The New Frontier

As I reflect on the first two weeks of classes, there is an intense feeling of joy, satisfaction and positive anticipation. All my classes are fascinating with most centred around the study of the mind and brain. I am taking a CS course on “Mind and Machines”, another on AI, and a third on Cognitive Science. Even in my Angel Finance & VC class, my favourite investment case uses data analytics “to build a scientific brain of companies.” I am impressed with the extent of research ongoing on the brain – with the Engineering, Neuroscience, Linguistics, Philosophy and Psychology departments all deeply involved – to offer a multidisciplinary perspective. Even my weekly Mindfulness Workshop is conducted by the Medical School! My excitement is palpable with a wondrous realization – have I stumbled upon a new frontier – everything is about the brain?!

My सर्वज्ञ all-knowing daughters (weren’t they just learning to walk and speak yesterday?!) bring me quickly down to earth: “Papa, this has been ongoing for over a decade and the ‘frontier’ is light years ahead.” What is unsaid and not-so-subtly implied: “It’s just you who has just realised it.” I pick myself up – meditate deeply, acknowledge the sagacious advice – and continue on my quest.

A recurring thought, in my certified-cynical medulla, is that much of this study around mindfulness is based on what our ancestors practiced in previous millenia. The key principle of Yoga, to me, is unity of mind and body. Yogic Meditation is based on the practice of deep breathing directing energy to various body parts to heal. Isn’t it such a classic Western move to adopt age old practices and dub them new? After all, my mother has been tirelessly imploring me for five decades to spend a few minutes every morning to do Pranayama. Now that Stanford says it, I am intent on making it a habit. 

I take a few more deep breaths and it helps. My irritation slowly turns to appreciation that medical and scientific rigor are only going to expand the field of learning. Hats off to what I think is the American way – the openness and perspicacity to pick winners, professionally pursuing the dharma to excellence, immaculate packaging and then the open-source confidence to share it with the world. Next quarter, I will probably find a Sanskrit course to learn and if I am fleet footed, may even get to grab a place in an Ayurveda class, perhaps offered by a Herbology Department.

Indeed I am not giving credit where it’s due. My course readings tell me the following: “In the last 20 years, the field of the study of the brain has exploded, with roughly 50,000 neuroscientists applying increasingly advanced methods. This outburst amounts to 1 million person-years of research…” ; and that neuroscience is really an exercise in “reverse engineering” – disassembling a device in order to understand it.

I have become familiar with telomeres, or as I like to call them – the ‘aglet of our chromosomes’ – which are strands of our DNA. Telomeres shorten as we age, but also due to obesity, stress, smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise. Without their protection, our cells age and die. Stanford Medicine is at the cutting edge of the biomedical revolution and has a long tradition of leadership in pioneering research, creative teaching protocols and effective clinical therapies. The Stanford Center on Longevity integrates these technological advances with behavioral practices and social norms so that century long lives are healthy and rewarding. It is a truly holistic approach.

Coming back to Minds and Machines, I find it fascinating to be studying Turing Machines. I am blown away by the realization that the machine Alan Turing made during World War II, popularised by the movie “The Imitation Game”, has yet to be bettered in capability by any computer today. Obviously, computing speed and memory are at a different level as per Moore’s Law and continue to gallop exponentially. We do assignments, where in a triad with teenagers, I get to ‘design’ a Turing machine. It is satisfying. It’s also fun to discuss and debate, in psychology class, that intuition and inspiration may just be unconscious heuristics. When my daughter explains to me that, in psychology, a heuristic is a mental shortcut, my provincial brain immediately thinks of jugaad!

A fascinating slide from my class showing how different parts of the brain are responsible for different body functions.

The class on the functional differentiation of the brain takes me on a personal reflective odyssey of the last three years. The Professor shows us videos of stroke-impaired brain functions affecting cognitive tasks illustrating maladies such as Broca’s Aphasia and bananomia, a condition where an afflicted person is completely normal except he has forgotten names of fruits! I love picking up such tidbits of knowledge to build up my arsenal for trivia quizzes… It is thrilling to be back in a world where everyone around is much much smarter! 

Being on campus is like being in a candy store, there are goodies to be imbued and relished everywhere. Between classes, the dining halls and Coupa Cafe have a nice variety of delicious and healthy options. The climate is salubrious and the seasons – to a Singaporean – are real and plenty. Life is good.

2 thoughts on “The New Frontier

  1. Dianne Child

    Amit,

    This is a delightful accounting of your journey – reading this just made my day! I plan to stay tuned…

    My sincerest thanks for allowing me to follow along vicariously!

    Dianne

    Liked by 1 person

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