All about Anger

It should be a matter of great concern to all of us that there is so much anger in the world today. If we turn on the TV, we can witness lot of anger-mongering, if I could use such a term. We can see journalists snapping questions at politicians and politicians responding with anger. If we turn to social media, we will notice people seething and roiling in rage. It has come to a stage when people seem to be very comfortable in using aggressive and offensive language to deride people who do not subscribe to their point of view. It is becoming apparent that the traditionally admired trait of ‘quiet reflection’ is a thing of the past.

It is now common for people to get outraged by just about everything under the sun. Outrage is the new drug of choice, a drug that numbs, at least temporarily, the discomfort associated with some or other problematic aspects of our lives.

Let us examine what this anger really is. Anger is our brain’s way of signalling to us that something is not quite right. Anger can be caused by both external and internal events. We could be angry at a specific person such as a co-worker or a supervisor. We could also be angry due to an event like a traffic jam or a cancelled flight. Our anger could also be caused by worrying or brooding over our personal problems. Memories of the traumatic experiences and enraging events of the past can also trigger angry feelings in us.

It is often said that love and anger go together. How many times have we felt angry at someone we love? I suspect the answer would be “quite often”. This might seem paradoxical but it is not. When we are attached to another person, we do care deeply about them. We want them to do well and act well. If they do, we will feel the positive emotions of respect, admiration and love. Conversely, we don’t want them to step out of line and do wrong. If they do, we are bound to feel the negative emotions of anger, resentment and indignation.

We almost always feel that our anger is justified. However, other people may see it differently.  Unfortunately for us, the social judgment of our anger can create real consequences for us. If our superiors feel that our anger towards a customer is not justified, our job may be at stake. If our spouse feels that our anger is not justified, we could face domestic disharmony. We witness many cases in our daily lives where an angry person feels justified in committing an aggressive action, but the judge or jury of peers do not see it that way resulting in painful consequences to the angry person.

Understandably, Buddhist philosophy looks at anger as an enemy of reason that interferes with our rational self-control. This characterization that anger takes over our minds and clouds our reason, is made explicit in The Dhammapada’, one of the most famous Buddhist texts which goes on to say 

‘Whoever controls his anger, Is like a true charioteer.
In command of the rolling chariot And not just holding the reins’

Thiruvalluvar, the noble sage of Tamil Nadu, offers the same advise on Anger in his ‘Thirukkural’

“To protect yourself, curb your anger. Otherwise, anger will destroy you”. 

(thannaith thaan kaakkil chinam kaakka kaavaakkaal thannaiye kollum chinam)

 [Kural 305]

In Hinduism, akrodha is considered a virtue and a desirable ethical value recommended to be practised. When there is cause for getting angry but even then there is absence of anger, such a state of mind is called akrodha or non-anger. Akrodha also requires one to remain calm even when provoked or insulted or rebuked.

Atharva Veda has this advice on putting up with angry people. “All cruel words from angry person should be endured. No anger should be directed in turn towards one who is angry. Only soft words should be spoken, even when violently pulled by another”.

Research has established that Vedic mantra chants are energy-based sounds and vibrations and these can be leveraged to enter a deep state of meditation. Such chants are also believed to awaken the body’s natural healing mechanisms and thus help treat physical and mental illnesses. A research study published in ‘The International Journal of Indian Psychology’, reveals that the situational anger and anxiety of participants in the study reduced significantly after they listened with concentration to the Vedic chanting for an hour. The study concludes that the practice of merely listening to the Vedic chanting attentively can calm down the mind and keep the listener’s levels of anxiety and anger under check.

The contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum also advises us to get beyond anger both in private and public life. She points out that a desire for payback is unfortunately a core issue of anger. Anger is a combination of a sense of being wronged and a strong desire to retaliate. She goes to the extent of saying “If you don’t feel the wish to get your own back, what you are experiencing probably isn’t anger”.

Nussbaum argues that although getting angry is a deeply human trait, it is “fatally flawed as a way of making sense of the world and is a stupid way to run one’s life”. She uses the example of Nelson Mandela, who, despite his almost three decades of imprisonment, managed to avoid the anger trap once he was released. He focused instead on truth and reconciliation with emphasis on forgiveness rather than revenge.

Anger, clearly is not necessary as a form of motivation. We can all think of examples of individuals, such as Mahatma Gandhi, who achieved social change through peaceful means, without giving way to any feelings of anger. Anything anger can do, love and reason can arguably do better. 

We need to be wary of people taking advantage of debilitating effects of anger in others. That is how Mohammed Ali tried to provoke George Foreman by taunting him in the boxing ring. Ali realized that anger was Foreman’s greatest weakness. When Foreman became angry, he became reckless, threw too many punches, tired himself out and let his guard down. He made himself vulnerable as a result. 

There is another body of evidence, which indicates that not all anger is bad. Indeed, psychologists argue that in moderate doses, anger is useful as it can motivate us or can make us more creative or can deepen our relationships or can even help us fight against social ills.

A great example is that of Martin Luther who does not talk of falling prey to anger, but rather being inspired by it. He goes on to say I never work better than when I am inspired by anger; when I am angry, I can write, pray, and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations depart’.

Black poet and activist Audre Lorde delivered the keynote address in June 1981 at the annual conference of the National Women’s Studies Association. Her speech was later published as the essay “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”. Lorde explains that racism gives rise to significant levels of anger, whether such racism is experienced at a personal level or after witnessing how others are grievously affected by it. She argues that such anger, if harnessed as a tool, can effectively address racial injustice. 

The philosopher Myisha Cherry uses Lorde’s arguments as inspiration for her book, “The Case for Rage: Why Anger is essential to Anti-Racist Struggle”.  Among the various types of anger that a person can have upon experiencing or witnessing injustice, she identifies what she calls as “Lordean rage” as both virtuous and productive.

Research overwhelmingly indicates that feeling angry increases optimism, creativity, and effective performance. It even suggests that expressing anger appropriately can lead to more successful negotiations both in life or on the job.

Interestingly, altruism is often born from anger. When it comes to mobilizing other people and creating support for a cause, no other emotion works stronger than anger. We need to appreciate that positivity alone is insufficient to the task of helping us to navigate social interactions and relationships.  A healthy society is not necessarily an anger-free society.

It appears that anger, which can be destructive, has also a vital energy to it that motivates us to action. This helps us to improve communication in both personal and professional relationships and promotes optimism within us.

Interestingly, while anger does trigger us to take action, it is not necessarily to harm the person causing the anger. Let us take a few everyday examples of anger. Sita gets angry with her father for constantly interrupting her while she is speaking. Tina is angry with her husband for driving the car too fast and not being sufficiently careful. Seth is angry with his childhood friend Ruby for staying with her abusive boyfriend. We naturally apply the term anger to these cases, but they do not involve any desire to harm, punish or exact revenge. This does not mean that there is no desire to take action. It is just that the desire is not one to harm or to take revenge. Sita does not desire to hurt or punish her father, she just wants him to shut up and allow her talk without interruption. Tina does not want to harm her husband, in fact, her anger stems from a desire for his safety. Seth does not want revenge. He is angry with Julie for refusing to remove herself from harm. 

As a more serious case, think of a woman who feels angry that nobody really believes her story about being sexually assaulted. She may be angry with those who refuse to believe her about what happened, but she has no desire to harm them. Her fervent hope is that people believe in what she is saying and accept and understand what she is going through. 

From an evolutionary perspective, all emotions are appropriate in certain circumstances when experienced at an optimal degree. For example, certain levels of stress and anxiety push us to perform at higher levels.  Sadness can be cathartic, filling us with appreciation for what we have lost while signalling to others that we need support to recover and heal. Mild to moderate anger can often help us to move forward positively. But extreme or chronic anger can be highly detrimental to our well-being.

Indignation also referred to as ‘righteous indignation’, is anger that manifests as a concern for moral rights, fairness or justice. We are angry because we are disgusted at something that we perceive to be morally incorrect. This anger is not rooted in selfish concerns but is targeted on the wellbeing of others. We can justifiably be angry witnessing the harm and suffering of others who are not necessarily related to us. A common example is when we get angry when we see or hear news headline of a young rape victim. 

Consider Mother Teresa’s own report about feelings of anger and frustration. She clarifies “Am I ever angry or frustrated? I only feel angry sometimes when I see waste, when things that we waste are what people need, things that would save them from dying. Frustrated? No, never.”

Her anger is rooted not in selfish concerns but is to do with her overwhelming care for the wellbeing of others. This is the reason such anger not only fails to detract from her moral character, but reflects well on it. 

Let us examine how anger affects our body and brain. The first spark of anger activates our amygdala even before we are aware of it. The amygdala activates the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus in turn sends signals to pituitary gland by discharging Corticotropin-Releasing-Hormone (CRH). Then pituitary activates the adrenal glands by releasing Adreno-Cortico-Tropic Hormone (ACTH). The adrenal glands secrete stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. These actions affect cardiovascular system by elevating heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose level etc. The digestive system is also affected by decrease of blood flow and decrease of metabolism.

It is well established that inability to control anger has serious long term negative consequences. Inappropriate and uncontrolled anger is harmful for both the targeted persons as well as the angry person. Such anger destroys relationships, makes it difficult to hold on to a job, and takes a heavy toll on the physical and emotional health. A lack of anger control was found to impact mental health and leads to poor and maladaptive decision making. There is also this theory that anger could be an underlying factor that promotes suicidal tendencies. This theory is buttressed by the fact that anger and suicide were found to be more common in younger population than in older adults. Anger is considered the likely culprit in violent behaviour, and it should therefore come as no surprise that many individuals arrested for domestic violence often undergo anger management training.

Anger specialists describe the difference between what is known as state and trait anger. Trait anger refers to a chronic, long-standing personality characteristic that shows up as an almost constant tendency to become angry at the slightest provocation. State anger on the other hand refers to temporary, short-lasting outbursts of anger. Individuals associated with trait anger, experience angry feelings more frequently, with more intensity and for longer durations. People with high trait anger tend to perceive situations as hostile and are less capable of controlling their hostile thoughts and feelings.

People use a variety of both conscious and unconscious processes to deal with angry feelings. The three main approaches are expressing, suppressing, and calming. Expressing our angry feelings in an assertive but not aggressive manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this, we need clarity on our needs and how to get them met, without hurting others. Being assertive doesn’t mean being pushy or demanding. It simply means being respectful of yourself and others.

The second alternative is for us to suppress our anger and convert or redirect the feelings. This happens when we reign in our anger, stop thinking about it, and refocus on something else which is positive. The aim is to inhibit our anger and convert it into more constructive behaviour. We need to guard against the danger of our anger turning inwards leading to health issues like hypertension, high blood pressure, or depression.

Unexpressed anger can also lead to pathological expressions of anger, such as passive-aggressive behaviour like getting back at people indirectly, without telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on. It could also make us perpetually cynical and hostile. 

Most of the research surrounding anger management therapy has focused on Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which has been the dominant form of therapy in this area.

CBT emphasizes important links between how we feel, the thoughts and beliefs we have, and the behaviours that we carry out.  CBT anger management interventions have been effective at helping a variety of populations, such as people with high blood pressure, angry drivers, people in prison, college students, police officers, and parents.

According to Ayurveda, when aggravated pitta accumulates in the channel of the mind, it tends to cause accumulating heat. This can lead to anger, irritability, and other fiery emotions like envy, criticism, and excessive ambition. Therefore, using diet, lifestyle, and supportive herbs to increase our exposure to cool, slow, and stabilizing influences will generally serve to relieve anger and irritability. These qualities help balance excess heat while softening, grounding, and containing pitta’s intensity.

We are not aware that we are unaware

You are unaware of how unaware you are”

David McRaney in his book ‘You Are Not So Smart’.

McRaney says ‘We are constantly observing our own behaviour and then explaining it in a way which corresponds to whatever positive self-image keeps us sane. These narratives are sometimes realistic, and sometimes pure fiction. Either way, they build up and become the story of who we are. When you look back on your life, those stories are you, but you remain blissfully unaware of how inaccurate they are’.

I will first talk about our lack of ability to understand ourselves. I will follow it up with reasons on why our understanding of others is also quite faulty.

Tasha Eurich, author of the book ‘Insight’, explains that self-awareness, at its core, is the ability to see ourselves clearly. It is to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us. She points out that we are notoriously terrible at guessing how others see us. It is lot easier for us to choose self-delusion which is the antithesis of self-awareness over the cold hard truth about our behaviour. To know ourselves better, it would make sense to seek out the people in whom we have full trust. They can tell us truthfully, various aspects of our behaviour that they observe in us.

Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us…

Robert Burns

Ezequiel Morsella and his colleagues came up with “Passive Frame Theory”. They postulate that most of our brain’s work is conducted at the unconscious level, completely without our knowledge. It is now well established that in all our daily interactions, it is our unconscious brain that does all the requisite processing to arrive at our decisions or to act in certain ways. It is just the small job of a physical action that our conscious mind executes.

The conscious part of our brain is, thus, like a CEO, whose subordinates do all the needed research, then draft all the documents, lay them out and say, “Sign here, sir.” The CEO just signs these documents presented to him and takes the full credit.

One important reason why approximately 95% of everything we do is unconscious is due to the limitation of conscious thought. Thinking brain is too slow to initiate behaviour, whereas unconscious processes work very fast, operating in milliseconds. Our unconscious brain can process eleven million bits of information every second, whereas our conscious brain can handle only forty to fifty bits of information in a second. It should therefore come as no surprise that it is the unconscious brain that determines most of our behaviour.

Daniel Kahneman in his famous book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ explains that our brain deploys two systems. One is the automatic System 1 and the other is the effortful System 2. He says “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 on the other hand, allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it”.

We feel the experience of being alive and we execute all our decisions when System 2 is operating at the conscious level. However, System 2 consumes glucose at a fast rate, making it difficult for us to stay in this mode for too long. All the processing for making our decisions is made by System 1 operating at the unconscious level and then the decisions are passed on to System 2. Once they are brought to our conscious awareness, we act on these decisions.

The unfortunate aspect here, is that we have no ability to tap into our unconscious mind.

In his book “Strangers to Ourselves”, Timothy Wilson observes “The bad news is that it is difficult to know ourselves because there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try. This is mainly because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of our consciousness.”

It therefore makes sense to heed the advice of Nicholas Epley, author of the book “Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want”. He says “Spending two decades studying the mind, really highlighted to me the importance of humility in life.” He underscores the point that we really do not have privileged access to our minds and therefore it is much wiser for us to tone down our self-confidence and to act with humility.

Every decision that we take and every move that we make at any time, is determined by all our past experiences up to that very second. It is how every living creature evolved and stayed alive over hundreds of years.

It is the unconscious that manages all our habitual behaviour, and we are blissfully unaware of it. As much as 40 per cent of our daily behaviour is habitual and this, in fact, is very useful. For example, on most of the days when we drive to work, we are not conscious of how our brain coordinates various parts of our body, like our eyes, our ears, our legs, our hands etc to manoeuvre our car through our journey, navigating many obstacles including the traffic lights on our way. Our conscious mind is generally lost on other thoughts till we reach our destination. Thus, while our unconscious was busy driving us to work, our conscious mind was free to focus on other things.

What is then, the role of the conscious mind? Its power is not in the decision making of what action to take, but in performing the decided action. We need to appreciate that we are all programmed from birth to act and behave in certain ways by our parents, peers, educators, and society. The mental models that we construct from these experiences are stored away in our memories and are updated from new experiences continuously by our brain. These mental models become our version of reality and our unconscious brain uses these models to drive our behaviour.

Michael Shermer says ‘We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, emotional and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture and society at large. After forming our beliefs, we then defend, justify and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments and rational explanations. Beliefs come first; explanations for beliefs follow. In my book The Believing Brain, I call this process, wherein our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it, belief-dependent realism. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends on the beliefs we hold at any given time’.

Time after time, experiments show that introspection is not the act of tapping into our innermost mental constructs, but instead, is a fiction fabricated by our brains. Psychologist Emily Pronin specializes in human self-perception and decision making and calls this as “Introspection Illusion.” She recommends that we are better off in getting the inputs on our behaviour from others, especially those who know us well. She emphasizes that it is hard to know who we are unless others let us know how we affect them.

We infer what we think or believe from a variety of cues, just as we infer what others think or feel from observing their behaviour. For instance, we might infer that we are anxious about an upcoming presentation because our hearts are beating faster, and our breathing is heavier. But this inference could be wrong. These bodily reactions could be because we are feeling excited about the prospect of making a great presentation. This kind of psychological reframing is often used by sports coaches to help athletes maintain composure under pressure.

If we do realize that our behavior needs to be corrected, we may sincerely try to alter our behavior. Unfortunately, this does not yield results. What we need to do instead, is to alter the causes of such behavior, which are our embedded internal beliefs and “mental thermostat.” However, as all our beliefs operate at the unconscious level, we have really no control over them.

We are generally quick to criticize behavior of people under a variety of circumstances. But, if we can appreciate that their behavior, just like ours, is driven by the unconscious and is the result of many factors beyond their own conscious control, we may be more tolerant. We may then be less critical and may even condone such behavior.

We need to recognize that respecting the perspectives or habits of others by offering them empathy is crucial for our own development. This occurs through perspective-taking, or the act of perceiving a situation or understanding a concept from an alternative point of view, such as that of another individual. But actively considering other people’s points of view happens only when we try our best to suspend our own judgement and then understand the other person’s thoughts, motives, and emotions. We also need to try to understand why they think and feel the way they do.

In this sense, perspective taking is an intentional process rather than something that is automatic. This means that we have to make a focused effort to do it. It’s also an active process that requires intentional distancing from our own perspectives. In order to do it properly, we have to have the thinking capacity, emotional resources, and proper behavioural strategies. Research finds that it becomes easier to take on someone else’s perspective when we experience positive emotion toward them, such as empathy and compassion. We also need to possess requisite emotional intelligence.

However, some researchers question our own ability of perspective-taking. Psychologist Tal Eyal says ‘We assume that another person thinks or feels about things just as we do, when in fact, very often they do not. We often use our own perspective to understand other people which could be very different from the other perspectives of others’.

Our “egocentric bias” thus can lead us to make inaccurate predictions about the feelings and preferences of others. Instead, if we allow the other persons to express their feelings and opinions freely, before making any predictions about them, we are likely to be more accurate. Tal Eyal calls this as “perspective getting” as opposed to “perspective taking”.

Apart from enabling us to understand others better, perspective-getting allows for the growth of our own knowledge base by expanding our own perspectives. It is the equivalent of seeing life as if through a tunnel and having someone break down the sides of the tunnel to create a more expansive perspective on life. Multiple perspectives are critical to gain a more holistic understanding of any concept, experience, or the environment.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of the book ‘No One Understands You and What to Do About It’ explains why we’re often misunderstood. Most of us assume wrongly that other people see us as we see ourselves. We also assume that they can understand our true character and behaviour. But both these assumptions are wrong.

“We don’t see things as they are,
We see them as we are”

Anais Nin

Theory of Mind (ToM) is our ability to understand the perspectives, mental states and beliefs of others in order to anticipate their behaviour. This ability is particularly crucial for meaningful social interactions. Though all of us employ ToM to understand others, the accuracy of our judgements is suspect. Research makes it very clear that people have a hard time recognizing the ways in which their own perceptions are biased by the interpretive lens of beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge that they view it through. This handicaps our ability to understand the minds of others in two ways. First, we tend to overestimate the extent to which others believe, think, and feel as they do. Second, when we find out that others perceive the world differently than we do, we fail to recognise our own biases and think that it is the others who are biased.

Perception is not Reality. Role of the Predicting Brain.

The world we experience as “out there” is actually a reconstruction of a tiny part of reality by our brains. Our interpretation of sensations are heavily shaped by our thinking processes such as attention, expectation and memory. What we perceive at any given moment is also determined by our personal physical abilities, energy levels, feelings, social identities and much more. 

Thus our brains construct simulations of our surroundings by combining incoming sensory data with existing, unconsciously stored memories, beliefs and concepts.

Let us just peep into our brains. The brain is locked inside the bony vault of our skull, trying to figure out what is out there in the world apart from controlling our internal body functions. There is no light inside the skull nor is there any sound. Our eyes, ears and other sensory organs just deliver streams of electrical signals to our brain. These signals do not come with labels attached like “I am from a cat or I am from a coffee cup”. They are just electrical signals which do not themselves have any shape, colour or sound. In order, therefore, to figure out what is out there in the worldthe brain has to combine these ambiguous sensory signals with some prior “expectations” or “predictions” about the world.

According to Anil Seth, professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, “perception, instead of just being a reflection of what’s actually there in the world, is always this active process of interpretation. We assume that we see with our eyes but, in fact, we see with our brains. Our eyes are of course necessary, but what we actually end up perceiving is much more a product of how our brain interprets all this information from the eyes than the eyes being this window into an objective external reality.”

Our brain draws on lifetime of our past experiences, like things that have happened to us personally and things that we have learned from our friends, teachers, books, videos and other sources. In the blink of an eye, our brain reconstructs bits and pieces of past experiences as our neurons pass electrochemical information back and forth in an ever-shifting, complex neural network. Our brain assembles these bits to infer the meaning of the sense data that we are receiving to decide what to do about it.

Fortunately, while it is true that the inputs from our body and its sense organs are like simulations, we can still be fairly confident that most of the time, they are faithful representations of the actual things out there. Evolution over hundreds of years, has shaped and reshaped those representations to be a pretty close to the external world. Organisms that could not accurately and reliably perceive and respond to their environment have not survived  and became extinct. We, humans have descended from those animals that had relatively accurate perceptions of external reality.

To appreciate that perception is not reality, let us take the example of colour. While we all think colour as an important attribute of an object, Newton remarked, colour is not a property of an object. When electromagnetic radiation hits an object, some of it bounces off and is captured by our eyes. 

Our eyes are equipped to detect only a limited set of wave lengths, from about 400 nm to about 700 nm, and pass them on to the brain. Colour, therefore, is an interpretation of wave lengths by our brains. Incidentally, our recognisable visual wavelengths is less than one trillionth of the available spectrum around us. 

We also do not have biological receptors to pick up various spectrums, including x-rays, microwaves, radio waves, gamma rays, cell phone conversations etc. even when all of these are flowing through us. The slice of the outside reality that we can sense is thus limited by our biology. Every creature on earth perceives, as objective reality, only that much which its biology permits. Therefore colours are a clever trick that evolution has developed to help our brains to keep track of surfaces under changing lighting conditions. 

Out of all our senses, the visual system collects up to 80% of all the sensory data received from the environment. In order to make sense of this deluge of optical information, the visual inputs are converted into electrochemical signals by approximately 130 million light-sensitive cells in the retina known as cones and sent to the brain to be processed by a complex network of nerve cells. 

Light and colour have other effects on us. We also have on our eyes retinal ganglion cells which  respond to light by sending signals mainly to a central brain region called the hypothalamus which plays no part in forming visual images.

The hypothalamus is a key part our brain responsible for the secretion of a number of hormones which control many aspects of the body’s self-regulation, including temperature, sleep, hunger and circadian rhythms. What this means is that there is clearly an established physiological mechanism through which colour and light can affect mood, heart rate, alertness, and impulsivity, to name but a few.

Similarly, our acoustic sense can only register and process a very narrow band of frequencies ranging from about 16 Hz–20 kHz. Typically, infrasonic and ultrasonic bands are just not perceivable by humans despite being essential for other species such as elephants and bats, respectively.

Interestingly, to make sense of complex environments permeated by light and sound, brain waves constantly adapt, compensating for drastically different sound and vision processing speeds. It is common knowledge that sound and light travel at very different speeds. If the brain did not account for this difference, it would be much harder for us to tell where sounds came from, and how they are related to what we see. The visual and the sound signals created at the same time are sensed by the brain at different points of time and are processed by neural circuits at different speeds. However they are still presented to us as happening synchronously. 

Our human biology limits us from sensing what other animals can do. Unlike bees, we do not see ultraviolet light and we cannot sense magnetic field unlike turtles, worms and wolves. We are also deaf to high and low pitch sounds that other animals can hear and we have a relatively weak sense of smell.   

While there is clearly an enormous data in the external world, evolution has equipped us to process only a very limited set of data enough to enable us to survive.  The goal of our senses and brain is to make one and only one decision based on the unambiguous interpretation of the received data in order to execute an appropriate action. This single interpretation enables us to take fast action without quarrelling about alternatives enabling us to survive as species. In order to make such a clear interpretation of available data, we need a mental model of the external world which is very clear without ambiguities.

Thus our brain has a problem to solve, which philosophers call a ‘reverse inference problem’. Faced with ambiguous data, our brain must somehow guess the causes of that data to decide the plan of action to keep us safe and alive.

Fortunately, our brain has another source of information which is our memory that can help with this very challenging task. Our brain can draw on our lifetime of past experiences, some of which would be similar to the present moment, to guess the meaning of the sense data.

The process of combining prior knowledge with uncertain evidence is known as Bayesian Integration. MIT neuroscientists have discovered distinctive brain signals that encode the prior beliefs. They have also found how the brain uses these signals to make judicious decisions in the face of uncertainty. And this whirlwind of mental construction all happens in the blink of an eye, completely outside of our awareness. The intimate processing between sensory inputs and our neural networks, enables us to recognize familiar objects or take appropriate actions within a few milliseconds. 

Our Bayesian brain predicts incoming sensory data using the internal model from within and this is called ‘interoception’. It also predicts the meaning of outside data and this is called ‘exteroception’. It matches these two predictions to give us the perception that we become conscious of. If there is discrepancy between the two predictions, then the internal model which was built based on past experiences is updated. 

how the brain makes emotions

While we might feel as if we are simply reacting to events that happen around us, in actuality, our brain constantly and invisibly guesses what to do next and what we will experience next, based on memories that are similar to the present moment. The key word here is ‘similar’. The brain doesn’t need an exact match. We have no trouble climbing a new, unfamiliar staircase because we have climbed staircases in the past. So similarity is enough for our brain to help us survive and thrive in the world.

The problem of predictive coding, however, is that this fast and quick assessment by brain based on the past experiences may be faulty at times as illustrated by Alex Korb, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UCLA in the following narrative.

“I am driving down a sunny, tree-lined street in Santa Monica. As I make a left turn I notice a blind man standing on the corner with his seeing-eye dog. He wears dark sunglasses and carries a cane.

As I turn past him I see that what I thought was a cane is actually a pooper-scooper! It amazes me that a blind man is capable of cleaning up after his dog. I guess in absence of vision the brain develops a greater sensitivity to localizing smells. I chastise myself for assuming that blind people are more disabled than they actually are. Then I notice the dog is on a regular leash rather than a sturdier seeing-eye dog leash, and I can’t understand how that could possibly provide enough tactile guidance to the blind man. I figure he’s been blind a while and has the hang of it. As I drive away I glance in the rear-view mirror and see the blind man turn his head both ways before crossing the street. Finally, it dawns on me that the man is not actually blind, he is just a normally-sighted guy wearing sunglasses, carrying a pooper-scooper and taking his dog for a walk”.

According to the theory of predictive coding, our brain constantly attempts to model the probability of its own future states, with the goal of minimizing uncertainty. At the macro level, anticipation is the key to predicting events as they unfold, thus allowing us to interact with the external world efficiently. At the micro level anticipation prepares our motor and sensory functions ready to execute the expected actions.

The predictive coding framework supports the brain functions to minimize surprises and uncertainty that may be faced by us. 

Let us look at the example of how our brain extrapolates. It takes time for information from our eyes to reach our brain. It takes further time to analyse the received electrical signals to come to a conclusion on the data. Only at this point of time we can perceive the meaning of the input data. Due to this processing delay, the information available to our conscious perception is always outdated.

Let us consider catching a ball. It takes several dozen milliseconds for information from the eye to reach our brain and about 120 milli-seconds to take any action on the basis of this information. As the ball continues to move all this while, our perception about the current position of the ball is always lagging. Typically, in lots of sports, balls travel at speeds well above 100km per hour, This means that the ball can move more than three metres during this lag time before we consciously perceive the ball. Clearly, if we react based on the perceived position of the ball, we would never be able to catch or hit the ball as it would have passed us by due to the delay. However, we manage to hit the ball only because our intelligent brain extrapolates the moving object’s position forward, along its perceived trajectory. In cricket, the bowler tries to deceive the batsman by making the ball move in a different direction than what the batsman’s brain has projected. 

Similarly, our intelligent brain, based on our previous experiences, has learned that a single sensory cue, such as a loud bang, can have many different causes. It could be a door being slammed, a bursting balloon, a hand clap, a gunshot etc. Our brain searches our memory for past experiences to provide the closest match to this sound, fully taking into account the context with its accompanying sights, smells and other sensations.

Here is another example of predictive processing by our brain. Let us see how our brain can so effortlessly read jumbled and garbled words.

“It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

As our brain deciphered each word in the example above, it also predicted which words would logically come next to form a coherent sentence. Dr Lars Muckli, neurophysiologist at the University of Glasgow, says “We are continuously anticipating what we will see, hear or feel next.” 

Here is another example of how context decides our perception.

Look at the same shape in the middle appearing in two different contexts. Given the context below where there are two alphabets on either side, we will perceive the shape to be “B”.

On the other hand, in the following context of numbers on either side, the same shape will be perceived by us as the number “13.”

Our perception is therefore driven by our cognitive expectations based on the context. 

There is also downside. We underestimate the capacity of our brains to create their own convincing realities. Psychologists use the term “cognitive distortions” to describe irrational, inflated thoughts or beliefs that distort a person’s perception of reality, usually in a negative way.

We underestimate how powerfully realistic some dissociative experiences, hallucinations and other well-recognized mental/neural misperceptions can seem. And yet we find our own subjective perceptions so persuasive that we are more willing to doubt the laws of physics than to doubt our own minds. We can’t help assuming that perception equals reality.

Psychiatrists therefore have an unenviable task of trying to persuade people to be sceptical about their own beliefs and to critically examine the evidence for their assumptions and to not automatically believe their own thoughts and perceptions.

For all the advancements the world has seen in every field of science, including neuroscience, the mechanics of perception and thinking still elude comprehensive understanding.

Take these examples of what scientists are still trying to figure out. When we lie on our sides, the brain appears to dial down its reliance on information related to the external world and instead increases reliance on internal perceptions generated by touch. Blindfolding degrades our representation of the external world, which allows our internal body-centred perception to dominate. In our inner ear, we have a little bit of ocean that came with us when we evolved from the sea. We carry it around to assess gravity, so we can tell which way is up. Issues with our hearing system can cause disorders such as vertigo.

Indian philosophy, even as early as the period of Rig-Veda, gave the concept of Maya to depict the world as unreal and illusionary. The changing world that we see around us can be compared to the moving images on a movie screen. There cannot be a movie without the screen. Brahman, our true self, is the one who enables us like the screen to sense the world as reality. 

Vijnanavada Buddhism also looks at the world as unreal and only as the projection of our mind.  

Some References:

Understanding Empathy

In the past few years, we have seen increasing use of the word empathy by everyone from scientists to business leaders to education experts to political activists. Empathy has become such a popular topic in recent years that it finds a place in the title or subtitle of more than 1,500 books listed in Amazon. 

We generally know that ‘empathy’ is the ability to share and understand the emotions of others. There is also a strong consensus that we need to see drastic improvement of  empathy across the globe. Barack Obama went to the extent of saying “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.”

It is therefore surprising to see a book with the title “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion” authored by Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University.

Before trying to unravel Paul Bloom’s perspective, let us first understand what empathy is in all its various dimensions.

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman break down the concept of empathy into the following three categories. 

Emotional empathy is the ability to share the feelings of another person. Some have described it as “your pain in my heart.” This type of empathy helps us build emotional connections with others. 

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking.  Cognitive Empathy is about thought as much as emotion. It is defined by knowing, understanding, or comprehending emotions of others on an intellectual level. As most of us know, to understand sadness is not the same thing as feeling sad.

Compassionate empathy (also known as empathic concern) goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings. It actually moves us to take action or to lend a helping hand, in whatever way we can.  

We show emotional empathy when we internally experience what somebody else feels. Our brain’s response to our own pain is found in areas such as the anterior insula and the cingulate cortex. These same areas are activated when we empathise with someone else’s pain. It has long been shown that emotional empathy can rapidly occur even outside of our consciousness and awareness. Research supports the idea that emotional empathy is a basic and primitive beginning of empathy. When we observe that others are experiencing emotions, our own mirror neuron system kicks in by simulating neuronal activities similar to the observed ones. The mirror neuron system is thought to comprise of the inferior frontal cortex, the premotor areas, and the insula. 

As emotional empathy makes someone else’s pain become our own pain, we tend to treat others as we treat ourselves and this expands our selfish concerns to encompass others.

We display cognitive empathy when we understand some person’s pain without feeling it ourselves. Psychologists describe this as social cognition, social intelligence, mind reading, theory of mind, perspective taking or mentalizing. From the viewpoint of neuroscience, brain regions that are engaged during cognitive empathy include dorsal, middle & ventral medial prefrontal cortex, precuneus and temporoparietal junction. These areas are selectively activated when subjects make inferences on the information about the mental states of others. In simple words cognitive empathy speaks to our capacity to understand what is going on in the minds of others.

With compassion empathy we have feelings of love and warmth towards others which compels us to help the people who are suffering. Compassionate empathy uses our emotional intelligence to effectively respond to difficult situations with loving detachment. With compassionate empathywe do not get burdened by the feelings of the other person but make the conscious choice to turn our emotion into action. Thus compassionate feelings, thoughts, and decisions pass through filters of consciousness, which enable us to deliberate, reflect and improve upon our decisions on how to provide the best support to the suffering person.

Supramarginal gyrus is a unit of the cerebral cortex that helps us to differentiate our own emotional state from that of other people and is responsible for empathy and compassion.

To summarize, emotional empathy could be simply described as “feeling what others feel”cognitive empathy as “understanding what others feel” and compassion as “caring about how others feel”.

Given the clear benefits of empathy, it becomes difficult to understand why Prof Paul Bloom writes a book against empathy. However, once you read the book, it becomes clear that his emphasis actually is on the subtitle the case for rational compassion”. Paul Bloom uses clinical studies and simple logic to argue that empathy, however well-intentioned, is a poor guide for moral reasoning. After all, the idea that human nature has two opposing facets, emotion versus reason, gut feelings versus careful rational deliberation, is one of the oldest and most resilient psychological theories.

As an example, a doctor who feels his patient’s pain cannot be very effective. It is easy to visualise that a surgeon will not be able to perform his surgical operation if he is disturbed by emotional empathy. That is the reason why surgeons will not operate on their own very close relatives. The medical profession heavily demands emotional regulation of empathic feelings to enable them to perform their work.

Paul Bloom argues that empathy heavily biases our decisions to focus on identifiable individuals rather than more deserving people because of identifiable victim effect “.  This concept describes how we feel greater empathy and emotional urge to help identifiable individuals in tragic situations and how, on the other hand, we show very little empathy to situations where the victims are a larger, vaguer group of people. Mother Teresa  succinctly remarked “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

The excellent example is that of 18-month-old Jessica McClureShe fell 22 feet down an eight-inch-diameter well in the backyard of her home in Texas and the intense coverage of this incident drew donations of over US$80,000 from across the world. Very few, if any, of these people who sent donations to Baby Jessica would have tried to help faceless emaciated poor children around the world. These children who have neither shelter to live nor food to eat deserved lot more support. Thus the real problem is that only when we are able to  identify and put a face on the suffering child and their family we experience an empathic response with them, but the much more deserving random children and their families remain empathically out of our reach.

Empathy is strongly affected by our biases and more significantly by tribalism or groupism. We are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look more like us or those who share our social, ethnic or national background. Despite its early origins and adaptive functions, empathy is not inevitable. We routinely fail to empathise with others, especially members of different social or cultural groups. We feel less empathy for strangers who belong to a different racial, political, or social group and this is termed as  intergroup empathy bias. In certain contexts, we may even experience pleasure in response to adversities of out-groups called as Schadenfreude and we may also be displeased with the successes of the out-groups  known as GlückschmerThis is very common in the sports arena when we emotionally enjoy the successes of our team and get equal pleasure from the failures of the opposing team. 

Researchers scanned the brains of Chinese and Caucasian participants while they were shown videos of members of either their own ethnic group or the other group, all suffering from some pain. They found that the brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is often active when we see others in pain, was much less active when participants saw members of the other ethnic group in pain.

Interestingly research on Israelis and Palestinians revealed that people who engaged in extreme violence did not necessarily lack empathy. Instead, they had high empathy for the group they belonged to and very low empathy for the group they opposed.

One study on judgemental nature of empathy found that brain areas involved in empathy are much less active when watching people suffering from pain if they had committed some unfair acts. 

There are also situations when it is important to be less empathic. For example, in war it becomes almost essential to feel less empathy for people that you are trying to kill, especially when they are trying to harm you.

Interestingly, empathy shuts down if we believe that someone is responsible for his own suffering. In a study experiment by Jean Decety, Stephanie and Joshua Correll, people were shown the videos of individuals said to be suffering from AIDS. When the observers were told that the suffering patients were infected through their own intravenous drug use, they felt much less empathy for them. But when they were told that the suffering people were infected by careless blood transfusion in a hospital there was lot more empathy for them.

We need to appreciate that while highly empathic people may be good at spotting the emotions of others, they may not necessarily be adept in understanding the emotional triggers correctly. People with high empathy have the tendency to hastily create in their minds a particular scenario on why someone else is having an emotion, which may not be accurate. The reason for this is the strong and quick emotional feelings that arise from within them. This overrides the logical and rational thinking which would have looked at various other possible scenarios.  

Like everything else in the world, there is also this problem of too much of empathy known as “pathological altruism” or empathy distress when we absorb too much of negative feelings from others. 

Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki describe empathic stress as a strong aversive and self-oriented response to the suffering of others. This fuels the desire to withdraw from a situation in order to protect oneself from excessive negative feelings.

While positive empathy happens when we acknowledge a person’s feelings and emotions without getting too overwhelmed by them, hyper-empathy happens when we let emotions of others overpower ours. 

Unfortunately, prolonged emotional distress causes many in healthcare professions, such as doctors, nurses and counsellors, to burn out, endangering their own physical and mental health. Those experiencing empathic distress have increased risk of depression and anxiety. It is interesting that after a prolonged period of empathic stress, they even start showing lack of understanding and compassion for those they are responsible for.  

The good news is that we can control our empathy even though it does not come with an on/off switch. We need to realise that we pick up feelings of others even when we are not conscious of doing it. But the safeguard for not being overwhelmed can be learned, and in times like the current Covid period, this becomes very critical. Emotion regulation, or maintaining an even keel, combined with self-other awareness are key parts of the empathic process They give us the ability to wade far into the feelings of others but enable us to pull back and regain our own sense of self. Thus, we can re-centre ourselves even when we are unravelling the emotional state of others.

Please see by blog on this topic.

Moving away from empathic distress and towards compassion involves compassion training, wherein psychologists use meditation-related techniques to foster feelings of generosity and kindness.

People often confuse sympathy which is a related concept with empathy. Sympathy is “the feeling of being sorry for someone and showing that you understand and care about someone’s problems.” It resembles pity more closely because it is discomfort at someone else’s personal distress. 

Empathy, on the other hand, entails putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and then imagining or feeling that distress. Put simply, sympathy is “I am sorry you’re sad” whereas empathy is “I feel sad because you’re sad”.


Some References:

Scourge of Tribalism

For many thousands of years, human tribes have competed against each other for their very survival. Tribe coalitions that were more cooperative and cohesive not only managed to survive but also were able to appropriate land and other resources from other coalitions.

Thus the idea that humans have a need to belong to social groups is very fundamental in psychology. Belonging does not just feel good but is often essential for our very survival, even in modern times. Insider-outsider distinctions are innate and are well entrenched. This favouritism is the result of substantial benefits derived from group solidarity in early human evolution, and we still live with this grouping tendency even today.

It should not therefore come as a surprise that tribal loyalties tend to override objectivity and rational decision making. One such manifestation of group loyalty was reported in The New York Times, where the Orthodox Jews of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn shunned a neighbor after learning that he complained to police about a fellow Jew who was sexually abusing his son. As an objective person, you would think that a father protecting his son would be the sort of behavior that would be appreciated and endorsed. Unfortunately, such objectivity is thrown to the winds if it is considered disloyal to the tribe.

Something that goes almost unquestioned in many circles is nationalism which is another strong form of tribalism. Mukul Gupta writing in The Economic Times says “Building walls, promoting hate and distrusting refugees, persecuting minorities, fuelling the nationalist propaganda for narrow political gains are all being used for winning elections at the expense of national wellbeing”.

The divide of ‘us’ vs ‘them’

Harvard professor David Ropeik has written a poignant essay on How Tribalism Overrules Reason, and Makes Risky Times More Dangerous. He argues that tribalism is all pervasive and controls a lot of our behaviour, readily overriding our reasoning faculties. He reminds us of the inhuman things that we do in the name of tribal unity. Wars, for instance, are essentially, and often quite specifically, tribalism. Genocides are tribalism with the idea of wiping out the other group to keep our group safe taken to the extremes. Other examples are racism that lets us feel that our tribe is better and superior to the others, resulting in parents resorting to honour killing of their own children when they dare to marry someone of a different faith or colour. 

Another horrific case is the serious plight of ‘Rohingay’ Muslim community of more than a million staying in Myanmar. Many of them had migrated during the British colonial rule, from across the Bay of Bengal, at that time a part of composite India and now Bangladesh. They had settled down mainly in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. The ugly manifestation of  tribalism in Myanmar has resulted in persecution of this community to such an extent that it has been described by international media and human rights organizations as a genocide. 

After fleeing Myanmar army troops, hundreds of Rohingya children struggle for food at Balukhali refugee camp in southern Bangladesh. 

What is playing out in most of the countries around the world is that people with vested interests are exploiting our tribal instincts to create fear psychosis. Fear is a very strong tool in their hands that can completely destroy our rational thinking and then change our behaviour for the worse. 

These tribal narratives are effectively framed and publicised by the tribal leaders in such a way that it creates a strong feeling that the threat from outside is real and will lead to destruction of our tribe. Such a propaganda engenders a sense of urgency in us to act in order to secure a better future for their our children. 

We need to recognise that all nations, religions, cults, gangs, subcultures, fraternal societies, internet communities, political parties, social movements and sports fans are all groups of people that can be called as tribes. They all tend to have a common bond, be it worshipping a certain deity or speaking a certain language or belonging to a certain geographical region or supporting a certain sporting club etc. Their interactions more often happen with one another in the tribe rather than with outsiders. They all develop an internal culture such that members of the groups often like the same foods, wear the same clothing, play the same sports and have the same philosophical beliefs. An excellent example is the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) community in the US and elsewhere. Tribes also tend to develop legendary histories, where they celebrate and exaggerate the deeds of their founders and past champions. They tend to express their pride in their tribe through conspicuous use of group symbols, group attire and other cultural artefacts. 

Victor Hanson of the Hoover Institution and author of ‘The Second Wars’, calls tribalism as one of history’s great destroyers. With tribalism, loyalty to larger commonwealth is gradually compromised as the influence of smaller and more intimate groups like race, religion, ethnicity, local region etc. increase. This leads to gradual erosion of loyalty and commitment to the larger entity over time, giving rise to fissiparous tendencies. We can clearly witness all around the world, that national interests by many countries are overriding multi-national global cooperation thus effectively nullifying the healthy benefits that we had derived from globalisation. As we go down the hierarchy, we can see that allegiance to religious or political or local entities is overshadowing national interests.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor, was very honest when she said “Let me let you in on a little secret. There is no such thing as an international community. There are only self-maximizing, self-interested states that will push their interests as far as possible.”

Most of the Middle East and Africa remain plagued by tribalism. In Iraq, a civil servant sees himself first as Shiite or Sunni rather than Iraqi, and acts accordingly. A Kenyan’s first allegiance is to his tribal first cousin rather than to an anonymous fellow Kenyan.

The result is inevitably the violence seen in places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Syria or Iraq. Back home in India, there is no attempt to hide the religious, caste and regional calculations during elections. The political parties unabashedly select candidates during elections based on religion or caste or linguistic considerations. A leader from Thakur, Brahmin or Dalit community in Uttara Pradesh or a leader drawn from Lingayat or Vokkaliga community in Karnataka will be chosen for leveraging the particular vote bank that gives maximum advantage. More unfortunately, religious loyalties and political affiliations are trumping national interests in India and there is complete lack of consensus on even important issues, including the critical area of security of the nation.

It is amazing that the Sunni and Shia Muslim sects who had lived for hundreds of years years as fellow citizens in many parts of Middle East have become enemies overnight thanks to Islamic extremists waging global jihad and power struggles. Surprisingly, both Sunnis and Shias look very similar to each other, live around in the same neighbourhood and believe in the same God albeit with small differences in theology. It is the very same violent aspect of tribalism that played out traumatically during the partition of ‘colonial India’ into two nations of India and Pakistan resulting in massacre of thousands of people. 

The level of inhumanity in these tribal conflicts is mind-boggling. For instance, the Fulani tribes in Sahel region of Africa were targeted by the other tribes. A ten day old baby was killed along with the mother. People of the tribe were thrown into a ditch of burning oil before being fired upon. One village chief was captured and summarily executed in front of his own mother. There were also pregnant women and elders who were killed and some people’s throats were cut while others were burnt alive.

When ex-president Donald Trump likened immigrants to poisonous snakes, biologist and behavioural scientist Robert Saplosky had this to say.  The author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” observed that this comparison coming from a powerful leader, is a textbook definition of dehumanization of the ‘other’ group. When group or tribal leaders exhort their tribesmen with phraseology that activates their neurons in the insular cortex, the part of the brain that responds viscerally to disgusting things, then they have succeeded in creating the platform for genocide.

Saplosky had another profound observation.  He says that we do our worst when we are surrounded by a lot of people who agree with us. For example, devout religious belief is not necessarily a predictor of extremism. Devout religious observance also does not give rise to extremism. But devout religious observance in a large group setting does engender extremist tendencies. Studies show that support for terrorism in Muslim majority countries was unrelated to how often they prayed or how devout they were about various religious prohibitions. But it was definitely related to how often they prayed in mosques, in large group setting. The same was also true of right-wing Jewish extremists in Israel. Things take on a new meaning and a different perspective when sacred values are re-affirmed in group settings.

Jonah Goldberg in his new book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy’, describes what he calls the West’s suicidal tendency to surrender to tribal and nationalist forces from both the left and the right. 

World Economic Forum (WEF) Study finds that the world is witnessing a deepening distrust of each other thanks to growing tribalism and intolerance of those with different beliefs and backgrounds. Economic factors are playing a central role in terms of rising inequality, stagnant incomes, job insecurity and the division between prosperous cities and “left behind” regions. But the perfect storm of conditions for social fragmentation is coming from the convergence of economic forces with changes in culture, technology and the proliferating communication media landscape. 

WEF urges political leaders and civil society to appreciate that maintaining the rule of law, accountable institutions, independent media, social trust and strong civil society networks have become extremely critical. It points out the need to lower the barriers so that ordinary citizens are engaged more meaningfully in national affairs instead of restricting such participation to the loudest voices with the most strident views. There is also a crying need to incorporate serious consequences to those politicians, advocates and campaigners who pursue victory at any cost undermining the critical public trust in the system.

Neuroscientists have been researching this field for some time now. When in experiments black and white Americans were flashed pictures of the other race, their amygdala, the brain’s center of fear and anger, were activated so quickly and subtly that the conscious centers of the brain were unaware of the response. The subject, in effect, could not help himself.

On the other hand, when appropriate contexts were added like the approaching black man being a doctor and the white person his patient, things were different. Then, the two other sites in the brain, the cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral preferential cortex of the brain integrated with the higher learning centers, effectively silencing the input through the amygdala.

In a paper published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA showed that the racial sensitivity of the amygdala does not kick in until around the age of fourteen. Such racial sensitivity is also not uniform across people of the same age group. Racially diverse groups had a less strong amygdala effect. In fact, with really high levels of diversity in the group, racially sensitivity almost disappeared. These findings therefore suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.

Living Meaningful Life vs Pursuing Happy Life

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Aristotle

The field of Positive Psychology (PP) has been in the forefront propagating this perspective. PP assumes that people, like all animals, are governed by the instinct of pursing happiness and avoiding pain as much as possible. Consequently, the first wave of positive psychologists focused on painless and easy activities to achieve happiness and success.

PP has tended to be defined in terms of a concern with ‘positive’ psychological qualities. However, over recent years, a more nuanced ‘second wave’ of positive psychology has been germinating, which explores the philosophical and conceptual complexities of the very idea of what constitutes the ‘positive.

The new wave of Positive Psychology (PP), which some people call as PP 2.0, assumes that people are spiritual beings. It accepts that there is more to life than either our physical needs for pleasure & comfort or our psychological needs for power & fame. What we crave for is for meaning in our lives and self-transcendence. Therefore, the second wave of positive psychologists prescribe the long path of pursuing self-transcendence.

The new wave of PP researchers do not bash happiness perse, but remind us that negative emotions also serve a purpose. Anxiety, for instance, helps to alert us to problems before they loom larger. Anger helps us to mobilize ourselves and others to confront challenges or threats. For instance, social psychologist Carol Tavris and others have argued that anger could motivate someone to act against and change an invidious situation that had been hindering their wellbeing. They caution that human experience is complex and sometimes bad things lead to good outcomes. Also, sometimes good things lead to bad outcomes. To ignore this simple truism is to leave humanity undiscovered under a patina of illusion.

The overemphasis of PP on self-directed happiness completely ignores collectivist mindset. People in strong collectivist cultures may be more concerned about securing a better life for their family than for themselves. Many professionals from developing countries work at low-paying jobs in developed countries so that their children can have a better education and a better future. They endure their own marginalization and downgraded social status in order to promote the happiness of their children. Thus, there are cultural differences in the balancing act between Me and We. Positive benefits for self-centred individuals include life satisfaction, achievement, and self-esteem, while positive outcomes for group-centred individuals would encompass harmonious relationships, group morale, and collaborative success.

“He who has a Why to live for, can bear almost any How. Friedrich Nietzsche

A meaningful life is not necessarily a happy life. We feel happy, when we get what we want and when our needs and desires are easily met. We need to realize that such happiness is short-lived. It is experienced in the here and now, and it then fades away. Meaningful life, on the other hand, is enduring. One way we derive meaning is from sacrificing ourselves for the benefit of others and by facing hardship and challenges in life. The meaningful life thus connects us to the others and to the bigger picture and encompasses both the past and the future.

Although researchers are agnostic about what kinds of meaning-in-life can be considered “best”, they argue that as people mature, their concept of meaning-in-life gets increasingly directed at a greater good which transcends their own individualistic desires. Incidentally, this notion of self-transcendence is often a descriptor that is used for people experiencing a mindful mindset.

Researchers have established that we do not become happy by pursuing happiness. We can become happy only by living a life that means something to us. Closely linked to meaningful activity in life is finding one’s purpose. Purpose provides the impetus for getting us out of our beds every morning. One’s purpose might be personal, like rearing children in a loving environment or as noble as saving the planet from environmental destruction.

Viktor Frankl said, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp along with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who managed to live and those who had died in the concentration camps came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he had become aware of very early in his life.

Frankl wrote “To the European it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy’.”

It is worth emphasizing that what makes us uniquely human is our ability to care deeply for other people and for causes larger than ourselves. Putting our selfish needs aside, helps us to realize that there is more to a good life than just the pursuit of happiness. Deep happiness comes from using whatever strengths, skills and talents that we have to somehow make the life better for others. Prof Stew Friedman of Wharton, puts this into words beautifully in his book ‘Leading the life you want’. He says, “Significant achievement in the world results from consciously compassionate action, from using one’s talent to make the world somehow better. It’s a paradox that leading the life you want actually requires striving to help others.”

Behavioural economist Prof Kathleen Vohs says “While happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others, people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others”.

UCLA’s Semel Institute of Neuroscience has identified a part of the brain, the posterior superior temporal cortex, that seems to be hard-wired for contributing to others. Researchers hypothesize that altruism has allowed us to survive as a species by compelling us to help one another. The reward for helping comes in the form of a rush of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin – what neuroscientists call the ‘happiness trifecta’. Oxytocin supports empathy and social bonding. Dopamine plays a major role in motivation and movement. Serotonin regulates mood.

The feeling that one’s life has meaning can come from any number of things. It could come from the work we do that we feel is worthwhile. It could come from our cherished relationships, from religious faith or even from sitting down and appreciating the sunset regularly. While it does not matter what gives us the purpose, it does matter that we do find it somewhere.

Prof Jennifer Aaker of Stanford and Emily Garbinsky claim that people who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. They say, “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need”.

In his book ‘Springboard’, Prof Richard Shell of Wharton, describes ‘deep happiness’ as a kind of feeling that transcends momentary happiness. Its source connects us to our souls, our purpose and to something larger than ourselves. As Shell writes, “It is the path that leads to look into ourselves and to build deeper connection with others. It is a path that is very likely to include tension, challenges and struggles along with happiness”. Thus people who pursue happiness for the sake of happiness may be missing out on this kind of deep happiness which is experienced when we live a more meaningful life.

People’s perception of their own purpose may have profound consequences not only for the legacy they leave behind for others, but also for the quality and quantity of their own life. We have all heard of anecdotes of people who have suffered tragedies in their lives only to persevere and move forward with newfound purpose and zest for life. Current research in an area called Purpose in Life (PIL) reveals exciting correlations between higher levels of PIL and variety of positive health benefits. Researchers, for instance, found that a higher baseline PIL was linked to a lower risk of heart attack. They also found that for each standard-deviation increase in PIL score, adults reduced their stroke risk by 22 percent. One study found that a strong sense of purpose was associated with a 72 percent lower rate of death from stroke, a 44 percent lower rate of death from cardiovascular disease, and a 48 percent lower rate of death from any cause.

One particular area of health where PIL is proving to be very useful is the CNS or the central nervous system. Research has shown that knowing one’s life purpose and mission may help protect the brain physically, increasing its ability to withstand greater injuries. In particular, PIL seems to help people protect what is known as a cognitive reserve or cognitive resilience, which is the human brain’s ability to recover from trauma and protect against diseases.

Similarly, a study in 2019 by JAMA Network Open (Open access medical journal published by the American Medical Association covering the biomedical sciences) found that adults over the age of 50 who scored highest on a scale that measured “life purpose” had a longer life expectation and were also much less likely to die from heart, circulatory or blood conditions. This was further endorsed by Eric S. Kim, PhD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who said “There have been a number of studies suggesting that a higher sense of Purpose in Life is associated with reduced risk of early death”.

Research has shown that people with higher levels of meaning-in-life had increased connectivity within nodes of the default mode network of their brains, implying that purposeful people have stronger mental connections between the many functions the default mode network plays. What’s more, people with more meaning in their lives had better cross-network connectivity, indicating that it was easier for their brains’ limbic and default mode networks to work together.

The default mode network and the limbic network are two key sets of structures in the brain. The limbic network controls emotions, motivation, and long-term memory, among other functions. The default mode network regulates our sense of self, our memories, our emotions and helps us envision the future.

Meaning is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future. In other words, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the struggles and sufferings of the past as well as things they want do in the future, felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Even our achievements have their own set points. When we achieve them, we feel happy but this happiness does not last long. Once the condition is met, we start looking for the next goal that we need to pursue to remain happy. What we might eventually discover is the idea that happiness is not at all related to setting goals and achieving them, but in finding that sense of happiness and joy within ourselves and in our daily lives.

In his book ‘Out of the Darkness’, bestselling author Steve Taylor of Leeds Beckett University, tells the stories of more than 30 people who have undergone permanent spiritual awakening after intense trauma and turmoil in their lives. These “suffering-induced transformational experiences” include being diagnosed with terminal cancer, or suffering bereavements, or becoming seriously disabled, or losing everything through addiction or having close encounters with death during combat. What all these people had in common is that after undergoing intense suffering, they felt they had “woken up”. They stopped taking life, the world and other people for granted and gained a massive sense of appreciation for everything. They spoke of a sense of the preciousness of life, their own bodies, the other people in their lives and the beauty and wonder of nature. They felt a new sense of connection with other people, the natural world and the universe. They became less materialistic and more altruistic. Possessions and career advancement became trivial, while love, creativity and altruism became much more important. They felt intensely alive.

Fortunately, we do not have to go through intense suffering to experience these awakening effects. There are also certain temporary states of being when we can sense meaning which Taylor calls as ‘awakening experiences’.

The most common characteristics of these experiences are positive emotional states, including a sense of elation or serenity, a lack of fear and anxiety, intensified perception, and a sense of connection which can be towards other human beings, nature, or the whole universe in general. Other significant characteristics include a sense of love and compassion, altered time perception which often includes a sense of being intensely present. Then there is this strong sense that a person has transcended a limited state and that awareness has become more authentic than normal.

Scientists have coined the phrase self-transcendent experiences (STEs) for these transient mental states of decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness. This occurs under certain circumstances when the subjective sense of one’s self as an isolated entity temporarily fades into an experience of unity with other people or one’s surroundings, involving the dissolution of boundaries between the sense of self and “other.” These temporary mental states are experienced along a spectrum of intensity that ranges from the
routine like when losing ourselves in music or a book, to the intense and potentially transformative like when we feel connected to everything and everyone, to states in between, like those experienced by many people while meditating.

Professor William Damon, one of the world’s leading researchers on the development of purpose-in-life, offers another approach to help people to develop a sense that their lives have been worthwhile, even in the face of difficulties and wrong turns. The idea is to reminisce one’s past in ways that balance negative events with positive achievements which can lead to feelings of gratitude and tranquillity. Life satisfaction does not mean avoiding all misfortunes which anyway is impossible. Nor does it mean always avoiding mistakes which is also impossible. Rather, we aim to do the best we can, learn from our past experiences, and remain hopeful for the future. In this way, our past, present and future selves become integrated into a positive identity that can provide the fulfilling sense of ego integrity that development psychologist Erik Erikson described. Erikson wrote that ego integrity, the most fulfilling form of personal identity, requires a positive sense of where we’ve been, who we’ve now become, what purposes we are seeking to accomplish, and where we hope to be heading.

Every human life, even the most fortunate, is filled with pain. Painful loss, painful disappointments, the physical pain of injury or sickness, and the mental pain of enduring boredom, loneliness, or sadness. Pain is an inevitable consequence of being alive. Thus all the good things in life entail suffering. Writing a novel, running a marathon or giving birth to a baby – all these cause pain and suffering but are done in pursuit of the final joyous results.

How much are we influenced by others?

How much are we influenced by others?
The simple answer is “Quite a Lot”

In the African Bantu language, the word ubuntu means that a person becomes a person only through other people (Interview of Desmond Tutu, New Scientist, April 2006).

Neuroscientists endorse this view that our brains are continually reshaped by our interactions with other people. We can easily visualize that the physical presence and even the mental image of another person influences our brain, our behavior and our attitude. While our social interactions are mainly through our communication in all its forms, they also include cooperation, competition, imitation, helping, playing, informing, questioning, negotiating, bargaining, bluffing and so on. These interactions are strongly influenced by our own personalities, our own developmental history, stereotypes we wish to imitate, our own concepts of how things operate in our environment etc. Also “social emotions” such as pride, envy and regret influence and drive these interactions.

Herb Kelleher, cofounder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, was hailed as the most beloved leader of our time and Fortune magazine voted him as “Perhaps the best CEO in America”. Neuroscientists studied the firing of social neurons in various participants while analysing a video of Herb Kelleher. When Herb Kelleher was strolling down the corridors of the airline’s hub, the researchers could practically see him activate the mirror neurons, oscillators, and other social circuitry in each person he encountered. He offered beaming smiles, shook hands with customers as he told them how much he appreciated their business, hugged employees as he thanked them for their good work. Typical was the flight attendant whose face lit up when she un-expectedly encountered her boss and she gave him a big hug.

Psychologists define “Theory of Mind” as our ability to interpret the mental states of ourselves and that of others which enables us to come up with reasonable explanations of behavioural patterns of others. Psychologists explain that we become aware of others only because our brains can apply this “Theory of Mind”. Part of “Theory of Mind” consists in thinking about what other people are thinking about some other people. As an example, “What does Kumar think about Joseph’s behavior towards Ahmed, given that Ahmed is already upset about his father’s illness?” This is a very complicated kind of mental ability and is unique to humans. It is interesting that evolutionary anthropologists contend that our brains have evolved over the years to become as big as they are today for a reason. It is for enabling us to increase our deep intellectual abilities so that we can manage our relationships with other people more effectively.

The importance of human social connections cannot be overemphasised. Prof John Cacioppo of Chicago University has researched loneliness for thirty years. He has shown quite convincingly that lonely people are unhappier, live shorter lives and are more likely to be depressed. He explains that loneliness is an evolved mechanism that alerts us to a lack of social connection and social support. This is somewhat similar to hunger alerts that we feel when we need food. As a corollary, he claims that as a fundamental component of wellbeing, human beings require good quality social connections with other people and more importantly with close friends and family members. He also found that the frequency of interactions and the feeling of being connected to larger groups such as clubs or nations are also important factors in warding off loneliness.

It is worth noting that the social norms that guide our everyday behaviours and create social influence are mainly derived from our culture. We can look at culture as representing a group of people, normally living within a given geographical region, who share a common set of social norms, including religious and family values and moral beliefs. The culture in which we live also affects our thoughts, our feelings, and our behaviour. It is our culture that defines our lives as much as our evolutionary experiences.

We would like to think that we are largely in control of our day-to-day lives, yet most of what we do, from what we eat to who we sleep with, and even the way we feel, is significantly influenced by those around us and also those around them. It may surprise us to know that our actions can change the behaviours and the beliefs, and even the basic health of people that we may have never met.

Social media is a more recent phenomenon which has projected us into an age in which people are encouraged to express whatever they know, think, and feel. This means that, apart from information and opinions, emotions are also spread all over the net world.

A fascinating study by the New York Times Consumer Insight Group revealed various motivations that drive participants to share information on social media. These include a desire to reveal valuable and entertaining content to others, to define themselves in desirable ways to others, to grow and nourish relationships and also to speak about brands and causes that they like or support.

The use of social media has skyrocketed over the past decade and a half. Only five percent of adults in the USA were using a social media platform in the year 2005. This number has jumped to more than seventy percent today. Media psychology researchers are trying to understand how the time spent on social media is impacting our day-to-day lives.

Looking at the benefits of social media we can see that it is particularly helpful for those with family members spread out in different parts of the world, or perhaps people trying to make a long distance relationship work. We can easily relate to how we communicate despite time differences and distance by simply texting or phoning someone. By having the power to upload photos and send messages at ease, we manage to stay in each other’s lives despite being hundreds, or even thousands of miles apart. When we think about how far we have come since having to send letters and postcards, it is indeed pretty amazing. The addiction to social media and its serious consequences have been subject of lot of discussions everywhere and is not covered here.

A study has discovered that the average person checks their device 85 times a day, spending a total of five hours browsing the web and using apps. This equates to around a third of the time a person is awake, and is twice as often as many people realise (stock image)

Schadenfreude is a German term composed of Schaden, that means ‘harm’ and Freude which means ‘joy’. So the word Schadenfreude refers to the pleasure at another’s misfortune. The Japanese have a saying: ‘The misfortunes of others taste like honey’. The French speak of joiemaligne, a diabolical delight in other people’s suffering.

Psychologists found that when the Dutch team missed a goal, the smiles on German fans appeared more quickly and were broader than when their own German team scored a goal. Let us not fool ourselves. When it comes to making ourselves happy, we humans have long relied on the humiliations and failures of other people. The more we envy someone who is better off than we are, the greater is the pleasure that we feel when they fall down.

It is relevant in this context to talk about Social Anxiety. Virtually all of us have experienced concerns about being judged negatively by other people from time to time. Being concerned with other people’s opinions of ourselves is something we learn to live with from childhood onwards. For some individuals, however, these concerns about negative evaluation are so extreme and frequent that they impair everyday social life and becomes psychopathology, called Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD).

Social anxiety disorder is also known as social phobia. Anxiety is a fear that arises in anticipation of an event whereas phobia is an irrational fear of certain objects or situations.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that twelve percent of adults in the United States experience social anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime. It is more common in females than in males.

We can not but talk about sympathy, empathy and compassion when we are looking at any society. Sympathy means that we can understand what the other person is feeling. Empathy means that we actually feel what the other person is feeling. Compassion on the other hand goes beyond sympathy where we are willing to relieve the suffering of another.

Thanks to the mirror neurons in our brain, empathy may arise automatically when you witness someone in pain. Research indicates that empathy has a genetic component but is also influenced by parenting, the schools, the community, the environment and the culture.

Prof Paul Bloom of Yale University, makes the case for rational compassion rather than just empathy. He argues that empathy is counter-productive because it enmeshes us in the feelings that are not our own. Instead of taking on the problem as our own, having compassion means we understand where the person is coming from without adopting the emotion ourselves.

By the way, empathy is not reserved only for unpleasant feelings. We can feel empathy when we witness joy, too. When someone walks into our room smiling, we ourselves tend to smile.

When we are sympathetic, we are not really experiencing the feelings of another. Instead, we are able to understand what the person is feeling. For example, if someone’s father has passed away, we may not be able to physically feel the pain that the person is undergoing. However, we can understand that our friend is sad. This explains why we send sympathy cards when our friend’s loved one has passed away. we are not feeling that person’s pain, but we want our friend to know that we are aware of her suffering.

Dr Thupten Jinpa associated with Dalai Lama posits that compassion is a four-step process:

  1. Awareness of suffering.
  2. Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering.
  3. Wish to see the relief of that suffering.
  4. Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering.

We all experience emotions all the time. Emotions are a defining aspect of the human condition. They pervade our social and professional lives, influence our thinking and behaviour and profoundly shape our relationships and social interactions.

We need to recognise that emotions are ‘intentional’, in the sense that they are always ‘about’ something: they have an object, and that object is very frequently social. It could be a person like a rival for our loved one’s affection. It could be a social group like an organisation that does inspiring work in developing countries. It could be a social event like India winning the cricket series in Australia. It could also be a social or cultural artefact like a piece of music. Of course, we sometimes experience emotions in response to non-social stimuli like fear of heights or of spiders, but social objects are much more likely than non-social objects to be the source of our everyday emotions.

Many emotions are either inherently or functionally social, in that either they would not be experienced in the absence of others, or they seem to have no other function than to bind us to others. Emotions such as compassion, sympathy, maternal love, affection, and admiration are ones that depend on other people being physically or psychologically present. Fear of rejection, loneliness, embarrassment, guilt, shame, jealousy and sexual attraction are emotions that seem to have as their primary function the seeking out or cementing of social relationships.

We tend to share our emotional experiences, some of which may be painful or shaming, with intimate people because we trust them not to share our secrets with others. And yet these people are the very ones who are likely to empathise with us and therefore will experience the emotions themselves listening to what we divulge. This makes it likely that they will in turn engage in secondary social sharing.

For technically minded, neural basis for social influence has been subject of research by many neuroscientists. It is found that persuasion directed toward social norms specifically activates a set of brain regions including temporal poles, temporo-parietal junction, and medial prefrontal cortex. Persuasion against an accepted norm, on the other hand, specifically uses the left middle temporal and supramarginal gyri. Moral judgment has been associated with the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, vMPFC, and the striatum.

Brain Research validates concepts propounded by Patanjali in Yoga Sutras.

Scientists have been preoccupied for centuries trying to understand consciousness. Even today, it remains one of the most important unanswered questions of modern neuroscience. Nevertheless, there are several insights on this subject that have been well researched and accepted by scientific community.

Science, for instance, has established that our subconscious is the storehouse of all our learnings. Once we learn something and that gets validated or repeated, then, it gets stored away in our subconscious memory as beliefs. We now know that reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of that reality depends on the beliefs that we hold at any given time. Michael Shermer calls this process as ‘Belief-Dependent Realism’.

Cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber further stress in their book “The Enigma of Reason” that all of us invariably use our reasoning skills to justify our own beliefs and try our best to convince others about these beliefs.

Elizabeth Svoboda author of “What makes a hero? The surprising Science of Selflessness” goes on to confirm this tendency. She says that psychological research suggests that once our minds are made up on important matters, changing them can be as difficult as stopping a train hurtling at full speed, even when we sense the danger straight ahead.

“Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish everyday with repetition and emotion will one day become our reality”
Earl Nightingale

It is interesting that these scientific concepts are validated by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras.
The equivalent of embedded beliefs is samskaras and vasanas. Repeated thoughts manifest as habits and repeated habits influence our thoughts and become samskaras. Thus samskaras are habits that get entrenched deeply in our mind and they shape our inner world and mould our personality. We all have large number of samskaras and some of these are strong while others are relatively weak. These defining attributes of our personality affect our judgment and more importantly, shape our concepts on what we consider as right or good and what we consider as wrong or bad. The term for the most powerful samskaras is vasana, a potent subtle impression that colours our mind. We, therefore, see reality through the lens of our vasanas. This lens, unfortunately, distorts our perception of others as well as our own selves. Thus, in a sense, our vision is limited by what our vasanas allow us to see.

Patanjali goes on to describe the components of our mind. Chitta roughly translates to mind but actually it is more like the source of consciousness of a person. Chitta has three distinct faculties:

It is interesting that neuroscience does cover extensively all these three faculties but does not classify them in this way.

  1. Buddhi: the essence of intelligence, which is our discriminative faculty which classifies our impressions and reacts to them.
  2. Ahamkara: the faculty of ego-sense which claims these impressions as our own and stores them away as our knowledge base.
  3. Manas: the recording faculty which receives impressions gathered by the senses from the outside world.

Patanjali also gives more expansive view of how we view things or how our perceptions get created. He calls this Vritti which is the feeling of knowing that is experienced by us both in wakeful state and even in dream state. According to his Yoga Sutras there are five kinds of vrittis.

  1. Pramana is the right perception. This could be based on direct experience, pratyaksha, using the five senses. It could be based on inference, anumana, using logic. It could also be by comparison, upamana, with other known facts. It could be based on verbal testimony, sabda, provided by someone. It could even be simply a non-apprehension, anupalbdhi.
    This translates to one of the definitions of consciousness in modern science which is that consciousness is the sensory awareness of the body, the self, and the world.
  2. Viparyaya is misconception. This happens when the perception is created due to mistakes by our five senses. Thus, sometimes, our acquired knowledge can be misconceived. This, according to neuroscience, is the subconscious part of our brain misinterpreting the reality based on past experiences that are stored away in our memories.

Interestingly, the Sanskrit word for the world prapancha literally translates into ‘perception through five senses’. The idea behind this is that everything we taste, see, touch, sound, and smell (five senses) in the world is just what we perceive through our five senses.

Again, we can clearly see that neuroscience and Patanjali Yoga Sutras look at mind, perception and consciousness in somewhat similar ways but use their own terminology.

  1. Vikalpa is our imagination which is a thought pattern of past, future or non-existent daydreaming or fantasizing. We need to realize that we do not have the need of our senses for imagination. Dreaming according to some scientists is a mental state, an altered state of consciousness, which occurs during sleep. Dreams usually involve fictive events that are organised in a story-like manner, characterised by a range of internally generated sensory, perceptual, and emotional experiences.
  2. Nidra is sleep when we lose control over deliberate processing of our thoughts.
    Modern research shows that deep sleep is a state when conscious part of our brains is not functioning. We know that consciousness can be transiently abolished by pharmacological agents or more permanently, by brain injury. Let us also not forget that consciousness is seemingly lost and recovered every day, from the moment we fall asleep until we wake up while the subconscious is feverishly at work.
    It is interesting, that in order to explain the concept of ‘self’ more easily, the Hindu Vedic scholars describe deep sleep as a state when our ‘being’ can be looked at as standing apart from us more like an observer. At that stage, we are completely and absolutely unconscious even when our body is still functioning, run by our unconscious processes.
  3. Smriti is memory which is the storehouse of our past conscious and unconscious experiences and impressions. This is our well researched extensive memory system distributed across various parts of our brains.

Now let us now look at the various approaches that the western scientific research and Yoga Sutras offer in understanding our own thinking processes, perceptions and behaviours and using this knowledge to improve our overall wellbeing.

Master of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn of University of Massachusetts Medical School
pioneered meditative approaches that are used all over the world to treat pain and depression. It is proven that long term practitioners of deep mindfulness develop a sense of equanimity without getting absorbed into their own mental processes. They become fully aware that the mental phenomena like thoughts, emotions and feeling are distinct and in reality are outside of the mind that is actually observing them.

Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist and New York Times best-selling author and her latest book ‘Insight’ is well received. She claims that a hugely significant 95% of people think that they are self-aware, but the reality bears a stark contrast as only 10% to 15% of people know who they really are. She cites three reasons for this disconnect. First, we naturally have blind spots which results in wrong assumptions being made. Then we are all wired to operate on autopilot driven by our subconscious and are unaware of our behaviour patterns. Lastly, we are happier when we see ourselves in a more positive light which she calls as the “cult of self”. This results in over-estimation of our traits and capabilities.

The benefits that are associated with self-introspection and self-insight, include questioning and amending our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours that happen to be dysfunctional. This, in fact, is the foundation upon which psychological interventions, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) have been developed.

Jennifer Porter in her 2017 HBR article talks about self-reflection. The most useful reflection, according to her, involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which then influences our future mindsets and actions.

In tandem with these developments, a new scientific field has emerged, focusing on technology that facilitates collection and use of personally relevant information called Personal Informatics (PI). The field of PI effectively uses technologies that allow users to collect and review personally relevant information. The purpose commonly envisioned for these systems is that they provide users with actionable, data-driven self-insight to help them change their behavioural patterns for the better.

The considered opinion by psychologists, however, is that changing deeply entrenched habits invariably requires help, information, and real support from others as claimed by the five authors of the book ‘Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success’.

Let us now turn our attention to what sage Veda Vyasa says in Yoga-Bhasya or “Commentary on the Yoga Sutras“. He claims that chitta has to go through the five stages of mental processes to reach the state of samadhi or complete peace of mind. The five stages are the state of restlessness (ksipta), the state of lethargy or sluggishness (mudha), the state of distractedness or lack of concentration (viksipta), the state of focused attention (ekagra), and finally the state of restricting all perceptions (niruddha).

Yoga, however, deals with only the last two stages and provides guidance for reaching eternal peace of mind. It requires deep understanding and practice of Yoga to get to the blissful state of the mind, which is outside the scope of this blog. I will however touch on some modern research work that validates the beneficial effects of breathing control, mindfulness and meditation.

How breathing affects the brain regions responsible for memory and emotional processing was the subject of research by scientists at North-Western University. They show that even the simple act of breathing through our nose can control our brain signals and lead to improved emotional and memory processing. As regards the breath itself, slow, steady breathing activates the calming part of our nervous system which, apart from slowing our heart rate, reduces feelings of anxiety and stress. Mindful breathing emphasizes not only the breathing component, but also the mental component of paying attention and becoming aware of mind, body and breath together. By observing in a non-judgemental manner, we are able to watch our minds and feel our bodies more clearly. Our breath is powerful enough to regulate emotions and help us gain clarity, and to fully do so we must also make the effort to centre our minds to the here and now.

Patanjali advocates practice of Yoga which will provide nirodha parinama or the mental ‘transformation of dissolution’. This is the state of clarity that arises when we are fully aware of the eternal present moment after dissolving the limiting effects of our samskaras. Using western science phraseology, the deep processes embedded in Yoga similar to self-introspection, self-insight and mindfulness will help us become aware of our thoughts as they arise. Regular practise of Yoga will then help us to stop/dissolve (Nirodha) such thoughts enabling us to be clearly present in the current moment.

Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha” is one of the beginning sutras from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.
It tells us that effective practice of yoga will ultimately result in living in the present moment by stopping the unsolicited thoughts arising from the subconscious.

Why Do We Complain So Much?

If we are in a public place and take time to observe what people around us are mostly talking about, we will notice that there is a lot of complaining going on. We will hear people complain about a plethora of things including bad weather, unfair bosses, nosy in-laws, uncomfortable seats, bad food, unruly traffic and the list can go on. The list will make us wonder if our world is such a bad place to live. To give us an idea, Scott Bea of Cleveland Clinic, says that the rate of complaints in American conversations ranges from 70 to 84 percent. 

Complaining is, of course, a pervasive form of social communication but its social communicative functions are still a subject of research. In one study college students kept diaries of the complaints they made to other people for three consecutive days, twice during the same semester. Students recorded their complaints and also the reasons for expressing them. The results indicated that over 75% of all their complaints had no intention of changing any existing state of affairs but were meant either to vent their frustration or to solicit sympathy from others. The most frequent complaints involved specific behaviours of other people they dealt with. 

In a survey conducted in the UK, it was revealed that people spend, on an average, ten thousand minutes a year, complaining about something or the other. The survey claimed that millennials complained the most. While weather and politics dominated the list of complaints others had to do with relationships, work colleagues and rude clients. 

Types of complaints.

Experts break up the complaining behaviour into three main categories viz. ruminating, venting and problem solving. While venting sometimes and problem solving most of the times can be constructive and useful, ruminating is always harmful.

The first type of complaint is by a chronic complainer who is never satisfied with anything. These people tend to ruminate on their problems and setbacks obsessively and hardly ever notice the positives and good things that happen to them. It should come as no surprise that rumination plays a major part in making people prone to Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Rumination has also been shown to prolong episodes of depression.

Then, we have the second type of complaints by venters who are of two types. Some make it a point to vent their emotional dissatisfaction regularly. They tend to focus on themselves and are driven by their own negative experiences. By showing their anger, frustration, or disappointment, they are, in fact, soliciting attention. They want to be constantly validated by receiving attention and sympathy. 

Eric Berne, well known for his theory of transactional analysis, describes them as  “Yes, but” people. When the listener of the complaint responds by offering suggestions on how to solve the problem, the venter will come back with “Yes, but …” and proceed to shoot down any solutions offered. The Venter is a dissatisfied person who doesn’t want to hear solutions, however brilliant they may be. In psychology circles these people are called as ‘help-rejecting complainers’. 

The other type of venter just wants to let off pent up feelings. There is some justification for this type of venting as some people might lose their cool if they keep their feelings bottled up. It will also reduce their stress levels. Another case is when psychological therapists encourage their patients to talk about entrenched feelings of traumas and hurts. Expressing these suppressed feelings to a sympathetic listener brings some relief to the patients.  

Another set of people use complaining as a means of crafting or reinforcing their identities. They use their complaints to manipulate how others perceive them, a phenomenon psychologists call “impression management.” Commenting that the restaurant’s wine selection is below par is meant to let others know that the complainer has high standards.

Fortunately, we also have solution seeking complainers, who are genuinely interested in finding solutions to their problems. It could be a sensitive problem like ‘how to confront and control the spouse from overspending on the credit card, without damaging the relationship’. Unfortunately, these sorts of genuine complaints account for only 25 percent of all complaints.

Damaging effects of complaining.

Guy Winch, author of ‘The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way’ says that we have lost sense of what complaining is really meant to achieve and wrongly use it as an exercise for venting and that, we know, has many negative consequences. 

Travis Bradberry, author of bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, claims that repeated complaining rewires our brains to make future complaining more likely. Over time, we find it a lot easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what is happening around us. Thus complaining becomes our default behaviour and it is a matter of time before people start looking at us as perpetual complainers.

Steven Parton, researcher who is obsessed with exploring the neuroscientific and psychological impacts of technology, explains how complaining not only alters our brain for the worse but also has serious negative repercussions for our mental health. In fact, he goes so far as to say that complaining can literally kill us. His advice is to strengthen our capacity for positivity and weaken our reflex for gloom by surrounding ourselves with happy people who rewire our brain with love.

Our persistent complaining damages areas of our brain by shrinking our hippocampus, an area that is critical for problem solving and cognitive functions. It also impairs our ability to create new neurons. Damage to the hippocampus is scary, especially given that it is one of the primary brain areas that is destroyed by Alzheimer’s.

Apart from brain damage, chronic complaining has other serious consequences. When we complain, our body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol shifts us into fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood and energy away from everything else by focusing on only systems that are essential for immediate survival. One effect of cortisol, for example, is to raise our blood pressure and blood sugar so that we are better prepared to either escape or defend ourselves. All the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs our immune system and makes us more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. It even makes our brains more vulnerable to strokes.

Damaging effects of complaints on listeners.

Complaints are like viruses and it is therefore good to stay away from chronic complainers.

Research shows that If we are surrounded by complainers, then we ourselves become prone to complaining. More importantly, listening to other people complaining can have the same negative impact on our brains, as it does to the complainer. Research conducted by Sapolsky at Stanford’s medical school found that exposure to just thirty minutes of complaining and negativity in a day can physically damage our brain. 

The culprit is our mirror neurons, which duplicate in our own brains the negative emotions of others with whom we spend time. Thus, when we are talking to someone who is depressed, it will make us feel depressed, whereas if we talk to someone who is feeling self-confident and buoyant, we are likely to feel good about ourselves. This phenomenon is known as emotional contagion and our brains are hardwired for emotional contagion.

Unfortunately, negative emotions in social situations impact us lot more severely than positive emotions, thanks to this phenomenon of emotional contagion.

One of the greatest buffers against picking up emotional stress from others is to bring some stability in our thinking and also strengthen our self-esteem. When we find ourselves being impacted by moods of others, we should take notice and remind ourselves to think about things that are going very well for us. Exercise is one of the best ways to build self-esteem, because our brains are positively impacted by endorphins every time we exercise.

Shawn Achor, author of ‘Before Happiness’, says that companies like the Ritz Carlton are aware of the impact of second hand stress and have therefore started instituting the concept of “no venting” zones for their employees when they are around customers. Ochsner Health Systems  has a similar scheme to prevent a patient from catching the negative contagion from seeing a nurse seething with stress or complaint.

Why do we complain a lot?

According to psychologist and New York Time best-selling author, Rick Hanson, a negativity bias has been built into our brains over millions of years of evolution. Our ancestors lived in difficult environments and they had to gather food while avoiding deadly obstacles. Negative factors like reacting to and remembering predators and natural hazards became more important than foraging for food. Those who avoided the negative situations and thus survived, passed on their genes with embedded negativity bias. Thus our brains are simply built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news. Scott Bea says that our negative bias makes us focus on things that we are not happy about, rather than appreciate all the wonderful things that should make us really happy. Also known as positive-negative asymmetry, this negativity bias predisposes us to feel the sting of a rebuke lot more powerfully than the feeling of the joy when we receive praise or appreciation.

Managing children who complain a lot.

Listening to constant complaints from our child definitely tests our patience when we hear them say “It’s too hot” or “I don’t want to go to Grandma’s house” or “These peas are gross” and so on. Complaining isn’t good for our child either. Too much focus on negativity exposes our child to mental health problems which can culminate in anxiety and depression. We need to remember that our child’s peers would not like to spend time with a chronically complaining kid. We should help our child to learn to be more positive and curb the negativity and unhealthy social habits while he is still young. We should encourage our complaining child to look for solutions to his complaints. If he complains that it is hot while he is playing outside in the sun, we can ask him “What do you think we should do about it?” We can make him think of options like playing in the shade or getting a cold drink. This way, we make the child think of possible solutions to problems rather than getting into the habit of just complaining. It is also important not to make it a practice of providing solutions to every frustration of our child. If we are not cautious, our child may develop a sense of ‘learned helplessness’ where he will assume that other people will solve all his problems on his behalf.

We need, however, to recognise that sometimes kids complain because they want us to know that they are dealing with some difficult feelings or some physical discomfort. Many a times, just validating our child’s discomfort may be enough to settle him down. If our child’s behaviour requires further intervention, we need to make sure that we discipline or correct their behaviour without stifling their emotion.  We may say something like, “It is OK for you to feel frustrated but it is not OK for you to throw things around.”

How do we reduce ill-effects of complaints?

Robin Kowalski, Professor at Clemson University, says. “It’s all about making the best choice, knowing when to complain and to whom.” The most effective type of complaining takes place when the complainer uses facts and logic, is clear about the desired outcome and knows the authority who can make it happen. She suggests that instead of dumping all our complaints on others, it is better to write them down, reflect on them and then decide on the appropriate course of action.

Positive psychology suggests five habits that can protect us from negative mindsets of others and improve our own positive outlook. 

1. Writing and sending a two minute email praising someone we know.

2. Writing down three things for which we are grateful for. 

3. Journaling some of our positive experiences for two minutes. 

4. Doing cardio exercise for thirty minutes a day.

5. Meditating for just two minutes in a day.

Research shows that cultivating an attitude of gratitude reduces the habit of complaining. The trick is to shift our attention to something that we are grateful for, whenever we feel like complaining. This habit of contemplating things that we are grateful for, reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23% thus improving our health. 

Jovon Bernal, a meditation teacher and owner of Downey Yoga, suggests complaint cleanse, which is like meditation when we notice our thoughts without judgment, then using our breath, a mantra or another technique bring our mind back to the present. Thus complaint cleansing simply challenges us to acknowledge our negative thoughts and switch them around to something we feel good about in the present.

Bhagavad Gita teaches us to treat alike both pleasure & pain as well as success & failure. It encourages us to appreciate that failure is also a step in our progress. It asks us to cultivate the practice of focusing on our actions and not worry about the results, as we have no control on various other factors that affect the results. There are many such profound thoughts and words of wisdom in many of ancient Indian scriptures.

Some References:

Conscious and Unconscious Thought Processes

Our unconscious processes keep us alive and respond to external stimuli:

For most of human history, only the concepts of conscious thought and intentional behaviour existed. However large body of research over the past several years have concluded that evolution has equipped us with unconscious processes for our very survival and reproduction. It is the unconscious that handles all of our basic physical functions like our breathing, heart rate, immune system, etc. It is these subconscious processes that create our feelings, intuitions and gut reactions and help us prioritize the things that are more important for us to perform. Studies indicate that our culture and early learnings fine-tune many of these adaptive unconscious processes to be in synch with specific local conditions into which we are born. Recent studies also show that contextual priming is the mechanism that generates subconscious processes that influences us to make more precise adjustments to the way we think, behave and react to all the events and people in any given context.

Incidentally, new research shows that babies display glimmers of consciousness and memory when they are just around 5 months old. What this means is, that starting from birth, it is these unconscious processes that keep us alive and kicking, helping us to adjust to the environment we live in. Thus, as babies, our body movements, crying when we are hungry and looking at things around us with excitement are all done without our explicit awareness till we reach the age of 5 years.

In fact, Infants have no control over their movements in the first eight weeks and all their physical activity is involuntary or reflex. They move their bodies while they are awake, but they do not yet know how to make each part of their body move independently. They are not even aware  that all the body parts belong to them. Interestingly, exposure to maternal speech-sounds in the muffled confines of the womb enables the fetus to pick up statistical regularities so that the new-born can distinguish its mother’s voice and even her language from that of others. 

Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman in his best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow, characterizes automatic thought processes, which he calls as System 1,  as fast, efficient and typically outside the realm of conscious awareness, making them devoid of deliberation or planning. We do not realize that everyday activities like riding a bicycle, playing tennis, driving a car negotiating traffic and signals or even just walking – all involve mastering complex sets of motor skills, but we are hardly aware of them once we have practised enough.

It is the ‘unconscious’ that really does bulk of our so-called thinking work:

Ezequiel Morsella of San Francisco State University came to a startling conclusion that consciousness itself is no more than a passive machine running one simple algorithm — to receive and serve up what is already analysed and decided by the unconscious.

The Passive Frame Theory claims that most of our decisions and the thought processes behind them are performed by many parts of our unconscious brain, well below our level of awareness. When the time comes to physically act on a decision, inputs from various unconscious processes are integrated to arrive at a decision and then handed over to our conscious part of the brain enabling us to execute it. Christof Koch suggests that the single area in the brain called Claustrum is responsible for integrating information across distinct regions of our brain and presenting the integrated view to our conscious brain.

Cognitive scientists Stanislas Dehaene and Bernard Baars developed ‘Global Workspace Theory’ which posits that to consider ourselves as conscious, a mental state which allows us to act, respond, verbalize or take decisions, it is essential for working memory to have been provided with all the requisite contents. 

What is Unconscious and Conscious?

The unconscious is the vast sum of operations of the mind that take place below the level of conscious awareness and these deeper mental processes are not readily available to the conscious mind. Scientists know that even fleeting perceptions which are too swift to register on our conscious awareness, can nevertheless leave lasting imprints on the unconscious mind. Thus a variety of information can get registered in our minds without our explicit awareness or attention.   

Steve Ayan, in his article in Scientific American writes that where we direct our attention, what we remember and the ideas that we possess, what we filter out from the flood of stimuli that bombard us, how we interpret these stimuli and what goals we pursue—all these result from automatic unconscious processes. 

Ben Newell of University of New South Wales and David Shanks of University College of London have a simple definition of consciousness. To call a process as conscious, they claim, we should have reportable knowledge of it. Yet another definition of consciousness is that it is the sensory awareness of the body, the self, and the world.

Thus our conscious mind contains all our thoughts, feelings, cognitions, and memories that we acknowledge. Consciousness is variously referred to by scholars as “sentience”, “subjective experience,” “phenomenal state,” “qualia” etc.

We use the terms ‘feeling’ and ‘emotion’ as synonyms, but they are not interchangeable. Emotions are physical and instinctive and they act instantly prompting bodily reactions to threat, reward and everything in between. While these are thus unconscious, the feelings are the conscious experience of emotional reactions. Steve Ayan gives the example that there are instances when we consciously feel nervous or irritated misinterpreting the internally generated emotion triggered by hunger requiring us to eat to get over the feeling. Children often throw tantrums reacting to internally generated emotions without recognising that it is the feeling of hunger and the moment we feed them they are back to normal.

Extra-ordinary Efficiency of our unconscious:

We know that information is stored associatively in our brain, which is largely bundles of pathways of association. It is estimated that our unconscious can process roughly eleven million pieces of information per second compared to the pitifully low number of forty pieces of information that our conscious brains can process in a second. The limited processing capability is due to our small capacity of working memory.  

David Oakley of UCL and Peter Halligan of Cardiff University suggest that our personal awareness does not create, cause or choose our beliefs, feelings or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated “behind the scenes” by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains. Put simply, we don’t consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings – we become aware of them when they are brought into our working memory.

Michael Graziano of Princeton University recognizes this limitation of working memory and quotes “The Attention Schema Theory (AST)” which postulates that consciousness arises as a solution to this most fundamental limitation facing our nervous system. There is far too much information that we constantly receive which needs to be fully processed. The brain, over centuries, has evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms both for unconscious and conscious processes to work in tandem. Our unconscious processes make the judgement calls on what is important for us and what is not. This results in the unconscious processes selecting only relevant signals, integrating them and  presenting them to our conscious brain while ignoring the rest of the large number of other signals received. 

We know that consciousness can be transiently abolished by pharmacological agents or more permanently, by brain injury. Let us also not forget that consciousness is seemingly lost and recovered every day, from the moment we fall asleep until we wake up while the subconscious is feverishly at work. It is interesting, that in order to explain the concept of ‘self’ more easily, the Hindu Vedic scholars describe deep sleep as a state when our ‘being’ can be looked at as standing apart from us more like an observer. At that stage, we are completely and absolutely unconscious even when our body is still functioning, run by our unconscious processes.

A large body of neuroscientific studies points out that the brain really does a lot of work when it does not appear to be thinking about anything at all, like when we are asleep. Studies reveal that this is the time when our brains work at their hardest to find solutions to any number of complex problems that we face.

The unconscious mind, of course, has long been appreciated as a deep well of creativity from which some of our greatest artworks, scientific discoveries and inventions have been dredged up. But studies show the unconscious is also a powerhouse when it comes to processing extremely large amounts of information or when trying to find solutions to our complex problems. Rose Hoare of CNN goes on to say that the concept “Got a big decision to make? Sleep on it” actually works.

Downside of unconscious processing:

While we can appreciate the unconscious part of the brain taking on so many responsibilities and executing them efficiently without burdening our conscious, there are some downsides. All our biases and beliefs operate at the unconscious level and heavily influence our decisions and actions many of which may be detrimental to our functioning. Similarly, many of our entrenched misconceptions which operate at the unconscious level are very difficult to change and these affect us adversely. Dysfunctional biases, beliefs and misconceptions together form the main cause for many of the problems that we face in social and interpersonal relationships. Our lack of awareness of these debilitating unconscious processes makes us incapable of correcting them on our own, without expert external help.

Afterall, most forms of psychotherapy aim to bring into conscious awareness all our hidden beliefs and fears, often acquired during our childhood so that they can be critically examined. The goal is to make us aware of the deeper reasons for our behaviours and our feelings in order to enable us to change them to be more appropriate.

It should therefore come as no surprise that many a times, triggered by our unconscious processes, we act and behave in ways that are diametrically opposite to our consciously expressed beliefs. As an example, many people claim that they display positive attitude towards minority groups but are astonished when social scientists prove them wrong with a simple test called “The Implicit Association Test”.

But none of this theory takes away our treasured qualities as sentient human beings — our imagination, our language, our sense of self and others — it just points to the unconscious mind as the main player on our brainy fields.

Note: I have used in this blog ‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness’ to mean the same. But experts have slightly different connotations which is beyond the scope of this blog.