Tuesday 6 December 2016

Mind; The Final Frontier by Ravi Singh

What does it all mean? What is going on in the world? Is a human being merely an advanced and complex robot, which processes information and doesn’t have free will, and choice is merely an illusion? It doesn’t make any sense. But why does it have to make any sense?’ 

Once upon a time, we said ‘to my mind’ before we expressed our opinions. Acronyms like IMHO (In my humble opinion) or TBH (To be honest) were yet to be invented. Probably, we owned our minds much more back then, what with borrowed opinions flying amok now. We invoked the thinking-space before we expressed it. My mind, where my thoughts came from. Which in a way defined us. 

So, when I asked myself what came to my mind immediately when I said the word ‘mind’, the social media addict in me took no time to say ‘Hey! Facebook’s persistent question What’s on your mind? In the status window.’ Which was usually answered with a picture of my dinner or my pet! Thankfully, I got to read Ravi Singh’s ‘Mind: The Final Frontier’ to make me think beyond the visible. To make me disassociate from the given and delve deeper into the unseen… less facile bits of what I call my mind.

In the Acknowledgement section of the book the author confesses that he is prone to ‘weird’ ideas in his mind, about the mind. In it he isn’t alone, for thousands have before him and many more will in the future too try to ‘decode the human mind’. The mother of all answers is curiosity and the human mind is not just the confirmed seat but also the most popular subject of it. Ravi believes ‘answers don’t lie outside but within us. For that, we must understand how the mind works.’ With a beautiful request for open-mindedness, Ravi asks us to ‘… dispel any preconceived notions about the mind, and agree that we do not know what the ‘mind’ is. That should be a good starting point.’ And then ‘see what follows.

The book is divided into three main parts – Part I: Decoding the Anatomy of the Human Mind, Part II: The Universe, God, Love and Morality, Part III: Authentic Life. Each part is further comprised of short and succinct chapters dealing with specific ideas. One look at the chapter names and you know a wide-angle lens has been used for this deconstruction, something that is confirmed once you’ve read the book. Various mental states have been evaluated, as have been over-arching concepts like logic, faith, guilt and even god.  

The basic premise used to unravel the mind was unique for me. Ravi tries to make us see the mind as a computer which processes information. He uses this approach to simplify ideas like self and consciousness while also discussing problems like fear, anxiety and even boredom! 

The Information Processing Approach (IPA) assumes that individuals are, well, information processors. So, an individual receives input information either from his external environment or from internal memory through an interface (say, ears). This input information is processed by a specific processor to produce a change in the individual. This change (physical, chemical, etc), then acts as input information for another processor and so on. For instance, if you like a song the change produced by the processor would cause a sensation of pleasure. As for what a processor is in terms of the human body? While in computers it is a set of instructions, Ravi calls it a ‘mental construct’ and an ‘abstract entity’ here. He divides them into low-level (primitive habit) and high-level (thought-level) processors. Low-level processors include language and pain-pleasure, among others, whereas high-level ones help us analyze, chart-out and choose. 

While I understood the definition of his IPA till this point, a huge part of me doubted if this seemingly simplistic approach could make me see my mind in a new light. And IMHO, it did rather interestingly! 

For instance, how can ‘self’ or ‘I’ be explained using the IPA? Ravi will derive that the notion of self is non-permanent! The mind, with its competing processors and multiple outputs makes the ‘state of mind’ give a cumulative sensation of ‘I’ in a particular context and time. Thus ‘self’ represents reality, rather than being reality itself. So you’re right when you ask ‘Who am I?’ And you’re right if you wonder, if there is no one ‘I’ then whose free will am I talking about?  

This then connects with his idea of consciousness. He infers that it is ‘based on the level of consciousness (that) we have the conception of ‘I’. And further, if the 'window of consciousness’ expands, external time stands still, as we feel 'completely absorbed in the present.’ This state of being devoid of any expectations is a sustainable happiness. Because, ‘fulfilment of high expectations actually makes it difficult to sustain happiness.’ See how one idea connects to the other? 

Ravi Singh’s explanation of ignorance through IPA is about understanding how ‘there is a difference between knowing something at the thought level, and knowing something at the level of lower processors, or the experiential level’. How falsehoods may become truth statements ‘if over a period of time one processor keeps winning over another’. 

Something about decoding psychological fear stuck to me. As a product of a self which by default tries to avoid pain and experience pleasure, here’s what he says about fear: ‘Next time when you experience a fearful thought, try to observe that thought closely. You will see that that very thought is the thinker itself (of that thought). There is no separate self that experiences that thought, rather, it is the thought that experiences itself…and fear will dissolve.’ 

Ravi also argues how logic and emotion are not contrary to each other and with the help of a simple semi-mathematical equation infers that ‘for the doer every action is logical. For the perceiver it may seem logical or emotional based on their own calculation.’ The same equation is used in the analysis and understanding of guilt and faith, till he involves you to a point where you too question in one voice – then is logic itself based on faith? 

To my mind, the chapter called ‘Nature of the Universe; Press Start to Begin’ stands out in the book. It begins thus - ‘Everything in the universe including inanimate things can be governed by information processing.’ You have to suspend all disbelief before you move on; on to more questions. If the universe is a closed system then how did information first enter it? The Big Bang? In a closed system, based on the four dimensions, there cannot be a truly random event. And so ‘if there is even one truly random event in the universe, it indicates that some information from outside the system has leaked into it.’ Between saying it and implying it, Ravi Singh draws us into his idea of evolution, a Matrix World, free will, love and even god. 

I do wish the book ended with this big bang, though. The last three chapters on relationships, job satisfaction and meditation techniques just seem to fade in comparison to what preceded them. Perhaps, they lack the novelty which most of the other chapters shine bright with. The list for references for meditative techniques at the end of the last chapter has one sole reference, and oddly seems incomplete, as if a page went missing. What may also seem missing for some readers who enjoy flourishes and flair even in the most logical and scientific narrations is a certain style – one which uses examples and creative props to drive home the point. Or even humour for that matter! Because, while Ravi Singh’s book hooks you with what it is saying, it may not with how it says it. There are no fancy detours. Examples are repeated in order to explain different concepts. There’s stream-lined focus and purposeful, no-nonsense writing. Almost, as if it is an abridged guide to a larger, more voluminous research.  

Be that as it may, by the time you finish reading ‘Mind: The Final Frontier’, you feel glad to have done that. Ravi Singh gives no grand theories. He makes you see, co-derive and be amazed at how IPA can be used to re-examine ideas which you long thought self-evident. How human minds and machines may not be as far apart as one imagines. This book, the size of an “impulse-buy” in a book shop, belies its conciseness as it begins a large thought-storm, where questions are answered only to give rise to more and more questions. After all, ‘it is preferable to stay in uncertainty than to settle for a truth which one is not convinced of,’ believes Ravi Singh.

A good read for those who like their thought-level processors provoked. Read and then 'see what follows.'

'Mind; The Final Frontier' by Ravi Singh is a Partridge publication, 2016

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.] 


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