Monday, February 28, 2022

Can tradition cause brain damage?


“Tradition is a form of brain damage” – is what physicist David Bohm and spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti agree upon in one of their dialogues in the book “The limits of thought”1. A few months ago I got an opportunity to facilitate a reading-and-reflection session on this dialogue and this sentence created discomfort among a few of the participants. They had valid points. Neither Bohm nor Krishnamurti was a neuroscientist. On what basis are they making such a claim? And neuroscience has advanced significantly in the last fifty years since they had this dialogue. Does it support it now? Let’s explore it in this article.

Let’s begin with the dialogue and then look at it through a neuroscience lens. Here is an excerpt from the dialogue:

DB: It occurred to me that tradition is a form of brain damage.

JK: I agree.

DB: Any tradition, good or bad, makes people accept a certain structure of reality, very subtly, without their realizing they are doing it, by imitation, or by example, or by words, just by statements. So very steadily the child builds up an approach in which the brain attributes things which are in the tradition to a reality which is independent of tradition. And it gives it tremendous importance. Tradition has real effects of all sorts, which may even be valuable in some ways. But at the same time it conditions the brain to a reality, which is fixed.

A person may look at that reality and say, “That’s reality, I‘ve got to keep my feet on the ground.” But this ground has been created by tradition, by thought; it is no ground, it has nothing under it at all. It is sustained and nourished by this damaged brain, which is unable to get out of that circle.

Now, let’s turn to a current neuroscience perspective.

Typically, we associate brain damage with some kind of lesion, some physical damage to the structure of the brain. However, that is a limited view of brain damage. According to Karl Friston, a leading neuroscientist, there are two kinds of brain damages2. One is anatomical and the other is functional. He uses radio as a metaphor to illustrate the difference. Anatomical damage is like cutting off the wires in radio, while functional damage is equivalent to transistors becoming dysfunctional. A transistor is dysfunctional when the message passing through the wires gets broken. In neurobiology, such a failure is called neuromodulatory failure when the messages passed through neural synapses are not gated and/or weighted properly. This results in loss of gain control meaning loss of control in excitation and inhibition of various signals.

As Friston articulates, when the gain control is broken, it results in strengthening false beliefs because the inferences based on the sensory information get compromised. For example, should I carry an umbrella today? This question would be answered based on the weather forecast and the likelihood of rain. When beliefs become rigid, the information passing mechanism becomes dysfunctional and incoming information related to rain is either suppressed or considered unreliable similar to a transistor malfunctioning. So I may end up carrying an umbrella no matter what.

Perhaps what Bohm-Krishnamurti are suggesting is that tradition has the capacity to make certain beliefs so strong that they are no longer amenable for update based on contextual information such as weather forecast. Beliefs related to what dress to wear or not wear, what to eat or not eat, what rituals to carry out, whom to marry or not marry may become so rigid that they suppress the passage of contextual information.  They are treated as true and fixed no matter what. As far as certain beliefs are concerned, the brain becomes dysfunctional, fixed, and context-insensitive.

Thus tradition may cause functional brain damage. What Bohm-Krishnamurti say in the dialogue is that the damage may or may not be permanent. What could heal such damage? Krishnamurti suggests that perception or insight into the whole belief structure, its rigidities and how it is operating, in the form of thought, being stuck in a grove, may heal the brain. I am not aware of any scientific research supporting such a claim. However, work such as that of Catherine Kerr, supports a milder form of this claim. That is, a practice of shifting attention away from thinking into body sensations and breathing may result in making the neuromodulation mechanism more flexible. That is, it may improve the quality of information flow through the neural pathways.


1.      “The limits of thought”, J. Krishnamurti and David Bohm, Krishnamurti Foundation India, 2013, chapter 5 “Tradition and truth”, page 84. This dialogue happened on August 6, 1975, in Gstaad, Switzerland.  Bohm suggests that “Tradition is a form of brain damage” at 6:13 in the audio

2.      Dysconnection hypothesis of schizophrenia”, August 10, 2017, In this video Karl Friston explains the nature of mental disorders and the possibility of a therapeutic cure of schizophrenia.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Neuroscience of mindfulness: My 4 takeaways from Catherine Kerr perspective

Catherine Kerr (1964-2016) was an American neuroscientist who made important contributions to the neuroscience of mindfulness. Her research was focused on the relationship between the material processes in the brain and the body awareness practices like mindfulness, tai chi and qigong. I found her work interesting because of three reasons. One, she had a cautious attitude towards the tall claims attributed to mindfulness. “Don’t believe the hype,” she said while also mentioning, “Behind the hype, there is some truth”. Two, I found her work on brain rhythms especially alpha waves and their relationship to mindfulness intriguing and relatable. And, three, she was trying to balance quantitative research from brain imaging studies with qualitative research from personal diaries and narratives. In this article, I would like to present my 4 takeaways from Cathy’s perspective. They are related to attentional freedom, brain rhythms, body-brain information loop, and existential reorientation.

Regaining attentional freedom: For many of us, attention is primarily consumed by repetitive thought patterns. Cathy calls this state of mind ungrounded. “Some people don’t even know that they can shift their attention in their body,” she says1. Mindfulness begins with learning to shift attention out of thinking into body sensations. This is what Cathy calls learning to regain attentional freedom2. “When mind lands in the body, you really feel it”3. This is the first step for many of us who tend to be dis-embodied. Cathy feels that people with chronic pain don’t have attentional freedom4.

When attention shifts from ruminating thoughts like “I am not good enough” to present moment sensations there is a different circuit in the brain that gets activated5. Anxious rumination activates the medial prefrontal cortex, also called the default mode network. And present moment awareness activates the lateral prefrontal cortex. Activation of these two circuits is found to be anti-correlated.

Alpha waves as volume control knobs: “How does a practice that begins by paying close attention to the toe reduce negative thoughts?” This is how Cathy introduces the research question she explored6. Her subjects, the treatment group, underwent the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. Her findings suggested that the thalamus and associated circuits act as a gatekeeper for various signals and alpha rhythms, brain waves of frequency around 10Hz, act as volume control knobs. For example, currently, as I am sitting in front of a laptop, there is sensory information coming in from my butt on the chair, visual input from the laptop screen, auditory input from surrounding sounds, thoughts related to this blog, etc. Alpha rhythms regulate these signals and block the signals it considers non-relevant in the current context.

When we become dis-embodied and attention is taken up mostly by thoughts, alpha rhythms become inflexible and tend to suppress bodily signals. What Cathy found out is that after 8-weeks of BMSR practice which involved paying attention to bodily sensations, alpha rhythms became more flexible in a statistically significant way. This flexibility extends to other signals as well. That is, learning to be mindful of the body teaches you to be mindful of the other sensations, thoughts and feelings7. Her research also found out that people with chronic pain have inflexible alpha rhythms and they lose access to body-space.

Cathy also mentions that meditators sometimes report feeling cortical rhythms and palpable sensations in other body areas. For me, feeling some kind of tingling sensation in the head, and in other body areas but especially in the head is common. Could that be alpha rhythms? Who knows?

Body-brain information loop: When we hold a cup or an egg in hand, the brain sends motor commands to the hand that moves the muscles. When the egg is held sufficiently tightly, the hand sends information back to the brain telling, “No more motor commands, I have taken in enough of information.” Thus, there is a circular information flow from brain to body and vice versa. This information flow from hand to the brain can be measured by looking at the beta rhythms which are stopping rhythms. Traditionally, scientists have studied these rhythms to understand what is flowing from brain to body. But Cathy’s research looked at the information flow from muscle spindle neurons back to the brain8

Her hypothesis was that when we are more embodied i.e. our awareness extends into our body, the quality of information sent back from the body to the brain is better. Apart from beta rhythms, Cathy also looked at clinical markers in fatigue called inflammatory cytokines9. For this research, Cathy decided to focus on distressed cancer survivors because many of them tend to be actively fatigued for years. They don’t have the energy to do exercise. However, they may be able to do slow body awareness exercises like tai chi and qigong. Cathy was a cancer survivor herself for two decades and a practitioner of these Chinese practices.

Cathy felt that mindfulness needs to be taken “off the cushion”10. Mindfulness is not only about doing a seated meditation. It can happen while you are moving. “Mindfulness on the go” has been an important aspect of my workshops and hence this aspect is interesting to me.

Existential reorientation: During her brain imaging research with the 8-week mindfulness program practitioners, Cathy also looked at the daily journal of some of the participants. And, she was surprised to find that most of them went through a lot of distress during weeks 4, 5 and 611. Participants experienced a feeling of insecurity. Some felt like quitting and moving to the Bahamas. Some of them felt like quitting the program. And in weeks 6, 7, and 8 participants began to settle into a positive trajectory. This led to a new hypothesis that perhaps somatic awareness in the longer-term leads to an existential reorientation i.e., re-construction of self-image12. Self-image has multiple dimensions e.g., bodily self, volitional self, narrative self, social self, etc. Self-image change includes changes to the body’s representation in the brain. She mentioned that this is just a hypothesis and yet to be tested.

From my personal experience and through the interaction with others, it is not at all uncommon to see existential reorientation. Am I an independent entity trying to be in control of the situation? Or am I deeply connected with the world with an illusion of control? Questions of these sorts are common in mindfulness exploration. Are there any associated mechanistic changes to the cognitive processes when the existential orientation changes? It will be interesting to see.

As you can see, many of the questions that Cathy asked haven’t been answered conclusively. However, I liked the questions themselves and I am sure they will have a life of their own.


1.       Episode 56: Embodied cognition and its effects on health with Cathy Kerr”, a podcast interview by Brook Thomas, May 31, 2016 (time stamp: 13:40)

2.       Starting with the body: the neuroscience of somatosensory attention”, a talk by Catherine Kerr at Amherst College, Nov 11-13, 2011 (Cathy talks about attentional freedom at 28:53)

3.       Episode 56” (14:35)

4.       Starting with the body” (28:58)

5.       Starting with the body” (6:20)

6.       Mindfulness starts with the body: A view from the brain”, TEDx talk by Catherine Kerr, May 22, 2012 (3:00)

7.       Starting with the body” (16:40)

8.       Episode 56” (Cathy talks about beta rhythms and the information flow at 43:55)

9.       Episode 56” (Cathy talks about the clinical markers of fatigue in blood at 27:00)

10.   Episode 56” (17:50)

11.   Using qualitative methods in mindfulness studies to contextualize brain data”, talk by Catherine Kerr at UC Davis, May 21, 2015. (18:30)

12.   Using qualitative methods in mindfulness” (20:20)

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Innovation dashboard: examples of process goals

In an earlier blog, I have proposed that an innovation dashboard is the defining characteristic of a basic form (level-2) of innovation maturity. Most innovation dashboards have a bias for outcome goals – ideas, patents, experiments, participation, savings, revenue, profit, etc. However, those who exercise would know the importance of process goals. For an outcome goal such as weight reduction, it helps to have a process goal such as 10,000 steps a day. What could be the process goals in an innovation dashboard? Here are a few suggestions bucketed under four categories: brainstorms, customer visits, events, and campaigns.

1.     Brainstorms: These are meetings where divergent thinking is encouraged. Types of meetings could be:

a.     Challenge book brainstorm: where challenges relevant to a business, function or customer engagement are brought out / prioritized. The team may decide to take a position on one or two key challenges.

b.     Solution brainstorms: Ideas in response to a challenge are explored together

c.      Journey mapping: Observations from the journey of a product/ service/ issue/ ticket are mapped onto a journey board from which patterns/insights could be derived. 

2.     Customer visits: These could be meetings at customer premises or in the field but these also could be focus group discussions where customers are brought together on vendor’s premises.

a.     Field-visit: The objective here could be to interview customers / potential customers. The intent could also be to validate prototypes.

b.     Focus-group discussion: A toy-maker may bring kids while a medical device maker may bring doctors for a focussed group discussion.

c.      Co-innovation workshops: These are workshops where various stakeholders associated with a challenge area are brought under one roof. For example, for a challenge related to education, one may bring students from different schools, teachers, parents or even dropouts if relevant to understand various perspectives. 

3.     Events: could last half day to 2-3 days. Here are a few possibilities:

a.     Innovation review: This could be a half-day event where all innovation projects get reviewed and resource allocation happens.

b.     Hackathon: This 1 or 2-day event might bring people with ideas related to a challenge area under one roof where they build prototypes and bring their ideas alive.

c.      Training: These programs could be a few days to a few weeks long. As part of these training programs, participants may work on business-relevant challenges, create solutions, build prototypes and even present business cases to a panel.  

d.     Innovation day: This day-long event typically showcases innovations from teams within the organization, gets external speakers, and gets people to talk to each other. 

4.     Campaigns: This is arguably the trickiest category. It involves running a campaign around a challenge perhaps over a month or two. It combines some of the elements mentioned earlier. It begins by identifying a sponsor – a CXO or a business head – who is willing to sponsor promising ideas solving business-relevant problems. Some of the steps involved in a challenge campaign area: finding a sponsor, throwing open a challenge, inviting and selecting ideas, organizing a hackathon for selected ideas, mentoring promising teams to develop the ideas further and making a business case and finally presentations to a panel which selects one or more ideas to carry forward.

Hope these examples help in identifying a few process goals for your innovation dashboard.