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Who is Responsible for Our Actions?

Imagine you plan to write on a piece of paper. You have a pen and the paper on the table. If you were asked to describe the event the logical sequence would be:

  1. There is a thought in the brain that you wish to write.
  2. Associated with the thought, there is an electrochemical reaction in the brain called as the readiness potential.
  3. Based on the readiness potential the brain sends a signal to the hand to perform a desired action of writing.

Man has a free will and when he makes a conscious decision, the sequence of events would be first the thought or the decision, then the brain getting ready for the implementation of the thought through readiness potential followed by the impulse to the organ culminating in the desired action.

This theory of free will received a rude shock when Benjamin Libet, a pioneering neuroscientist performed a simple experiment in 1985. While performing an experiment on his participants, he asked them to take a simple action of raising their hands and also indicate the time when the decision to raise the hand was taken. While monitoring the brain activity, he found that the readiness potential had occurred in the brain not after the decision was taken but about 200 ms before the decision was taken. The decisions we feel we are taking consciously are actually not taken by us but already by our unconscious mind. A number of psychologists and scientists questioned the validity of such an experiment. A series of such minute readiness potential -thought –action sequence happens so rapidly that we feel that there is someone inside our body termed as the self who has a free will and takes conscious decision.

23 years later, the April 2008 issue of Nature Neuroscience has published a research paper on similar lines. The experiment was simple. There are two buttons. The participant has a choice to press any button, in a random fashion. He was asked to indicate the time at which he has taken a decision and the subject was asked to press the button. While the experiment was going on, the brain scan was carried out by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. (FMRI) which can record the activities happening in the different parts of the brain.

The patterns generated does not tell what a person is doing. However different parts of the brain were getting brightened depending on which activity was being performed. .The surprising observation was that the computer was able to predict which button the subject will press based on the FMRI scan. And the brightening of the specific part was happening at least 7 seconds before the subject said that he was taking a decision. The experiment was repeated 100 times and the computer was able to predict at least 70% of the time which button may get pressed, based on the part that glowed corresponding to  the decision whether it was right or left. Prof John Haines and his colleagues who conducted this experiment in Germany came to the startling conclusion that when we feel that we are consciously taking any decision, the unconscious mind has already taken the decision 7-10 seconds before and the conscious mind just has to follow its unconscious counterpart.

In another experiment, Prof. Eric Candel and others conducted an experiment to see the linkages of the conscious and the unconscious mind A group of 17 participants were shown a series of pictures with associated with different emotions fear, anger, hatred, disgust etc. While showing the pictures the brain activity was similarly monitored. Let us assume 100 pictures which can evoke such  emotions were displayed at a normal frame speed of 5 seconds. In between these 100 pictures 2/3 pictures at random with extreme emotions were shown for a fraction of a second. The participants were not able to recollect that they have seen such pictures. Amygdala which is the seat of emotion in the brain used to get brightened when such pictures were shown. However a specific part of amygdala used to get brightened depending on whether the fear was experienced on a conscious level ( picture shown for 5 secs ) or at the subconscious level.( picture shown for 0.1 sec) The amygdala is the seat of primal emotion like fear, anger etc. and the response is used to trigger the fight-or-flight response used for the survival of the organism. The responses are instantaneous.

There are some people who get panicky for trivial reasons or flare up on small issues. This can be correlated with their  amygdale make up. In the same event of traffic jam A may get easily angry whereas B may not get too upset. For sake of simplicity we can say that a short tempered person may operate at a higher level of amygdala arousal say at 900. wheras a cool and composed person may operate at a level of 200. So when a picture  was flashed for a fraction of a second both A and B got panicky but at their respective levels. So A gets angry at a level of 900 and B at a level of 200. However when the same picture is shown at a lower speed the level of arousal corresponding to fear is not proportional to the base level but at a constant level . A goes from 900 to 1000 whereas B goes from 200 from 300. Stated otherwise,  when confronted with an emotion like anger or fear at an unconscious level, the panic response dependent on the individual genetic makeup and while facing the same at a conscious level it was not that terrible.

This research has some interesting fallouts. When people face irrational fears of closed places, air travel or swine flu, they need to bring that experience into the conscious level  where the unwanted emotion is seen and felt in real time and by doing this exercise, the amygdala arousal can be reduced.

Sigmund Freud had propounded the same thing by talking oneself out and thus reducing the unwanted emotions.

Gautam Buddha has proposed the same technique in his Vipassana meditation where such emotions are faced head-on by watching one’s breath continuously and by doing so, the impact of the irrational fears comes down.

The conventional wisdom propounded by the motivational speakers, and evangelist says that one should always think positive and if one gets negative thoughts they should be driven away or rather put under the carpet. And then we tell our children , “you should be seen not heard”, “don’t act like a sissy, boys don’t cry” etc. .But such facades of confidence actually crumble over a period of time making the situation worse. Let me give another example: Let us say at night you are not able to get the sleep and you are tossing from one side to the other. Under such conditions it is logical that most of us get negative thoughts like Why I cannot sleep and try to make the maximum efforts like counting the numbers etc. On the contrary if you just watch your thoughts and then say, “ At this moment I am not able to sleep and that is the current reality. If you go on watching the breath and focus on the process without bothering about the end result there is a greater possibility that you may get  quality sleep much faster.

The conclusion of the above research as corroborated by Gautam Buddha is:

  1. You can handle your irrational fears by bringing them into the conscious mind.
  2. The impact of the fear reduces drastically by repeating such exercise.
  3. The subconscious mind does not have the word NOT in its dictionary, as such whenever unconsciously we say a negative thing the subconscious mind rebounds in an opposite manner. For example, The more you say I will NOT get angry you tend to feel more angry. The more you resist, the more it persists.

One of the greatest hoaxes of life is to feel that that there is a self which goes on directing ourselves. However the truth is otherwise. Most of the conscious actions which we feel we do by choice are actually done by the unconscious. As the difference between the action and the readiness potential is  small, and such actions are happening at such a rapid pace that first we take action and a conglomeration of such rapid actions make us feel that   there is a self inside that that I am doing an action.

Let us see what the ancient Buddhist text say on this subject which has now been confirmed by the latest neurological research:

  • There is no Self as the agent of any action..
  •   There is no Self as the feeler of any sensation..
  •   There is no Self as the experiencer of any perception..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any bony frame of body..
  • There is no Self in or outside any shortly sensed feeling..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any experienced perception..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any remembered memory..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any constructed intention..
  • There is no Self in or outside any momentary consciousness..
  •   There is no Doer experiencing any effect of any action..
  •   There is no Definable Entity transmigrating at Rebirth..
  •   There is no Stable Identity lasting even for a moment..
  •   There is no Owner of anything, whether material or mental..
  • Yet beings, since an endless beginning, passionately maintains this mere IDEA of a stably enduring yet invisible entity, supposed to be the Self, I, Ego, Me,  Identity or Personality, with which they fall deeply & dramatically in love.

Assuming such an IDEA, constructing such an Imagination, Defining such an Invention is more than FATAL, as it causes the constructer to come back to  birth, ageing, decay & death & thereby suffering again & again for aeons.

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Winning a Jackpot: How do you decide?

Situation: Imagine you are participating in a game show and after going through qualifying and elimination rounds, you have reached the finals.  The game-show host presents you three options A, B & C and you have to select one of the options which are the respective doors. One of the doors leads to a jackpot (say a Mercedes) and the other doors to an insignificant prize, say a tennis ball through each door. Now let us say you have selected option A. You are curious and excited to see if you have hit the jackpot. The host asks you to be patient, opens the door C and what you see is a tennis ball. Now he asks you whether you would still stick with option A or switch to option B? What would you choose and why?

When this question was put on different platforms like linkedin, what’sapp it was observed that 95% of the respondents voted for A. Now read on:

Analysis: Generally people tend to stick to option A, the reason being they would not like to regret their decision. If A is selected leading to a jackpot, then he would be happy; however if otherwise, then he  blames  the circumstances or his fate. But at least he has the consolation that he was firm in his decision. However if he were to choose B, and were to lose; he would regret his decision and also for not being firm in his decision making process.

Let us see how this situation can be seen from a statistical probability basis. Generally people make decisions through their self-interest and do not look at a situation objectively. For example we tend to discount the impact of the environment on our decisions. When a person selects option A, the  probability of success is 1 in 3. However when door C has been opened with a tennis ball, the probability of B has increased to 50%. Assume instead of 3 options you were given 100 options. And now 98 doors are opened without any jackpot. Would you still bat for A? Now you will appreciate that at the beginning of the game the probability of winning A was 1% but after the events have unfolded B has risen to 50%. So in a single event even though A and B has equal chances, over the long term it makes sense to switch over considering the environmental factors.

What happens if the game of ABC is played 100 times. or 100 people play this game simultaneously? Now you will understand that the human mind is not programmed to think in a statistical manner. During most of programs our clients ask us to train their executives to think out-of the box. But sadly they  are hardwired to think otherwise.

Most people tend to overestimate fatalities and death in aeroplane crashes more than car accidents even though statistically air travel is much safer than car travel. One of the main reasons people tend to assign higher risk to air travel is due to wide publicity in media to such rare events.

A survey was carried out in the US after the 9/11 disaster. More people died in the three months  on  roads than those killed in the aircrafts during  the twin tower tragedy.  People tend to fear dread risk of low-occurrence and high consequence events such as the twin tower attack. ( Dread Risk : September 11 and fatal traffic accidents, by G. Gigerenzer) .There are two types of risks,  actual risk and dread risk, the latter is more out of anxiety quite often overestimated than the actual risk. This in part may answer why people would still go on playing option A.

Another reason for dread risk is an illusion of control. A person driving a car feels more in control of the situation than while flying in an aircraft driven by someone else. Most of our unconscious processes control our thoughts and behaviour, which in turn creates an illusion of self- I or the soul. It also makes us feel that I exist, I am in control and thus I can make my own decisions. But the truth is otherwise. Most of the events in life are beyond our control; there is no self.  And to create that illusion we tell stories, we fabricate them saying how intelligent we are.

The above problem is called as a Monty Hall problem ascribed to the presenter of the famous game show in USA,  Let’s Make a Deal. Monty Hall Problem states that there are two errors people make while taking decisions:

  1. They ignore the influence the external environment makes on their decision making and
  2. How their perceptions are shaped by the external environment. In fact we feel we are making decisions in a neutral environment and our decision making is rational. We feel we are safe when we are in control of our destiny. Rituals and routine give us more control of the situation. However truth is otherwise, Dan Ariely, author of Upside of Irrationality says we are poor in risk analysis and are irrational animals.

Rajan Parulekar|rajan@paradigm-info.com|98450 14098

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Difference between Convincing & Con-Vincing

Soumyajeet Mohanty ran Edu Solutions,  an educational consultancy service in Bhubaneswar Odisha. Initially he started Sunrise Coaching Solutions providing tuition to engineering students. As the venture did not yield much returns, he ‘moved up the value chain’ by providing  ( fake) admissions to students wishing to get into medical colleges. Continue reading

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On Human Nature – Case of Irom Sharmila

Irom Sharmila has called off her hunger protest against AFSPA. She went through pain, misery and deprivation for 16 long years. There were hundreds of people who have been killed in the encounters with army. What was Sharmila’s demand? It was to repeal the AFSPA act or to modify some of its provisions. Continue reading

What’s in a Name?

“Can you give me one ticket for Sri Balagangadhar Natha Swamiji Station, please?” I asked the booking window clerk at Peenya metro in Bangalore. The guy looking quite puzzled said, “ Can you repeat the name, please?” After going through that exercise once again, he said, “why don’t you say Hosahalli then?” I said I would have loved to do the same, but the govt changed the name to the present one.

Other  station names  on Bangalore metro are no different. They may not be that long but are indeed tongue twisters. There is Krantiveer Sangoli Rayanna Station, Nadaprabhu Kempegowda station, Bayappanahalli, Yelachenahalli, Goraguntepalya etc. of which the last one was earlier called as Yeshwanthpur Industry. But then the nearby station being Yeshwanthpur; wiser counsel of Namma Metro authorities prevailed to rename it as Goraguntepalya.

Should a name be simple or difficult to pronounce? Bangalore apart from being the capital of Karnataka happens to be the IT capital of India. There are people from different states as well as from different nationalities too. Once I saw a Japanese commuter struggling to pronounce Yelachenahalli while buying a ticket!

There were huge protests when the train announcements were made in Hindi and later on it was decided to have the same only in English and Kannada. There was hardly any murmur when the project was delayed by more than 4 years or the project cost escalated from Rs. 6000 crores to Rs. 14,000 crores for the green and purple lines. This phenomenon of sweating out the small stuff is not unique to Bangalore but happens elsewhere too. C. Northcote Parkinson, a renowned management guru once said that for a Nuclear Power plant in England, the sanction of additional  5 million pounds for an alternate design was passed in five minutes whereas the committee deliberated for almost   a week about the location of the cycle stand in the power plant. The former topic needed considerable level of technical competency whereas in case of the latter, every committee member had an opinion on the subject.

New York times once said that the greatest sex change operation was conducted in Mumbai a few years back when Victoria Terminus (VT) station was renamed as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) It is  a marvellous structure  ( now declared as a UNESCO heritage site) the headquarters of Central Railway with 18 platforms and currently carrying millions of passengers every day. It took the architect William Stevens and his team, ten long years and the railway station which was completed  in 1888 was planned keeping the future traffic growth in mind. One wonders how could  the British team plan for such a mammoth station when the traffic might be just a miniscule then ( 150 years back) of what it is today? Is there any comparable station constructed in post-independence India? But then changing the name was far easier and more prestigious for the politicians. Some years down the line, the name was extended to Chhhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus ( CSTM). The day is not far off when it may be even called as Gobrahmin Pratipalak, Kshatriya Kulavatans  Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus ( GPKKCSMT) !!

Once a teacher was narrating a story to the class of 5th standard students on similar lines.  During a cricket match played on the school grounds, the  ball  fell into a nearby well. Ram, a fielder, while fetching the ball; fell in the well.  His friends shouted for help.  Luckily Ram was rescued. Next time, in a similar situation,  another student called Ardhanarinateshwara  Sivaramakrishan while fetching the ball meets the similar fate. His friends called for help but by the time his full name was pronounced, it was too late and unfortunately the boy gets  drowned.  Teacher asked Shyam the moral of the story. Shyam replied, “children with long names should never go near the well.”  Hope our politicians do not think on similar lines!

rajan.parulekar@yahoo.com

Do Sales Incentives necessarily Improve the Margins?

One of our clients in Pune had invited me to diagnose the problem of their poor margins. When I asked the VP-Sales he said,” We are facing this problem for the last three years, so last year we have launched an attractive incentive scheme, but still it is not producing results.”

Most of the sales managers intuitively feel that incentives lead to higher margins.  However the research carried out by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester and Adam Grant at Wharton say that the effectiveness of motivation varies with the task.  There are two types of tasks:  Algorithmic and Heuristic tasks. Continue reading

Volition & Motivation: The Gap between Doing and Knowing

Most of us feel that attending a motivational program will help people achieve the individual and organizational goals. Kurt Lewin and Narziss Ach have made pioneering contribution in the field of motivation. Lewin was known for his field theory as well freezing and unfreezing  concepts in changing the human behaviour and believed that motivation and volition are the same. Narziss Ach  treated motivation and volition differently.

Volition happens at three levels: Continue reading