The molecules are called neurotransmitters – you probably have heard of some of them: dopamine, endorphin, histamine and serotonin.

Brain activity is basically just a bunch of neurons firing. When one neuron fires up, it excites its neighbours and they in turn fire up others, giving rise to patterns of activity that result in thoughts, feelings and perceptions. Neuroscientists use sophisticated functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other techniques to study brain activity. In an fMRI a person’s brain is scanned in a doughnut-shaped machine while he or she is doing different mental tasks, giving neuroscientists the opportunity to see real-time images.

Current brain scans show only areas of brain activity in response to certain stimuli. For example, a small region on the right side of the brain shows a striking increase in electrical activity (the brain scan literally lights up) when people experience a sudden eureka moment. This alone doesn’t offer any insight into creativity.

Brain scans are not brain scams, but …

Brain scans do not necessarily provide objective evidence. Brain regions do many things, not just one; and it’s impossible to say whether an increased or decreased activity in a particular region is ‘better’ or ‘abnormal’. Another misconception is that ‘lightning up’ of certain areas shows that these areas are active but isolated from each other, with the rest of the brain inactive at that time.

Martin Lindstrom, a US branding expert and author of Brainwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, relates an experiment in which he looked at participants’ brain activity as they viewed consumer images involving some major brands and religious images like rosary beads and a photo of the Pope. He found that the brain activity was uncannily similar when viewing both types of imagery.

This experiment debunks the myth perpetrated by marketing types who claim that brain scans provide knowledge about customer preferences and what makes promotional campaigns more effective. These self-styled neuromarketing gurus have ditched their surveys and focus groups in favour of expensive but impressive fMRI machines to examine the brain’s response to products and brands. They often speak in complex jargon, in many cases using terms and phrases they themselves have coined. You may find it difficult to win a debate with a neuromarketer who wants to sell you the idea that the Earth is flat.

The so-called ‘neuro’ experts are mushrooming; not only in neuroeducation and neuromarketing, but in every field that can be prefixed with ‘neuro’ – neuro-aesthetics, neuro-anthropology, neuro-economics, neuro-law, neuro-politics, neuro-theology, and so on.

Separating the wheat from the chaff

If neurons could talk, they wouldn’t tell that right-brained people are more creative than left-brained people or listening to classical music makes children smarter. But these neuromyths – myths about the brain – have been around for so long, they have taken hold in a range of aspects of everyday life, most disturbingly in learning and education.

The challenge for teachers and parents is to integrate the new knowledge of the mind into schooling. But the task is not simply reading about new research finding in the media and applying it into the classroom. Students are not guinea pigs. Parents and teachers must be careful about the claims made in the name of so-called brain-based learning as some of these claims may have unwanted consequences.

Sceptical thinking would help you to separate the wheat (neuroscience) from the chaff (neuromyths). Ockham’s razor is an important tool to have in your toolkit if you would like to think like a sceptic. It can help you choose between possibilities.

William of Ockham, a Franciscan monk who lived in the 13th century in England, developed a bright rule, now known as Ockham’s razor, which implies that the number of causes or explanations needed to account for the behaviour of a phenomenon should be kept to a minimum.  The rule has been interpreted now to mean that when you have two competing ideas that make exactly the same predictions, the one that makes fewest assumptions is better. In other words, the simplest solution is always the best.

The advice – keep it simple, stupid – is in a similar vein. But everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Trim the fat, but leave flesh on the bones of your idea.

William’s statements in his philosophical and theological writings aroused such opposition that he was refused his Master of Theology degree at Oxford and was ordered to appear before the papal court on charges of heresy. He fled to Germany and, according to a story, probably apocryphal, asked Emperor Louis IV for protection with the plea, ‘Protect me with your sword, O Emperor, and I shall protect you with my pen.’

Armed with Ockham’s razor – you probably don’t need his razor-sharp pen – you’re now ready for a sceptical look at claims relating to learning and education made in the name of neuroscience.

© Surendra Verma 2018

Mindful and meditating children do better

You cannot buy happiness, but you can always help your children to become happiest in the world. The verdict from recent studies is in: Mindfulness and meditation makes children kinder to their classmates, sharpens their brains and helps them to perform better in the classroom.

Mindfulness is a popular meditative practice in which you train your mind to focus on the present. When you are mindful, you respond with reason before emotion. You’re aware of how you are responding to a situation. Research shows that mindfulness can help curb depression and anxiety.

Meditation fosters inner peace and relaxation. This claim has been supported by decades of research showing changes in brainwave patterns during meditation.

Numerous psychological studies have now focused on the effect of mindfulness and meditation on young children. In a study led by Willem Kuyken of the University of Leister in the UK, 522 young people aged 12 to 16 in 12 secondary schools either participated in a mindfulness program or took part in the usual school curriculum. The researchers reasoned that the 12-16 age range represents a key developmental window for self-regulation and is a period when young people need to negotiate many academic and social stressors for the first time. At the end of the 9-week mindfulness program, the students who participated in it showed lower depression, less stress and better wellbeing than those taking part in the usual school curriculum.

A University of British Columbia study examined the effect of a mindfulness program on 99 Grade 3 and 4 children who were randomly assigned to the program. Their results undoubtedly showed that the program not only improved cognitive skills but also led to significant increases in social and emotional competence and wellbeing.

In the US, three years after a mediation program was implemented at a troubled middle school, suspension rate dropped from 28% to 4% and teacher turnover plummeted. In another US study 41% of meditating middle school students gained at least one level in mathematics on a state standardised test. A separate study found that children who practised mindfulness scored 15% more than their peers who didn’t participate.

© Surendra Verma 2018

Rituals make Christmas merrier

When I was an ankle-biter in a different land at different times, an old uncle told me to place my shoes in the chimney on Christmas Eve if I wanted a gift from Santa Claus. I’m still angry with the white-bearded, big-bellied man for not bringing me a gift. That was my first encounter with Christmas in a non-Christian family. You may not be a Christian but you may find it hard to get away from Christmas rituals at this time of the year.

Christmas rituals, religious or otherwise, can be exciting for children, but they also give them a sense of security, stability and affection. And they also improve psychological health and wellbeing of adults. Christmas cards, carols and crackers might seem like lively traditions; however, a review of 50 years of research on rituals suggests that they involve symbolic communication and convey “this is what we are” as a group.

The review by Barbara H. Fiese and her colleagues at Syracuse University suggests that family rituals provide continuity in meaning across generations. “Also, there is often an emotional imprint where once the act is completed, the individual may replay it in memory to recapture some of the positive experience,” she says.

While knocking on wood might not ward off evil spirits, but many everyday rituals are surprisingly effective. We can trace the reason for real benefits to rituals in our evolutionary history. Before the development of languages, humans related to each other via “symbols”. US anthropologist Terrence W. Deacon argues in his book, The Symbolic Species, that these symbols would have been made up of extended, effortful and complex sequences of behaviours performed in groups – in other words, rituals. Rituals, he says, connected human groups and enables them to ensure that they had a shared understanding of how the group worked.

Numerous studies show that family rituals – of any shape or form –  really help people to get closer to one another. Kathleen Vohs, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, who is involved in a large-scale online study of rituals, says that rituals help people to share an experience without feeling awkward or forced. What can be a better-shared experience than sharing a meal with others? Well, we don’t need psychologists to tell us that the family that eats dinner together stays together.

On the matter of warm feelings of giving and being given to Christmas gifts, UK philosopher Robert Rowland Smith weighs in: “To be rewarded with a gift is to be subtly told that someone loves you, and we love nothing better than to be loved.”

For your wellbeing, unpack your gifts and say thank you to the givers, clink your glasses and share plum pudding (which might not contain any plums) with your family and friends. Merry Christmas!

© Surendra Verma 2018