Becoming, Being and the Brain

brain - nancyCan one day the brain science tell us “Who we truly are?”

And show the difference between ‘becoming’ and ‘Being’  in a brain scan?

Can a scan possibly differentiate a “Knower of Truth” vs an “Expert on Truth”?

Please watch this Talk (17:40 min) of Nancy Kanwisher, a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT. Nancy’s Talk is supported by excellent graphics.

Q.361 – Advaita and the Brain

Q: Hello, I have a question. Professor V. Ramachandran, a neurologist at UC San Diego, in his research outlined that  the Temporal lobe in the brain, which when excited by electricity results in the individual having a religious experience where they “now understand the cosmos” and feel as one with it. This has been characterized in press reports as “The God Zone”   He tells in his book:  “It seems somehow disconcerting to be told that your life, all your hopes, triumphs and aspirations simply arise from the activity of neurons in your brain. Science— cosmology, evolution and especially the brain sciences—is telling us that we have no privileged position in the universe and that our sense of having a private non-material soul “watching the world” is really an illusion (as has long been emphasized by Eastern mystical traditions like Hinduism and Zen Buddhism).”

So according to modern science, there’s nothing spiritual or paranormal. Consciousness in any form is produced only in the brain. How do those new information fit in the Advaita?

A (Ramesam): The quote of Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, if I am not wrong, seems to be from his 1998 book on “Phantoms in the Brain.”

By the late nineties the thrust given to Neuroscientific research through ‘The Decade of the Brain’ project was coming to an end. As a result of this concerted effort, illuminating light began to shine on many hitherto dark corners of the brain’s way of functioning – be it memory, emotions, thought process, neurological ailments or even the intractable mind-brain relation. The general atmosphere prevailing in those times was that of all round excitement and euphoria about the new findings which opened the doors to promising avenues of research in Neuroscience. Dr. Ramachandran made a name for himself with contributions to the advancement of our knowledge on the alleviation of pain from surgically excised limbs, synesthesia and even the application of neuroscientific principles to art and sculpture. Continue reading

Spontaneous thoughts

You may recall my earlier Post on “Two Genres of Thought” in Dec 2013.

A just published research study says:

Spontaneous thoughts, intuitions, dreams and quick impressions — we all have these seemingly random thoughts popping into our minds on a daily basis. The question is what do we make of these unplanned, spur-of-the-moment thoughts? Do we view them as coincidental wanderings of a restless mind, or as revealing meaningful insight into ourselves?

A research team from Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard Business School set out to determine how people perceive their own spontaneous thoughts and if those thoughts or intuitions have any influence over judgment. Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, their research found that spontaneous thoughts are perceived to provide potent self-insight and can influence judgment and decisions more than similar, more deliberate kinds of thinking — even on important topics such as commitment to current romantic partners.

The (perceived) meaning of spontaneous thoughts.
Morewedge, Carey K.; Giblin, Colleen E.; Norton, Michael I.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, May 12 , 2014,

Two Genres Of Thought

“The Problem is I can’t tell the difference between a deeply wise, nudge from the Universe and one of my own bone-headed ideas!”

(Copy right: Bradford Veley)

It looks to me that we are besieged by two genres of thought.

When I say two genres, I do not mean the yes- no- thoughts or being double minded and undecided in our view about things. Nor do I refer to split personalities. Actually it has NOTHING to do about the “content” of the thought.  What I have in mind is about the suite or family of thoughts – based on their possible source of origin (real or apparent).

As advaitin-s, we all know that everything is a manifestation of brahman. We shall use the term ‘Universal Self’ for It. The Universal Self is kUTastha – does not do or intend to do anything. It is changeless, actionless, eternal and It is Beingness-Consciousness-Infinity. We also know that we act, talk, walk, eat, breathe and live as an individual.  We shall use the term ‘self’ for this separate entity. Continue reading

Living In The Moment Eternally – 1

Appayya Dikshitar - (1520-93)

Appayya Dikshitar – (1520-93)

We, the traditional Advaitins, are a prejudicial lot – aren’t we?  Appayya Dikshitar’s words uttered in delirium when his brain was under the influence of the hallucinogenic Datura seeds are for us a beautiful AtmArpaNastuti in praise of Lord Shiva. But the mutterings of some other ordinary mortal with a differently affected brain is mere meaningless chatter unworthy of any notice. Let us not forget that both are actions done under conditions of an altered brain. And in both cases, an external agency is responsible for causing the change in the brain.

It was UG who famously said once that whether it was Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or pulling the chain in the WC sounded the same to him.  Some of the Zen Masters used to respond to the simple questions like “What is the time now?” with an answer that the mountain was running or some such response – totally frivolous and meaningless on the face of it. But their effort was to draw our attention to the way our mind functions in assigning ‘meaning and significance’ (which are actually not there) ever caught up in a habituated pattern which we  normally fail to detect.

Over six years ago, I prepared a comparative statement of the characteristics of an ordinary person and a ‘Self-realized’ man. I used the information  collated from many sources  that I could lay my hands on in preparing this tabulated compilation — almost like what a Purchase Officer does with the quotations (s)he obtains. There were several reasons behind this exercise of mine. Continue reading

Why do people talk so much about themselves?

“The ability to communicate—with almost anyone, about almost anything—has played a central role in our species’ ability to not just survive, but flourish. If you’re like most people, your own thoughts and experiences may be your favorite topic of conversation.  On average, people spend 60 percent of conversations talking about themselves.


Why, in a world full of ideas to discover, develop, and discuss, do people spend the majority of their time talking about themselves? Recent research suggests a simple explanation: because it feels good.

In an initial fMRI experiment, researchers compared neural activation during self-disclosure to activation during other-focused communication. Three neural regions stood out. (See the figure at top left showing the brain  cut vertically in the middle – the forehead is to the left and the back of the head to the right in the picture).  Continue reading

Morality in the Brain

Year 2012 is coming to a close and we are getting ready for one more end-of-the-year celebrations. People are already in a festive mood – remembering friends, recalling  favors received and planning for reciprocation with gifts. As you shop and bring home the packets, you plan to embellish them with a hand-crafted insignia to show your extra care and love. So you take a pair of scissors in hand and begin to cut a piece of paper molding it into an attractive shape. Your child suddenly comments: “Why do you purse your lips when you are cutting the paper?”

Fig. 1: Homunculus – Brain Real Estate Devoted to Touch in the Primary Somatosensory Cortex

What? Pursed the lips? You were not even conscious of the face, forget the lips.You were so much lost in the job with all your attention focused on the fingers and the scissors, you were unaware of the tightness in your face. Why should the lips tense up? And you  don’t even know about it!

You may be a six footer weighing 60 – 70 Kg having seen half a century or more of summers (and winters); or may be a short and smart young man of  20.  The wetware weighing less than a Kg and half (about 3 pounds) sitting between your ears contains an encrypted miniature model of who you are. It has all the maps representing your past, your knowledge, your expertise, tastes, likes, dislikes – everything that describes what you call as your ‘personality.’ Continue reading

Book Review: FREE WILL

Free Will by Sam Harris, Free Press, 2012, pp: 83, ISBN 978-1-4516-8340-0

free will book cover sam harris

I always wondered at the American marketing wizardry of bite-size chocolates and peanut butter cups that lure the consumers. If a book on a highly intriguing, tantalizing and no less controversial a subject like Free Will is presented in bite-size, even a die-hard Advaitin can hardly hold his temptation to take a bite! And I did.

Perhaps one should call it a long essay discussed under eight or so subheadings rather than a book. You hardly open the cover and right away, the text begins with “The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about” — no Intros, no Forewords, no time wasted. And then as suddenly, the author explodes the myth of ‘our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice.’ He writes:

“If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clock-work……  And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.”

The stakes may be high; but Advaitins will surely cheer the author, Sam Harris, a Ph. D. in Neuroscience on those scientific declarations. Continue reading


The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood, OUP, 2012, pp: 349. ISBN 978-019-989759-9

Prof. Bruce Hood is the Chair in Developmental Psychology at the University of Bristol, UK. He started off his graduate work in Psychology  a couple of decades ago studying the gaze of new born infants, tracking their eye movements and what excites them to take in the world they look at. From then on grew his curiosity to know how a ‘self’ gets ensconced in the innocent minds of the babies and grows to the Himalayan proportions in the grownup egos — some turning out to be Osama Bins or Hitlers and others, well, a you and a me. Bruce presents lucidly a captivating and absorbing narrative of not only his research findings but also that of a plethora of Psychologists and Neuroscientists from different parts of the world.  He does not, however, preach sitting on a high pedestal condescendingly giving the reader exercises for self-improvement as we usually find in the books authored by Psychologists. (In fact that was my peeve about the excellently written work of Gary Marcus, “Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind”, 2009).

Fig 2. Kanisza Square

But how could he? As so well argued by him, rather to the consternation of many Westerners unaccustomed to this kind of thinking, there is no entity, a ‘self’, present in you waiting to be improved. “Most of us believe that we have an independent, coherent self – an individual inside our head who thinks, watches, wonders, dreams, and makes plans for the future. This sense of our self may seem incredibly real, but a wealth of recent scientific evidence reveals that it is not what it seems — it is all an illusion.”  He illustrates the point using the Kanisza square (see Fig 2). Yes, you see a square alright. But remove the four Pac-Men in the corners. Where is the square? Continue reading

Mind Reifies Or Deifies

Mind occupies a significant place in the teaching of Vedanta philosophy.

All the talk of liberation pertains to the mind only.  Maîtri Upanishad (VI-34-11) holds mind to be central for the liberation or bondage of human beings.  amRitabindu Upanishad (mantra 2) makes it further clear stating that “the mind engrossed in objects of senses leads to bondage but the same mind free from attachment to objects leads to liberation.”

But what is this mind?

Continue reading