Friday, March 25, 2011

The Importance of helmets.....

Manisha Devi, one of this country's National kabaddi players, who played for India, was returning home from practice, one evening, in Patna, Bihar. She never reached home. She was shot dead by a Central Reserve Police Force(CRPF) jawan, who shot her with his AK47 rifle. Why ? Because he had been asking for her phone number, and she had refused.

Two young girls from Jaipur, studying in college, and returning home from classes one evening, walking home together. Two guys riding by on a motorcycle, threw acid on their faces, and escaped. Why ? They had rejected their marriage proposal. The girls were critical, and scarred for life. The fellows lived, and were later arrested.

300 kilometres away from Lucknow, some 6 members of a family got infuriated, because the village Panchayat decided to construct a Community Hall in an open space in front of their house. They threw acid on the 12 village Panchayat members, who all suffered burns and 3 of them critically.

Not shocked enough ?

Arokia John, of Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, was 75, and had a medical problem, which made him cough a lot. Despite the medication he was advised , there was no observable change and he continued to cough continuously. Unable to tolerate this, his son, picked a boulder, hit his father, and killed him, to stop the coughing from disturbing his sleep.

Seventeen year old Salman Asifullah Khan, was waiting at Mumbai's suburban Matunga Station, to catch a train. A fast non-stopping train sped by. Someone from the speeding train, on a dare from his friends, kicked Salman in his abdomen. While the sick minded fellows congratulated each other on their aim, Salman ruptured his liver, bled hugely, and was declared dead by the hospital 75 minutes later.

What makes people behave like this ? Did these kind of events happen earlier ? Or do we just hear more because of more mediums of communication ? Newspapers 40-50- years ago, only occasionally came up with news of gory deaths like this. One didn't hear so much in the daily course of one's life, and certainly not, say, on a busy road while going to school or work. There were violent people, serial killers, and so on, and investigations happened. But violence wasn't casually done as it is today .

Is it a function of societal evolution causing pressures ? Do some people have an unthinking automatic response to these pressures? Do people feel threatened ?

So has something unpleasant evolved in us ? Does our environment have anything to do with it ?

We need to understand how our brains have evolved.

The earliest and simplest brain, called the Reptilian brain is what we share with the birds and reptiles, and it controls the basic stuff like, hunger, temperature control, fight-or-flight fear responses, defending territory, maintaining a sense of safety, obsessions etc.

The next part to evolve was around this central 'Reptilian ' part, and is called the Limbic system.We humans share this part of the brain with cats, dogs, horses, rats etc. Their brains, and this part of our brains, are extremely similar. This mammalian brain allows us to have feelings., and has something to do with moods, memories and hormone control.

Finally, the next level of evolution has to do with what is called the cortex. This allows us humans to do things like complex social interactions, advance planning of activities, reasoning out things, learning languages and so on. Our cousins , the Chimpanzees, cannot do some of these things, as their cortexes are much smaller.

It would seem like those who perform violent acts as indicated above might have a severely badly evolved cortex, thus allowing them to base their reactions , more on the limbic part of their brain, like the cats and dogs. It might even be appropriate to say, that they do not use their reasoning systems enough in the cortex, and are given to what we call knee jerk reactions to events.

While intrinsic developmental levels of the complicated anatomy of the brain may be a factor, does the environment matter ? Does it make a difference if you grow up with saintly folks, or maybe, a house where drinking, and abuse is the norm?

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center’s Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) Research Center have shown that in a person who watched violent programs, say on TV, those parts of the brain that suppressed aggressive behaviours, simply became less active. This is not a conjecture, but there is neurological proof. People who were repeatedly shown violent activities on TV, and their brain activity studied, were also later on given personality tests , which ended up confirming their reduced ability to controlling aggressive behavior.

Think of the onslaught of films that glamorize violence, and horror. In my childhood, we had films, but along with strict parental standards, that decided whether we needed to see a particular film in the first place, the violence in the actual films was a bit controlled. Then there was also, no television for us, bombarding us with the stuff 24 x 7.

Today, no film is complete unless it shows mindless violence (the gorier the better) and demeaning treatment of women. In the big rush to keep up with the Joneses, it has become imperative to earn more and more, and children are growing up, almost on auto-pilot with wrong settings. And this is further complicated by an attitude that applauds a male destructive child and calls him macho.

Parents are unable to give time to children in the big rush to be able to afford "more and bigger" everything.

Except possibly their brains. And the cortex.

Sometimes it is fashionable to attribute an attitude to a similar parent. Implying it is in the gene or the DNA. But even this has been proved invalid. We all carry all kinds of genes. What matters is whether a particular gene is "expressed" or in simple words ,"activated" .

Scientists at the University of Virginia, did experiments with water fleas, which are actually eaten up by fish. They bred some water fleas in an aquarium where chemicals were added to the water to simulate a fish environment in smell, feel etc. Another bunch of water fleas were bred in normal water, having nothing to do with fish. All these fleas had the same genes/DNA. It turned out that those that were habituated to the fishy smelly aquarium, developed a kind of "helmet" system , that made it difficult for fish predators to swallow them. The other flies, of course , were a meal for the fish.

Which goes to prove that environment really decides which of our genes will be "expressed" and which will lie quietly beneath.

And so, on an individual level, the importance of providing our children with the right environment , the ability to evaluate and judge the good, bad, whatever, and the guts to take an important, even possibly unpopular decision.

Sometimes I think this water fly theory even works for us as a society. Corruption and Greed has inordinately increased in our society and much of it has to do with those in power. They are the Big Fish, and we are the water flies.

But skimming around in a water body teeming with corrupt, lying, and cheating powerful predators, has allowed us , as a society, to developed "helmet" systems like the Right to Information Act (RTI), Public Interest Litigations (PIL's), informed mass protests, and so on. True, some of us water fleas get sacrificed at the alter of excessive population sizes, but by and large these are the "helmets" we have developed, from our basic gene , which is that of a learning society with empathy .

I dont really know if there is any further evolution possible in our brains. But I do know, that there is a "plasticity" that our brain has. The ability to train parts of our brain meant for a given purpose, so that they can also do something else. And that requires us to learn.

Like, we as a society , have so many abilities in innovation and manipulation of things, but we need to have enough plasticity to realize how to use it for our own good.


  1. A very thought-provoking write-up. Yes, the increasing degree of mindless violence in society is simply mind numbing. To the extent that we develop various "helmets" as you have mentioned to protect ourselves mentally. One of them is to avoid reading the news - I know that is an ostrich kind of attitude (bury one's head in the sand and believe the world does not exist), but frequently one is left with little option as it is impossible to change the world. The number of people who would try to change things at their individual level is far too small compared to the population size and the numbers of people indulging in such mindless activities. So one does what one can and gets on.

    There is also no denying that social control is no longer what it used to be. Parents choose the easy way out in the name of a "liberal upbringing" and sad to say, many parents do not have values themselves. If a child sees the parents indulging in corruption, they will see nothing wrong with it. If (s)he sees the father being violent with the mother, that is going to be perceived to be ok. A child sees another throwing stones at a dog or an insane person, and also observes that no one says anything to that person, the take home message is going to be that that act is okay.

    The pendulum of parental control has swung from one extreme to another. Apart from that the kinds of pressures of life are far more in number and more stressful than in the past. Maladjustment to these is one of the other reasons. Probably the changes in the social environment is happening too fast for the cortex to keep pace.

    Well, we can keep analysing all this till the cows come home, but is there any way to change what is happening. I, for one, (at the risk of sounding defeatist) am unable to think of any way.


  2. You missed the Internet! Sleazy, raunchy, demeaning jokes, emails, posts, status messages, and all our teens and pre-teens exposed to it. The vulnerability of the impressionable mind increases and parenting them gets harder by the day. There has GOT TO BE a solution somewhere...