Category Archives: Cognitive Science

Why do we like to cook?

I could have named this post ‘Why do we like to dance?’, but decided to name it what it is because of my new found hobby, cooking. A more apt name would have been ‘Why do we “zone out” so often?’, but it would have been incomprehensible to those whose lingo is not yet up to the mark.

To begin with, one must differentiate two kinds of cooking — one that is done purely with the motive of fulfilling a goal — ‘eat to live’, ‘pack children’s lunch boxes’, ‘Guests are arriving in an hour!’ and so on; and another whose main motive is not just the above but also something beyond it. What that ‘beyond’ is will be my focus here.

First of all, we must observe one thing about cooking that seems quite strange to people who don’t cook — cooking actually seems relaxing to people who come back tired from work! It involves more than a little mental and physical labour and yet people seem to love doing it. In fact, it is probably the one thing that is as pleasurable (if not more) than eating itself!

To answer this, we must first have a look at what it is that exhausts people nowadays. Leave out those who perform physical labour to earn their bread, who are exhausted by the sheer expenditure of energy: Most of those who will be reading this really don’t fall into that category. What seems to exhaust us is explained by people in two vague-sounding terms — ‘stress’ or ‘strain’.

So, what is it that is being stressed or strained? Surely not our muscles; most of us do not use them outside gyms or jogging tracks. Obviously, it is our senses; more precisely just one or two of them. This is pretty much a modern, white collar phenomenon.

It is remarkable that we can feel exhausted by simply staring at a spreadsheet or computer code for an extended amount of time. It is equally remarkable that the world can run because of people simply staring at spreadsheets or computer code for an extended amount of time. Welcome to the Information Age: all that is need to crank the wheels of civilisation nowadays is a computer.

With the assumption that all that matters is information fed into the thinking part of the brain, the computer and similar technologies like the television and Walkman try to feed in as much information as possible, in as focussed a manner as possible, preferably using only a single sensory system. It seems like there is some problem with this assumption — everyone nowadays complains of stress and strain without moving a muscle!

The problem seems to lie in the fact that humans have evolved to experience the world with all their senses — hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, thinking and feeling (yes, not just the physical senses!), whereas the modern living and work place seems to assume the exact opposite: humans function best when they work free of ‘distractions’, so deprive them of all extraneous sensory inputs and feed all information through one or two sensory systems.

This is the guiding principle behind the construction of most classrooms, laboratories, appliances like the TV, computer, tablet, workplaces (think cubicle!),¬† supermarkets and pretty much any modern place of production and consumption. People need to be ‘focused’: ensure they are not ‘distracted’ at any cost. Think about it: monochromatic or dichromatic color schemes, ACs to ensure the exact same temperature and humidity, noise absorbing ceilings and carpeting, coffee makers and canteens (no kitchens!) — The modern living and work places resemble the interior of pyramids, fit for the mummified dead, than places where actual living, feeling human beings exist.

Contrast this with a kitchen, and you get the picture why cooking is so much fun. Cooking is probably one of the earliest activities of the non hunter-gatherer human, and has not changed in its basic form for at least 6000 years. What we cook may have changed, but nothing else. It is a feast for the senses unlike any other: A well cooked meal is not just about the taste, it is about how it looks, smells, feels to the touch and feelings of happiness and contentment that it evokes. Here, the human being as a whole, and not just her brain is being stimulated. It is probably the most multi-dimensional of all activities that humans perform (with the performing arts coming in at second).

While cooking, we have to stand, walk, chop, grind, grate, stir, smell, taste, hear, mix, blend, heat, cool, wash and what not. There is simply no other activity that is even remotely close in terms of the sensory palette that offered to us, and we do all this almost unconsciously, so deeply ingrained is the activity of cooking in human civilisation. Living as we do in an artificial environment that has been consicously designed to deprive stimulation to our senses, cooking is our refuge, our hiding place, the one activity that cannot be done any other way if it has to be done right.

Cooking is therefore one of the few activities that makes complete use of all human dimensions, not just the cold, calculating, logical one. It is but a small wonder then that avid cooks find cooking relaxing, meditative and even therapeutic. It is no coincidence that good cooks seem to be ‘bursting with energy’, whereas those who cook because it provides them food are normally weary of cooking and look to eating out whenever possible.

What is more worrying is children growing up in such a sensorially poor world. Children, more than adults even, learn best through the use of all their senses rather than purely by information alone. There is a difference between reading about a sea breeze and experiencing one. There is a difference between learning about electricity and making a bulb glow or experiencing an electric shock. Learning purely by information flowing into the brain is necessarily boring, unidimensional and ‘stressful’. This does not mean we should put up a projector and show ‘educational’ movies. This is more of the same. What it means is that we have to rethink education, learning and living, adapting to the necessities of our age without losing what it means to be human.

What to remember, what to forget?

Humans are creatures with a gigantic memory. The evolution of the written word made it possible to store things outside our brains, and hence more safely for very long periods of time. This gradual accumulation has resulted in a memory too large for any single human to remember or grasp. Only collectively do we know a lot.

Sooner or later, the question of what is important and worth passing on, and what can be neglected or lost in the sands of time would have cropped up. This is because even external storage of memory is not costless. Different civilizations came up with different answers to this question. Indians seemed to have thought that lessons from history are more important than history itself, and thus have left us with very little solid historical data, which is why the huge controversies surrounding the ‘construction’ of ancient India. Europeans were more meticulous, and have always had a good tradition of storing away bits of information from life thousands of years ago.

But why is it important to remember? Goethe took a shot at this question, and said

He who cannot draw on 3000 years is living hand to mouth.

which is simply another way of stating what Newton said:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The biggest advantage humans have over other living creatures is our capacity to build cultures, and it is on the basis of this culture that we can ‘move ahead’ without (literally!) reinventing the wheel every generation. This is why we have schools, so that we can remember something, and social institutions, so that something else can do the remembering for us.

But this memory can as easily be a disadvantage in many ways: First, not everyone who draws on 3000 years can rise above it to think for themselves. Knowing too much may kill creativity and the capacity to face a changing world. Second, remembering everything may preclude the possibility of forgiveness and healing. This is what is happening in India and America after 2002 and 2001 respectively. The intention is to ‘never forget what happened’ and the very memory breeds anger and hatred.

Thus, some people try and make a case that forgetfulness is as important to humanity as is remembrance. Thus, even when one is saddened by the news that Muslims in Gujarat are voting for Modi in the name of restoring normalcy,¬† one understands why it is happening. Shiv Vishwanathan believes that people are forgetting what happened due to Modi simply because all of today’s stories are written in the language of economics, which fails to capture the evil Modi represents. In fact, he is made to look like someone who has made Gujarat great if one only looks at the economy side of things. Same with the Bhopal gas tragedy. ‘Victims’ were converted to ‘patients’ and then to ‘vagrants’, simply by changing the language in which memory was constructed.

While this interpretation is undoubtedly true, one must also understand that even if the language changes, the want for people to restore normalcy to their lives will never go away, and that bearing a burden as heavy as the Gujarat riots maybe too much for most.

This brings us to today’s time. Semiconductor and magnetic memories have become so accessible and cheap that I believe that the 21st century will be a watershed for humanity: It is the time from which we forget practically nothing. Forever. The principle of important vs. unimportant memories simply no longer has any relevance. People are clicking photos using their phones and their cameras; recording voices and songs; recording every small detail of their lives on Facebook and blogs. It is no longer sufficient to experience something beautiful (or trivial for that matter), but to capture/record it from every angle and tweet about it, paste it on your wall and upload to Flickr or Picasa. The 21st century is the veritable historian’s nightmare: with nothing forgotten, he has to sift through immense data to try and make any sense of the world he will inherit from us. Undoubtedly, the day is not far when writing history will need the assistance of machines.

The demons of memory will haunt us now more than ever before in history. The issue is that it is not experience that makes us wise, but what we learn from experience. This requires a certain distance from what we experience, a kind of ‘greying out’ or ‘blurring out’ which is no longer possible as our entire lives are recorded in HD quality video. We have become ‘knowledge brokers’, but to rise above mere knowledge and pass onto posterity real lessons of history might no longer be possible.

Does everything really matter? If yes, does it matter to everyone around us, to the rest of the world? Just like Calvin says:

I’ll bet future civilizations find out more about us than we’d like them to know.

Thoughts on Tango

Recently started studying Tango under a most fantastic guru in Bangalore, and have to say that it has been a very interesting learning experience. Having never pursued dance seriously or bothered to understand it well has given me not only something to practise but also something to think about.

Tango originated in Argentina (Eric Hobsbawm takes particular care in mentioning that it emerged from the brothels of Argentina, though it has long since moved away from any such associations.) and is meant to be danced by a couple. Argentine Tango is completely improvised, which means that you cannot really get away by practicing with one partner and also that each dance is a new experience.

Dance differs from music and art in the following manner: while playing music, you think about notes and play notes. While painting, you imagine a scene and try to reproduce that visual. Dance, however, is fundamentally an interpretation — you listen to the music and convert it to a tableau with your body. Moreover, the representation that you are creating is not really visible (or audible) to you, but only to a third person, unlike music or art where the feedback is immediate. The only feedback is your own sense of form, which has to be assembled together by your awareness of what configuration the various parts of your body are in.

As one can imagine, relying on such inputs to create something beautiful while actively interpreting the music you hear cannot be easy (or beautiful!). What dance does reinforce is the recognition that humans are intensely visual and aural creatures, relying mainly on our sense of sight and hearing to help us navigate through the world. Dance uses a very different sense, which is known as proprioception which we use mainly unconsciously. Thus, it is not uncommon to see people who seem to be dancing atrociously without having any idea that they are doing so. It is also why dancers rely heavily on lingual inputs from their teachers and visual inputs from a mirror — they are using their dominant senses to train the others. In other words, you have to learn to ‘listen’ to your body, which is not something you commonly do.

Probably because dancers rely on a less dominant (and mostly unconscious) sense like proprioception, all dances emphasize heavily on form — the shape in which your body is at any given time. Tango is no different and though its formal aspects are not too many they will be repeated over and over in class. Hubert (my guru) calls them the ‘geometry’ of Tango — the structure of the embrace, the angle and distance between partners and how it changes over time, among other things. It is very easy to look terrible dancing Tango since the dance is mainly improvised. A choreographed¬† dance can be drilled into someone, but that is not the case here.

Since Tango involves two people, communicative aspects invariably enter the picture. How one can (should!) communicate without visual or audible signs is at the core of any dancer’s training. All communication requires a medium, and the Tango embrace provides this medium. It also requires a grammar, which in Tango is not very elaborate, making it possible to ‘express yourself’ quite early in your Tango classes. It also makes it easy to achieve the goal of being able to dance with anyone, anywhere. Of course, this is possible only if both partners know the grammar perfectly, and beginner’s Tango classes are a fascinating aid in trying to imagine a world where there does not exist any language. It would probably be a very angry and frustrated world!

A lot of Tango, especially in the Hollywood movies, emphasizes its spectacular and the erotic aspects out of all proportion. Thus, it will seem to the outsider that Tango has not really moved away from the brothels of Argentina. But anyone who attends a class will know that the focus of the dancer will be more on not kicking or getting kicked by their partner! More seriously, Tango is more of an intimate dance than an erotic one. The intimacy derives from various sources. One, the very fact that you are physically close to your partner (duh!). Two, the fact that you are touching your partner — touch is the most immediate of senses, along with taste. Three, the fact that you are communicating with another person without using sight or sound. It implies that you have to be ‘tuned in’ to your partner to a greater extent than usual, since listening to someone’s touch is not a part of everyday experience. In fact, it is not uncommon for partners to look confused or break out into a smile at the same time, without ever exchanging a word. Four, the fact that you are your partner are listening and trying to interpret the same bit of music. A particularly good interpretation will suddenly increase the ‘zing’ in the dance, for both.

It has been an interesting few classes, and I find Tango to be a particularly good way to learn more about myself, since your partner is like a mirror, showing you what don’t want to see!