New media and the lessons it teaches

English: Chris Anderson is the curator of the ...

English: Chris Anderson is the curator of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference Français : Chris Anderson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

         Listening to lectures or classes at school is touted to be the most droll activity imaginable by students all over the planet. It is not uncommon to see children and teenagers being flogged, bribed or advised to attend their classes. Yet it is fascinating to take one cursory glance at facebook and twitter feeds and find them brimming with links to one particular series of talks. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that “All links lead to TED”.

        These talks have a humongous audience and with the aforementioned social media tools they often go nothing less than viral. It made me wonder how countless number of my friends, who are students still, willfully listen to these talks which are essentially lectures too. And that too in an age where the ADH (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity) Disorder grimaces menacingly upon our civilization?

        The answer lies in this very fundamental human faculty. The brain. It is arguably the only machine for which we don’t have an easily accessible manual book to tell its working. But research suggests that teenagers to adults have an attention span of forty minutes, which is a lot of minutes by the TED standards! Most of these talks are less than twenty minutes but at the same time assure the listeners that they will get something solid to take back at the end. As against the standard school or college schedules which see any class span less than fifty to sixty minutes as blasphemous. One may argue against this on one of these lines: The time needed for roll calls, the overheads caused by a group of truants and unforeseen visitors, etc. But I can safely tell there wouldn’t be any need for roll calls or dealing with disinterested students if the educational system took this small cue in terms of the time allotted per class.

        Then comes the bittersweet blessing in the form of that learned Physics teacher who loves to teach but often hops on board a train of unconnected information bits related to that one word “Gravity” acquired meticulously over twenty years of decking the back of his name with alphabets. Now I do not have anything against all those veterans with those countless degrees and PhDs. I salute you for your quest to get to the bottom of it all and where would civilization be without doyens like you? But spare the young ones those ten minutes of time and get straight to the point, that gravity, simply put, brings things down. As such there’s much disquiet about the “slumber factor” of many teachers that some students are seriously deliberating on replacing human teachers with robots. It would be a win-win situation if only people understood that crispness of delivery is as important as the content being delivered. And this can potentially prevent a lot of heartache too for there would be less chances of finding a student confusing “gravity” with “envy”. Both have equal potential to bring things down.

        It was quite revelatory to note a sworn fan of the TED talks telling me that she hadn’t listened to this very famous talk by Mallika Sarabhai on feminism! How could she suppose to have not missed any of the talks if she hadn’t listened to this one? Of course, I should have known. Why would an aspiring Miss India even be bothered about things like, ‘Beauty isn’t skin deep’ and ‘I am beautiful because I am a woman’… In one of his TED talks, Ken Robinson reminds us of a sadly forgotten fact- that humans are organic beings and not mechanistic. But that our current systems of education rest on this misconception of the process of learning being an industrial one.

          Policy makers and benefactors involved in the educational framework feel that increasing the number of engineering, medical and management institutions would lead to more number of professionals and hence lead to a better country. But it is important to consider that the mere burgeoning of access to something is never an end to achieving efficiency. It is the method that matters. Clichéd though the thought is, it will help if we go beyond just merely nodding at truth and letting the cause for most of our problems be attributed to amnesia.

           Some people enjoy the process of differentiating a cosine theta by first principles and some are comfortable when they are recognized to be ‘a bunch of Cambridge ladies’ by the Mathematics Professor and put in a Literature class. And some love both like my Cummings quoting born psychologist of a Mathematics professor himself! While it is okay for a child to prefer strawberry flavored ice creams to butterscotch and to top it with pistachio shreds rather than chocolate sprinkles, they naturally dislike the freedom to choose their subjects of interest snatched away from them. (And which is also the simple reason why I felt the burning desire to pen this down albeit before an exam) We need a system where choice overrules force of any kind, be it from the system’s front or the personal front. Take the example of ‘coursera’. Its popularity is purely because of the interest-centric approach. And more importantly anyone who takes a course there seriously does it solely for the knowledge gain for no one gets a degree at the end of it. And this is very important lesson indeed. People will commit themselves to learning if it if it is presented to them in the right format.

            Freedom is the heartbeat of learning, I would say. On a concluding note, I have this to say. There’s much that the new media can inspire in the minds of youngsters explicitly but it would greatly benefit the harbingers of tomorrow’s great future if we cared to learn from the lessons it teaches implicitly gauging by its reach and impact to implement changes constructive to the structure of prevalent systems of teaching.


Dissecting Karma I: The scientific angle

A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.

This profound statement by Sam Harris, a neuroscience expert and prolific writer, really struck a deep chord in me. In his marvelous little book ‘Free Will’ he slams that free will is a non-existent thing! As any normal human in this era where liberalism in all its diverse forms happens to be one of the most highly held views, I felt stumped. My main counter went like this: When “my brain” chooses to do something how can that not be free will?

And Sam’s went like this:

How can we be “free” as conscious agents if every thing that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware? We can’t. To say that “my brain” decided to think or act in a particular way, whether consciously or not, and that this is the basis for my freedom is to ignore the very source of belief in free will: the feeling of conscious agency.

Whether I agreed with Sam or not at that time was of little importance. For there was something more striking than the question of free will that his argument sparked off in me. How many of us look at ourselves or perceive or consciously feel that we are biological units? Most of us do. But primarily unconsciously for we take our “free wills” too seriously. And of course in a manner far from the truth.

I was fine with the general theory that if my “my” brain decides for me then I am happily a “free willing” person. Until Sam’s counter point that “every thing that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend”

Our brain has a lot more to do with our identities than we think and in ways which most of us don’t understand. My brain may choose to accept or discard the notion of free will and this decision was taken much before I even consciously remember making such a decision. This experiment that Sam describes can throw more light if you are confounded by my previous statement.

“… More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it”

So what if my brain knows what I am going to before I am consciously aware of it? It is still “my” brain right?

No. What influences your brain to act or choose in a particular way entirely depends upon previous experiences over which “you” had no control over! This was another profound thing to ponder over.

I found extreme gratification when Sam talks about how some neuroscientists and biologists take the “quantum indeterminacy” in the way neurons work to pave way for “self-generated” thoughts that can prove scientifically the existence of free will. But Sam argues and argues rightly, “…if certain of my behaviors are truly the result of chance, they should be surprising even to me. How would neurological ambushes of this kind make me free?”

At the bottom of it, Sam doesn’t dump the idea of “free will” for no reason. According to Sam, by understanding how we act in a way we do, we correct the things that go wrong by knowing the actual cause for it and by not just relying on the notion of the illusory “free will”( He also proves that thinking of “free will” as an illusion is an illusion by itself! He is truly a delightful writer and scientist to read!)

He says, “Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feeling can- paradoxically- allow for greater creative control over one’s life” As an example he explains a  little situation which most of us can relate to. The cause for your bad mood may just be low blood levels and you may just be in need of some food. So you can definitely avoid tormenting your wife with your temper! Now more than one mishap is avoided- one, you can satiate your hunger needs; two, you don’t give your wife the chance to attribute your otherwise rash humor to your “free will” which will show your personality in some very crude light!

This fact can be extended to cases of moral responsibilities and crimes as well. On understanding the direct involvement of our brains and its past experiences we can eliminate cases of deliberate acts of crimes from acts where the offender is himself a “victim” as Sam explains through various interesting examples. Now this is where I was constantly interrupted by the sundry bits of theories I have heard and tried to understand about Karma, a typical eastern(Indian) theory on man, his actions and its consequences.

When I started off with the book I was sure I wouldn’t agree with Sam. And even as I started off this article I was not even fifty percent sure of colluding to Sam’s arguments. But at the end of all this pondering this line stays with me: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.


I do believe this book changed the way I really thought about “free will”, my choices and decisions. Or it has at least made me think in deeper lines on the same. Has any book had a similar influence on you? How and why?