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 !"......


  1. This one is amazing .....You better be a writer and let your books adorn my latest purchase ...The book shelf :-D

  2. Came here from hip hop gmom's site. Your gandfather sounds like a person who really commands respect.

  3. Came here from hip hop gmom's site. Your gandfather sounds like a person who really commands respect.

  4. Saumya,

    That was my father, not my grandfather . :-) I am 60 myself....

  5. Thank you for guiding me here...

    Now i am completely awed by the conspiracies of the universe to draw like minded people together( minor differences are crucial in the process of growth i believe) ... see how one thing led to another and i landed up here.

    I have been in care of my late daughter who suffered from a neural disorder called Friedreich's ataxia , her intelligence was intact while her body functions and movements went retrogressive way. I observed so many similar things and used to question a lot with the neurologists . I spent some time with my ailing research guide in her last days ( she was in a state like your fathers') and that ability to look for 'the blinking arrow' enthralled me actually.

    I wish i knew more about computers , till now i have observed the capabilities of the brain in terms of nerve endings and synapses and all the factors contributing to the connectivity of this ever growing, ever renewing jungle . You insight into the computer functioning makes this comparison so much more understandable .

    Thank you for this post.

  6. sangeeta This was a wonderful comment in a world where I have been given strange looks because of my interest and questions in a strange field. It delights me to meet someone who has had similar questions , and has tried to look for answers.

    I am no computer expert or any such thing, but the more I worked in the field (I was a programmer), the more I started admiring the human brain, and wondered about who made it.

    Am still looking ....:-)

  7. My sister in law's dad has dementia and I see similar 'blinking arrow' like reactions. Another thing that I found fascinating when we studied it in school were the valves in our arteries, to stop the blood from flowing down. All living creatures are like amazing computers - what happens when the system shuts down? I also am curious about how our brain dreams and how we sometimes see something that actually comes true later - how is that possible? There is so much we don't understand - that gives me a lot of hope.

  8. IHM A small correction. Those valves are in the veins and not arteries, I think. And yes, what you say about all living creatures being computers is so true. They are probably something more, too. Research happens in things having to do with sections of the human anatomy, parts of the brain than handle emotions and so on. But I guess, no one has been able , to really come up with a defintive total systems view of the human body. Thats one reason I beleive there is a divine system designer.