Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Pavlovs, Neuros and Living in Mumbai....

I have been a vehicle driver in India for the last 47 years. Four wheelers and two wheelers. Highways and congested gullies. By myself, and at times, with an entire gaggle of folks crowding the vehicle, in "zara sarkun ghya"  (~move and make place for one more) style.

Till now , it has never stressed me. The driving still does not.  What is now very stressful, is the change in the people on the road, be they fellow drivers, pedestrians or whoever.

One hears of someone getting enraged by the honking of someone behind them, stopping, emerging from the car and then picking a fight complete with fisticuffs and injuries.  One hears of some one's ego being hurt by an overtaking vehicle, and someone coming out from a car with a knife to avenge the insult.  One hears about underage kids with fake licenses driving recklessly scraping cars, resulting in the aggrieved people losing tempers, shouting  and getting breathless attacks.

Two days ago, at a major traffic intersection on an east west arterial road  of Mumbai, one was crossing the road, along with a team of young fellows carrying cricket bats and stumps  at the red signal.  The cricketwallas suddenly  questioned some bikers who had strayed way beyond where they were supposed to stop.  The bikers got off, attacked the guys, who retaliated with their cricket stumps. The thing deteriorated into a free for all, with assorted supporters of the cricket types joining in, and both sides viciously beating each other up, paying scant attention to folks trying to separate the two sides. No cops were anywhere nearby. 

I wonder what makes people do this.  What makes their brains go off at a tangent ,  where thought ceases to matter and animal instincts take over ?   Why do people feel threatened when questioned ?  What do they fear ?

A study of "why fear happens"  introduces the various brain parts involved in handling a threat or fear. 

Faced with some fear trigger, unconsciously  we process this in two ways.

The first , is the so called "low road" , where the Thalamus that senses the trigger, simply rushes the information to the Amygdala, which sets off the fight or flight response in the body, complete with raging hormones, rushing blood and what have you. 

The second way, is for the Thalamus to forward the sensed thing to the parts of the brain, that activate memories, and reasoning, trying to observe the environment and figure out why something has been sensed, and advise the Amygdala accordingly, to cool it or whatever.  This is like the "high road" where you take an informed decision as opposed to a kneejerk reaction to a fear stimulus.

One of the reasons we see the "low road" being chosen time and again in today's society, is because  we now replicate the parts of the brain in today's society.  

The thalamus senses the incoming trigger, and decides on the high road or low road.

If it is the high road, the sensory cortex tries to analyse the the cause and possibilities.  And sends its findings to the Hippocampus. 

The Hippocampus is the stable experienced elder, that tries to analyze things and take an informed decision on the threat taking into consideration, its observations,memories, learnings and history.

Both the high and low roads, end up at the Amygdala. Both with different instructions on how to react. 

 The Amygdala is the hothead. It decodes emotions, perceives threats, and stores fear memories.  And sets off what is called the "Fight or Flight" response.

Today's life is all about taking the low road. Young impressionable Thalamuses , influenced by political gundas, money matters and quick returns, continue to ignore stable and sage advise from  Sensory cortexes and Hippocampuses in society.    So many powerful Amygdalas in society just itching to get into a fight.

And the brain evolves. Over a period of time.  To think less and mindlessly act more.

Being thus , seriously conditioned.

I am not sure if Evolve is the right word. Maybe Devolve

Back in 1920, psychlogist John Watson,  managed to train an infant to fear white rats.  The infant actually enjoyed playing with the rats, but Watson , using Pavlovian techniques associated the appearance of the white rat with loud fearful noises, and managed to condition the child to fear white rats.  The child's Amygdala avidly learned and stored all this. And the child ended up fearing anything white and furry including Santa Claus' beard. This stayed so for more than 20 years.

Our politicians are our Pavlovs.  The young today are being conditioned to give knee jerk responses, so valuable in vote banks.

Sometimes, old folks like me tend to take the high road. We observe, watch, draw from experience and history , and decide that it is better to stay away, from those drunk on an unfortunate ill advised  "fight" response.

I sometimes wish there was a 3rd alternative to "fight or flight".

Like "wait" .

Who knows?    The neuro types might still discover it ......



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