We have all interacted with animals, seen them at zoos, marveled at them (watching Nat Geo documentaries). If you are like me, you may have wondered whether they are programmed automatons (“fixed action patterns”) or alternately have a “rich” inner life (don’t accuse me of anthropomorphism just yet). I have always held they view that while animals are well adapted to survive their niches, they are able to do more than execute programmed actions. Also, along the way, I have tired of the notion that “man was made in the image of God”, in the sense that humans are unique and special, given our extraordinary “cognitive” capacities. But then we humans have succumbed to “confirmation bias” by only looking at evidence that confirms this view (as in the tremendous achievements ranging from agriculture to space research). But we also need to review our history of violence and catalog our behaviors collectively as a species (witness terrorism, territoriality, in group/out group, biases, etc.,) and it becomes quickly evident that our “mental” apparatus has a lot in common with other species.
Frans de Waal argues, that this is indeed in the case, in his essay “What I learned from tickling apes” that appears in the NYTimes. Well worth a read. As always, I find it informative to also peruse the reader comments .
As a parent of a teenager, one of my major concerns has to do with equipping my child with the right set of tools to navigate Life and be “successful”. The yardstick of success, for most parents, is for their child to attend a prestigious or Ivy league school leading to a well paying industry or academic job. If it comes with tremendous fame and fortune, all the better. Nothing wrong with that per se. But the hyper competitive environment prevalent in high schools today, chasing that yardstick, creates tremendous pressure on the kids. The situation is further exacerbated by Tiger moms and dads (everyone of whom uniformly believes their kid is a child prodigy or at the very least, super smart) orchestrating their child’s every experience and resume, with the purported goal of gaining them entry into the “top notch” colleges.
There is a bigger problem lurking with this game plan. Because parents think their children are prodigies, they think success is automatic. They do not anticipate that there could be setbacks. And when they happen, the parents, and more importantly, the kids, are not setup to deal with the situation. If they are not careful, it could lead to a download spiral of lost confidence, lowering of self esteem, and self doubt on the child’s part.
Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of Mathematics (supposedly identified as a “genius” at an young age) in a recent commentary wrote “This can be a hard lesson for the prodigies themselves. It is natural to believe that the just-pubescent children on the mathletic podium next to you are the best, the ones who really matter. And for the most part, my fellow child stars and I have done very well. But the older I get, the more I see how many brilliant people in the world weren’t Doogie Howser-like prodigies; didn’t shine in Math Olympiad; didn’t go to the inner circle of elite colleges. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t understand at 13 that it would be this way. But when they keep telling you you’re the best, you start to believe you’re the best.” His overall point is that geniuses are not the only successful people in the world. Hard work, perseverance, and a healthy dose of luck are important ingredients for success.
Which brings me to the part about tools for navigating Life.
The first is about finding an internal compass that is directed by intrinsic motivation and not just about coming out ahead in the rat race. That this sets you up for success much better than goals that are externally motivated was made evident in a recent study of of West point graduates. The researchers found that cadets motivated by internal drives fared a lot better than those seeking external rewards. They write ” ….The implications of this finding are significant. Whenever a person performs a task well, there are typically both internal and instrumental consequences. A conscientious student learns (internal) and gets good grades (instrumental). A skilled doctor cures patients (internal) and makes a good living (instrumental). But just because activities can have both internal and instrumental consequences does not mean that the people who thrive in these activities have both internal and instrumental motives.
Our study suggests that efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives. Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success. “
The second is about enjoying what you do. Attitude – how you think and approach the task on hand is hugely important for success, one of the key messages in Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Third, recognize that education is more than academic schooling. Allison Gopnik illustrates this with a nice anecdote of her interactions with her grandson. Finally, know that the path to success is not a straight line but is going to be potentially fraught with missed expectations and setbacks deriving from a variety of factors. When that happens, having a strong internal compass, is absolutely critical to staying motivated and maintaining focus on reaching goals.
If you have not heard of Internet of Things (IoT), here is a definition offered by a large silicon valley company.
“Cisco defines the Internet of Everything (IoE) as bringing together people, process, data, and things to make networked connections more relevant and valuable than ever before-turning information into actions that create new capabilities, richer experiences, and unprecedented economic opportunity for businesses, individuals, and countries.”
This is indeed very exciting, but a recent NYTimes blog struck a cautionary note on the implications of this exponential proliferation of data and information, especially at a personal level. Scott Adams has captured this sentiment (lame use of these new capabilities) quite brilliantly in the panel of cartoons below.
Ah! Such pure joy! I am referring to that ecstatic feeling following the ingestion of a tall glass of sugarcane juice. Growing up, visits to the vegetable market culminated with a stop at the juice parlor. Fresh squeezed, this refreshing elixir was the product of all natural ingredients – sugarcane, lemon, ginger and a hint of pepper.
This childhood memory came flooding to me as I was reading a very interesting cover article on Sugar in the latest issue of the National Geographic. The author locates the earliest use of sugarcane in New Guinea over 10,000 years ago. Sugarcane was transformed into powder form sugar as we know it, in India, around 500 A.D, eventually perfected by the Arabs. From there it made it way around the world culminating in mass production through the use of plantations and slave trade. I urge you to read the article. It is full of fascinating historical tidbits (such as the origin of the word candy, its exalted status as “luxury spice”).
The article also traces the arc of its transformation from an exotic spice to the “sweet poison” that it is today. It is a major contributor to the prevalence of lifestyle diseases that are really driving up the cost of healthcare the world over. The average sugar consumption in the US is a whopping 22.6 tsps per day, which translates to greater than 600 empty calories. Sugar consumption, according to an article in the Harvard College Global Health Review, has tripled in the last 50 years.
Within this context, Mayor Bloomberg’s (of New York) ban on large sodas makes excellent sense. Given that the outsized consumption of sugar has such huge societal costs, it seems ridiculous to exaggerate individual rights as witnessed by the court’s decision to strike down the ban, not to mention the relentless lobbying of business interests (soda manufacturers).
On a recent visit to India, I was struck by a remarkable fact. In the mom and pop stores[dominant business model but eroding because the Western chains are starting to slowly extinguish them], milkshakes, ice creams, and sodas are served in much smaller portions [think US kids size] compared to the US [read humongous].
Bloomberg’s ban then was absolutely a step in right direction: to put sugar back on the path to the high pedestal it once occupied and deserves.
An interesting aside, on the topic of sugar. I have always been amused by parents admonishing their kids to not have sugary foods close to bedtime as they supposedly wire up the kids. Claudia Hammond of the BBC lays this myth to rest in this article – Does Sugar make kids hyperactive?
The 1990s were designated as the “decade of the brain”. This spurred significant advances in basic brain research. It also spawned a new discipline called cognitive sciences or cognitive neuroscience (a multidisciplinary approach to study brain function – yours truly was one of the early graduates of this fledgling field of study). A critical development out of this interdisciplinary approach was functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (commonly referred to as fMRI). fMRI has proved to be a very important tool in advancing our knowledge of the brain. With this tool, researchers have been able to peer into functioning brains. Over the last two decades, there has been prolific output from a multitude of labs across the country and the world. Beautiful, psychedelic pictures of brain slices color coded by intensity of activity has filled the pages of journals and popular press.
That the human brain is highly modular in function has been known for a while (thanks to studies involving individuals with lesions in very specific regions of the brain – check books by Oliver Sacks for fascinating stories). fMRI further reinforced this fact and extended it in important ways by revealing more nuanced modularity in the brain.
Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at UC, Berkeley, has this to say in a recent article entitled – How the Brain Really Works
For the last 20 years neuroscientists have shown us compelling pictures of brain areas “lighting up” when we see or hear, love or hate, plan or act. These studies were an important first step. But they also suggested a misleadingly simple view of how the brain works. They associated specific mental abilities with specific brain areas, in much the same way that phrenology, in the 19th century, claimed to associate psychological characteristics with skull shapes.”
Her insinuation is that this modern day phrenology is not sufficient to explain how the mind works. In fact, she goes on to cite some newer research that demonstrates multiple areas of the brain being engaged in certain activities. More importantly the pattern of activity changes depends on context and focus of attention. She writes
People often assume that knowing about the brain is all that you need to explain how the mind works, so that neuroscience will replace psychology. That may account for the curious popular enthusiasm for the phrenological “lighting up” studies. It is as if the very thought that something psychological is “in the brain” gives us a little explanatory frisson, even though we have known for at least a century that everything psychological is “in the brain” in some sense. But it would be just as accurate to say that knowing about the mind explains how the brain works.”
It turns out Gopnik is arguing for the importance of her own profession: Psychology, for brain research and making a case for why she should get a raise.
Joking apart, her arguments have important implications in a broader societal context. In a previous post, I wrote about neuroscience and the law. There I warned about Neuromarketing. Now there is an established discipline called Neurocriminology. A psychiatry professor, Adrain Raine, has written a book called, the Anatomy of Violence. He has peered into the brains of murderers and found evidence for reduced functioning in certain brain areas compared to “normal” folks. The upshot is there is predisposition to violence in certain individuals and it can be picked up in brain scans. You can read his take in the article – Neurocriminology: Inside the Criminal Mind. It tackles issues related to the implications of neurocriminological (that must be a new word) research for crime, punishment and the law. Very interesting. A interview with the author can also be heard on Fresh Air – Criminologist Believes Violent Behavior is Biological . This is a must hear, Terri pins him down on his own contradictory beliefs vis-a-vis what his own research means. Gazzaniga (cited in my previous blog- link above), has reviewed the book, and he offers this assessment
The belief that violent behavior can be explained—and needs to be understood—is certainly admirable. I join Mr. Raine in believing that it’s our duty to consider all of this research kind of interesting, even though it is going to take a long time to figure out how it all works. And I believe we can learn more about the biological mechanisms of violence, and that we may someday come up with interventions that help us predict with greater accuracy future antisocial behavior: Such knowledge would greatly enhance society’s ability to be more rational, even in such mundane procedures as parole hearings.
But we live in a layered world: There are the physical, the biological, the mental and the social layers, and each builds upon the last. At this point in history they interact in ways we don’t fully understand. Mr. Raine raises this issue, and urges us all to think hard about what steps we should take. When he suggests that we undertake action on the social level—the “top” layer—in order to prevent crime or prescribe individual interventions, I get off the train. In my view, someday, somehow, someone is going to figure out that the social layer simply can’t do all the things we ask of it.
Next stop, Social neuroscience?
Over the weekend, I came across an interesting essay, on animal cognition. I loved the ending, where the author, Frans de Waal, an eminent primatologist, writes
“Aristotle’s ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.”
You can read the full article here – The Brains of the Animal Kingdom . In this article, the author mainly showcases chimps, elephants, octopuses,etc., But recent research has shown birds can also hold their own. Here is a write up from Sir Richard Attenborough’s Life of Birds series – Bird brains. The lowly crow turns out to be really “smart”.
While there is sufficient food for thought in the article proper, I always visit the comments page. To me it is fascinating how the main purpose of the article is quickly lost and the conversation quickly degenerates into lame talk of political conspiracy, and other inane commentary. But then, we are the most intelligent species on the earth.