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

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