Friday, May 22, 2015

The Tell Tale Brain - Unlocking the Mysteries of the Mind

That our brain works in a complex way is a grand understatement. The labyrinthine of neuroscience can completely overwhelm the ordinary reader. Even after an understanding has crystallized, the ordinary reader may feel a nuanced appreciation has remained elusive. In The Tell Tale Brain, VS Ramachandran has attempted to explain the intricacies (and sometimes absurdities) of how our brain functions to the uninitiated reader.

And although he may not have completely succeeded in doing so, his attempt has surely resulted in a fascinating read - bringing to the average reader such intellectually stimulating things as how art evolved, why does an autistic child draws better than a French master, why does a person feel the presence of a missing limb, why seeing colour is special and what seeing different colours means – and much more.

Theories in neuro science are always evolving with old theories getting reviewed, changed, challenged and sometimes replaced by new ones. Similarly, there is no single theory on anything – scientists disagree almost on everything leading to the existence of multiple theories on everything. Ramachandran has discussed every contemporary and past stream of thought and argument on every issue he has dealt with in The Tell Tale Brain.

The Tell Tale Brain, a title inspired from Edger Allen Poe’s Tell Tale Heart, also explores every angle of a brain problem – discussing not just the technical aspects (with respect to brain functionalities) but also their evolution, evolutionary purpose and how differently something has evolved for non-humans, and thus arriving at what makes us unique among those we share the planet with.

Ramachandran says the ability to copy, among other things, an ability mirror neurons are responsible for, makes humans unique. This ability is not available in animals or at least at a level as sophisticated as in humans. So while a cub can learn from its mother how to hunt, it can never learn subtler skills, like language, from its parents or from other animals. Ramachandran says this ability to learn from others (or copy) is at the heart of accomplishments that are unique to humans, like culture, language (unless you are among those who believe dolphins have a language) etc. And this ability is also responsible for empathy, which again is among the core abilities required for something which is uniquely human – art.

A survey was conducted where the participants were given two sketches of a running horse, one done by an autistic child and the other by a French master without telling the participants which one is sketched by whom. And the majority found the one done by the autistic child better than the one by the French master!

Ramachandran says there are two parts in our brain (broadly), one of them is responsible for artistic output and the other deals with logic-based activities. Since the autistic child’s other side is completely dysfunctional (since autism causes loss of social or any other skill) all his mental energies flow unconsumed into the part that’s concerned with art, unlike in the case of the French master with whom some of the energy is consumed by the non-artistic part of the brain. Read the book for more such insights on how our brain works.

The Tell Tale Brain reads like a thriller V.V Ramachandran’s erudition notwithstanding.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin

If you read Thomas Hardy’s life you will know how the prose overshadows verse. Thomas Hardy’s first love was poetry and he had taken to novel writing only to earn a living. But most of us know him as a novelist, existence of several poetry collections to his credit notwithstanding. Of all the biographies of writers I have read or those I know about Thomas Hardy comes from a most unlikely background for a novelist. 

Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy “The Time Torn Man “ traces the life of the famous British Victorian writer his birth onwards going a little further back in time, in fact, for a snapshot of his parents’ life and their circumstances through his finding of literary fame, his love affairs (most of them one-sided) and the trials and tribulations Hardy had to go through to establish himself as a writer.

Thomas Hardy was born to poor parents in English countryside, in Higher Bockhampton near Dorchester. His mother, Jemima, was a domestic maid with literary inclinations. She had access to the libraries of the educated and read some classics.  She had modest ambitions beyond her station but never achieved them. Understandably, Hardy took his first steps towards literature holding his mother’s hand. Hardy’s father was a stonemason and local builder.

Hardy married the woman he loved and it was a steady marriage, although they didn’t have any kids and despite Hardy’s life-long mental philandering where he had romantic feelings for women both older and younger than him and most of them much married even as he remained loyal to his wife avoiding any mutually acknowledged romantic or physical relationship with any other woman, although failing to hide his mental infidelities from his wife, who, understandably, bitterly detested it but also silently suffered it. Hardy married twice; the second time when he was in his 70s and his wife, mid 20s.

Hardy extended this Jackal and Hyde character to his attitude towards religion. He had fallen off Christian faith as a young man but maintained the outwardly signs of devoutness (he visited church regularly), so that upon his death the local cleric told that Hardy had lived life like a true Christian. Several times his beliefs revealed residues of Christian beliefs.   

It was not until slightly later in life, when he was in early 20s, that Hardy started taking interest in writing, unlike those who wake up to their literary call as children. There is no denying the fact that, though, the seeds were sowed much earlier, only that they took time to sprout up and be seen. The sprouting happened when Hardy worked in London as an architect, a profession he was initiated into by his father and a craft he was not too bad at.

His days in London exposed him to a larger world and a wider range of experience and became a canvas to compare his rural life with. He wrote a book based on this experience but didn’t get a publisher. A few publishers showed some interest only to back out later. Thomas Hardy’s first book, serialized like many others’ in his days and before, was Under the Greenwood Tree.

Among his novels, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, much ahead of its time in terms of the values it dealt with, was closest to Hardy’s heart.

Like the other famous writers of his time, Hardy’s novels were serialized. But unlike his contemporaries and they are equally mammoth-like figures in literature, like Henry James, EM Foster (a little junior to Hardy), Rudyard Kipling etc, Thomas Hardy specialized in rural England,  fact which in proximity to Dickens; both dealt with poverty, one with rural, the other with urban.  The people surrounded by whom Hardy grew up became his characters; the rural scene he had grown up amidst became the landscape of his novels.

Gradually fame came to him and he came to be recognized as a great. Claire Tomalin has said Hardy had a melancholic personality (confirmed by many who saw the writer) but hasn’t drawn any connection between his personality and the melancholic nature of his novels.

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