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Curiosity doesn’t kill, it stimulates associations

This cute little boy, four or five years old, and I were in the same tarmac bus one evening waiting for the VIP passengers who enjoy making others wait to catch the evening flight to Mangalore at the Bengaluru airport. The father and mother, with a younger baby girl, were also there but they were busy with feeding the little one. The boy was a bundle of joy, full of curiosity — and he reminded me of real research, which also is curiosity, to know the working of this universe.

This child was also curious but passionately so. He was living out his curiosity. He would suddenly yell up, jumping, “Daddy! Look at the plane; it is so big; are we going in that plane?”

The father was not at all amused. He was worried about the other passengers around who might get disturbed or irritated by his son’s antics. Daddy was trying to keep the boy quiet, but to no avail! The boy was difficult to suppress and his curiosity grew by the second, and he was fully immersed in his observations of his immediate surroundings, like a true scientist.

Then came a huge jet plane taxiing out of its bay. The boy shouted at the top of his voice: “Daddy, that big plane is moving like a bus; it’s not flying. Are we going by that plane?”

Daddy was feeling growingly awkward but the boy won’t stop. He was jumping about inside the bus, which was not full anyway. He next spotted a smaller aircraft, a Bombardier. The boy was so amused he shouted to his dad, “Is this small plane the child of those big ones?”

His association area in the brain was collecting all this data to be stored there. I was also fully immersed in watching the boy’s antics that I totally forgot that we were getting delayed for no fault of ours — a kind of relaxation indeed!

Suddenly a flashback from my student days in the 1950s in medical college came to my mind. We had an unusually brilliant teacher in Dr. Ananthanarayana Iyer, Director of the Central Institute of Anatomy at Stanley Medical College in Madras, later its Principal. His weekly class between 1-30 p.m. and 2-30 p.m., after a heavy hostel lunch, was a special treat every Thursday. We would look forward to that class and pray that Thursday does not become a holiday for any reason.

The day he was talking about the association area in the brain, he told us he was taken to the railway station by his father when he was four years old.

There he saw that huge locomotive for the first time. Then he saw water vapour coming out with a hissing whistle, and the large wheels moving. His brain made a full picture of the three big things and stored them together as the railway engine.

If his father had not explained to him what they were, he would not have had the right picture stored in the brain.

That lecture came alive again in front of my eyes after a lapse of nearly 60 years. Of course, now we have moved on and the Nobel Laureate medical scientist Wilder Penfield, who put the human mind in the human brain, himself has changed a lot. He wrote in 1971, much after Dr. Ananthanarayana Iyer had died, that the human mind is not in the human brain. That is science.

Professor Penfield wrote: “None of the actions we attribute to the mind has been initiated by electrode stimulation or epileptic discharges ... There is no area of the grey matter as far as my experience goes, which local epileptic discharge brings to pass what could be termed mind-action … what the mind does is different. It is not to be accounted for by any neuronal mechanism or by any sort of reflexes, however complicated, to carry out what the mind does, and thus perform all the functions of the mind, it is quite absurd.”

If ever I get to see that charming boy again — very unlikely though — after a few years of schooling, he is sure to have become a zombie, memorising the textbooks.

See another effect of today’s education. I happened to see a trio — father, mother in their early 40s, and a pre-teen daughter. None of them lifted the head from the phone for the full one hour. Thanks to hi-tech, we seem to have become emotionless robots.

hegdebm@gmail.com

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 7:10:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/b-m-hegdecuriosity-doesnt-kill-it-stimulates-associations/article8352977.ece

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