Which is our inner Ape – A Peaceful Bonobo or a Violent Chimpanzee?

This is the big question facing us humans at this juncture. The mindless violence that we see all around, especially the latest mind chilling massacre of 134 children in a school by terrorists in Pakistan, makes one wonder whether we have lost our capacity for kindness, cooperation and peaceful coexistence. The answers to this question comes from anthropologists and primatologist.

In a book titled, OUR INNER APE, Frans de Waal says that Bonobo, Chimpanzee and Humans – all three have the same common ancestor, which is an ape. We share more than 98% of our DNA with Apes. According to anthropologists this explains why we do what we do. Let us consider the characteristics of Bonobo and Chimpanzees. Bonobos are slightly more upright versions of Chimpanzees. They are more elegant and closer to humans in appearance. Studies show they are matriarchal where females are more dominant. Their lives are dominated by sex. Yet they are capable of kindness and cooperation. On the other hand, for Chimpanzees status is life. A chimpanzee has to know its status and behave accordingly. Status is decided by one’s might, aggression and sex.They also play power politics like us humans. They strive for power, enjoy sex and kill over territory. We, humans, may use cell phones, use computers, fly planes and even land on moon but it appears that our psychological make-up remains close to an ape!
Interestingly, there is the other side to the behaviour of chimpanzees. They also want affection,security and cooperation. Chimpanzees also value reciprocity just as we do. They were seen to share food specifically with those who had earlier supported them in their power struggle. And what about their sense of fairness? In an interesting experiment,Chimpanzees were trained to happily perform a certain task on being bribed with Cucumber slices. However, when they saw another group being fed on grapes for doing the same task, they became agitated, threw tantrums and went on strike. Doesn’t this parallel the behaviour of the trade unions in our industries?

If one were to look at human species without being prejudiced by scientific advances, one will see that except for our brain size (which is 3 times that of a Chimpanzee), there are no additional parts. Of course the bigger size of the brain accounts for our superior intellect. This also endows us with a potential for moral and spiritual growth. But, mind you, it’s only a potential.

A similar point was made by another anthropologist when he says:”Biologically, we’re still foraging Savannas while culturally we’re exploring the outer space”.

As Jared Diamond, a well-known professor of Geography from University of California, says, “Killing strangers was a way of life for our ancestors”. This, sure, is a direct consequence of our inherited trait from the apes.
Some anthropologists speculate that if there is no ‘Homo erectus’ species today, it is probably because we the ‘Homo sapiens’ massacred them all systematically a few million years ago. We don’t have to go too far into the past and speculate. Even as recently as a couple of centuries back thousands of native Indians, especially those belonging to California, were massacred by immigrant whites. Look at the startling statistics: By conservative estimates, the population of the United states prior to European contact was greater than 12 million. Four centuries after Columbus landed in 1492, the count was reduced by 95% to 237 thousand.

Does it mean there is no hope? No, we are also capable of kindness and cooperation like Bonobos and Chimpanzees. Besides, we’re the only species capable of spiritual enlightenment. But alas, religion and spirituality themselves divide us when it comes to practice of spirituality. There are as many schools of spirituality as there are cultures.

Published in: on December 19, 2014 at 10:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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New insights on Prayer

Consider the following 2 scenarios:
#1: You are celebrating Krishna Jayanti.. made several sweet and salty snacks as part of offerings to God. Needless to say that you have fasted and toiled hard the whole day. You then spread all items nicely in front of the deity and start chanting your prayers. Your family members also join. By then, you are already physically & mentally tired and also extremely hungry. Yet, you overcome the temptation and postpone tasting your sweets until all the prayers/rituals are completed! How do we manage to exercise this self-control in spite of having depleted all our physical and mental resources. After all, will it not be incredibly difficult to even resist the smallest temptation if one has just spent a long time overcoming larger ones!

#2:Consider another common scenario: You are climbing the sacred Hill of Tirupati for over 3 to 4 hours. You have reached the top but have exhausted yourself completely. And someone tells you that you need to stand in a long queue for another 4 hours for the Lord’s Darshan. Won’t you still go ahead? Most would, in spite of the physical conditions. Right? How do we manage to go that extra mile overcoming physical limitations? Would it not be incredibly difficult to go for a 1 mile jog right after one has completed a 30 mile jog?

The question is what accounts for this extreme self-control and will power against heavy odds? How does one replenish these physical & mental resources or even increase our endurance? Believers would reply that we derive that extra strength through God who is invoked through prayers. Science has a different take on this, though. In a recent research study, reported in the Journal of Social Psychology, researchers conclude that Prayer has the same effect as that of a social interaction. Social interaction? Yes, that is what the article claims. According to them Prayer is akin to an individual’s interaction with God – an imaginary conversation. It’s well-known that social interactions do give us the resources necessary to overcome physical & mental depletion. Predictably,then, the study claims that the effects of prayer are similar to what one expects from social interactions. They also state that informal or improvised prayer has more beneficial effects on our cognitive function. According to them informal or improvised prayer has a stronger impact on our cognitive function compared to formal prayers such as chanting well-known verses from our scriptures. I suppose in an informal prayer, we are putting in more conscious efforts in our conversations with our personal Gods and therfore it has a stronger social interaction value.

I would think, like all believers, that there is certainly more to prayer than a mere social interaction value. There’s always the power of the unknown operating when we all pray collectively.
That said, for me the most interesting insight from the study is the revelation that informal or personalized prayers are more beneficial than formal recitation of verses. One is reminded of Saint Thyagaraja and Tamil Azhwars who are well-known to converse with God in a variety of ways.

Published in: on December 29, 2013 at 5:38 pm  Comments (2)  
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In Praise of Sleep!

There were two pieces of sleep related breaking news last week, which many might have missed. A news item in Times of India says that some employers in the US are seriously considering allowing employees to sleep during the day for the benefit of improved productivity. This comes in the wake of research findings that a short nap during the working hours considerably improved alertness and performance of tasks. I would welcome this.  But don’t expect this to happen in India. If you do, you are only daydreaming!

Before I discuss the second breaking news, let me recount my experiences with sleep:

Personally I find Sleep, Yoga and meditation have a lot in common. Long time back (I think it was in 1996) I stayed at Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry for a week and got initiated into Meditation. Around the same time, I also happened to read a book by Aurabindo titled INTEGRAL YOGA. It is a great book. In the chapter on Meditation, some one asked Aurobindo whether it is mandatory to sit in an upright position for meditation. Aurobindo said: One can do meditation in any position including lying down… provided one has mastered the technique of remaining extremely alert! So, I thought why not experiment and see for myself… except that I seemed to have missed the second part of his sentence about being alert! In the initial stages this proved disastrous. I would quietly slip into ‘sound’ sleep with special sound effects at times! Amused, my wife would point out that I was in fact sleeping and I would retort: Oh, that was YOGA NIDRA! On a more serious note,though, I found this technique very effective. With some practice, it is possible to lie down, calm the mind by observing the breath a few minutes and keep observing the mind. If and  when the mind tries to slip into sleep, bring in awareness on ‘cosmic consciousness’. Do not get baffled by this jargon. This state is not difficult to attain if you know a little bit about cosmology, big bang, creation of Universe etc. A little reflection on this is enough to appreciate how insignificant we are as individuals. In such a state it is easy to integrate oneself with the whole and set aside our individuality & ego leading to blissfulness. But then a little lapse in awareness and you end up slipping into deep sleep! There is a huge difference between being blissful and being blissfully unaware of surroundings! Right?

Now are you ready and awake for the second breaking news?  This appeared in the latest issue of the prestigious NATURE magazine (26th June,2013). I will only highlight a couple of things of general interest here. The article has some good news as well as bad news on sleep. First, let me tell you the good news. We all have heard of sleep-waking, right? But have you ever heard of sleep-learning? Yes, I am not kidding. It is possible, say scientists. But the scientists warn the children at the outset not to jump to the conclusion that they could place their homework under the pillow, sleep over it and learn overnight! What then is sleep-learning? In one typical experiment the subjects were made to practice music and  sleep over it. Scientists monitored their brains during sleep. The neural activity in the brain during sleep was found to be similar to that during actual learning, indicating that the brain was indeed practicing the very music learnt before they slept. Similar  Sleep conditioning experiments have highlighted the potential of using ‘sleep therapies’  to bring about helpful behavioural modifications in conditions such as phobia.

Now the bad news. The article also talks about certain completely unexpected ill-effects of sleep deprivation. I was surprised to note that lack of sleep can lead to obesity of all things. Obesity can, in turn, result in metabolic disorders like, for instance, diabetes. I will not go into the finer scientific details* of how sleep deprivation causes obesity lest you should go to sleep!

The other negative impact of lack of sleep is, not surprisingly, memory loss.

For all the research that is going on, the phenomenon of sleep still remains largely mysterious. A multi-million dollar ‘global sleep project’ is being proposed by neuroscientists involving millions of volunteers. The participants will be asked to share data on line on their sleeping habits and related problems. The huge amount of data so collected will  then be correlated with DNA tests to see where they got those habits from. This, they hope, will eventually lead to better scheduling of work and school hours! Any volunteers?



*P.S: Apparently lack of sleep disturbs ‘circadian rhthym’, which controls the secretion of harmones.  There are 2 harmones which regulate our food intake. They are Leptin & Ghrelin. Fat cells produce Leptin while stomach produces Ghrelin. Fat cells signal their sense of satisfaction with the harmone Leptin while stomach signals its hunger through the harmone Ghrelin. When a person is deprived of sleep, Leptin levels fall while Ghrelin levels rise increasing one’s craving for fatty and sugary foods.

Published in: on June 30, 2013 at 4:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Are Human Beings basically Good? Yes, Say Scientists

‘Spontaneous Giving and Calculated Greed’ –  this is the title of a scientific article in the prestigious Scientific Journal NATURE.   Surely, we have often heard that human beings are basically good. Now Science has come up with evidence proving this hypothesis. Scientists at Harvard & Yale universities ( Biologists, psychologists & Mathematicians) carried out experiments based on economic games with about 800 undergraduate students to test the hypothesis. The experimental subjects were asked to take decisions under 2 sets of conditions – one intuitively on the spur of the moment and another based on reflection & analysis after, say, at least 10 seconds. It was invariably found that decisions based on intuition reflected a caring and cooperative attitude. On the other hand, decisions taken after reflection invariably led to greedy, aggressive or selfish behaviour.

Richard Dawkins, in his famous book, Selfish Genes, describes the same phenomenon saying that cooperation is intuitive to human behaviour since it is basically advantageous to maximize ‘inclusive fitness’.

Interestingly, this is what most of the theologians & philosophers the world over have maintained all along. Hindu philosophers always believed in the basic goodness of human beings. They argued that it was only when the mind  overworked with all its negative qualities of anger, jealousy, greed etc that the basic nature of the beings got completely overshadowed. Our Vedantic philosophy refers to this aspect of the mind as VAASANAAS meaning our past SAMSKARAAS or memories residing in our subconscious Mind. J Krishnamurthy would call it the conditioned mind with all its negatives.

The Zen philosophers also echoed the same ideas by saying: All beings are, by nature, Budhas. Therefore,  Spontaneity arising from Complete freedom is the key for joyful living. Of course spontaneity should not be confused with impulsiveness. Spontaneity arises out of complete awareness & attention. On the other hand, impulsiveness is unconscious, knee-jerk reactions causing regret later.

Thus a simple trick to make us manifest our basic good nature seems to be to minimize the use of reflection and analysis before taking decisions. Go along with your pure heart rather than the polluted mind!

Published in: on April 20, 2013 at 10:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lord Dattatreya & His Modern Day Gurus

According to our scriptures Lord Dattatreya is an incarnation of the Divine trinity Brahma, Vishnu & Siva. He famously declared that he had 24 Gurus, meaning that He treated everybody under God’s creation as his Guru. I am sure He would have added 3 more Gurus to His list based on the recent findings of Scientific research.

Who are those Gurus & what do they teach?

They are…………the Flu Virus, Honeybees and Fungus/Algae.

Here are the scientific stories of these 3 Gurus:

Virus & Time Sense:

Incredible as it may sound, a flu virus can teach us the sense of time, which we humans lack very badly. Here is an amazing scientific insight on this. During the last winter (in the year 2012) there was a widespread infection of flu virus in the USA. This led to intensive studies on the flu virus. Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center discovered that the flu virus can tell time. How do we know?

The flu virus knows how long it should park itself in a cell to do the damage and yet survive. A very short stay would mean they cannot spread the disease while a very long stay would surely lead to their death as our immune system will find and kill it. The virus works with clockwork precision using its internal clock, completes its job of spreading the disease by making copies of itself and gets away at just the right time! (Now that the smart mechanism of the virus is known, scientists will find means of outwitting it!)

Honeybees & Democracy:

The second story is on Honeybees democracy. A bee teaches us about how to take decisions democratically. For all our claims of democracy we are still far away from its genuine practice.

Recently, Science magazine reviewed a book titled HONEYBEE DEMOCRACY written by Tom Seeley. When a new queen is raised and about to take over in a honeybee hive, her predecessor departs along with its entourage of approximately 10,000 workers. Rather than chaotically searching around for a new place, the bee swarm does something remarkable. The swarm acts in a sense like a single being. It pauses, collects information carefully considering its options and then makes a  decision about where to move. Several hundred scouts travel as much as 70km2 area, successful groups return to the swarm and advertize locations of their discovery. After initial disagreements, a unanimous decision is taken. They may take time but there is no inordinate delay as that would mean a disaster for the group. The most interesting feature of their decision-making process is minimizing the influence of a leader and empowering the scouts. Don’t we humans have something to learn from the honeybees?

Fungus/Algae: The third story is on the organisms Fungus & Algae. A Fungus tells us we can add value using the most useless things. Fungus can eat the most useless and inedible biomass known on our mother earth ( cellulose) and converts it to alcohol fuel, which is highly valuable.

How about Algae? Algae, as many would know, is just an open pond scum. Alive or dead, it is highly useful. It is perhaps the most ancient species to originate on the earth millions of years ago. Eventually it got buried and fossilized. These fossils got transformed to crude oil under extreme conditions of temperature & pressure. While dead Algae proved its worth after millions of years, live Algae  has been successfully used by scientists to convert CO2 to fuels with the help of sunlight.

Published in: on March 9, 2013 at 11:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Cutting edge Science and Spirituality

The other day I was browsing the internet and found some really interesting articles on ‘Cutting edge science’. Here I would like to share a few of them.
The first item is from IBM. IBM Research has built a new nanoscale microscope capable of creating images with 100 million times finer resolution than existing MRI imaging technology.The breakthrough is said to be able to “see” beneath surfaces and be safe for sensitive biological materials. By running it on a tobacco mosaic virus that is 18 nanometers across–18 billionths of a meter–the new system achieved resolution down to 4 nanometers (one nanometer is one billionth of a meter). This is expected to have far reaching implications in designing drugs for fighting viruses.
Quite interestingly in the same compilation there is yet another piece which talks about an invention which makes materials invisible. To quote the report,”That cloaking device we’ve been dreaming of appears to be one step closer to actual cloakdom, so start pondering the mischievous possibilities”. The improved device from the scientists of Duke University is said to be significantly more sophisticated (than any invented so far) at cloaking an object (and eventually a person?) from visible light.

The device is made from a light-bending composite material that can detour electromagnetic waves around an object and reconnect.

The two inventions described above are contradictory in their end objectives – namely one is trying to magnify and see an invisible object while the other is trying to make an object invisible. Such is the nature of scientific spirit and human ingenuity. And sure enough, one can find applications for both!

The third innovation which interested me was the one from Ford on  ‘in-car connectivity’. Ford announced a series of innovations aimed at giving drivers a higher degree of Internet connectivity as well as a slew of tools devoted to helping them navigate in the most efficient way possible. This is an example of a car company learning to act like an electronics company for the purpose of better connectivity and communication. The emphasis is on 3 types of connectivity : beamed-in connectivity, such as from satellite; brought-in connectivity, such as from drivers’ own cell phones; and built-in connectivity, such as dash displays,each having its own utility and applications.
One application mentioned by the company which struck me as highly relevant to India (especially metros) is that the technology is designed to promote safe driving habits for teenagers by allowing parents to program an ignition key to limit a car’s top speed, as well as the volume of its sound system. Considering the number of car accidents in our metros involving teenagers driving around at terrifying speed and with high decibel music (a deadly combination made worse by late night partying and alcohol),this invention is bound to make an impact on reducing the number of fatal accidents.

The most impressive piece of news  which I liked was the one describing the combined power of biological sciences and Information Technology. This is an interview with Dr Ray Kurzweil,who is credited with a string of inventions – including a text-to-speech synthesizer, voice recognition software, and a print-to-speech reading machine for the blind – and who won several awards. He is also the author several books including ‘The age of Spiritual Machines’.

He describes a vision of the future where machine and human intelligence are increasingly combined, augmenting each other and ultimately, in Kurzweil’s view, enabling humans to become both smarter and better. “These technologies can enhance not just our intelligence but our ethical and moral sense and our emotional intelligence” he says.
Dr Kurzweil gives amazingly simple calculations to prove that our present day computing power is a billion times more powerful than the first generation computers made in 1965. The logic,in his own words, is as follows: “The computer in your cell phone today is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful and about a hundred thousand times smaller (than the one computer at MIT in 1965) and so that’s a billion-fold increase in capability per dollar or per euro that we’ve actually seen in the last 40 years,” says Kurzweil.

He dubs this as the “law of accelerating returns”.
Accordingly “we will see another billion-fold increase in the next 25 years–and another hundred-thousand-fold shrinking. So what used to fit in a building now fits in your pocket, what fits in your pocket now will fit blood cell in 25 years.”

The possibilities and consequences of such an increase in our capabilities in information technology are mind-boggling. Using the combined power of  IT and biology we should be in a position to increase our ability to invent new therapies or drugs which switch on or off genes /protiens / enzymes as required(eg: The genes that cause diabetes or heart disease etc). In such inventions IT helps by designing drugs on computers while biological simulators would test the efficacy. Such a cooperative effort by IT and biological sciences would significantly cut down the time required for drug development.

Extending this logic further Dr Kurzweil says that while biological human intelligence evolves slowly,non-biological intelligence (read ‘IT’) is subject to the law of accelerating returns. Therefore,it will continue to progress exponentially both in hardware and software. Ultimately non-biological intelligence will be much superior to biological human intelligence. And the synergy between man and machine will be used by human beings to make themselves smarter and expand their reach. That is what is unique about human beings. We were the first species to create tools to extend our reach and then we use our tools to create more powerful tools and no other species does that.

At the moment non-biological intelligence is not capable of several things that humans do so well -that is both pattern recognition and emotional thinking. Getting the joke, being funny, expressing a loving sentiment. These are actually the most complicated things we do, the cutting edge of human intelligence. And it will be the endeavour of IT and artificial intelligence to achieve such a high degree of complexity in intelligence.

He then touches on the most sensitive topic which strictly falls in the domain of spirituality – that is existence of  Soul or Consciousness. He refers to Brain science through which we’ve been able to look at the brain processes  in exquisite detail. But so far we don’t see anything that can be identified as a soul–there’s just a lot of neurons and they’re complicated but there’s no consciousness to be seen. It’s an emerging property of a very complex system that can reflect on itself. And therefore,according to Dr Kurzweil, if one were to create a system that had similar properties and complexity it would have the same emerging property of Consciousness.
So Dr Kurzweil says “we will attribute consciousness to entities even if they have no biology, even if they’re fully machine entities: they will seem human, they will seem consciousness, we will attribute souls to them but that’s not a scientific statement.”

Basically Dr Kurzweil is probably trying to debunk the belief system based on Soul,Consciousness etc.

This brings us to a discussion on Cosciousness. The relevant questions that arise are the following:

What precisely is Consciousness?  How does one experience it?  What are the consequences  or benifits of experiencing (or realising) Consciousness.  Let me state first what it is not. Consciousness is not merely a phenomenon of reflecting upon oneself as Dr Kurzweil seems to hypothesize. Reflecting upon oneself is just an intellectual exercise at best.  ‘Consciousness’ is a phenomenon transcending all physical,emotional and intellectual processes. In order to realise Consciousness, several philosophies recommend a certain discipline well known to all of us  as  meditation. During this process the mind becomes extremely quiet ,alert,sensitive  and therefore open to the so called cosmic energy. As several evolved Seers who have experienced Consciousness describe, it is a state in which one feels a sense of unity with the Universe (Cosmic Consciousness) leading to infinite happiness and bliss.  I am sure such an experience  is unique to human beings. Human beings alone are capable of  immensely benifitting ( from such a spiritual experience) by self transformation and  creating a much better society based on love and compasion.  In contrast,one can readily see that even if a machine is designed to experience Consciousness it has no consequence either to itself or to the society.


For more info,please click on the following link: http://news.cnet.com/cutting-edge/