Sunday, October 24, 2010

A brush with death

The Tribune, Sunday, October 24, 2010

A brush with death
Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience
By Pim van Lommel, M.D.
HarperOne. Pages 442.
Price not stated.

There can be nothing more obvious than consciousness. After all, we seem to experience it all the time. As the philosopher Rene Descartes said, you could doubt the existence of everything, but you could not doubt your own existence, and that is because you are thinking and you are conscious. And yet, consciousness is the biggest mystery ever, and there are philosophers and scientists who say consciousness is mere fiction, or at the most it is an epiphenomenon, i.e., it is a by-product of bio-chemical activity in the brain. Of late, the materialist view is being questioned, and scientists are beginning to take consciousness seriously. Many now believe that consciousness is somehow connected with the brain, and that it ends with death. In other words, body is a necessary condition for consciousness. That is why, when someone receives a severe blow on the head, they might become unconscious.

Things are not that simple, however. Scientists and philosophers have now begun to consider seriously that, which has been claimed for centuries by people in diverse cultures. Many people all over the world have for ages said that they have experienced being out of their bodies. This is now known as a near-death experience (NDE).

In Consciousness Beyond Life, cardiologist Pim van Lommel defines an NDE as "the (reported) recollection of all the impressions gained during a special state of consciousness, which includes some specific elements such as witnessing a tunnel, a light, a panoramic life review, deceased persons, or ones own resuscitation". Most cases of NDE were experienced during a heart attack, in a state of coma after a traffic accident, asphyxia, intoxication, electrocution, depression, failed suicide, or during meditation.

During his long career as a doctor, Lommel says he was surprised by the number of his patients who claimed to have had near-death experiences after a heart attack. His training as a mainstream scientist made it difficult for him to believe these accounts, but he could not ignore the cases for too long. Recent studies in the US and Germany suggest that approximately 4.2 per cent of the population has reported an NDE.

To verify the claims of his patients, he designed a research methodology, so he could investigate the phenomenon under controlled conditions. After years of hard work, he and his fellow researchers published their findings in the medical journal, The Lancet, in 2001. The present volume is based on that study.

Lommel gives us a good background to physiological and psychological theories that try to explain NDE, but finds most of them are unable to come with a satisfactory explanation. "There is no direct evidence to prove if and how neurons in the brain produce the subjective essence of our consciousness . . . materialist approach falls short in many respects and can no longer be maintained in its current form. It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness."
Although we do not yet have a satisfactory theory to explain consciousness, the author feels that quantum mechanics could possibly be a strong candidate. "This not-yet-commonly-accepted interpretation posits that our picture of reality is based on the information received by our consciousness. This transforms modern science into a subjective science in which consciousness plays a fundamental role." Of course, quantum theory cannot explain consciousness fully, but in conjunction with the results and conclusions from NDE research, it can contribute to a better understanding of the transition or interface between consciousness and the brain.

After studying cases of NDE, Lommel has come to a conclusion that brain is not a necessary condition for consciousness, i.e., consciousness can exist independently. He strongly believes that consciousness cannot be located in a particular space and time, this is known as nonlocality. "Complete and endless consciousness is everywhere in a dimension that is not tied to time or place, where past, present, and future all exist and are accessible at the same time. This endless consciousness is always in and around us. We have no theories to prove or measure nonlocal space and nonlocal consciousness in the material world. The brain and the body merely function as an interface or relay station to receive part of our total consciousness," says the author.

A very well-written book; it should be read especially by those who still strongly cling to the materialistic paradigm of science — the problem is, they won’t.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Brainstorming the Mind

Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

The Emerging Mind
By Vilayanur Ramchandran.
BBC-Profile Books.
Pages 208. Rs 195.

DR Vilayanur Ramachandran, the author of The Emerging Mind, mentions the case of David who had sustained head injury in a car accident, and was in a state of coma. He came out of coma and seemed quite normal, except he started having one delusion—he would look at his mother and say, "Doctor, this woman looks exactly like my mother but she isn’t, she is an impostor".

Then, there are patients whose legs have been amputated, yet they feel pain in these so-called phantom limbs, and this pain seems to be real. There are others who see only half of the scene before them. So, when they eat from a plate, they eat only one half of it, leaving the other untouched, as they can’t see it. Some have a normal vision but are blind to one particular colour. All these patients have suffered damage to their brain, and these cases are important in understanding the functioning of the brain which is the most complex and mysterious structure in the universe.

It is with the advances made in neuroscience that we have just begun to slightly appreciate the sheer complexity of the brain, which is made up of one hundred billion nerve cells or neurons that form the basic structural and functional units of the nervous system. Each neuron makes 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other neurons and these points of contact are called synapses. It is here that exchange of information occurs. It has been calculated that the number of possible permutations and combinations of brain activity, in other words, the numbers of brain states, exceeds the number of elementary particles in the known universe!

There is a further complication. Although the brain might be the most structure, we can still hope to understand it one day as it is after all a physical structure. What is more illusive to comprehend is the mind.

Many take the brain and the mind to be one, but this view is not accepted by several thinkers and scientists. And what about consciousness? We do not see the world like a camera, we actually feel it. Although the brain might be a necessary condition for consciousness, it is difficult to explain how consciousness arises out of nerve tissues and neurons. Many scientists, who have been studying cases of near-death experiences and other paranormal activities, have begun to question the assumption that to be conscious a brain is necessary.

However, since Ramachandran is a mainstream neuroscientist, he limits his arguments to the brain being necessary for consciousness. He is humble enough to concede that in spite of all the impressive advances we have made, there is hope that we might get some understanding of the mind. Especially, after the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, we are for the first time in a position to understand directly DNA’s contribution to the mind.

Ramachandran has studied brain-damaged patients in order to solve the brain-mind mystery. In the case of David, the author explains that vision is a very complex process. When we see a thing, it is analysed by thirty different visual areas at the back of our brain. Only then can we recognise the object we are seeing, whether it is a cat, a table, or mother. This identification takes place in a small brain region called the fusiform gyrus—which is damaged in patients with face blindness. Finally, once the image is recognised, the message is relayed to the limbic system, the emotional core of the brain, which allows you to gauge the emotional significance of what you are looking at. "In David’s case," says Ramachandran, "perhaps the fusiform gyrus and all the visual areas are completely normal, so his brain tells him that the woman he sees looks like his mother. But to put it crudely, the ‘wire’ that goes from the visual centres to the amygdala, to the emotional centres, is cut by the accident. So, he looks at his mother and thinks, "She looks just like my mother, but if it’s my mother why don’t I feel anything towards her? No, this can’t possibly be my mother, it’s some stranger pretending to be my mother."

This book also tackles other eternal questions such as selfhood, free will, and aesthetics. Art, its creation and enjoyment, is a mysterious activity. Although art is a subjective and individualistic, Ramachandran wonders if there are any universal principals of art. Many thinkers have held that art is a social activity, inspired by the environment. While this is certainly true, many human beings have innate artistic capabilities of either creating or appreciating art. What follows is a lively discussion of the emergence of art and art styles, which is rather long to be discussed in detail here. The author does not merely speculate, he shows how his theory of art could be empirically tested by studying how the brain circuitry behaves while creating art. The same method can be applied to study romantic love.

Ramachandran gives an example of two people in love sometime in distant future. As they make love, their brains are being mapped, and the electrochemical activity that is going on becomes apparent. The man says to the girl, "You mean that’s all there is to it? Your love isn’t real? It is all just chemicals?" The girl replies, "On the contrary, all this brain activity provides hard evidence that I do love you, that I’m not just faking it."

These questions are notoriously difficult to answer, but the author says maybe there is a single answer to the problem just at DNA base-pairing was the solution to the riddle of heredity.

The question of selfhood is defined by a set of attributes such as embodiment, agency, unity, continuity. The author says maybe we will succeed in explaining each of these attributes individually in terms of what is going on in the brain.

Whether you agree with the contention or not, this is a very interesting and informative book.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Language shapes our world
The Tribune, Sunday, August 1, 2010

Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

The Stuff of Thought
Steven Pinker
Penguin. Pages 500, Price: £ 3.50

Shakespeare wrote famously in Romeo and Juliet: "What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." We might disagree with the Bard, for although it is true that if rose had some other name, it would taste as sweet, but it would depend on what that other name was. The rose would not smell as sweet if it were a homonym of ‘shit’.

Under the influence of philosophers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, Russell, and Wittgenstein most of us strongly believe that language shapes our world. This view was taken to the extreme when Roland Barthers said, "Man does not exist prior to language, either as a species or as an individual."

American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker defies these extremely influential philosophers. He upends the established view by forcefully arguing that it is our thoughts about the world around us that actually shape our language. After all if roses never existed, we would not think about their smelling sweet or otherwise.

Pinker is a versatile genius who is eminently persuasive and eloquent. Philosophy of language, Semantics, linguistics, and evolutionary psychology are his main interests. Philosophy of language concerns problems such as: How words relate to reality; What is the nature of meaning? What is truth, reference, logical necessity? Semantics is the study of meaning in language, and Linguistics is the scientific study of natural language.

Pinker’s earlier books The Language Instinct (1995), Words and Rules (1999) explored the human capacity for language – how we manage to absorb innumerable words and the astonishingly complex rules that govern their use. In two other books, How the Mind Works (1997) and The Blank Slate (2002), he examined human nature, mind, and consciousness using an evolutionary framework.

His latest book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature shows that semantics and psychology are ultimately related. Human beings think, language is the medium with which they think, and thinking constructs our world for them. Each individual thinks differently, hence each of us lives in a different world though the objective reality is the same for all of us.

Pinker begins the book by asking us to recall what happened on September 11, 2001. He asks us how many events took place on that fateful day. Most of us would say one event took place because although the World Trade Center had two towers, they should be treated as one, and though several people were involved, the attacks were conceived in the mind of one man who had just one mission. Some might argue they were two events as there were two separate buildings standing at a reasonable distance from each other; they were struck at different times, and collapsed at different times. Many of us might be frustrated by this debate which seems frivolous, or mere philosophical hair-splitting. Whether it was a single event, two events, or three, what difference does it make?

It makes a great difference points out Pinker. If the judges determining the insurance claims saw 9/11 as one event, the leaseholders of WTC would get three and a half billion dollars, on the other hand, if the lawyers could prove it that they were two events, the leaseholders would receive seven billion dollars. A difference of a solid three and a half billion dollars!

Further, some might call it a terrorist attack on freedom; others might call it a holy war waged for freedom. The way language is used and conceived could be the difference between life and death.

Pinker writes: "The fact that rival construals of a single occurrence can trigger an extravagant court case tells us that the nature of reality does not dictate the way that reality is represented in people’s minds. The language of thought allows us to frame a situation in different and incompatible ways. . . . And the ability to frame an event in alternative ways is not just a reason to go to court but also the source of richness of human intellectual life. As we shall see, it provides the materials for scientific and literary creativity, for humor and wordplay, and for the dramas of social life."

Continuing in the same vein, Pinker says that most of the conflicts among peoples and countries are nothing but a matter of how we use words and definitions. Abortion is seen by some as the free choice of a woman to be a mother or not, while anti-abortionists term it as murder in the womb.

Pinker shows how our minds deal with the objective, physical world. Consider the following sentences:

"She loaded hay into the wagon",

"She loaded the wagon with hay"

Although they might seem similar to us, the former is a content-locative construction in which the emphasis is on the thing being moved; and the latter is a container-locative construction in which the emphasis is on where the thing is being moved to. In the first case the impression is that some hay was loaded into the wagon, and in the second the suggestion is that the wagon was fully loaded with hay.

Then, there is a major controversy in psychology about what is innate, i.e., hereditary, in us and what we acquire through culture and the environment. The established view is that nothing is innate; the mind is a blank slate on which experience is written.However, this view is being seriously challenged by thinkers like Pinker who hold that although environment plays its role, heredity, too, plays a major role in language acquisition because children learn their mother tongue very easily without any professional training, and animals cannot be taught a language no matter what training is given to them. The capacity to learn a language is innate, but what language a child learns would depend upon the society into which it is born. Further, the human brain is made up several specialist domains which make us capable of rationality, emotions, abstract theorising, and linguistic skills.

There are a good number of other concepts like how we use proper names, indirection of speech, metaphors, swearwords, and jokes, which make this book extremely valuable for readers interested in language and the wonder called the human mind.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The mystery of vanishing Sarasvati

Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati
By Michel Danino. Penguin Books. Pages 358. Rs 399.

THE importance of Ganges as the most sacred river in Indian culture cannot be overstressed. However, there was another river which was a lot more important than the Ganges. In fact, there are not very significant references to the Ganges in the Vedas. The pride of place was given to the Sarasvati, a river that no longer exists!

The Rig Veda considered it to be the mother of seven seas. There are 45 hymns in which the Rig Veda eulogises it. In the Ramayana, it is referred to as the sacred Ikshumati—Bhrahma’s daughter. The Mahabharata too has references to the river. But the story does not end here: there is strong evidence that apart from the Indus, the Sarasvati was also the lifeline of the Indus Valley Civilisation, thus prompting some scholars to call it the Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation.

In The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati, Michel Danino, a French scholar, gives a detailed account of the renewed interest in the disappearance of the ancient river.

Archaeologists have long speculated that the humble Ghaggar, which flows out of the Shivaliks, is actually the Sarasvati of antiquity. Danino says it is truly noteworthy that when the British archaeologists mapped the Indus Valley sites about two hundred years ago, they found most were located round the dry bed of Ghaggar-Hakra.

But why zero in on the Ghaggar-Hakra as a relic of the Sarasvati? Aren’t there other contenders? The Rig Veda mentions Sarasvati as a mighty river flowing from the mountain to the sea and located between the Yamuna and the Shutudri (Sutlej). The Mahabharata, the Brahmanas, and the Puranas also make similar references to the Sarasvati. Danino says the British explorers who took up the clue found several seasonal streams emerging from the Shivalik Hills, but no major river flowing between the Yamuna and the Sutlej. They continued their search nevertheless because there was a strong tradition mentioning a mighty river flowing westward and getting lost. This tradition correlated with Sanskrit texts, and the maps plotted by the British lent strong support for the thesis that the bed of the Ghaggar-Hakra was indeed a remnant of the mythical Sarasvati.

The author reviews the various projects undertaken by the British and other European adventurers since the days of the East India Company to find the Sarasvati. One of the earliest explorers was Colonel James Tod who speaks of the absorption of the Caggar (sic) river as one of the causes of the depopulation of the northern desert.

Almost 200 years ago, a French scholar named Vivien de Saint-Martin, too, argued that all the streams that flow from the west to the east, the Ghaggar, the Markanda, the Dangri, the Sarsuti and the Chautang unite in a single bed which is the Rig Veda’s Sarasvati. Marc Aurel Stein, another archaeologist who came to India in the late 1880s, postulated that the easternmost tributary of the Ghaggar was still known as the Sarsuti, a corruption of ‘Sarasvati’.

Modern scholars, too, have suggested that the Ghaggar is a strong contender for the mythical Sarasvati. Satellite imagery of the region shows that the Ghaggar, in other words the Sarasvati, was important not only in the Vedic times but also during the Harappan age. The Ghaggar was the lifeline of the Indus Valley Civilisation, because out of a sample of about 1,400 Harappan sites, more than 75 per cent are situated on the banks of the Ghaggar-Hakra channel.

If it was such an important river, what happened to it? Why did it vanish suddenly? Some researchers have suggested that it was the lack of rainfall over the years that dried up the Sarasvati. Richard Dixon Oldham, a British geologist, who joined the Geological Survey of India in 1879, rejected such theories. If that were the case, other rivers of the region would have got affected too.

He argued that part of Yamuna’s waters might have flowed into the Ghaggar-Hakra bed in Vedic times: "It may have been that the Yamuna, after leaving the hills, divided its waters and that the portion which flowed to the Punjab was known as Sarasvati, while that which joined the Ganges was called the Yamuna." Geological changes were responsible for the Sarasvati changing its course and finally getting lost.

Recent studies give credence to the theory that geological and tectonic movements were responsible for some of the shifting rivers. Evidence from survey fieldwork and recent satellite imagery strongly suggests that the Ghaggar-Hakra system in the past had the Sutlej and the Yamuna as tributaries. Geological changes diverted the Sutlej towards the Indus and the Yamuna towards the Ganga, following which the river did not have enough water to reach the sea, and it dried up in the Thar Desert.

And this vanishing act happened much before the Vedic age. In fact, one of the reasons for the sudden fall of the Indus Valley Civilisation was the drying up of the Sarasvati. The Harappans were thus forced to move eastwards but they did not forget their revered river. They kept its memory alive by making it part of the Triveni Sangam, where it meets (albeit invisibly) the Ganges and the Yamuna. Danino says, "Not only was the Sarasvati thus made to connect with the Ganges, but in the course of time, Sarasvati the goddess passed on many of her attributes to Ganga. ... In many ways, Ganga is an avatar of Sarasvati, just as the Ganges civilisation is a new avatar of the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation."

Michel Danino has produced a scholarly work which will inspire future explorers and theorists to try to solve the mystery of the vanishing sacred river.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The saint of saints

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The saint of saints
Reviewed by
Kuldip Dhiman

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: The Sadhaka of Dakshineswar
By Amiya P. Sen.
Penguin/Viking. Pages 178. Rs 325.

THERE are many paths to God realisation, such as the path of bhakti (devotion), jnana (knowledge), karma (action), etc., and Hinduism does not favour any particular path. The idea is the seeker ought to choose the path according to his own nature and disposition. The irony is that the follower of one particular path often finds other paths worthless or even harmful, that is because he just cannot appreciate the other viewpoint. And this is the cause of all the religious strife the world over.

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa tried several avenues one by one, but his path was mainly that of bhakti. "Rather than progress in a linear fashion, Ramakrishna's preferences seem to have alternated between dualism and non-dualism. Even after he ascended to the state of nirvikalpa samadhi, the highest state of mystic realisation known to an Advaitin, Ramakrishna chose to return to the state of bhakti-bhava." This quote is from Amiya P. Sen's Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: The Sadhaka of Dakshineswar, a very well researched and lucidly written book.

Sen begins with a very informative preface, which gives a background to the religious and social milieu of the 19th-century Bengal. Religious atmosphere was rich and varied, although with the coming of Western ideas through the East India Company, many young educated people began to regard Hinduism as being nothing but superstition. And from the same lot, there were others who defended Hinduism resolutely. At such a time, we see the rise of Gadadhar Chattopadhyay, better known as Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who would have a tremendous impact on people of India, especially Bengal.

Sen says, "Looking back, Ramakrishna does appear to have contributed substantially to the renewed interest n Hinduism, but this itself is due to the fact that, in the1870s and 1880s, he was easily the first prototype of a modern saint and guru."

While the follower of the path of knowledge depends upon pure contemplation, and the follower of action depends upon work without attachment, the follower of bhakti marga depends upon unconditional love towards his personal deity. The devotee often gets so ecstatic that he might begin to dance wildly or might get into a trance when the emotions become too strong to control. Though all paths are beneficial, the path of devotion has a certain edge. The author says Ramakrishna believed that although the path of devotion is not superior to the path of knowledge, it is like the woman who can be freely admitted to the inner chambers whereas jnana, as the self-conscious male, has first to establish his bona fides before being allowed in.

The book vividly captures the vibrant life of one of the most influential saints of India. We get insights into his relationship with his wife, brother, well-wishers, and his disciples, the most famous of thembeing Swami Vivekananda. Sen writes with the objectivity of an academic and that is what sets this book apart from many others on the life of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Call it Love If You Like

The Tribune, Sunday, March 25, 2001 Lead Article

Call it Love If You Like

No one seems to know what love is. Some even doubt its existence. Of
late love has attracted the attention of a group of people who are
supposed to have nothing to do with gentler emotions: the scientists.
While poets, writers, and artists have only made wild conjectures
about love, scientists and evolutionary psychologists may have grasped
the meaning of romantic love, says Kuldip Dhiman

"One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life. That word is
love," said Sophocles 2400 years ago. You might forgive Sophocles for
saying this, but anyone who ever fell in love might vehemently
challenge these words. Far from freeing us from all the worries of
life, love quite often does the opposite, the great initial high
notwithstanding. In spite of all this, people have been falling in
love for ages, and shall continue doing so.

Why do people fall in love? Would it make any difference to the world
if no one ever fell in love? And if love is such a wonderful thing,
why does it turn sour with time? If love is good for mankind, why does
society create obstacles in the path of love?

Poets and writers have for centuries written reams and reams on love,
but have so far not given us any insight into it. If anything, they
have confused the issue, because being a highly subjective experience;
love means different things to different people. We have heard their
version for centuries, now let's hear what the scientists have to say
about it. But could love ever be understood by the cold logic of

In his recent book Emotion: The Science of Sentiment, published by
Oxford, Dylan Evans, Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy
at King's College, London, presents a scientific study of emotions,
and also devotes time to an emotion peculiar, as far as we know, to
humans: romantic love.

Evans tells us that love is after all not such a metaphysical subject.
We fall in love for very practical reasons. Further, if we wish to
take romantic love to the lab, so to speak, we would first have to
follow the demands of the scientific method. And the first step is to
find a basic definition of love. After studying various cultures,
anthro-pologists have come up with this working definition of love: a
powerful feeling of sexual attraction to a single person, feelings of
anguish and longing when the loved one is absent, and intense joy when
he or she is present.

Some people may squirm at the very idea of defining love. Love knows
no definition, they might say, knows no bounds, has no reasons.
Actually love does have its reasons although most of us don't seem to
understand them.

But if love is an emotion, how is it different from other emotions
like anger, fear etc. Why do we have these emotions in the first
place? Wouldn't we be better off without emotions? Not at all. Without
emotions, living beings would not have evolved at all. If we did not
have the emotion of fear, for instance, we would walk into a fire,
walk over cliffs, not run away at the sight of predators. In other
words we would not see danger, and, as a result perish. Evolution
would never have got going. Perhaps evolution equipped us with
emotions so we could survive in the tough battle of survival on this
otherwise inhospitable planet.

Apart from the basic emotions like fear, anger, disgust etc. that are
necessary for our very survival, we also have some culturally specific
emotions that are peculiar to certain cultures. For example, in India,
some people appear to be under the spell of spirits, and as a result
they behave in a strange way. Similarly, the Gurumbha people of New
Guinea get into an emotional state of 'being a wild pig'. When they
get into this state, they behave as wild pigs. This emotion is
culturally specific, as it is not experienced by peoples of other

Now, is love a basic emotion or is it a culturally specific emotion?
Speaking exclusively to The Tribune, Dylan Evans said: "Many people
have argued that romantic love is a culturally specific emotion like
'being a wild pig'. They say it is not seen in many cultures, and most
of us would not have fallen in love if we hadn't heard of it. But this
view has come under attack these days. After studying various
unrelated cultures all over the world, anthropologists found that it
was common for people to experience romantic love. They also listed
other elements including elaborate courtship gestures such as giving
gifts and showing one's love in song and poetry. They then examined
the anthropological literature and counted the number of cultures in
which this collection of features was described. To their surprise
they found that it was described in 90 per cent of the cultures on

Dylan Evans, Research Fellow, Department of Philosophy, King's
College, London spoke exclusively to The Tribune about romantic
love.Developing the point further, Evans says, "Romantic love may not
be a culturally specific emotion, but nor is it a basic emotion like
fear. The philosopher Paul Griffiths has argued that there are not two
kinds of emotion but three. In addition to basic emotions and
culturally specific emotions, he claims that there are 'higher
cognitive emotions.' This is fine so long as we realise that these
categories are not black and white.

"As well as differing from basic emotions in their degree of
innateness," believes Evans, "higher cognitive emotions also differ in
a number of other ways. They are not so automatic and fast as basic
emotions, and nor are they universally associated with a single facial
expression. Love is a case in point. Although love at first sight is
possible, it is relatively rare. It seems much more common for love to
grow gradually over the space of several days. Contrast this with the
emotion of fear, which typically overtakes a person in a matter of
milliseconds. And, while fear is easily recognisable by its typical
facial expression, there is no specific facial expression associated
with the emotion of love." This perhaps explains why some of us are
incapable or not very good at expressing our love.

The reason Paul Griffiths proposes emotions like love should be called
'higher emotions', is that they involve much more cortical processing
(Done by the cerebral cortex: the extensive outer layer of grey matter
of the cerebral hemispheres, largely responsible for higher brain
functions, including sensation, voluntary muscle movement, thought,
reasoning, and memory.) than basic emotions. While basic emotions are
largely processed in subcortical structures (the portion of the brain
immediately below the cerebral cortex) buried beneath the surface of
the brain emotions like love are more associated with areas of the
neocortex that is the part of the brain that has expanded most in the
past five million years of human evolution, and supports most of our
most complex cognitive abilities such as explicit logical analysis.
The fact that the higher cognitive emotions are more cortical than the
basic emotions means that they are more capable of being influenced by
conscious thoughts and this in turn is probably what allow higher
cognitive emotions to be more culturally variable than the basic
emotions. However, despite their greater cultural variability, the
higher cognitive emotions are still universal. Like basic emotions,
but unlike culturally specific emotions, the higher cognitive emotions
are part of human nature, shaped by our common evolutionary history.

If the main goal of life, as Darwin states, is survival and
propagation of our genes, what purpose does love serve? If fear saves
us from danger, and anger makes us ready for attack and thus helps us
in our survival, love appears to do the opposite. We waste time
thinking about our loved one, do all sorts of irrational things, ruin
careers, and even commit suicide. Often, after getting the person we
love, we realise he or she is not worth it.

"Love may seem irrational," says Evans, "but even its most bizarre
aspects may be vital if it is to fulfil its function of helping us
obtain a mate for long enough to have and rear children. Here is some
of what I say about it in the book: There are lots of other situations
in life when it is vital to be able to make credible promises. Robert
Frank refers to all these situations as 'commitment problems', and
argues that all the higher cognitive emotions solve different kinds of
commitment problem. The capacity for guilt solves those commitment
problems in which you have to make a credible promise not to cheat.

"Likewise, argues Frank, romantic love solves another kind of
commitment problem that in which you have to make a credible promise
to remain faithful to one other person. Jack and Jill may consider
each other suitable mates, but they will be reluctant to commit
themselves to each other unless each is sure that the other will not
walk out on them as soon as someone more attractive comes along. The
realisation that the other person is in love can provide this
assurance. Now, basic emotions like anger and fear are easy to feign,
but higher cognitive emotions like guilt, shame and love are extremely
hard to feign because we have no control over them. Hence, when we see
someone showing these emotions, we normally believe them to be
genuine. If Jack commits himself to Jill because of an emotion he did
not 'decide' to have (and so cannot decide not to have), an emotion
that is reliably indicated by such physiological signals as
tachycardia (a rapid heart rate, especially one above 100 beats per
minute in an adult) and insomnia, then Jill will be more likely to
believe he will stay with her than if he had chosen her after coolly
weighing up her good and bad points. 'People who are sensible about
love are incapable of it', wrote Douglas Yates."

Alas! life is not that simple. Although higher cognitive emotions are
very hard to feign, it is not impossible to feign them. Most men fake
them quite successfully to entice a woman into falling in love with
them, only to desert her later. The world if full of free riders, who
wish to have a woman without the commitment of running a household and
raising children.

The game of love gets more complicated because men and women fall in
love for different reasons, although these differences are of degree
not kind. In the tough battle for survival on this planet, our
foraging male ancestors needed to propagate their genes, and they had
a better chance if they mated with as many females as possible. In
order to do so they had to compete with the other males. Women, on the
other hand, invest a lot more than men in a relationship because it is
they who get pregnant, and have to look after the resulting offspring
for years. Although they might desire more men, but as they can have
only one or two children a year, it is pointless to have more
partners. Since they did not have safe contraception, women had to be
a lot more careful in choosing their partners than men. While men went
for quantity, women looked for quality. But generally, women preferred
to have one man who was willing to help her in bringing up her
offspring, rather than many with no one taking the responsibility of
running the household. Men may put a premium on physical
attractiveness, but women go for status, wealth intelligence, and the
willingness to provide resources. But we must not forget that although
quality may be more important to women, they are not entirely
monogamous Likewise, men might wish to have more women, but when they
think about settling down, they, too, start thinking in terms of
quality. All this is predicted by evolutionary theory, and was tested
by David Buss in a study of 33 different cultures

It is at this point that matters began to get complicated. Since men
were hunters, the better hunters among them often came back with more
food than the bad hunters. The females naturally chose them as mates
because more food meant personal survival as well as the survival of
their future offspring. But what guarantee there was that the man who
was offering food would also help in raising children. Women had to
find some way of knowing who was sincere in his intentions and who was
not. So they waited for the strongest possible man to approach them
and propose to them. The only problem was that the strong man often
tried to dominate as many women as possible, often deserting the older
ones and not caring for the offspring. As humans became more cultured,
women realised that the strongest man was not usually the one with the
best physique, as wealth and knowledge could also make a physically
weaker man very powerful in society. Quick to take a cue, intelligent
men developed better ways of demonstrating their love than defeating
an opponent in a duel. With time, lengthy courtship rituals developed
such as singing romantic songs expressing love in poetry, or
exchanging gifts. Some tried to prove their love by not taking care of
themselves, not taking care of their health or appearance, harming
themselves and even committing suicide. Women took this behaviour as a
sign of true love. Why else would someone go through the agony? As a
result, only committed men found women and dishonest men were
threatened with extinction. Since no one like to be extinct, least so
dishonest men, they began to mimic all the symptoms of true love in
order to lure women. The story got murkier and murkier and now there
is hardly any pointers left to differentiate between the honest and
the dishonest. In such a scenario, how can true love prosper, and how
could lovers live happily ever after?

In reply, Evans says, "The question whether men and women can live
happily ever after can be answered without reference to evolutionary
theory, simply by looking at the statistics for divorce. Current
divorce rates in western countries of between 33 and 50 per cent do
not suggest that lifelong marital happiness is common. On the other
hand, the fact that a few couples do manage to stay in love until they
die tells us that it is not completely impossible either."

We could produce children and care about our family without being in
love. Not many married people are really in love, or whatever love
they had is long since dead, but life goes on regardless.

"The idea that we could produce children and care about our family
without being in love," says Evans, "is precisely what evolutionary
theory calls into question. Could we really be bothered to do all that
without a powerful visceral feeling telling us that it was the most
important thing in the world? True, love may wane after a few years,
but evolutionary theory only requires that it last long enough to have
and raise a child to an age at which it can get by on its own - say,
about seven years. Could this be the biological explanation of the
famous 'seven-year itch'?"

When spurned by a lover, why do some of us (including some animals)
never marry, never go for another mate, never get on with life? Some
even commit suicide. Is it not against Darwin's laws? It is one thing
to emotionally blackmail the other to make them believe that we cannot
live without them, but why do some carry out the threat? Why don't we
lick our wounds and just find another partner?

"Depression is a mystery for evolutionists whatever its source,
whether it is caused by unrequited love or anything else. There are
some theories around, but they are still rather speculative."

There are some who talk about love without sex. What purpose does this
serve? Is it a mere escape? Married people falling in love for the
sake of love is understandable as they can have platonic love with
their extramarital partners and sex with their spouses, but what about
unmarried lovers?

"Romantic love without sex is, from an evolutionary point of view, an
aberration, just like homosexuality. That doesn't mean that there is
anything morally wrong with it, since evolutionary theory is not in
the business of value-judgements. But it does tell us that our
development is very flexible, and can send us down paths that are not
in the interests of our genes."

Is it possible to fall in love with more than one person?

"The answer is I don't know. There seems to be a large amount of
cultural variation on the issue of monogamy versus polygamy. Where
polygamy is allowed, however, it is almost always polygyny (one man
with many wives) and almost never polyandry (one woman with many

Love does exist, although the concepts, the reasons for falling in
love and expectations of men and women may be quite different. Thus
the eternal conflict in the battle of the sexes will go on, unless
lovers learn to make compromises and learn to respect the fact the
other is not necessarily hell.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Cosmological odyssey

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cosmological odyssey
Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

The Edge of Reason: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology
By Anil Ananthaswamy.
Penguin Books.
Pages 322. Rs 399.

IN the realm of physics, there are pure theorists and there are experimenters. Theoretical physicists study phenomena in nature, observe regularities, and then come up with mathematical models and theories that explain it. Their aim is to rationalise, explain and predict physical phenomena so that we could harness nature to our advantage.

No matter how accurate a scientist's abstract theorising might be, it is not accepted as theory until it is verified experimentally. There was a time, when both theory and experiment were performed usually by the same person, but now the theories are so complex and the experiments so complicated and expensive that it is impossible for the same person to come up with a hypothesis and also test it.

In The Edge of Reason: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology, Anil Ananthaswamy, consulting editor for New Scientist and contributor for journals like National Geographic, gives us an overview of how theories are developed and also how they are experimentally tested. In this engaging first-person account that reads like a travelogue, he takes us on a cosmological odyssey to the remote corners of the world, where some of the most audacious theories are being tested empirically.

Among the handful of science writers of Indian origin, Ananthaswamy writes with a rare gift of making highly theoretical and technical concepts comprehensible to the lay reader. He begins by giving a theoretical background to various theories of physics, and then takes us to the place where they are being tested. All the while he keeps musing about the mysteries of nature: How did the universe come into being? Why is the universe expanding? Is this the only universe in existence? What is dark matter? What is dark energy? What are neutrinos? What is the origin of mass? What happened to the antimatter that should have been produced along with matter after the big bang?

Our first stop is Mount Wilson, Pasadena, where there is a telescope that enabled scientists to confirm that our universe is far bigger than we had earlier imagined. We are then taken to an abandoned mine in Minnesota, called the Soudan Mine. It is where experiments are being conducted to look for dark matter that is inferred to exist from gravitational effects on visible matter and background radiation, but is undetectable. "Along with dark matter," says Ananthaswamy, "there is now another puzzle: dark energy. Together they form the bulk of the universe, about ninety per cent. In other words, have no clue about ninety per cent of the universe." Using the four massive telescopes at Paranal, Chile, scientists are working overtime to solve this mystery.

As we turn the pages, we visit Lake Baikal in Siberia, the Atacama Desert in the Chilean Andes, Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, the deserted Karoo in South Africa, the frozen expanses of Antarctica, and the Hanle Valley in the Indian Himalayas where scientists are trying to unravel the most mysterious phenomena that that baffle us.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Blood against blood

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Blood against blood
Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

Empire of the Moghul: Brothers at War
By Alex Rutherford
Hachette India.
Pages 436. Rs 495.

LIKE the first volume of the quintet Empire of the Moghul, Alex Rutherford's Brothers at War also opens with the death of an emperor and the war of succession among the siblings. In December 1530, Babur's eldest son Humayun, the fortunate one, finds himself wearing the crown at the age of 22. The inexperienced prince not only had to deal with the rebellious Afghans, but also with his ambitious half-brothers and cousins. In the murky world of power and politics, no one could be trusted. Unable to rely on anyone, Humayun consults his trusted astrologer before deciding anything. But in spite of the favourable predictions, Humayun is defeated by the survivors of the Lodi regime. As if that were not enough, Sher Shah Suri frustrates all efforts of Humayun to consolidate an empire. Added to this is the treachery of his unscrupulous half-brother Kamran who goes to the extent of kidnapping Humayun's infant son, Akbar.

Rutherford very deftly recreates the life and times of the second Moghul Emperor who ruled present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of northern India. He was forced into a 15-year long exile as a result of continual attacks by archrival Sher Shah Suri and his half-brother Kamran. It was during this period that Humayun's Persian wife, Hamida, gave birth to Akbar, who would himself be an emperor in the future. Not the one to give up, Humayun, with the help of Persian sympathisers, recovered most of the territories 15 years later. During his exile, he had remembered his father's words: "If you cannot defeat your enemy by force of arms, do not despair. Find other ways. A sharp, well-oiled double-bladed axe is a fine weapon but so is a finely honed mind that can find a subtler path to victory`85 ."

Like the first book, this one also reflects Rutherford's amazing talent for recreating history as fiction. Going through historical records and personal accounts, he manages to create well-rounded characters, breathtaking battle scenes, and exotic background. The author makes sure that research does not overshadow the narrative. The dialogue is natural, and the plot is gripping, although a little less griping than the first book, and that is because Babur led a lot more adventurous and risky life.

Rutherford's Humayun comes across as a humane character with normal human failings. He is kind, and pardons even his treacherous brother Kamran; he is a good warrior but does make elementary mistakes. Even during a military campaign, or in times of hardship, he finds time to make passionate love to wife Hamida. He is a man who keeps his word, even if the other person has not.

The writer pays good attention to secondary characters as well, like Khanzada, Humayun's aunt whom he consults and trusts; Salima, his favourite concubine; Jauhar, his attendant; Suleiman Mirza, general of cavalry; Sher Shah Suri and Kamran.

Every attention is paid to historical detail, making the plot and characters come to life.