INFECTIONS OF THE MIND – PREVENTION AND CURE
By DR. VEMURI RAMESAM, published in Acharya J.C. Bose and Ancient Indian Scientific Thought, I-SERVE, Hyderabad, Dec 2008, pp: 76-89.
ABSTRACT: Artificial life-forms were created with less than 400 genes in the laboratory demonstrating that a small number of genes were adequate to support the basic functions of life. Man has about 30,000 genes which is the general order of genes in higher life-forms. These extra genes carry the information required for the survival of the species under ever changing evolutionary pressures. Unlike in the lower organisms, man has a very low ratio of the number of genes expressed in the brain to the number of neuronal connections, leaving a large scope for epigenetic influences to play a significant role in deciding the behavioral response of humans. Ever since man invented group living and cultural practices, the rate of change in the inheritable traits quickened. As genes are relatively slow as replicators, ‘memes’ proved to be faster for replicating the cultural information. However, it appears as though the replication and transmission of information by memes is not under the control of man and memes seem to have developed their own survival tactics of spreading like virus. The pristine and pure mind of man got contaminated over time with enormous memetic information flows, creating a fictitious center of ‘self’ around which the world gets woven as a memeplex. Ancient Indian scriptures long ago recognized the dangers of the illusory influences on the pristine human mind and described them as ‘maya’. The veiling power and projecting power of ‘maya’ is comparable to the viral-like spread of ‘memes’. The story of Sage Gadhi in Yogavaasishta illustrates the havoc that memes could play on human beings and the importance of transcending the memetic influences. As exhorted by our scriptures, we have to disinfect our brains from memes so that the beatitude of ‘what is’ would reveal itself to us.
INFECTIONS TO THE BODY AND MIND:
We easily become febrile and debilitated with infection when we are exposed to contaminated food or environment. We are more cautious with respect to any infections that may possibly affect heart or brain as they could turn out to be more dangerous to life. But most of us seldom pay heed to the dangers of infections to the mind. Mind being intangible and diaphanous, any talk regarding infection to it rightly demands an explanation.
The English word mind lumps up a number of processes that go on in the brain. Though there is as yet no well accepted definition of mind in Neuroscience, mind is generally taken to be what the brain does – the sum total of the various electrochemical actions that go on in the brain resulting in the subjective sense of experience, termed ‘qualia.’
All our experiences, activities, learned behaviors etc. constantly leave their impressions in the mind. Vedanta very much emphasizes the fact that mind is the storehouse of all our impressions. The impressions so formed could be within our conscious awareness or unknown to us. However, Vedanta does not distinguish the consciously accumulating impressions from those that get unconsciously stored. The stored impressions ultimately go to govern our future attitudes and responses to various situations faced by us in our life. These concepts are very much in line with modern Neuroscientific findings. Brain is considered to be highly plastic both in terms of regeneration of neurons and synaptic connections that get modified with every new experience. “Nerve cells constantly create new contact points to their neighbouring cells. This is how the basic structure of our brain develops. In adults, new contact makes learning and memory possible. However, not all contact between cells is useful - most of it is dismantled again very quickly.” Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology, Germany, have now described the technique with which nerve cells evaluate the quality of a contact using calcium ion signal (Lohmann and Bonhoeffer, 2008).
Many decisions may originate in the same brain regions that receive stimuli relevant to the decision and control the body’s response to it in a relevant manner” without any of our conscious effort. Thus our brain absorbs and responds to several environmental factors by itself without us being consciously aware! Therefore, either from Vedanta viewpoint or from Neuroscientific viewpoint, it is imperative that we should observe scrupulous care to what sort of information our brain is being exposed to and which information is being stored in our brain because this information as impressions would influence our future behavior and response to environmental stimuli.
MIND AS SURVIVAL TOOL – REIFICATION AND DEIFICATION:
Some of the classic shortcuts in mind’s repertoire that we find inconvenient in the present day world are: Endowment Effect; Contaminated Belief systems; Familiarity Effect; Focusing Illusion; Confirmation bias; Motivated reasoning in addition to its nature of filling gaps in information to facilitate quick decision making. Present day neuroscientists and psychologists are studying these attributes of our mind and are trying to evolve systems that could compensate for these short-comings so that we could arrive at unbiased truth in scientific research work.
Vedanta particularly laid considerable attention to another of our mind’s trait which may be called ‘Objectification.’ Mind cannot grasp any observation made by the senses unless it positions itself aloof as a distinct observer separate entity from what is observed. This basic lacuna of the mind gives an impression that mind has a separate and individual existence of its own. Vedanta tenaciously made an effort to point out this limitation and strived to transcend it. Religion, however, welcomed and took advantage of another weakness of the mind which is complementary to the quality of individuation. While the tendency to ‘objectify’ can be called as “Reification”, the latter can be termed as “Deification.”
Reification and Deification can be viewed as the fallouts of the universal survival mechanism of ‘fight or flight’ that all living creatures have acquired from the very beginning of evolution of life on earth.
In the face of a threat or danger, mind has to assess whether the creature can fight it out or should run away from the situation. This assessment does require the perceived thing to be viewed as an object in order to measure the organism’s own ability in controlling the threat.
It is equally true whether the stimulus is external or internal to the body (like feelings, emotions etc.). If the creature is unable to withstand to a threat, the obvious thing to do is to take flight and save its skin. If the creature is so weak-kneed or has developed cold-feet even to run, the best thing for its own safety is to play possum. A more modern and clever way of doing it is to ‘surrender’. Man being so fragile and weak in facing the natural hazards or wild creatures, he began to deify them. So to ‘reify or deify’ is the mantra that our mind has learnt as the modified form of the natural mechanism of ‘fight or flight’ syndrome in the game of survival.
Genes, along with shaping our bodies and coloring our hair, constantly alter our brains by responding to experience (Dobbs, 2007). Man outdoes the animals perhaps in the relative freedom he enjoys in the control of his neuronal connections. Our advantage lies in the very low ratio of genes to the number of neuronal connections. About 70 percent of the human genes are expressed in the brain. As a rough estimate, Linden (2007) says that against 9,000 genes expressed in 302 neurons of the round worm, humans have about 16,000 genes expressed in 100 billion neurons. Even if the human genes are more efficient (i.e. produce more controlling proteins), it is far too small a number to oversee all the neurons and every one of the 5,000 connections each neuron has on an average. This inadequacy of genetic control leaves a large scope for epigenetic (environmental) influences to govern the neural connections. Scanning the human genome, researchers found more than 700 genetic variants that evolution may have favored during the past 10,000 years. As per the findings of Blekhman and others ( 2006), “A lot of the recent changes [could be due to] the advent of agriculture, shifts in diet, new habitats, climatic conditions etc.”
AN INFECTED MIND AND ITS REDEMPTION – THE STORY OF SAGE GADHI:
Our mind often forgets things that we need to remember. Strangely it may also show to us experiences which were never gone through previously by us. This is because somebody else’s experience infects our mind and we begin to believe that it was our own experience. The word ‘meme’ is only about 30 years old in biology. But our sages recognized the havoc memes could play thousands of years ago. Maharshi Vasishta tells in Yogavaasishta the delightful story of how Sage Gadhi was confused and befuddled when his mind was infected by other’s experiences .
Lord Vishnu explained to Gadhi: “You happened to notice a hut put up by a hunter in a hamlet. It made a lasting impression on you. The impression was so strong that that hut of long lost time appeared right before you now. Staring at the hut, you claimed ownership to it. Thoughts and experiences of Katanja invaded your mind. They became your own experiences. You became Katanja. “You thought that your experience in the pond was a fantasy and personal to you. You believed your later experiences to be real. In fact your hallucination, the visit of a sage, your investigations in Keeradesa and the whole gamut of your experiences were one continuous illusion, also witnessed by many others. That’s why the villagers you interrogated could substantiate your experience. You distinguish reality from dream experience based on two criteria. You think that spacetime configuration in a dream do not correspond to actual space-time in reality. You also feel that what you experience in your dream is unique to yourself and others that appear in your dream cannot have the same experience. Both criteria are not infallible.
“Great Sage! Know the entire world to be no more than a panorama of illusory magic. Purify your mind first to understand this.”
Large groups of memes that are copied and passed on together are called co-adapted meme complexes or Memeplex. “Memeplexes are more evolutionarily successful. These memeplexes may also play a part in the acceptance of new memes which, if they fit with a memeplex, can “piggyback” on that success.” Dr. Blackmore asserts that “all ‘our’ ideas are recombinations and adaptations of other people’s; that all creativity comes from the evolutionary algorithm and not from the magic of human consciousness; and that our inner conscious selves may be memeplexes created by and for the memes.” She argued that, by a process of “memetic drive”, memes changed the environment in which human genes were selected and so drove genes to produce ever larger brains that were better at imitating the currently successful memes. In this way our brains became selective imitation devices, adapted to copying some kinds of memes more easily than others and consequently human beings are no more than Meme Machines!
With ever labile neuronal connections that we have, it is, therefore, very important that we guard ourselves from such environmental factors that can have a deleterious effect on our mind.
We are very careful and conscious about the infections to our body and its organs. However, we are not generally aware of the infections that can afflict our mind. Gaudapada tells us that a pristine and pure mind is the inexpressible, ineffable and infinite ‘All’ that ‘is’ in this creation but we falsely witness it as the world owing to infections (blemishes) we carry in our mind. Brain with its highly labile neuronal connections gives raise to ‘mind’ and it is these changing connections that decide what we perceive and what meaning we give to what is perceived.
Genes are the replicators that carry information pertaining to the structure of our body. Though genes do influence the initial characteristic s of the brain, human beings have a great advantage to alter through epigenetic changes the way the synapses and neuronal connectivity takes place in the brain. This results in altered behavioral patterns. These are imitated and passed on by others. Thus does new information about fortuitous learned technique or skill gets propagated in the society. The replicator for these learned skills, concepts, culture etc. is called a ‘meme’. ‘Memes’ spread like virus. The human mind unknowingly becomes a virtual carrier for the memes – a meme machine. Consequently, a non-existing memeplex gets mapped into our brains affecting our world vision. We begin to own experiences of others as our own and develop a distorted worldview. The distorted worldview we build is ‘maya’ (illusion) as described by ancient Indian scriptures. The story of Sage Gadhi, narrated in ‘The Calm Down’, the fourth chapter of Yogavaasishta, beautifully illustrates the predicament of getting infected by memes and also shows the way to rid oneself of the infection to be able to enjoy the creation in all its beatitude.