Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Learning....and how !

The two English newspapers ( also  a Marathi one) that I get daily , in my house now , are still the same two papers, that we used to get in my childhood. There was no television, we didn't have individual radios, and I had never heard about earphones.

Reading the paper was something we were encouraged to do daily, simply to improve our general knowledge, our perception about our country, as well as familiarize ourselves and improve our practice of a language, that was not our mother tongue.

One of the biggest differences between then and now, is the amount of crime related and cheating related things that are reported  now. Yes, it can always be attributed to the the wild uncontrolled population growth , and the ease with which information can travel today.   Which it couldn't before.  But that information (that never reached the papers) could not have been all bad.

Today, ordinary actions like going to school, work, or even hospital, have an element of perceived danger. You don't breathe easy till everyone who has gone out to work/study/socialize has returned home safe. Children and misled, stolen,kidnapped, women are molested, folks are cheated. It has reached a point,where we suspect almost everyone, and then we assume entire sections to be corrupt , thanks to some representative conniving types.

 I wonder, as people, why we have turned out the way we are.Why we have learned that we need to be this way . To get ahead in life.

And as always, I turn to the human body, specifically the brain , because I often think life replicates the interactions in our anatomy.

Millions of neurons in our brain play the main part in learning. Different parts of the brain process different things like visuals, sounds, information, storage of memory etc. Neurons are all over the place, and they communicate with each other through created paths/dendrites, that intersect at what are called synapses, and pass on information.

So how does one "learn" ?

Suppose there is a lady walking towards you, and someone introduces her to you as Kamla. The image of the lady is processed by one part of the brain through the neurons there, while the details being told to you are absorbed and processed by another set of neurons. The two sets of neurons are said to have "fired" , in neurological parlance. (In neurological research it is actually possible to see specific parts of the brain light up in a representative way, on the experiment screen, showing a perturbation of those neurons. Hence the "fire" terminology.)

In addition,  there is a linking that happens between the two separate sets of neurons. It's like , one set of neurons generate some type of paths called dendrites, that kind of grow and reach out to where the other set has reached out, and forge a link. Meeting Kamla again and again, kind of underscores this link, and this makes it more pucca. This "highlighting " of the link, activates all the concerned parts of the brain when you see Kamla next, and you are said to have "learned" . You can even enhance this learning , by, say, associating her voice , wherein you create additional relational links to the audio processing neuron circuits. Repetitive events that involve these neurons enhance the learning. You create and store these memories, for later use.

In the real world, as our population increased, resources were perceived as scarce. It was necessary to "learn", to stay ahead. Not the academic type, but the street fighter type.

And so, some folks, had something,  that rung a bell in their heads when they saw an opportunity to grab easy money and power. Naturally, they recognized folks who showed up with links to the same money and power. They linked, highlighted and learned. Stored this . More and More.

And so , we have people who recognise a similarly corrupt person. Like the neurons, their ambitions fire, they forge links, which get stronger and stronger. eg Kanimozhi and A Raja. The learning happens, and they can recognize a compliant person when they see one. Forge links. Favours are exchanged over synapses, and financial , corporate and real estate dendrites are extended to each other. And so we have , scams happening all over the place. And it continues, drawing in more scammy human neurons, creating and potentiating more and more dendrite paths.  But in the real world.

The old days , when the world seemed different and safer , are like our childhoods. We had started out with millions of neurons and then continued to evolve our skills and learning as children. Who we linked up with was then , a supervised affair. By family and parents and school teachers.

Today, our population has proliferated, just like the millions of neurons in our brain. It has become impossible to ascertain all the links that are getting built up in the real world, just like,  a sometimes overburdened brain, coping with all the learning.

But there is a difference.

The brain has a finite size and is not infinitely expandable. As you create more and more learning and dendritic pathways connecting the often firing neurons, a time will come when we will exceed the available capacity, or will have to kill off the obsolete low-usage neurons to make way for the new ones.

There doesn't seem to be any such limit outside in the real world. The population increases by leaps and bounds, the variety and number of crimes that are being committed keep proliferating. Today's parents, like me , are clearly an extremely worried lot , say, compared to my parents, in their time.

Are the mindless killings, natural calamity deaths, careless deaths , and accidents that we see today, similar to the kind of adjustments made by the brain, to keep out and retire less important, low-use  neurons ?

Is this evolution ?  More important, is this how it should be ? And where does this all end ?

I wonder. And worry. 


  1. I do often wonder about this too. While in college, the Malthusian theory was a part of the Economics curriculum and at that point of time, it did not make much sense. Not trying to say that the theory makes sense but just that this whole scenario somehow seems to fall in line with the Malthusian theory. Which often leads me to the question "Who decides ?" Who decides what is expendable ? and that leads to the question of "On what basis could such decisions be based ?"
    The questions still continue to roll and yes, as you rightly said, there is a healthy measure of worry tossed in too.

  2. I totally agree with you. As a mother I often get worried as to what kind of a world I've brought my son into, where people would stop at nothing. Kids, women, senior citizens, nobody has any regard left for them. Even people belonging to good households end up committing hideous crimes, and for what, sometimes extra pocket money or some latest gizmo or a new bike. Wonder how their neurons unlearn the good things and learn the bad ones so easily.

  3. Its hard to say if the past was better than today and today will be better than tomorrow. Almost everyone seems to believe that yesterday was safer, sound, and more humane... and yet human intellect continue to produce marvels in fields of science, and art. Maybe.. maybe being isolated just makes life simple.. no answers - only questions.
    thanks for sharing your thought and look forward to meeting you this friday.