Category Archives: psychology

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.

Generation ‘W’

Shiva had to find Kailasa, Jesus had to spend 40 days without food or water in the desert, Shankaracharya had to climb Kodachadri without a jeep. The things Gods and men have done to find a peaceful place (and then, find themselves) has been quite remarkable. The basic premise of the ascetic way of life is that reduction of sensory inputs helps us focus on ‘inner reality’,  and help us to ‘realise’ ourselves.

But if any of the above mentioned are looking down at today’s world, they would feel somewhat short-changed at the options they had to isolate themselves from the rest of the universe. Our extremely innovative generation has revolutionised the concept of asceticism by turning its basic premise on its head. The Generation of the Walkman (or Generation ‘W’ in my terminology) has completely rethought the way to isolation by realising that an overload of sensory inputs helps us break away from the world, rather than the other way round.

For most of human existence, sound and light have been media for communication between individuals: language, smoke signals, and so on. It seems that using sound and light to achieve the complete opposite — a breakdown of communication — is quite a recent achievement. If one must attribute this to any one artefact, it must be the Walkman. Leisure and entertainment had until then been largely a non-individual activity: you could not play a tape/radio without everyone else listening, and TV time was also a family affair. The earliest form of personal entertainment was probably the boom box:

not very personal, and not very convenient either. Sound and light still played the role evolution had anointed them to play — bringing like minded people together.

With the advent of the enormously successful Walkman and other portable devices like small TVs and ‘transistors’, all this changed. Leisure and entertainment has now become a highly personalised activity. However, Generation ‘W’ has truly matured only in the past half a decade or so. The near universal penetration of the mobile phone and the near universal conversion of mobile phones into miniature boom boxes of the sort above has created a profusion of sound everywhere you go: those who spoke about cacophony and the Tower of Babel ten years ago had no idea what they were talking about. Travel by a night bus or train or sit in a movie theatre, and you will see what a profusion of light means: the advent of super-bright LCD displays has obviated the need to install lighting in most places Gen W frequents.

The sensory load due to listening to four songs and five heated conversations in six languages and the glare from your neighbour’s gigantic LCD display is simply too much for our primitive minds to bear, and they promptly start blocking everything and trying to focus on something inward. And voila, instant nirvana! Whether you want it or not, you will be as disconnected from the rest of the people as they are from you. Of course, then you have the more refined members of Gen W who keep everyone out by using superbly crafted earphones. It removes the necessity of wearing a ‘Don’t disturb’ sign around your neck (or wearing a stern look on your face) while serving the same purpose and informing you about the latest Bollywood hits. And you still have your fingers and eyes to play Angry Birds! The possibility of any sort of conversation with co-travellers who cannot SMS you is gone, and you are in a world of your own. Take that, ascetics who had to struggle in forests without Lays and popcorn!

The most innovative use of this sensory overload, however, is to use them to create virtual islands within larger public spaces. The idea is simple: In the days before the Walkman, if you wanted to have a discreet conversation, you needed to speak into someone’e ear or signal using a predefined code or use Pig Latin. Now, each boom box creates a radius beyond which you are not heard (or so you think), and there seems to be no need to be discreet anymore. You will see this everywhere: Go into the nearest Coffee Day and people seem to be speaking as freely as they would at their homes and, wonder of wonders, you cannot hear a thing. The back seats in a bus are occupied by students who play loud music (how long do their batteries last, really!) and hold even louder conversations, while whispering sweet nothings via SMS to their girlfriends sitting in the front of the same bus. This creation of private spaces amidst increasingly overcrowded public spaces seems to be a very interesting achievement of today’s technology.

The technology of today not only serves the purpose of ‘Disconnecting People’  from each other, but also from the social and natural environment they are a part of. With generous phone makers deciding to throw in a camera along with a phone (and a music player and a video game console and a …), and cameras which make it possible for complete ignoramuses (like yours truly) to take fantastic pictures, nature is no longer something to be savored and enjoyed but something to be pursued and captured in a JPG file. We seem to be taking every small pleasure in our lives and converting them to neuroses. This, of course, perfectly suits those selling these items of desire, but what does it say about us as a society and a culture?

Why slick steps are not enough

Was in a great place called Auroville attending their first Tango festival, and had a fantastic time. Good dancers, eager beginners, good and bad natured people, all had their representatives in the mix of people present there. I had already written something about the dance itself some time ago. What the festival afforded me was an insight into the psychological aspects surrounding Tango, which go beyond the dance floor and into daily life as well.

The ultimate aim of any dance is to merge with the music completely and express what emotions the music evokes through your self. Couple dances add the complication that it is not only one person that has to do this, but two people at the same time. Tango, being completely improvised, adds yet another dimension of having to be in complete sync with what your partner is doing at any particular moment. If you learn the steps in advance, then only the music matters. Being in synchrony with your partner means letting her inside your head, and vice versa, and this can be quite unnerving. Though it is possible to dance a perfectly good tango without this psychological surrender, the experience is not quite the same.

It was not uncommon in the dances I attended in the evenings to see men exhibiting fantastic steps and good control over the dance. However, it was also common to see that the steps had nothing to do with what music was playing. One could see couples moving at 150 km/hour for a 30 km/hour song, violating the ‘ultimate aim’ of any dance. There were others who were musically inclined, but the necessity to show off still made them do smart steps in time to the music. One look at their partners and you could see them frowning all the time, trying desperately to keep in step with their ‘smart’ leaders and the music was completely secondary to them, which is a terrible thing to happen to a dancer. The dance looked attractive from the outside, but speaking to some of them afterward, it was clear that it was not very enjoyable from the inside.

Chemistry away from the dance floor seems to contribute something intangible but omnipresent in the dance. Those who are friendly, affectionate towards your off the dance floor tend to be excellent people to dance with, regardless of their technical capabilities. Having danced with a few people who were more interested about what was happening elsewhere rather than paying complete attention to the dance, Tango then becomes something to be endured rather than enjoyed. On the other hand, dancing with someone who is interested you as a person and not only as a dancer makes it possible to create something deep and intense with steps you learn in the first week of your Tango lessons. That tango allows you to create an instant connection even while dancing with a complete stranger is an added bonus, and something special about it. It is said (probably exaggerated) that women in Argentina won’t marry anyone unless they have danced a tango with him first. Looking back at Auroville, it is not hard to understand why.

So, how does this translate to real life? Tango is about being present in that moment, with that note playing, with this person you are dancing with, trying to make the moment as wonderful as possible for both. There is no ultimate aim. This is the reason that those who dance with some motive in mind, like impressing women or trying to find a soul mate, end up being unpleasant people to dance with. The only way to impress your partner or find your soul mate is to not try consciously. The awareness that you have found something/someone special comes to you only after the song is over. All you are doing by giving your 100% to this particular moment is painting an honest picture of yourself, which you can reflect upon and gain a better understanding of yourself.

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!

Why don’t we thank?

A month or so ago, when I was riding a scooter around the country side, a woman and her mother waiting near what seemed to be a bus stop stopped me and asked if I could drop the woman to another village on the same road (close to KRS, for those around Mysore). Apparently the bus service in that particular route was not the best, and I, a stranger, seemed to be the only option left to them. Loading a jackfruit, some coconuts and other things you would normally carry back from your mother’s home after a visit, we reached her village. After getting off, I received a smile and a ‘barteera’, roughly translating to ‘see you around’. Thanks, though implied, was never vocalized.

On the other hand, just a few hours before this took place, I was at Melkote with a few American students who were here on an academic tour. The scooter apparently is a very quaint thing to sit behind, when all you see is cars back home, and so one of them asked me to drive her around. The number of ‘Thank you soooo much’s that were showered upon me for a 5 minute joy ride was quite intimidating, to say the least. One wonders whether it would not be appropriate to give a kidney or something along with the joy ride for that amount of thankfulness.

If one thinks about it, at least in the places around south Karnataka, to hear thanks in any language is a rare occurrence. The Kannada equivalent, Dhanyavaada is something I have very rarely heard, and then mostly from the mouth of foreigners who have been reading up on some ‘Learn Kannada’ type of book. If any person asks me how to thank people in Kannada, I tell them to say ‘thanks’. Dhanyavaada is simply not common currency enough around here. In fact, it is not uncommon to see old village ladies saying ‘thanks’ (with a strong Kannada accent), maybe hearing it from their grandchildren, rather than Dhanyavaada. One can go on to claim that it has sarcastic undertones whenever it is used. On the other end of the spectrum, Americans and those who regularly converse with them, like BPO employees, tend to use the ‘Thank you soooo much’ as though it were the commonest thing to do. In fact, it is the easiest way to identify an Indian working in the BPO or hospitality sector. It is intimidating at first, after which it simply grates on the ear, especially the dragged ‘soooo’. I am not used to this level of vocalization of thanks at all and it seems very artificial to me at least.

The only people who seem to use the Kannada equivalent are those who consider themselves ‘cultured’ and for whom speaking anything other than ‘pure’ Kannada is unthinkable. This is however a conscious decision and has nothing to do with everyday language. Even here, the very fact that they are using Dhanyavaada shows they are not thinking in native terms. A native speaker might throw in a blessing or two, but never an explicit thanks. If anyone is very strongly thankful, they might use tumba upakaara aaytu, which translates roughly to ‘It has been a great help’, which is just stating the obvious rather than anything else.

It does not just stop at thanking others. In newspaper supplements, you very often see articles asking husbands, wives and parents to explicitly appreciate their wives, husbands and children respectively. Apparently that is also not something very common around here. To make people ‘feel appreciated’ is also a mantra among the managers and HR crowd of corporate India.

It doesn’t seem immediately clear why this came about, but it is hard to let go without a few conjectures. Normally, thanks is directed toward individuals, which implies both parties must concede that there is a very strong individual identity. In a land where people are addressed as X’s son Y or X-halli (village) Y, that is not the case. Also, it is not easy for a person who considers himself superior to the other to thank the other person. The only valid transaction would be for inferiors to act servile and for superiors to look superior and bless them. This would be not just among social classes or castes, but also between elders and the young.

However, more important than the above reasons is the fact that thanking is valid when the other person is not obliged to help, it is not her duty to do so. A society that places strong emphasis on freedoms or equivalently, rights would consider it important to thank anyone for anything. A society arranged along the lines of reciprocal duties (which in India is subsumed under the overarching Dharma) would not see any reason to thank others. After all, it is their duty. You can bless someone for doing their duty correctly, but it is hard to thank them. Thus, it is when a family becomes a collection of individuals with no overarching sense of duty toward the other that it becomes important to make everyone ‘feel appreciated’. That this is the case in any corporation is a foregone conclusion.

That India is transitioning from a duties-based society to a rights based one can be easily seen not only from this example but from everything around us, from advertisements to legal rulings. But a society which is not used to change will pass through a long intermediate phase in which there exist old ladies who know only one English word – Thanks.

Metaphysics of Cooking

Before looking at cooking itself, one must look at the ultimate aim of cooking — eating. Eating is one of those rare things that is both spiritual and material at the same time. A well fed person is at peace with himself and the universe, overflowing with ‘the milk of human kindness’, so to speak. He is suddenly very generous and jovial, and feels a strange oneness with the universe. This lasts, of course, until he begins to feel hungry again. A perfect meal is a close approximation to the ideal state of moksha.

If moksha can be attained, if only for a brief while, by eating, then obviously cooking is the path leading toward it. It is very easy to take cooking for granted, since it happens so often all around you in all shapes, colors, smells and tastes. On a gross material plane, cooking implies both the knowledge of storing food and the creation and control of fire. The former is common to many living beings, but the latter seems to be unique to humans alone. Therefore, the very fact that we can cook puts us at a very advanced level of cultural development. Cooking at any level of sophistication implies the knowledge of what is ‘cookable’, and at what time of the year, and how to cook it — some foods are actually poisonous unless cooked properly. Thus, purely from a materialist perspective, cooking is dependent on the knowledge of plants, animals, seasons and how to access, control, harvest or adjust to them. This, as should be obvious, represents a huge body of knowledge passed on almost unconsciously from generation to generation.

But then, cooking has not purely been about survival. It is only a minority of low-lives that eat (and therefore cook) to live. Even more so than eating, cooking is a celebration, an act of creation, and an expectation. Cooking not only creates food, but also an atmosphere, emotions and modes of thinking, and in turn is influenced by them. A depressed person can only produce depressing food in the long run. Spices used reflect the personality of the society as a whole. It is not a coincidence that spicy food and emotional Indians go together. A person that I know, who has lived for quite some time in the US, mentioned once that ‘Indians kill the taste of meat by adding spices to it’, meaning that we never really taste the meat itself, but mostly how it is flavored. It is only a boring utilitarian view that can say that what is meant to be tasted is the meat itself. This is the view that can produce something like a rare steak. Fortunately, Indians will never be partial to this view, and my food will be ‘killed’ by spices for as long as I live.

What assumptions does one cook under? what view of the person who eats what is cooked is taken? Cooking, though mostly performed by a single person, is rarely meant for that person alone. However, the preparation must be appealing at first to the cook itself, and it is assumed that the persons who are being cooked for will find it similarly appealing. You do not go asking for everyone’s opinion during cooking, but only afterward. Thus, there is always assumed a continuity, a oneness between the cook and the eaters. It is expected there will be minor differences, but never major ones. One of the best ways to insult or show displeasure toward the cook (for any reason) is to complain loudly and/or refuse to eat, like all our movies and serials show us. The breaking of a social or emotional bond is thus best symbolized by the drama at the dinner table. Similarly, it is because we assume a continuity that we only ask strangers as to their culinary preferences before the preparation of a meal.

Cooking and consumption of its products remind us that the social universe is dominated by non-textual, non-lingual signs. Displeasure, happiness, amity, love, irritation can be so easily communicated without even saying a single word or writing elaborate theses or love letters. Food, again, is not just the mixing of specified ingredients, but also the physical manifestation of a specific mental and spiritual disposition. This is the reason why you can only do that much by following a recipe book. The ‘extra’ that every cook hopes for does not reside in any recipe read or listened to.

Both cooking and eating normally begin with prayers, which reminds us repeatedly of what assumptions go into cooking — thank the farmer, the rains, the earth, all which take the form of God in prayer. In this sense, cooking is also an acknowledgement of our dependence, mostly on things over which we have no control, and thus for whose suitable working we must be thankful. Cooking can also be an instrument of domination, and is particularly useful over those who go soft-headed after a great meal. It is only those who do not realize the power of cooking who can condemn it as a symbol of subjugation, just like they condemn motherhood or anything that applies to a certain gender, normally female.

Cooking, performed in an appropriate amount, is therefore as much a pleasure as is eating, and the possibility of creating not just something that tastes good, but also influencing individual behavior and by implication the mood of those around those individuals also puts a certain responsibility and a duty on the cook. Those who eat implicitly assume that those who cook will not poison their stomachs or their minds.

The greatest appreciation of a cook’s work does not lie in enthusiastic applause, but in a contented silence which seems to say ‘Everything is perfect. I am at peace. I am in heaven’. That cooks around the world can bring about this state of mind, rather than body, on a regular basis is something remarkable, and a true hallmark of a civilized people, regardless of their being rich, poor, urban, rural or tribal.

Why do people honk so much?

This question seems quite important considering that the sanity of people having to tolerate incessant honking might be somewhat rescued from the edge of the cliff on which it now stands if they understand why. Honking probably served an important public purpose, that of preventing two vehicles from occupying the same space at the same time often, but its usage has gone beyond such mundane considerations to being a reflection into the personality of the owner of the horn itself.

First, one must distinguish between different types of honking:

  • The standard honk, which is used for the important public purpose mentioned above.
  • The stylish honk, which rises above the previous one to include (normally irritating to everyone else) tunes or rhythmic patterns. Normally used to show a possible flair for music and an upbeat mood.
  • The angry honk, longer in duration but bursty in nature, when the owner seems to think (or hope) that the honk will become louder and more irritating to others if used for a longer duration. It is normally used to show disapproval.
  • The frustation honk, normally used in beastly traffic jams, and whose duration is proportional to the feeling of powerlessness that the owner feels. Normally used when the owner wants to make something/someone cry for what he is feeling and the effect is conveniently reproduced by pressing the horn.
  • The celebration honk, used when India wins the World Cup or something like that. It consists of innumerable vehicles on the road honking in unison for an unbearably long period of time. One must thank the Indian team for not doing such a disservice to the road travellers of India often.

There might be a richer variety, but these are what I can think of. If one thinks about it, there is no logical reason why some of these should exist. I have heard a person relentlessly honking at a railway crossing when the gates were closed, and others honking back, probably to make him stop. Don’t think it worked very well. The scene felt like watching wolves howling at the moon. There is no rational reason to honk at a closed railway gate, but then the mistake lies in believing that people are driven by reasoning and solid logic in their day to day conduct.

Driving or sitting in a vehicle under busy conditions is one of those few instances in one’s life when you are shown for what you really are. People who seem nice and sweet suddenly start acting bossy and judgemental, and mousy and mild people, well, continue being so. People who tell you that they don’t feel the need to control everyone or everything show their true colors when they are passengers in a vehicle  zipping at 100 kilometers an hour past other vehicles.

All these and other observations point to what seems to be a fundamental feature of the human psyche – the need to assert the Self, to show the world that you exist. As the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran points out, the Self cannot really be defined without reaching out to the Other – who or what you are is shaped by your interactions with others. People who are completely shut off from others, like in the case of autistic children, don’t seem to possess (at least observably) what we would call a normal human personality. The honking at a jaywalker becomes more and more urgent unless she acknowledges your presence by looking directly in your direction. While one can explain this away by saying that you were only hoping to draw her attention to the fact that a possibility exists of her being stuck under your tyres, but sometimes even when there is no reasonable chance of this happening, the honks still persist.

The traffic jam is the ultimate put off, one of the few (well, maybe not few) moments in when you simply don’t matter, and really cannot do anything about it. The effect is similar to what you would evoke if you tried to end a fight by trying to walk away and ignore the other person. On the other hand, a person who is angry at you will try to incite anger in you, knowing fully well that that is the only way any decent fight can result. One needs to know that one’s anger is fully reciprocated and probably some mechanism like the mirror neurons will help maintain the feedback loop, keeping the anger flowing from one to the other. In this light, it would be interesting to see how frustration honks start and spread in a traffic jam.

Almost every facet of our personality – beauty, intelligence, aggression – make sense only in a social context. ‘Setting goals for yourself’ or ‘Not following the herd’ seem to simply be replacing the social with a reflexive analysis, but the mechanism is still the same. Which is why we have Special Interest Groups, debating clubs and Facebook which serve the purpose of ‘mutual admiration’, in the words of J.K. Galbraith. Knowing that you matter matters.