Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

What do you need a brain for?

To think? Solve problems? Make decisions? Or is there something else to it?

If anybody ever asked me that question, I’d have thought it a daft one. Because I thought I knew why I need one.

This question stared at me from the pages of Rajat Chauhan’s most recent book on pain management. I’ll give him this much. It challenges all notions we hold on pain, debunks many myths around it and goes on to argue there is no such thing as pain—at least as most of us understand it. I do not intend to review the book here or offer any opinion because Rajat and I are friends who often exchange notes on how to change the world and imagine the world is conspiring against us, among other assorted nonsense.

That out of the way, let’s get back to what you need a brain for. The question had wound its way into the book and he insisted on inflicting it upon the reader. “Goddamn it Rajat! Is this a book on pain management or philosophy?" I muttered and picked up my phone to call him and argue yet again.

This time around though, he heard me out patiently, asked me to take time out, replay my rant in my head and try to answer cogently if I indeed knew what it is I need my brain for. And while at it, he suggested I look up a talk by Daniel Wolpert in the footnotes of his book.

When pondered over for a little while, after much urging by him, it turns out that I don’t know after all. All of the answers I had in mind totted to nada. Zero. Nothing. In the past, we’ve almost exchanged blows over the question. I come from the “I-think-therefore-I-exist" school of thought. He comes from the “I-run-therefore-I-exist" school.

Wolpert’ compelling talk drives home the point: My assumption couldn’t be more further from the truth. I didn’t know my cranium from my gluteus maximus, or so it seemed. Wolpert says, “We have a brain for one reason and one reason only, and that is to produce adaptable and complex movements. There is no other reason to have a brain. Think about it. Movement is the only way you have of affecting the world around you. Now that’s not quite true. There’s one other way, and that’s through sweating. But apart from that, everything else goes through contractions of muscles."

I must admit he had me stumped. I leaned forward as he went on.

“I believe movement is the most important function of the brain—don’t let anyone tell you that it’s not true. Now if movement is so important, how well are we doing understanding how the brain controls movement? And the answer is we’re doing extremely poorly; it’s a very hard problem. But we can look at how well we’re doing by thinking about how well we’re doing building machines which can do what humans can do.

“Think about the game of chess. How well are we doing determining what piece to move where? If you pit Garry Kasparov here, when he’s not in jail, against IBM’s Deep Blue, well the answer is IBM’s Deep Blue will occasionally win. And I think if IBM’s Deep Blue played anyone in this room, it would win every time. That problem is solved. What about the problem of picking up a chess piece, dexterously manipulating it and putting it back down on the board? If you put a five year-old child’s dexterity against the best robots of today, the answer is simple: the child wins easily. There’s no competition at all.

“Now why is that top problem so easy and the bottom problem so hard? One reason is a very smart five-year-old could tell you the algorithm for that top problem—look at all possible moves to the end of the game and choose the one that makes you win. So, it’s a very simple algorithm. Now of course there are other moves, but with vast computers we approximate and come close to the optimal solution. When it comes to being dexterous, it’s not even clear what the algorithm is you have to solve to be dexterous. And we’ll see you have to both perceive and act on the world, which has a lot of problems."

I could begin to see his point. May I urge you to watch the video? While it is high on academic content, it is hugely entertaining and guaranteed to change the way you and I look at the world, our brain, and our bodies.

It was my turn to sheepishly call Rajat and eat my words. I could feel regret shoot through me for not having stuck to my schedule and being in Delhi to make time for the half marathon. All this after I had announced grandly in an earlier dispatch that I would. But as is often the case, when more “pressing matters" take over, my run and training took the back seat.

What happened to me in the interim, I asked him?

I lost an opportunity to evolve, he told me, as a matter of fact.

And why was that, I asked.

Because I am afraid of pain, or rather the idea of pain, he told me. And that I don’t understand what pain is.

“Explain," I said.

As a practising doctor he shared some interesting observations. When he first got into the profession, in the early 1990s, most people who visited him with pain-related problems were in their 60s, and a few in their late 50s. Something started to change in the early 2000s. As a thumb rule, Rajat noticed the average age of people complaining of pain had come down. They were now in the mid-40s. Sometimes, even in their 30s. Over the past few years though, people have started visiting him as early as in their 20s. It alarms me and has me stumped—yet again.

On analysing the data, he could see a relationship between the time people were spending hunched at their desktops and pain-related disorders. It was at the turn of the 21st century that the PC revolution had taken off in India and the cubicle culture went all pervasive.

Like most movement advocates, he argues, our bodies are built and designed to move. Analysis of the skeletal system and our muscles suggest it has adapted to do just that of the thousands of years humans have been around. But when hunched in cubicles, we don’t do what we are built to do. And the brain didn’t have the time to adapt.

More recently, smartphones have taken over from desktops. And people are hunching even more. The brain has had even less time to adapt to this. It has changed how we sit, walk, talk and even breathe. In turn, the much-needed oxygen supplies to the brain are getting obstructed. How can it then be expected to operate at the optimum?

To prove his point, he asked me to try something simple. Shut my eyes for a few minutes and take a few deep breaths. All I had to do was inhale and exhale. We then proceeded to do a post mortem.

How did I inhale?

Through my nose.

How did I exhale?

Through my mouth?

What happened when I tried to inhale and exhale through my nose?

Hmm. It was easier to inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth.

Why?

I don’t know.

Which part of your body moved more when breathing? Was it the chest? Or did your abdomen play a role as well?

My abdomen did too.

Why? Have you considered your lungs aren’t working at optimum then? Have you thought it doesn’t have enough room to expand and take air in because you’re hunched over your smartphone and laptop. Your brain hasn’t had the time to adapt to this rapid change in lifestyle. It leads to all complications—of which pain is only one manifestation.

I heard him out and tried to put things into perspective for myself.

Over the past few months, I’ve been following some routines. Most of which I have meticulously documented using various apps and gadgets. So, by now, I know I need a little more sleep when the cardiogram app on my phone tells me my resting heart rate isn’t looking ideal. I admit I have ignored the readings and gone on to work some more. Bad idea. I can go on and on.

But I also have to say that since the time I have started using these apps, it’s helped me monitor what I do, watch my diet, monitor my intake, measure output and keep track of all kinds of metrics.

All said, I have managed to lose in the region of 10kg. But it is no place close to where I had intended to get to. For instance, just before I got down to write this piece, I did a quiet 5km run. It was no trouble at all. But Rajat’s question is: Are you happy doing 5km at the speed you reported when you hold the potential to do 42km much faster and much better?

My answer. “It’s painful."

To which his answer is: “Too bad. Grind your teeth and keep going. This will make you better at tolerating pain in life, and not just a better athlete. Getting fitter doesn’t improve your pain tolerance, but repeatedly enduring pain changes your perception of it. You end up training your mind as well."

I didn’t get that. He went on to explain that most people understand pain as a signal their body is suggests it needs to rest. That is what conventional wisdom insists. But convention is not always right. We need to really understand the language of pain and its various nuances. It takes time and practice. But people give up because they are afraid of pain.

By way of metaphor, he went back to his days as a junior doctor, then practising in the UK. A hulk of a firefighter was wheeled into the emergency room because while on a rescue mission, a huge nail had gone right through one end of his protective boot and come out through the other. The pain was unbearable, the man was huge, the team couldn’t hold him down. He was administered a general anesthetic to surgically remove the foreign object.

Once sedated, and doctors got down to the task on hand, they figured the nail hadn’t as much as touched his skin. It had only pierced one part of his boot and gotten out through another. But the man imagined it had pierced his foot. As did the doctors on duty. The pain was in the main’s head. Or in his brain, if you will.

What use is a brain of that kind? It was being used for all the wrong reasons. It was built to make him move. Not howl for the wrong reasons.

Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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