Tag Archives: 2006 VERITAS

Musee du Louvre




        I was in Paris for a week on a business trip. I kept two days free as I wanted to see Paris: Eiffel tower was on the top of my list followed
by Louvre and Notre-dame. I had been to Paris as a kid with my parents and I remembered that I had loved the view from the top of of the Eiffel. But I remembered nothing of the Louvre.


        For many people in the world the Louvre has become famous because of Mona Lisa or because of the book “Da Vinci code”. And for most people in the world the Eiffel tower is the symbol of Paris. And even for me before this visit the Louvre was a ” big museum that has the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo”. But as soon as I entered the Louvre I was stunned by its magnificence and its size. It seemed like a HUGE giant that mocked me: “You consider yourself a student and a lover of all things beautiful. How could you think of yourself something like that without looking at the objects of beauty that I have collected for centuries. First see my collection, admire it and then make your claims!”. I felt so small and tiny before that enormous structure. I collected my ticket and entered the museum.

        The Louvre is a magnificient monument. Even if you do not enter the museum you will be moved by the size and beauty of the monument while standing in its courtyard. I stood it its courtyard before buying my tickets and immediately placed it far far above Eiffel Tower as my symbol
of Paris.

        And when I entered the building through the Richelieu wing I realized that I will not be able to “finish” the museum in the 7-8 hours
that I had decided to spend here. And let me tell you why- The Louvre has in its collection 350,000 works in total! Out of them only 35,000 are on
display.  So if you spend 1 minute per work of art you can see 60 works of art in a minute( that is in reality not possible. I could only manage
10-15 per minute). So if you visit the museum for 10 hours, you can only see 600 works of art in a day. So you need 58 days to just see the 35,000 works of art that are on display if you go at this incredible speed! And these 35,000 works of art are spread in an area of 60,000 square
metres of exibition space!

        The Louvre has not always been a museum. For eight centuries it was the palace of the kings of France. In the 12th century AD Philippe
Auguste built a fortified castle here. Two centuries later it was converted into a “palace as spruce and brilliant as an emerald” by Charles V. But when the hundred years war started this palace lost its importance and was converted into a prison and a place to keep military supplies. In 1564 a new palace was built about 600 metres from Louvre- Palais des Tuileries. These two palaces were to be connected along the side of the river Siene. This was followed by a period of neglect when the kings of France built another palace about 20 kilometres away from Paris, at Versailles. At this time the Louvre was invaded by artists and traders. In 1776 Comte d’Angiviller who was incharge of government buildings decided to convert a part of this palace to a museum- the academy of painting. The museum was delayed because of the French Revolution. But in 1793 it was finally inaugurated.

Richelieu Wing


       Napolean’s reign saw a huge amount of artistic activity in France. Napoleon was a great admirer of the arts( and also Science and Mathematics). Artists became very productive. Also Napoleon brought back a huge number of works of art from the lands that he conquered: a large part of Europe, Egypt, Middle East. Also works from French colonies were brought back and placed in the Louvre. The Museum started filling up and more and more  space was allocated for it within the Louvre. In 1981 the Ministry of Finance vacated the Louvre and the whole Louvre was dedicated to the works of Art and the whole Louvre was now a museum.

        The Louvre is divided into three wings: Richelieu, Sully and Denon. And each of these wings is divided into sections: Sculptures,
Oriental Antiquities, Egyptian Antiquities, Greek-Roman Antiquities, Arts of Africa, Arts of Islam, History of Louvre, Paintings of France, Italian
Paintings etc etc. And there is a whole section that has kept the rooms of Napoleon III as they were in the 19th century- those rooms give
us an idea of how the Kings used to live.

Sully Wing


        I walked through the Louvre dazed and astonished, There were works of art and beauty all around me and I felt like an ignorant fool- I felt
completely unable to understand most of these objects or the expression of the artist that has given birth to these works. And as I walked fast I
could look only at a few works carefully- I had only 8 hours. I felt that each work of beauty is calling me to stop for a moment and understand it,
to feel it but I just ignored most of these beautiful objects. In my 8 hours I barely spent 10 minutes eating my lunch and during the rest of the
time I feverishly walked one room to another. But even then I could not see more that 200-300 works( and out of them about 50 in detail).

        Every painting has a huge amount of detail. And every painting has a history. It is not possible to admire these paintings without understanding the historical context and the style of the artist. So each painting is a book in itself. I could only see the Mona Lisa from a distance. There was a long queue in front of it. Either I could see the Mona Lisa or I could see 20 other works of art in that time- I preferred the latter.

Denon WIng


       Another section I loved was the Egyptian section- there was a statue that was almost 5000 years old! That statue was the first depiction
of the human form as a sculpture. The Oriental Antiquities section was also wonderful- I was really impressed by the “winged bull with a human
head” a statue that is more than 4 metres tall. After the Mona Lisa the most popular work is the Venus De Milo( or Aphrodite)- a statue that is
more than 2000 years old and was found in two pieces on the island of Melos- but the arms are still missing.

Winged Bull with a human head


       After 8 hours I had to leave. But I promised to return- and the next time I will spend at least a week just discovering and surrounded by
the  beauty of this Museum. The Louvre like all things of great beauty has left me feeling so thirsty for another glimpse and like all things of
great beauty, I know She will haunt me forever.

        When Keats looked at an ancient Grecian urn in a friend’s house he wrote a very beautiful poem: Ode to a Grecian Urn. This poem
admires the beauty and the context in which the object of art was created. Here is a excerpt from that poem. I think this poem applies
to all the 350,000 works of art that are stored in the Louvre:

        O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
          Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
        With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
        As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
            When old age shall this generation waste,
            Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
       Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
          “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
            Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

( For more information on the Louvre see www.Louvre.fr.
  The poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn” was posted some time back in the MHFL list. E-mail me if you want the complete poem and its interpretation)



  Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:                 
  Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:                 
  Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,                          
  Correct old time and regulate the Sun;                             

Mysteries of the Brain Part – 15 – HAPPINESS


   In this episode of VERITAS we will attempt to search for something so elusive that Philosophers and Religion guys have tried to search for it
for centuries but have failed! Today we attempt to solve the mystery that haunts everyone. Today we attempt to find the solution to the greatest
problem that we humans struggle with…. Today we attempt to find the the cause of human happiness! What is happiness? How do we achieve
happiness? What is sadness? What is its cure? Today we will attempt to answer all these fundamental questions.

       But our approach is not Philosophical! And it is not empirical. Our approach will be Chemical! We are guided by this hope: It should be
possible( in theory) to differentiate between a happy brain and a sad brain by doing a chemical analysis of these two brains!

       I can try to avoid the Philosophers and Religion guys for this VERITAS but I do not know how to avoid the poets. So they may disturb us
during the VERITAS with their reflections on the nature of happiness.

                       He who binds himself to a joy,
                       Doth the winged life destroy.
                       He who kisses joy as he flies,
                       Lives in eternity’s sunrise
                                       ( William Blake)

 Before we understand happiness and depression we have to understand neurotransmitters. We have studied in earlier episodes of this series that
nerve cells( or neurons) communicate with each other through chemicals- these chemicals are called neurotransmitters. Packets of neurotransmitters are released from one neuron and they travel to another neuron and are absorbed there. Excess neurotransmitter packets are absorbed back by the transmitting neuron.

       Now let’s say that there is a indeed a happiness chemical in the brain- a happiness neurotransmitter. Call it H. What happens if H is in
short supply( maybe the molecules that make H are not working)? Or what happens if H is released from one neuron but does not make it to the
receiving neuron? What happens if H is released and absorbed by the same neuron. All these will cause a lack of transmission of H and the
message contained in it- the message of happiness. All these conditions cause depression. And if H is in good supply and there is proper transmission we have happiness.

       Is there such a chemical? There are three: norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. A lack of any one of these can cause depression or
different types of it based on which chemical is in short supply.

Norepinephrine is a stress harmone. It is also responsible for attention and focus.

Serotonin regulates mood, sleep and appetite. Serotonin levels also control the Norepinephrine levels in the brain. Serotonin gives us a feeling of well being.

Dopamine is associated with the pleasure system of the brain. Dopamine is associated with the reward or the promise of reward that causes us to do some activity. Typical rewards are pleasures like sex, food ( or a promise of these hidden in our complex and abstract throught processes) or even social acceptance.

       So the following are the three ingredients of happiness:

1) A lack of stress( Norepinephrine )
2) General feel good factor ( Serotonin )
3) Good level of motivation and feeling rewarded or a anticipation
  of reward (Dopamine ).

       Let’s take the case of social behaviour. If we have good levels of Dopamine we will consider social interactions to be rewarding. We look
forward to social interactions because we anticipate social acceptance.And when we anticipate social acceptance more Dopamine is fired by neurons and we feel good during the party! People who have had a bad social interaction in the past do not anticipate social acceptance and their Dopamine levels drop during social interactions and they do not feel good during the interaction. There you have it- we have even explained confidence!

       But remember: an excess of any of these chemicals is also bad. An excess of Dopamine can make people hypersocial and hypersexual!

       An lack of Serotonin is accociated with obsessive compulsive disorders- doing something an abnormal amount of times. It is also associated with mania- thinking about something to an abnormal degree! And it is associated with romantic love!! So there is no difference between the levels of Serotonin  in a person who is experiencing a new romantic love and a maniac.

       THe beginning stages of romantic love has very high levels of Dopamine and very low levels of Serotonin. High Dopamine gives the lover a
high level of focus, decreased sleep and an enormous delight in every experience of the romance. Low levels of Serotonin gives the lover an
obsessive interest in the object of affection- the lover keeps thinking about the beloved at all times- this can also cause a huge depression if
the the beloved does not respond. But remember, all this lasts for about a year- then all chemical levels go back to their normal values!

       Many drugs have these happiness chemicals. Cocaine has Dopamine. Ecstacy has Serotonin. Most anti-depression pills just regulate these
three neurotransmitters.

             A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
             Its loveliness increases; it will never
             Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
             A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
             Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

                                            ( John Keats)

Now we come to a very important point- what is the difference between pleasure and happiness? If these three chemicals are the core of happiness and pleasure then pleasure and happiness mean the same thing and we should go about maximizing our pleasures! Wrong! And wrong for two reasons: First, there is something called the “bliss point”. The body does not allow you too much of a good thing. The body wants to to reach a “bliss point” and stop there. Second, the same event may not cause the same levels of the happiness chemicals later. So we cannot do a pleasurable activity again and again- it loses its freshness.

       Let’s define pleasure as a temporary increase in the the H chemicals. A lottery or a promotion can give you  a Dopamine  high for 6
months. A new romance can give you a Dopamine high for a year. But what after that? You cannot get promoted every 6 months( atleast I cannot), you cannot fall in love every year! So we cannot live a happy life with pleasure alone. We need good Serotonin,Norepinephrine and Dopamine levels everyday to live happy lives. Here is how we do that:

1) Keep away stress
2) Exercise( it increases the Serotonin levels)
3) Sleep well ( it increases the Serotonin levels)
4) A Balanced diet can keep these chemicals in the right quantity.
5) Make long term plans and achieve something everyday. Everyday should be a small reward. Do not wait for big rewards. Achieve something everyday and reward yourself. (This will keep the Dopamine level nice because Dopamine is about the anticipation of rewards and about being
  motivated). Have your own reward system- do not rely on society   to reward to for everything.
6) Have meaningful and stress free family relationships( people who can keep your Dopamine and Serotonin levels stable on a everyday basis)
7) You need small Serotonin/Dopamine level increases everyday- books,   music, sports etc.

       So we see that happiness is indeed a chemical function of the brain. But to regulate the levels of these chemicals we have found ways
that are very close to the ways perscribed by the Philosophers and the Religion guys. I did want to avoid the Philosophers and the Religion guys
but I could not do that. The reason for happiness may be chemical but the way to it is certainly perscribed by the Philosophers and it agrees with
Chemistry! This is a rare happy occasion where the Philosophical agrees with the Chemical!

       My mind to me a kingdom is;
       Such present joys therein I find,
       That it excels all other bliss
       That earth affords or grows by kind.
                               (Edward Dyer)



 Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
 Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
 Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
 Correct old time and regulate the Sun;




 I was in Israel for a week on a business trip. For me it was a wonderful cultural and intellectual experience. The most interesting part of my trip
was the one day that I spent in Jerusalem. That one day showed me so much history and made me think so much about religion and culture that I was overwhelmend by the whole experience. I want to share some of the things that I learnt with you through VERITAS.

        Jeresulum is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Let’s first understand why it is so important for these three religions. This will
help us understand the relationship between these religions and also why this region is always tense.

        Israel was the promised land for the Jews. It was promised by God to Abraham. Moses then helped the Jews to come and settle in their land. King David( of the David and Goliath fame) made Jeresulum his capital 1000 years before Christ. His son King Solomon built a temple there. This temple was the most sacred place for the Jews. This is the place where the Holy Ark was kept. This temple was destroyed and rebuilt two times. At this time there is no temple there. There is only a wall that remains of the old temple. This wall is called the “wailing wall” or the
“western wall”. This wall is the most sacred place for the Jews at this time.  They touch it, they pray near it, they kiss it, they cry on it. The Jews
believe that a messiah will come someday and bring a golden age for the Jews.

The Wailing Wall


And the messiah will rebuild the temple. This is a VERY strong belief in Jews. They are waiting for this. Why don’t they just rebuild the temple? They cannot. First reason: there is a mosque there(and we will come to that). second reason: only the messiah can rebuild the temple
and he is still not here. The Jews have lived by this belief  and a love for Jeresulum for thousands of years. Wherever they lived they kept
praying that they could return to Jeresulum. Their prayers contain sentences like ” If I forget Jeresulum may my right hand become useless”!
So the Jews worship Jeresulum. Their love for Jerusalem helped them maintain their identity through throusands of years of oppression and
exile from their native land.

        Jesus Christ was a Jew. But he was no ordinary Jew. He was a preacher. And his followers believed that he is the long awaited messiah.
The jewish high priest Joseph Caiaphas did not believe this. He did not like what Jesus preached and was especially against Jesus claiming himself to be the Son of God. He got Jesus arrested on his visit to Jerusalem and conspired with the Roman Governor of Jerusalem Pointius Pilate to give him a death sentence. So Jesus walked on the roads of Jeresulum carrying the cross. And he was crucified in Jerusalem. I walked on the road where Jesushad walked! It is called the Via Dolorosa( Way of Sorrow).

Via Dolorosa


And I saw the place where Jesus was crucified and also his tomb. And I also saw the stone that was supposed to have covered the cave where Jesus was buried. These places are a part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The funny thing is that the keys of the Holy Sepulchre are in the possession of a Muslim family for the last 1000 years. And they plan to keep it that way. Every day morning this family comes and opens the Church and take the keys with them! Also note that since the Jew high priest had a hand in the crucifiction of Christ so the memories of this incident made the Jews unpopular later when Europe adopted Christianity. The Jews in Europe were an oppressed lot and this reached an extreme during the time of Hitler. So the hatred for Jews started from the crucifiction of Christ by the Jewish high priest. I also visited the room where Jesus had his “last supper”! So we see that Jerusalem is very sacred for the Christians also.

Holy Sepulchre


 Jerusalem is very sacred for the Muslims. In fact it is their third most sacred place ( after Mecca and Madina). The Muslims believe in
Moses. They also believe that Jesus was a prophet. But they have an additional belief: that Prophet Mohammed( born 570 AD) was also a
prophet. According to the Muslims, Prophet Mohammed visited Jerusalem in 621 AD and from there he was transported to Heaven where he met Abraham, Moses and Jesus. From them he received the five daily prayers and he came back to earth to spread them. Muslims believe that Prophet Mohammed was transported to heaven from the Noble rock. The Muslim Mosque built on this rock has the dimensions that have a mathematical ratio related to a circle drawn around the Noble rock. This Noble rock is sacred for the Jews also because according to them, it is the foundation stone on which the world was created. And it is on this rock that the ancient temples of the Jews stood. So the Muslim holy Mosque in  Jerusalem is on the site of the ancient Jew temples! And it is here that the messiah is supposed to come and build a temple again!

        So as you can see there three religions are so entangled with each other. They all come from a common root but they all have very different
views. And they all consider Jerusalem so sacred that they can die or kill for it. And they have done that several times in the last 2000 years! The Crusades ( or the holy wars) that were fought between 1096 AD and 1250 AD between the Christian world and the Muslim world were over the control of Jerusalem!

        And we can see that this desire to control Jerusalem is still the major cause of so much conflict.

        I am so glad that I was able to experience this 3000 year old history and the centre of world turmoil for the last 2000 years during my
short trip to Israel. It really opened my eyes to so many things that I had no appreciation of earlier. When I was returning to my hotel
in Tel Aviv that evening I wondered why people fight over something that I don’t even seem to believe in. I found it strange that the idea of God,
which in my opinion is a unscientific creation of the human mind can change how people behave and the entire course of history. But then
I thought – would people have still created magnificient monuments, cities and cultures if they did not believe strongly in God? Can a set of
scientific rationalists really believe so strongly in something to die for it. Can rationalists like me really create a culture and a history? I don’t
know. I am still wondering.


  Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:                 
  Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:                 
  Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,                          
  Correct old time and regulate the Sun;                             

Logic, Belief and Bayesian Inference


       It is quite rare that a thirty year old man changes the way he thinks. Only an enormous event can change thoughts that one has grown up with. There has been an event in my life that has produced this change. I was forced to relook at the way I think because of this event. This event is a book: “Probability Theory- The Logic of Science” by E.T Jaynes. The gift of new thought is the greatest gift that a mind can give another.
This book gave me that gift. And now I begin my poor attempt to show you the contents of this gift.

       I had written a VERITAS in which I had referred to this book before. But in today’s VERITAS I will describe the aim of this book and how it changed my thought process at a fundamental level.

       This book is about Bayesian probability. As I had written in the earlier article Bayesian probability theory is about knowledge and how probabilities come up when we have incomplete knowledge. The aim of this book is to show that probability theory is a theory which extends logic to areas where we have incomplete knowledge.

       When do we have incomplete knowledge? Always(nearly)! So the application of probability theory becomes important for nearly every
analysis because there are so few situations in which we have complete knowledge! So this book tells us how we can apply Bayes theorem( and probability theory) to situations around us.

       After reading this book it becomes obvious that it is nearly impossible to attach a probability of 0 or 1 to most things around us. So we cannot believe or disbelieve in something completely. We are always somewhere in the middle. Complete belief or disbelief can only come from complete knowledge.


       This book encourages us to assign degrees of belief to our thoughts. Jaynes calls this prior evidence. So a prior evidence is our belief in something before some experiment is done. It is measured in decibels. After a set of experiments our beliefs may change based on the experimental results. This is called posterior evidence. The link between prior evidence and posterior evidence is formed by Bayes theorem.

       Let’s take an example: I say that my belief in astrology is -50 decibels. We call this the prior evidence( lets just call it prior belief). If I go to an astrologer and he tells me 5 things about me by just looking at my horoscope he will add 50 decibels of evidence and take my porterior belief to 0 db. 0 db means that I do not know whether astology is true or not. So the 5 things that the astrologer told me has converted me from a disbeliever( -50 dB) to a person who has no opinions. Now if I keep meeting astrologers who keep predicting my future correctly then they will keep adding to the evidence and it might be that after a year I become a strong believer( say at 100 dB).

       So the degree of belief/dibelief is the amount of evidence needed to take you to 0 dB where you do not know if that thing is true or not.

       In probability language 0 Db means a probability of 1/2. A probability of 1 means infinite dB. A probability of 0 means  -infinite dB of belief.

       Now lets say I have complete belief in something. So I assign a probability of 1 to it. That means I assign a prior belief of infinite to it. What does that mean? It means that no matter how much evidence I get against that belief I will not change my belief. And that is being stubborn!

       Similarly if I completely disbelieve in something. That means that I assign -infinite prior belief to it. So no matter  how many experiments show the validity of the statement I will continue to completely disbelieve in it. And that is also being stubborn!

       So completely believing or disbelieving in something is to not let your beliefs to be shaped by experiments or by evidence.
And this is not the way a learner’s mind works.

       So at what level of belief does a learner’s mind work the most? AT a level when it can be most swayed by experiment: 0 dB of belief. So if one has very little knowledge about something one should start at 0 dB of belief.

       I had always been an athiest- a complete disbeliever in God. This book showed me that since I have no knowledge of the Universe or its laws or its beginning so I have no reason to assign a 0 probability( of -infinite prior belief) to a Creator( or God). I should say “I do not know” and assign
a 0dB prior belief to the possibility of God. This way I can hope to learn from evidence and experiments the most. I have become an agnostic!

       And I think being an agnostic is the most reasonable position to take for anyone who does not have a great deal of knowledge about the Universe.

       I learnt from this book that one should not be afraid of saying “I do not know”. It is better to acknowledge ignorance and put your beliefs to a 0 dB level and then to be swayed by evidence than to assign complete belief or disbelief to things and then being insensitive to new evidence.

       This book goes on to apply Bayes theorem to a huge number of everyday situations and also scientific situations. It is a beautifully written book. A book written from the heart. A book that should be there in every college curriculum just because it makes you think in a rational way about things you do not have full knowledge of. And it should be in every thinking person’s personal library.

       This book approaches even the philosophical subjects using mathematics and probability. For example in one section Jaynes asks why people do not converge on an agreement even when they see the same evidence. Let me explain. Let’s say A and B believe in telepathy to a different degree. A has a lot of belief and B has very little. Jaynes shows us that even if A and B are shown the same experiments involving telepathy they may never come to a common point of belief. They may continue to believe/disbelieve in telepathy to different degrees. And this is
all done using Bayes theorem. So Jaynes tells us why different people analyse data differently. And Jaynes does that using mathematics
and probability theory.

       A beautiful book! My strongest recommendation!



 Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
 Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
 Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
 Correct old time and regulate the Sun;

Creative Commons License
Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Light and Life – Part 3

This VERITAS was written on Tuesday, May 30, 2006

       This is part III of the VERITAS series in which we study the complex relationship between light and life.

       In the last VERITAS( MYSTERIES OF THE BRAIN : Part 14 , 19 May 2006) we saw that Adenosine and Melatonin are chemicals that make us tired and want to go to sleep and then help us sleep as long as there is darkness. Today we will understand Melatonin in detail and this will help us understand our body’s important relationship with darkness and night.

                   Swiftly walk over the western wave,
                   Spirit of Night!
                   Out of the misty eastern cave,
                   Where, all the long and lone daylight,
                   Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear,
                   Which make thee terrible and dear,-
                   Swift be thy flight
                                    – Shelly  ( “To the Night”)

       Melatonin is a harmone that promotes sleep. If this harmone is present in a greater quantity we feel more sleepy and if this harmone is
present in a lesser quantity then we feel less sleepy. This harmone is present in highest quantity in our bodies at night. This harmone is a part
of the system that regulates our circadian system( our internal system of light and darkness and therefore of time ).

       This harmone is present in nearly all creatures. Even simple creatures like algae have this chemical and this shows that nearly all creatures use Melatonin to regulate their body clocks. In some creatures Melatonin levels decides their skin colour which changes at night to prevent them from getting noticed by predators. Some animals use Melatonin levels to regulate their breeding patterns.

       In humans and other higher mammals Melatonin is produced in the pineal gland in the brain and the retina( in the eyes). This production is
controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleaus in the hypothalmus ( called SCN). SCN is the primary controller of the circardian cycle. The SCN takes input about the presence or absence of light from the eyes and controls the production of Melatonin.

       AS humans we tend to hate the concept of darkness except when we sleep. We associate darkness with evil and fear. We associate light with hope and joy. In olden days when we did not have artificial light our bodies were exposed to longer periods of darkness. Now our brightly
illuminated homes and streets means that our exposure to darkness has become much lesser. We have banished darkness from our lives! Is that a good thing?!

       No, it is not! If our bodies are exposed to less darkness we have lesser Melatonin production in our bodies. And this does not just mean
that perhaps we are not sleeping as well as we were in the olden days. It means that our immune system is weaker, it means that we have more chances of cancer and it means that our resistance to stress is much less than our “unilluminated” ancestors!!!

       Research has shown that melatonin boosts the immune system. It does that by enhancing the production of T cells. Doctors administer
Melatonin sometimes to enhance the immune system of patients.

       Melatonin is a very powerful antioxidant. It reduces the damage to cells from the hydroxyl radical(OH) by neutralizing it. If the body has enough Melatonin then the damage to brain cells because of ageing is reduced. In tests on mice scientists found that mice with enough melatonin tend to live upto 20% longer. And this may be bacuse of their brains and immune systems being protected from these free radical attacks by the antioxidant properties of Melatonin.

       Research has shown that Melatonin prevents the damage to body cell DNA from carcinogens. Carcinogens are chemicals that damage the cell’s genetic code and may cause the cell to multiply endlessly like crazy – a condition known as cancer. For example benzene is a carcinogen and causes blood cancer. Melatonin prevents these carcinogens from damaging the cell DNA and thereby prevents cancer. Lack of enough Melatonin exposes you to more cancer risk. There is evidence of greater cancer incidence amoung people who work in light at night and sleep during the day. These people never get a chance to produce enough Melatonin. So Melatonin protects you from the cancer causing effects of chemicals and radiation.

       So we see that darkness of the night is not such a useless thing. It is not evil. It is not a sign of despair. It is very important so that we may produce enough Melatonin in our bodies. Thus it is not just important to sleep, it is very important that we get enough sleep and we get enough darkness at night!

          When from the clock’s last chime to the next chime
          Silence beats its drum
          And Space with gaunt grey eyes and her brother Time
          Wheeling and whispering come
          She with the mould of form and he with the loom of rhyme.

          Then twittering out in the night my thought birds flee,
          I am emptied of all my dreams:
          I only hear Earth turning, only see
          Ether’s long bankless streams,
          I only know I should drown if you laid not your hand on me

                                        -James Flecker (“Silence”)



 Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
 Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
 Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
 Correct old time and regulate the Sun;

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Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Mysteries of the Brain Part – 14 – SLEEP


In this  VERITAS we will explore the structure of sleep. Sleep is not one big monolithic unit. It has various parts. And each of these parts has a specific purpose and specific character. Today we will explore these parts. We have seen in earlier VERITAS brain articles that human memory is
consolidated during sleep. In today’s VERITAS we will also find out the specific part of sleep that is associated with memory consolidation.

       We humans tend to look at sleep as a necessity but something that serves little purpose except giving the brain and the muscles some rest.
But the reality is different. During sleep the brain is very active. It is just not looking at the outside world. It is looking at itself and performing complex organizational tasks. The brain is not unconscious. It is in a state of altered conciousness. It is making sure that information acquired during the day is properly stored. It is improving the immune system. It is reducing harmful toxins from the various cells in the body. Sleep is a very interesting time and it is a very complex time. Indeed some researchers look at life from the opposite direction: That life is composed of various stages of sleep. And wakefulness is a stage of sleep where the body takes in nutrition and reproduces and prepares to enter into the other stages of sleep!

                Come, sleep, O sleep! the certain knot of peace,
                The baiting-place of wit, the balm of woe;
                The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
                The impartial judge between the high and low.

                                                        ( Philip Sidney)

First let’s look at the triggers for falling asleep and waking up. Adenosine and Melatonin are chemicals in the brain that act as the sleep/awake triggers. Adenosine release happens when a person is awake. It keeps accumulating. The longer a person stays awake the more the level of
Adenosine in his body. Adenosine makes us sleepy. At certain levels of Adenosine the urge to sleep becomes overwhelming. Melatonin levels
increase in the darkness. It promotes sleep. As we sleep the levels of Adenosine  decrease. The levels of Melatonin decrease when sunlight enters the room and it is time to wake up. Caffiene reduces the effects of Adenosine and makes us feel less sleepy.

       When we fall asleep we go through various stages of sleep. The following are the stages of sleep. All these stages were discovered when
the electrical patterns of the brain activity were recorded using an EEG.

1) Stage I: This lasts about 5-10 minutes. The person is on a borderline between wakefulness and sleep. An EEG of the brain shows that there are  two types of waves produced in the brain at this time: the alpha wave  with a frequency of 8-13 cycles per second and a theta wave of 4-7
  cycles per second. The alpha wave is the awake wave- it is the sign of  a awake person. The theta wave is a signature of the first stage of


2) Stage II: This is light sleep. The muscles become relaxed. The body temperature decreases. The response to outside sounds decreases. An EEG of the brain shows two features: sleep spindles and K complexes. A  sleep spindle is a sudden increases in wave frequency. A K-complex
  is a sudden increase in wave amplitude. This stage lasts a few minutes  and is also a light sleep stage.

3) Stage III and stage IV: This is deep sleep. These stages are marked by delta waves. Delta waves have the slowest frequency(1 to 4 cycles per
  second) and the highest amplitude. There is not much difference in stage III and IV. In stage III there are lesser delta waves. In stage IV more than half of the waves are delta waves. The rest are theta waves.

  The brain completes stage I through IV in about 90 minutes and then enters the most interesting stage:

4) REM stage: In this stage the brain electrical activity comes closest to  being awake. It shows alpha and beta waves. But the muscle tone
  dramatically decreases. The body is paralysed. The eyes start making fast movements in random directions. One part of the brain starts doing
  processing of information acquired during the day into memory but  another part of the brain starts making stories around that information.
  The body is kept paralysed because the brain does not want the body to act out these stories.  For details on dreaming and memory management
  see VERITAS: MYSTERIES OF THE BRAIN : Part 7, 1 May 2003.
  This stage lasts for about 10 minutes.

  During the night the body keeps repeating these stages one after the other with the exception of stage 1 that occurs only once. As the night
progresses the deep sl eep stages are reduced in length and the REM sleep length is increased. The last REM sleep stage( early morning) may last for an hour. That is why morning dreams are the most vivid and interesting.

       Small children spend a lot of time in REM sleep. They have a lot more information to consolidate.

    So we see that during REM sleep memories are formed. During non-REM sleep(stages 2 to 4) the immune system is strengthened and the body is rested.

       REM sleep is so important for the body that if a person deprived of sleep is given a chance to sleep for even an hour he will go directly into REM sleep without going  through the proper sleep stage sequence. So he may bypass stages 1 to 4 and jump to REM.

       We see that sleep is not a useless shutdown. It is a complex part of our life. A complex part that is still not fully understood. A complex
and enchanting world where we explore ourselves and our world without being tied to the chains of dull logic.


               O soft embalmer of the still midnight!
               Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
               Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
               Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;
               O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
               In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes.
                                                       ( John Keats)



 Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
 Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
 Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
 Correct old time and regulate the Sun;