Sunday, November 19, 2006

Amygdala Inside !

a·myg·da·la (ə-mĭg'də-lə)
n., pl. -lae (-lē).

An almond-shaped mass of gray matter in the anterior portion of the temporal lobe. Also called amygdaloid nucleus.

[Latin, almond, from Greek amugdalē.]

The human body, with its intermingling of the physical amd mental aspects
, continues to fascinate and throw up more and more questions.

Over the last few months, I have spent a lot of time with my father , who at 88, is beset by the usual old age problems. An extrememly active senior citizen, a dedicated yoga practitioner, a fearless opponent of what he considered useless allopathic stuff, my father has spent an intellectually fruitful retirement, writing books on yoga, meditation, how you can be your own doctor, vegetarianism, america, health . He has very strong likes and dislikes, particularly where Bush, Cocacola, Pepsi, Pizza, white sugar, polished rice, maida are concerned. Tobacco and its usage has galvanised him into action to such an extent that rickshawallahs having a smoke, at the stand, near the milk booth where my father went early mornings, appointed a chap to warn them of his arrival.

My father is currently not mobile, and is bedridden, but they still talk of the time he once cornered a young rickshawalla who was smoking away , slapped his cigarette away, and gave him a stinging lecture on how this bad habit was messing around with not only his but his family's future. All this at 5 am . Consequently, it was quite the thing to see several cigarettes being dropped to the ground, and ankles twisting and crushing these into the ground in unision , to the refrain of "Ajoba ale re ale....".

While he continues his own war versus the singularities in his physical health, it has been interesting to see how the brain manages this situation.

i spent most of my working life with computers, right since the days when a single computer system needed a big hall, very user-unfriendly, very pompous. Programs and data was punched on to cards, and input-output of information was a very cumbersome thing. Having grown through the early days of data processing, one tended to learn a lot more on the job , and adjusting to the various advances in the capabilities of newer and newer systems, one had a healthy respect for how one could TEACH the computer to think and process stuff.

Got me thinking about the human brain vis-avis the pc's today.

And the pc's are not a patch on the human brain.

One of the problems faced by my father happens to be that of adequate blood supply. Consequent to the formation of a sump in his main artery, at 88 his heart finds it difficult to maintain adequate blood supply to all extremeties of his 6 foot frame. So when it came to a point where the body needed to prioritise where the blood should go, it turns out that the human brain automatically reduces the blood supply to stuff like our limbs, in order to maintain the required level, for organs like the heart, brain, liver and kidneys! And this is done in a dynamic fashion. So, a person like my father, suddenly finds little strenghth in his limbs, forcing him to rest. but his digestion, excretion, circulation (to key organs) remains intact. A little bit of ups and downs in the situation, and once in a while you see him succeeding in forcing himself up on his elbows, demanding to be taken to the park
and al lthe while he is unable to bear his own weight on his feet.

So we often lift him into a chair with wheels (woe betide anyone who calls it a wheelchair), and "situate" him in the balcony from where he enjoys the greenery and flowers of the park, from where his friends and admirers still wave to him. And his brain learns to "equate" that with an actual trip.

Dementia is a actually an 8 letter word, twice as bad as 4 letter words..... Thats how my father treats it. He is now in his own world, time-and-space-wise. Doesnt recognise visitors, sometimes even family. But what is interesting is, that in all this confused senile situation, he is AWARE that he has a problem. So there is something like a ROOT brain that occasionally functions. Reminds me of being advised to login in single user mode when trouble shooting stuff on a PC.

And so, my father has these stock phrases he uses when he speaks to someone on the phone; 'hows everything at your end? hope everyone is doing ok. i am fine. NO problems at all......there are so many folks here to help etc etc". Works everytime. Makes the person at the other end feel that my father is improving. Makes me wonder, how the blood supply to this "working" part of the brain is kept on par with what is required, while else where, there are all these "bad sector" problems. There are "read errors' and "unable to write' situations, but the system never hangs.

I learnt on the job that when you need to access data you need to index files. A lifetime of data, a lifetime of single and multiple linkages, all stored in the inner recceses of the grey brain. And then i find something interesting. We humans not only store data and the linkages, we attach weightages to each piece of data, proportional to our levels of communication with the person representing that data point. So when my elderly aunt comes to visit my dad, his face goes blank , he cannot place her, but suddenly remembers her son who has been visiting us fairly often over the years, for something my father is interested in doing. So when his brain tries to look through the half garbled indexed information, trying to see who the lady is, there is this blinking arrow pointing to her sons information, and my father immediately picks it up, and surprises us, while totally ignoring data associated with my aunt.

And this ability to look "for the blinking arrow" changes dynamically, irrespective of the complexity of the jungle of linkages, that pervade the grey matter. They say information from neuron to neuron passes elctrically through "synapses" How well this happens, depends , it seems on calcium levels. We started my father on some calcium and sdium supplementation, and the level of improved performance, that manifested itself was , non-trivial.

I like to think that our body is an amazing system. It has parts that work, second after second, sometimes for a century almost. If some parts malfunction, other parts sort of gear up to do their bit, with no external tinkering required. There is a quiet infinitesmal adjustment somewhere, and the system optimses itself under reduced efficiency, trying to face up to a life full of todays external stresses.

In all the mechanical, chemical and electronic systems that work in our body, there is a sense of compensation. When some part of the system dithers due to fatigue (in the industrial sense), the rest of the systems, across the body automatically adjust to a working situation, that still manages to be efficient under the new trying circumstances. The various control centres of our wondrous processor, the brain, set in motion a variety of things like increase of sleep, change in temperature control triggers, enforced resting of certain parts of the body , and something akin to adjusting the screw to put the body carburettor to a new setting, suitable for the new situation in life.

There is intelligence, and there is Artificial Intelligence. You can teach computer systems to become EXPERT. Limited , naturally by your 'expertise'. They say you can even teach the computer to 'learn '. But you surely cannot teach the computer to realise that it has "learnt too much", "too little " and maybe "its all a waste of time". This is not to belittle those that dedicate their waking hours to research on developing an artificial brain.

Our body and brain manage a sort of self repair , triggered by its own checks and balances. To some extent. When was the last time someone repaired your PC while it was on ? Given the HUGEvariety of things the brain can do and control, when was the last time you heard someone undergoing BRAIN REPAIR?

So far there has not been a Brain version 1.2 or whatever. In the meanwhile, one continues to hear about technology becoming obsolete, circuitry disappearing from the market, machines being replaced and updated every now and then, with so called smarter peripherals. And , here within us, there is this wondrous system, that adapts itself so well to a genius as well as a mentally challenged individual; it revels in the various forms of temporary, permanent and not so permamnent memory it holds; sometimes it even remembers its older configurations, as happens when those having an amputated limb often realise, thanks to a "virtual pain" in the severed nerve ends of the amputated limb.

I often wonder about the designer of such a fantastic system. Has to be a Supreme Being. Some call him God. Others pretend there is no such thing. Maybe we need to think of a future when parts of our solar system will have inhabitants; maybe there will be intergalactic solar TV, and in between Saas Bahu serials, and "Apan Hyana pahilat Ka ? " there will be a commercial for a smarter human brain, with a famiiar musical ring saying "Amygdala Inside !"......

Monday, November 06, 2006

Memories of another Pune

(The picture alongside appears on the web page of the Pune Police traffic control branch. No comments)

Every time i return back from Pune, it feels like my childhood comes rushing back to me.

The density of the city has changed beyond imagination, vehicular decibel levels make one wince; one sees a sample of the 'open culture' that seems to be on display amongst the young ones, and one gets the feeling that its a city desperately trying to prove its "up there" with, say Mumbai......

Pune has a certain character; despite the winds of change breezing around, parts of Pune still display that.

I grew up in Pune, went to school there. At a time when people from my area did not attend what were called "convent" schools, 7:45 am every morning would see my younger brother and me, tugging our uniforms, ties and all, lugging our 'suitcases' full of books, trying to make, what was then the 8:05 am 18 number bus , at the S. P. College bus stop. We knew almost everyone we passed on the road. The bus driver, as a matter of habit, would look in the direction from which we would emerge, and sort of wait for us to make the final run. This happened at several bus stops on our way, as so many of our friends got in. We even knew the licence number of the bus. The fare was 10 P each way, and no one ever had a problem of "chutta".

By and by , we changed schools, and I began commuting by a bus to the Ralway station to attend a girls school. It so happened that girl med students studying at the BJ medical college, travelled with us, and we developed a more than nodding aquaintance. I developed a great interest in the books they carried, and my abiding interest in medicine and the practice of it grew out of daily pouring over amazing pictures in grays anatomy. I even remember the names of some of the college girls today, and it certainly helped that their college hostel was next to my school.

Rickshas were then (as now) called rickshas, and not "ricks" or "autos". One did NOT take a ricksha at the drop of a hand. The primary mode of transport was the immortal bicycle, bought after much planning, discussion, deals over bettering oneself in studies,etc, at shops, somewhere behind Shaniwar Wada. The city was dotted with cycle shops, scooters (synonymous with Bajaaj) had not yet appeared .

Exam results were a BIG deal. 11th class was SSC, and results and making the first 30 of the merit list was a GREAT achievement. I remember, year after year, we always knew , who amongst our neighbours was appearing for the SSC exam. There were rumours about scholars, avidly swallowed. Then on a cold clear morning, in the half dark atmosphere, a newspaper boy would come cycling down, shouting out the name of who was first. I remember peering out of the balcony thinking how glamorous it was to know the result before everyone else and announce it like this with so many ears straining to hear, amidst, alarms going off, baths being organised, surya namaskars conducted, and milkmen leading their buffaloes in near houses, to milk them for our daily needs.

I went to college in Pune too; Fergusson College. Because my parents went there. So did my older brother. Those days colleges had characters. SP, in my neighbourhood, was the most conservative. Rumour had it that the head hauled up girls for not wearing bangles. Wadia College near the station was the other extreme. The key word one associated with it was "jam sessions". Fergusson was a golden mean.

It was during this time, that two of my senior girls, joined COEP Pune; and it was supposed to be a sensational thing. What was even more sensational, is that these girls drove Lambretta/vespa scooters to college; I distinctly remember their names, and the sight of them speeding down confidently over what was then a relatively empty J M Road, as they went fro Deccan Gymkhana to college was something one admired.

Where we stayed , near Peshwe Park, was considered 'outside ' the town. Ricksha wallas would haggle about taking us there . Today WE are downtown. Going to Main Street in camp (M. G. Rd) was a huge thing. Everyone there wore frocks, and rock-and-roll shoes, spoke in English, and iI remember being absolutely mortified when I was walking with my mother dressed in a parkar polka, and ran into a classmate called Darius Cooper coming in the opposite direction with his mother. Both mothers had a more than cordial chat, Mrs Cooper thought my outfit was great, and Darius and I pretended not see each other. (Today, while "camp" has clearly lost its charm, folks wearing nine yard sarees confidently wander around, accompanying grandchildren clamouring for corn bhel, ice cream, and other goodies)

The Bhaji mandi in the city was where my mother shopped once a week for fruits. In those days we had a green Hillman Minx car. What was even more amazing was that my mother drove it everywhere; sometimes with her Vanita Samaj members. Ladies driving cars was an event. Driving through small side streets was even more impressive. And my mother often followed the dictum, "when in doubt, honk". Even so, todays drivers, are not a patch on her, maruti or otherwise.

She was well known amongst the fruit merchants, as she had a thing about fresh orange juice , in those non-electric-juicer, non mixer/blender days. Years of accompanying her have fine-honed my haggling abilities. On a recent visit to get fruits for my ailing father, I recalled the name of one of the fruit sellers from those days, and was delighted to meet him, quietly keeping an eye on his merchandise, as his grandson did the daily nitty gritty work. He remarked on my facial resemblance to my mother, commented on her excellence in judging a good fruit, enquired after my brothers (he knew they were in "amrika"), charged me market rates, presented my daughter with a complimetary pomegranate, and crowned the whole interlude with a saying from Sant Tukarams verses, that had to do with "judging" something, presumably in my late mothers honour.

I was stunned with the level of education in this gentleman.

Pune is full of people of this type. There are special interest lectures taking place all the time, all seriously attended and applauded, at times, questioned and commented upon. There are more fearless people in Pune per square kilometre than anywhere else, I think. Broadening of the mind through such activities, continues in Pune, despite the onslaught of TV, Cable, Movies, Blockbusters, Internet, DVD players, and all kinds of technology.

Waves of globalisation keep hitting Pune. Sometimes they crash and quietly dissipate over some area. Sometimes a solid rock of intellect will deflect this wave back. Fashions have changed. Norms have changed even more. On the surface , Pune appears to have changed.

Deep down however, like the earths crust, the solidity of Pune endures.

One still runs into small business owners, who have been at it for decades, and they recgnise you and talk to you about how bad Pune is today. Sometimes even an aged rickshawlla will shake his head and comment on the police.

Today Pune is overrun with two wheelers, and 3 whelers. Bajaaj is like black and white TV. Hondas rule. Kinetics sweep across. Immigration from he outlying villages has been replaced with immigration from other states. Hindi accented Marathi is the norm, in places like Tulshibaag. The grandsons of the milkman (who came with his buffaloes to deliver milk in our schooldays) today run a fast food set up . Many flyovers and traffic lights interrupt what used to be our peaceful trip to our school. That of course brings in the police.

Tail Piece : Recently , on Bajirao Rd, a Tow truck appeared and started lifting two wheelers , which were parked, in, it seems, a no parking zone. Police brandishing their power, canes and all. Till someone noticed that a police motorcycle was parked in a no parking zone, the vehicle was not part of the monitoring group. And the tow truck, simply bypassed this vehicle.

Well. Folks rushed over from teashops across the road, argued and pointed this anomaly to the police. The first response was a typical careless, powerful, wave of hand. The crowd swelled. many of them women, having parked two wheelers. Till someone, a girl, quietly let the air out of the tow truck tyres, as well as the ignored police twowheeler. all this while the uniformed folks were making a show of strenghth, calling re-enforcements and all.

How do I know all this ? it was all over the local papers, the next day.

No political party instigated this. It was simply too much for the standard Puneite to tolerate. And the police, probably Puneites, knew that.


Pearls, Pearls and more Pearls from