Friday, December 31, 2010

Reflections: The People of The Mist

After a series of misfortunes that leaves Leonard Outram and his brother penniless and swindled of their fortune, the brothers launch on an adventure of a life-time in search of gold in Central Africa, with the dream that they will soon return home to claim back their ancestral property. In Africa, Leonard loses his brother to sickness. He befriends some locals whom he hires to serve him through his expeditions. One such faithful man was a curious African dwarf, by the name, Otter. Otter is an extremely brave, strong, loyal and resourceful servant. One day, they chance upon a middle-aged lady weeping at losing her beloved white-mistress, Juanna, to slave-traders. Soa, the mysterious woman, lures Leonard to rescue her mistress,with the pledge that she will help him find an exquisite treasure of rubies and sapphires from the land of the people of the mist. Leonard agrees and sets on a dangerous adventure where he and his team encounter the strange and savage tribe of the People of the Mist, who are one of the most superstitious, blood-thirsty clans in Africa. With a liberal dose of adrenaline-rushing adventure and romance, the story is an addictive page-turner.

If you have read King Solomon’s Mines in middle-school (or any other time), then you must be familiar with the author, H. Rider Haggard. His stories are centered around ancient tribes and civilizations and the early European treasure-seekers who risk their lives for the sake of adventure and treasure. In addition to the twists and turns of the plot and the nail-biting action, the stories focus on exploring the customs and curious traditions of archaic societies. The barbarism and brutality is contrasted with the basic threads of human emotions that connect the civilized and the “savage”. His stories subtly extol the virtues of nobility, although it’s an irony that the “hero” usually invades these old communities to satisfy his greed for wealth, regardless of the havoc he wreaks upon the people.

But the book is entertaining nonetheless. And the immaculate prose makes the story feel like a classy adaption of Indiana Jones :)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reflections: Man's Search for Meaning

Almost every other day, I find myself feeling bad at my ignorance of truly brilliant books, and alternately feeling overwhelmed and almost desolate at the thought that I can in no way read even half of all the wonderful books available in my lifetime. I am not sure how I got by all these years without coming across Man’s Search for Meaning.

Victor Frankl was a psychiatrist who put forth the theory of Logotherapy, based on the core existential philosophy that man’s fight for survival, even in the most grim and tragic circumstances is because of his ability to attribute meaning and purpose to his life. This might seem  very simplistic and almost intuitive (or counter-intuitive), but the depth of this theory comes to light as Frankl assesses it during his three years at the Nazi concentration camps. This is an extremely inspiring, practical and realistic book, which holds a very special place in my shelf.

One would think that the repeated mentions, memoirs and stories surrounding the World War II and the concentration/death camps would eventually make one turn a little numb at the horrors and extent of dehumanization. But no matter how many versions you hear, see enacted, or read, the horrors intensify and haunt you even more. I can’t imagine how there were human beings who survived through so much damage to the body, mind and spirit. I am one of those who wouldn’t even survive if I were asked to imagine it all for a day. Frankl’s recounts at the concentration camps touched me so deeply, almost flipping my heart inside out, because of his approach at narrating his experiences, the tone he takes, and the analytic angle he deftly uses to dissect the prisoners’ (and the guards’) psychology - the stages of their mental states, the reasons for them, and the ways by which he and some others manage to rise above it all.

Frankl started working on Logotherapy as a potential psycho-therapeutic technique to help people combat depression, and thoughts of suicide. At the concentration camps, he could use his personal experiences, as well his objective observations of his fellow prisoners to validate his speculations and theories. His book therefore has a fine balance between realism, philosophical speculation and psychological validation.

I agree with his underlying assertion that human beings abandon their will to survive and get bogged down in depression if they lose their anchoring to find a meaning, a cause, a purpose, or any goal in their life (i.e., if they sink into an  existential vacuum). Doesn’t matter if life probably is indeed meaningless, random and arbitrary (as the Nihilists believe), or if the innate purpose of our existence is merely the procreation of our genes (as the natural-selectionsists assert). At times of intense tragedy and absurd circumstances, it doesn’t help to be reminded that Life is random and meaningless; such a belief is likely to crush the spirit, and worse, bring out the animalistic tendencies of survival. It’s much more practical and utilitarian to orient ourselves to a goal, a meaning or a purpose to develop and refine our most humane tendencies and mature the spirit. It’s by far the most constructive technique of growth and acceptance.

Frankl regards human-beings to have the potential to face the worst, and emerge unbroken in spirit. He views them to be much more than “brain-machines”, a humane departure from most other scientists and psychiatrists. He therefore rejects the notion that human-beings can be reduced to their biological determinants. I strongly favor this approach, although I keep my mind open to every possible theory. I realize that it’s good to be in a state of equilibrium with regards to such theories and speculations on the human mind/spirit, for it helps one stay objective. But in dire situations, I concede that it’s natural and even necessary to adopt a tragic optimism (in Frankl’s words) to remain strong in spirit and continue working towards something constructive.

I reached a kind of epiphany with Frankl’s assertion that, suffering needs to be attributed to a cause or a purpose for it to be bearable. How true! That’s all the mind needs to know to reconcile with pain and misery. And that’s precisely the reason why Religion tries to associate meaning, even if they be myths, to every suffering possible (more wonderfully argued by Jopseh Campbell, in The Power of Myth). And Spirituality teaches techniques to reach a state of equanimity wherein we view suffering as means to our growth. I appreciate the fact that all of these techniques and preachings eventually lead us to take responsibility of our Life, and remind us that we are in control of the attitude we adopt to deal with the circumstances. The Nihilists may just regard this as a boost to the Human-Ego, which it probably is, because of the pedestal on which we place the human spirit and its ability to elevate, but it’s a wonderfully practical tonic! Doesn’t matter if we live through an illusion of sacrifice and a lofty ideal, if it helps us embrace the unimaginable.

I strongly believe that techniques of Logotherapy are one of the most practical approaches towards psychotherapy. It deals with providing people who are struggling with misery, a meaning and goal to work towards. The existential purpose need not be arbitrary or even idealistic. Even the basic responsibilities - such as being responsible for our family, is a valuable goal. It urges us to take responsibility of our life, and reminds us that our life is something unique and irreplaceable. Neitzche’s words are quite apt -  “He who has a Why to live for, can bear almost any How”.

This is a book that I’m sure to resort to multiple times to gain inspiration.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reflections: Emma

Emma Woodhouse is a charming young lady in Highbury. She is a smart, genteel woman, observing all the manners and views of the Victorian “high-bred” society. She believes she has an innate talent to be a match-maker and prides herself on successfully matching couples, until she makes multiple mistakes with her new and innocent friend, Harriet. Emma is generally headstrong, spoilt and a little pretentious in holding onto prejudices of class and status. Multiple characters get introduced, all of whom fall under Emma’s radar as potential mates for Harriet or for herself, resulting in a romantic imbroglio of sorts, not knowing who is truly interested in whom, until Austen slowly unwraps the convoluted romantic jumble.

This work is hailed as one of Austen’s most popular works. One of my friends, who is a trusted literary enthusiast, has often told me that I had to read Emma, for she considered it one of Austen’s most charming books. I went by her words, but I failed to feel her appreciation for the book. Perhaps I have outgrown Jane Austen. The language is no doubt eloquent and beautiful, gently and intelligently drawing the characters’ personalities. But I didn’t see much of a story, or a plot. It was more of a satire to me, on how genteel ladies of that time idled their time on frivolities, prejudices and gossip. But contrary to how much I love and adore Wodehouse’s similar satire on the aristocrats and pompous British, I found this particular story to be meandering and boring.

But if Austen’s intention was to make a statement about the need for a change in society so that women were occupied with more constructive things than indulge in trivialities, and marriage was not seen as a social ambition or financial security for women, then, I truly applaud her for thinking ahead of her times.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Reflections: Matters of Faith

Marshall has been struggling with questions on belief, faith and religion. He is a vulnerable and precocious teenager who explores several forms of faith to forget and make peace with the trauma of watching his close friend die before his eyes. He seems to have found the perfect girl-friend; a staunch fundamentalist who promises to help him realize the miracles of Faith. Marshall couldn’t have been more proud as he brings his questionable girl-friend Ada, to meet his family during Spring-break. Marshall’s dad seems to abhor religion and its rudimentary aspects and views Marshall’s ways with concern and skepticism. His mom tries to be the open-minded scholar, who lets her son explore options as part of an intellectual pursuit. His sister Megan is an easily swayed girl, who is severely allergy-prone and is on the cusp of being a teenager. Ada, the vegetarian, the organic-whole-food-eating, medical-intervention-hating, God-loving girl, convinces Megan to eat a cookie with a few wisps of peanuts to strengthen her immunity. She regards this as a test of faith, believing God to cure Megan of her ailment. As Marshall watches with fear, faith and horror, Megan plummets into a dangerous coma, shaking the foundations of his family and making the question of what exactly is Faith loom large.

Just a few snippets of the book’s synopsis were enough to make me hunt this book down. The angst of understanding what is Faith, and if it can exist independent of Religion, frames the story of my life, as I’m sure it does most lives. I thought the plot had all the setting - a confused boy wondering which faith to resort to even before realizing what he is searching for, an open-minded, all embracing mother, a skeptical father, a fanatic girl practising almost-barbaric things in the name of Faith, a strict Christian grandmother who believes God talks to her, and a young girl whose life depends on faith; the question is, which form of faith. To some extent, the story and the writing did analyze the different forms of faith and concludes with a reasonable explanation of what forms the core of Faith and Hope. But for the most part, I felt there wasn’t enough content with a more rigorous and thoughtful analysis on the subject - especially with the characters and the story screaming with so much potential. It could also just be due to my over-critical nature on this subject. After so many years of mulling this in my head and discussing with people, I have seen every perspective possible (or so I believe), but I just haven’t figured out what sense to make of it all. And perhaps expecting a book of fiction to wrap it all up for me is unrealistic!

The writing was quite mellow and touches on the most elusive parts of our emotions. But I also thought it meandered a bit, wallowing into details that didn’t contribute to the story. Faith wasn’t explicitly discussed except at the beginning and the end. The meat of the book was on the turmoil the family goes through and how they pull together the reins of their careening lives to reach some semblance of sanity and stability. Perhaps this ability to reach acceptance and stability has to do with the innate strength we have, to continue hoping for the best and having faith in ourselves and our attempts. Religion and prayers help to outwardly gain and manifest this strength and comfort. Rituals are guiding steps to those who fumble with finding this well of reserve within themselves. But misconstrue the rituals and take them too far from the realm of rationality and even humanity, and everything tumbles down. It’s a fine line to walk between faith and fanaticism. As discussed multiple times before, faith needs to rest on some modicum of rationality.

In all, it was a contemplative book that muffles the weight of the subject with its delicate prose.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Reflections: The Phantom of the Opera

I’ve only been to two musicals in all my life. There are several I wish to see someday, and The Phantom of the Opera is surely one of them. I was never curious to read the book until I chanced upon it and I decided to read it on a whim. After all, a popular musical would be well worth reading as a book, right? Absolutely, yes. I can perfectly understand how this can be a powerful and mesmerizing musical, and I can’t wait to see it someday.

The story is about the mysterious Opera ghost who seems to haunt the walls of the Paris Opera House, wreaking havoc among the managers, the audience and the opera performers with his supposed witch-crafts and threats. The disruptive activities of the phantom come to the glaring spotlight when the alluring singer, Christine Dae gets entangled in his tentacles. The phantom calls himself the Angel of Music, and helps Christine with her singing lessons. Surely, the phantom is ingeniously talented in music and has the rapturous voice of an angel. But the rest of him is shrouded in a dark, deathly shadow. The story is about dissecting who the phantom is, if he really does exist, and how the poor, innocent singer is rescued from his grips.

The book has a lot of elements running through it - mystery, suspense, romance, and a Gothic flavor that heightens the tension and tragedy. I have realized that books which capture all of these elements leave the most impact on me. Plus, books that deal with an interesting plot surrounding an intense character keep me totally consumed and engrossed. I love intense, over-the-edge kind of plots based on the human psyche - it both fascinates and horrifies me. It’s perfect to sink into the story and analyze one single character who portrays the most devious and brilliant mind.

It’s a pity I can’t ramble on about anything else, for I will be spilling the mystery and spoil the book for those who want to read and learn things by themselves. But the book touched me. I thought it was brilliant that the author came up with such a haunting psychological thriller surrounding a conventional Opera house. It leaves you wondering who the real victims in the book are, and indeed how shallow our perceptions of physical appearances really are.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Places I Never Meant To Be

With  the new year fast approaching, I thought it would be fun to look back and see how much I have detoured from my expected life-course.  So I decided to be a copy cat and make a list of places I never meant to be, inspired from my friend’s post :). And wait, she says she’s tagged me, so all the merrier!

More than physical places, figuratively speaking, there are many many places in my life that I sorely wish I didn’t have to be. I have tripped into many sour soups and pickles and burnt myself nicely.  I never imagined that I would be plunged into such dreaded places where I had to make the most excruciatingly difficult and painful decisions of my life and live with the searing guilt and bruises for the rest of my life. But, hopefully I don’t have to walk back and forth through the gates of Hell again. Universe, are you listening? ;)

Anyway, having got that (temporarily) off my chest, let me slip into a lighter mood :)

1. A couple of years back, my father asked me in his characteristic sarcastic tone, “So, you’re sure you want to go and live inside a freezer?” Ah. (chilly silence) . Then, I bit the bullet and nodded an affirmation. And here I am, never even having dreamt that I would live in a frigid place, where several inches of snow and ice are quite commonplace. But I have no complaints. Except for the dangerous driving conditions, it’s beautiful to wake up to the silent fall of snow, gaze at blankets (and towers) of whiteness, and build snowmen without suffering a frost-bite (Er, I’m still working on it).

2. I melted into a puddle of tears the evening I returned from a horrific bus journey, where I had to stand cramped in a crowded college bus for hours, with hooligan “senior” boys heckling us in the name of ragging. I never meant to go to such a place, in such a bus, amid such deplorable company. But a few months later, after I spotted a super brainy, IIT-hugging, humble friend joke around in the canteen, I “wizened”. If he could study there and be a sport, I should too. I decided to grit my teeth and make the best use of my time. And I think, I almost did, staying all the while in the first bench.

3. Due to my (lack of) keen sense of spatial orientation, I often drive and end up in places I never meant to be. I also will steadfastly set out to walk to the library and will  suddenly end up in a totally different building, which will cause me to make a clumsy 360 degree turn on my heels as my body’s way of trying to figure out the current location. Some people advise that I shouldn’t be letting my thoughts drift as I walk.

4. In a hardware store, hunting for plumbing equipment to fix a running and clogged toilet.  And then returning home to stare and prod at a place where I never imagined I would spend the better half of an hour.

5. At a Casino. And that too, losing money. I thought a prudish nerd would be a total misfit there. And for the record, I still don’t understand how the slot machines work. I numbly stare at the colorful, jingling symbols and when they stop and announce I haven’t hit the jackpot yet, I whack a button that best appeals to me at the moment and hope to win as the symbols jingle-jangle. Chimps would do better.  

6. On a dance floor. Silly college farewells. I can’t move my limbs suitably to even feign dancing, but I was happily flailing about without a care in the world.

7. My family is on very friendly terms with plenty of head temple-priests in the remotest parts of Tamil Nadu. My mom or father-in-law has to just whip out their phone and punch a few numbers, and within minutes we’ll be treated as VIPs and be whisked through secret corridors and tunnels, bypassing pesky lines and will be seated right next to the Idol and the temple cockroach and handed plenty of Prasad. It’s a very disconcerting feeling. In addition, we’ll be taken to the priest’s humble and quaint home, which will quite stir and sadden me. The old wells, the crumbling roofs, the peeling wall paint, the cows in the backyard, the kitchen with a teeny wood burning stove, the girl my age standing morose in a modest saree and holding three kids, make me feel eerily transported to a different era, and I often wonder how I ended up there and how all of this can still be part of the world I live.

Well, I can’t think of anymore “cool” or extraordinary places that I managed to get myself in without meaning to. If you think this is an interesting exercise, type away your “places” in your space!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Second Chances

This whole term, I have been gripped with the same angst as the person in here suffers.

There was a time, long long ago when I considered being a teacher. I loved the notion of being able to impart some form of “knowledge”, and of presenting myself as an empathetic counselor, who would rise above and beyond repeating words from a textbook and be a “reformer”, a “mentor” of some kind. The whole concept of understanding the psychology of students and guiding them before they take a wrong turn seemed to appeal to me. I always start with lofty ideas and idealistic dreams.

I reformed this ambition over the years - scratching off ideas, introducing revisions, reinventing career paths, putting down “inter-disciplines”, diverging into roads-less-traveled, and well, continuing to pave the roads that somehow lead me to the vicinity of what I initially planned on accomplishing. While I try to frustratedly explain this to confused people, who ask me, “So, what exactly are you doing? And what does it mean”, I have to admit, there are days when I do feel grateful that my destiny swung off course and saved me from becoming a teacher.

In all these years of graduate student life, I’ve had the “privilege” of being a Teaching Assistant and Full Time Instructor, for about 6 courses. Barring a couple of instances when I actually felt a surge of satisfaction at the end of the semester and swelled with the feeling that I really did make a ripple of a difference in somebody’s life, I’ve been left utterly exasperated and disappointed. I try to make light of it by reminding myself of the gang of buffoons and baboons that I was part of in my undergraduate days. But in a way, those callous and unprofessional professors seemed to deserve the hooligans. All those bright minds that never even tried to glance at assignments and projects and blatantly copied from the nerdy first-benchers, are now in respectable positions, doing great for themselves. And I don’t suspect that they have dilapidated moral foundations either. They seemed to know when and where to draw the line.

But somebody has to come along and push me to the edge. As a graduate student, I don’t demand “respect” in the classes I help teach. My enthusiasm corroded after a few courses. Now I do my duty and leave the rest to the students, without fretting or trying too hard to inspire. I have other pressing things to focus on than go out of my way and try to inspire kids who would just sneer at my earnest attempts, or so I tell myself. I choose to ignore people who yawn, sleep, update their Facebook profile, track football scores, give wise-ass retorts, or just stare at the wall disinterestedly. It’s their prerogative. In labs, I spell out the formula and will even help them plug it all into Excel, if they choose to ask me. I hover around computers, relentlessly spilling out “hints”. I mark in big bold red markers the concept that they have to apply for the assignment staring right in front of them. And yet, it appalls me, that some would still hand in a shoddy report. Fine. So, I grade by searching for a few words that convey the concept, give partial credits for even “thinking partially”, organize extra study sessions, and what do some people still resort to? Copying, cheating and proxy signing. And to put the bitter cherry on the icing, it happens to be an Indian who hopes to get away with all of the above.

I hate stereotyping, but this is quite typical of an Indian teenager who finishes his high-school in India and walks into a class here, thinking, “Chalta hai, like this girl is even going to notice all this.” He has better things to do, like skip lab, have someone proxy sign for him, skip classes, giggle at facebook profiles, complain about how “difficult” and “irrelevant” this course is, demand more points for an utterly wrong answer, quiz about class averages, and suggest that we curve the grades. He has the nerve to turn in one of the most easiest, middle-school-level assignments, by copy-pasting his friend’s graph that quite clearly doesn’t correspond to his results. Is a TA that dumb to not notice that the numbers don’t correspond on a bar graph? Sure enough, I dig out a suspected accomplice’s paper,  another Indian, and lo! there’s his graph.  Academic dishonesty in the US is taken very very seriously - the punishments are so severe and will cast a black-mark on the transcript and is sure to haunt for the rest of one’s life.

But I hate to be the person to bring him down. As my rage boiled over, I couldn’t ignore the thought of dozens of guys I know who engaged in such acts in their under-grad days. And I still hold them in good regards. This little graph seemed harmless in a bigger perspective, especially given the fact that he had completed the other parts, and just decided to be lazy to merely plug his results into Excel. He couldn’t spare those 5 minutes and lifted his friend’s graph. However, he had met the Lab’s objectives; the graph itself was just a superfluous extension. Proxy-signing, I brushed off and marked him absent. In the grand scheme of his grades, these two things would count less than 2% of his grade. And he carelessly, idiotically decided to take the risk when the benefits were so insignificant.

I rationalized and rationalized, and eventually decided to take off points that he did not deserve and confronted him with these issues over an email. I decided not to take this up with my professor, but warned him, and “berated” him for assuming that such things go unnoticed.

At home, I relate this to the husband and he fumes at my “innocence” and “benevolence”. No one cares that you give them a second-chance, he rails. People like him don’t learn through forgiveness, he says. He then issues this warning - the more you give in, the more you forgive, the more you will be taken for a ride and treated as a doormat by such people. In effect, he lectures that I’m not being a smart, intelligent woman in a cut-throat world.

We both come from our own episodes of hurt. He tries to shake me out of the compulsion to endlessly give people multiple chances, rationalizing their flaws and forgiving their mistakes with the hope that they will one day change. I know his rant towards me goes deeper than just this episode. But I struggle to change. 

This morning, the student apologizes and asks if he can still get partial credit if he redid the work. Before I was swayed to say yes, I typed out no. No matter how long a rope you give such people, they always push the envelope and ask for more. I would love to listen to what his moral conscience, if any, is saying. However, I try to remember this book, and tell myself what a small issue this is, and how much more effectively I could have handled it to help change his ways. I guess it's indeed better that I am not a teacher.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Reflections: The Dragons of Eden

Any book on the human brain/mind is sure to light up my... well, figurative antennae. To top it, an award winning book on the evolution of human intelligence, written by a renowned scientist, was simply screeching to be read. Carl Sagan has carefully arranged his thoughts and his speculations on the evolution of the human brain, trying to pin-point the turn when intelligence made its entry and propelled Homosapiens to the the top of the food chain.

Not sure if I’m hovering on the brink of a “Writer’s-block”, or some form of lapse in the Broca’s region of my brain, but lately I have been struggling to pull out words from vague puffs of thoughts. I take longer than usual to speak, and wrestle with my mind to put down intelligent (or even sensible) sounding words on paper. So, my thoughts on this book are going to sound quite inadequate. And honestly, I’m quite surprised that I am not practically oozing with things to discuss and reflect on after reading such a book.

One of the things I was disappointed with the book was that, Sagan dwells on the evolution of the human brain - the physical mass itself, while I pointedly wanted to read about the progression of intelligence. I guess it goes back to the philosophical implication - there is no mind without the brain. And yes, I understand that it’s not easy to define intelligence without discussing the numerous cognitive regions of the brain. But, since I was quite familiar with the regions of the brain, the localized and non-localized cognitive functions, the extremely cool experiments with people and monkeys concerning language, the mind-blowing experiments with “split-brained” people, the significance of the corpus-callosum and the interaction between the left and right hemispheres etc.... the book didn’t hold enough insights or surprises for me. I was looking for a few missing pieces in my puzzle, and it sadly didn’t hand me those. Nevertheless, it’s an intelligent and engaging read. And for an astrophysicist to gather so much research evidence and glean wonderful and precise insights into the complexities of the human brain is testament to Sagan’s mind-blowing intelligence.

However, I am not omniscient. I did learn quite a few things. It was quite fascinating to learn that our brain-mass as well as our body to brain mass ratio, have been rapidly increasing, relative to other animals on the planet. So bigger brains do, in a sense, mean more intelligence! In a nut-shell, intelligence or higher-order reasoning abilities are attributed to the development of the neocortex, the part of the brain specific to mammals. I was impressed with the archaeological and anthropological evidences of the progression of the brain and the development of the temporal and frontal lobes, all of which are also associated with intelligence. Haven’t we heard our grand-moms say, a  broader forehead marks intelligence? And ahem, that is Sagan’s hypothesis on why human childbirth is so painful - our pelvic bones haven’t evolved at the rate at which the human head has “grown” or changed in shape (wish I could paste pictures of the skulls of Neanderthals versus homo-sapiens). Besides, given the structure of our bodies, apparently the pelvic bones cannot become wider without damaging our gait and balance. So well, all the science-fiction movies about babies with gigantic heads with brain tentacles waving about as they traumatize their moms don’t seem too unrealistic in the future ;)

Sagan also has an interesting take on the abortion issue. He defines the beginning of human life to the start of neocortical development. For, according to him, that’s what sets us humans apart, and if we are to value human life, the neocortical development seems to be a reasonable cut-off point for him. I don’t really agree. What if one’s neocortex is poorly developed, or gets damaged? Does the person lose their human label, and all the dignities that go with it? Besides, as the book reiterates, intelligence arises from numerous complex cognitive activities, spanning several regions of the brain. The issue of the start of life is far too ambiguous and philosophical still. But I enjoyed reading such extrapolations on the topic, including the future that awaits us, Artificial Intelligence, and the intelligent aliens we might have to encounter at some point.

The title of the book might intrigue a few - why dragons, and why Eden? The R-complex of the brain, the deeply buried repressed Unconscious (as Freud might say) harbors our primordial fears, desires and instincts. It’s called the reptilian part of the brain - the one that still instills fear and loathing of reptiles, our early deadly predators. Our brain seems to have evolved to combat the predators - for example, the reason why we sleep at nights and dream of dinosaurs and dragons. So in a convoluted way, our brain’s growth is due to the fear of reptiles (or, by natural selection, the brains that could survive such predators have sustained). It has given rise to various cultural beliefs and myths surrounding reptiles and snakes (such as in India). Even in the genesis, it’s because of a reptile, mankind gets thrown into a world of sins. But we progressed because of our well developing neocortex and seamless interaction between the left and right hemispheres (one pattern matches to form rudimentary hypotheses about the world, and the other critically and rationally weeds out the illogical hypotheses). Sadly, even in this state of evolution, many left hemispheres don’t work as rationally, and myths still abound. Sagan goes on to talk about the importance of rationality in our civilization.

And there are many more interesting cultural beliefs that tie with all this. Ever wondered why every human civilization insists on training the right hand? I won’t spoil this for you, if you really are contemplating on reading this book. How wondrous - your brain will seek out to learn more about itself.