Monday, July 9, 2012

Love makes the world go 'round

'A General Theory of Love' is turning into a bit of comfort-reading these days. I tend to skim through chapters right before I go to sleep. For a neurobiology book, it's a fairly romantic read.

I was reading it right now and remembered how much I'd enjoyed this idea of limbic resonance the first time that I read it. Our limbic systems which are sort of the most primitive and emotional parts of our brain, are not exactly information-sponges. As the book puts it, they don't pick up facts as rapidly as the neocortex does.

The book postulates that the limbic system is capable of something rather profound, however. That it enables us to share deep emotional states and is responsible for our capacity to form non-verbal connections with other members of our species which are in large part responsible for our elaborate social behaviour. And this leads not just to creating the capacity for empathy but in some cases it lays the basis for the bonds of companionship since it allows 'our systems to synchronise with each other through limbic revision'.

All in all, apparently love rewires the brain by changing its chemistry. And to adopt the book's guileless and somewhat mushy tone, 'In any relationship, one mind revises the other; one heart changes its partner. This astounding legacy of our mammalian brains is limbic revision : the power to remodel the emotional parts of the people we love as our Attractors activate certain neural pathways and the brain's inexorable memory mechanism reinforces them.'

What all that means is that who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.

It rarely happens that a popular science book ends up saying the same thing as your favourite Jane Austen novel. But when it does, you can't help grinning like a fool as you jump out of bed to type it onto your blog.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Because God is in the detail

I've been trying and trying to scrounge some time for my own self these past few weeks - time to read, time to listen, time to breathe, time to write something that would help me keep these experiences for posterity, time to just reflect on things, atleast for a little while.

I haven't been able to get much recreational reading done these days but one book I finally finished is one I had started to read many, many times but somehow had never got past the third chapter. Something always kept getting in the way - exams, illness, busy-ness. Perhaps, it was in the nature of this book even. It wasn't the kind that had you yearning to turn the page, to go racing to the end. It was more the kind that allowed you to slow yourself down and take your time. You could come back to it any time you wanted, even if you had to leave. You wouldn't be missing anything though you weren't paying attention.

So yeah, it was sort of meandering and ponderous even. And now that I'm at the end of it, I realise although it was barely 400 pages long, it felt like a much bigger book. It even sounds like a big book - One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I wish I could say it was my first brush with this variety of magic realism - something that seems to be a running theme through some good South American writing - Jorge Luis Borges being another writer I've been told I should read.

Of course, my first brush would have been Salman Rushdie but in his hands, even when he writes multi-generational, blowing-in-the-winds-of-change books like Midnight's Children, there seems to be something artificial about this device - something not organic, something learned and not felt.

Marquez, on the other hand, manages to make his literary creations feel real with all their naked emotions and their incestuous longings and their bloody battles and their general sticky sweatiness. It's really incredible. His world-building is so detailed that it becomes difficult to deny that Macondo - this village where the many generations of the Buendia family live out their sordid little lives is a real place - you almost think you could be watching some Nat Geo historian telling you about it in the afternoons.

When we find out that these people who go exploring through the wilderness leaving their old dying town behind, to establish their own  village in what feels like the middle of nowhere, these people have no idea how time passes in the outside world, or even which year it's supposed to be or how far away from the sea they are, it feels not like a conceit that is supposed to make us believe that Macondo is a kind of fantasy Never-never-land, it feels truthful because the kind of people that they are, the times that they lived in, the education that they were allowed to acquire - that they probably didn't know much about navigation or geography or magnetism - we understand that it is plausible that these people would see a block of ice illuminated by sunlight for the first time and wonder if it's really a giant diamond.

The people themselves are vibrant and passionate - it's exactly how you'd imagine Latin Americans to be, down to the very last stereotype. And in a way that is what they are. You get the feeling that as time passes, the people that belong to this founding family cease to be unique and settle for being approximations of those that came before them. The many daughters and sons and nephews and aunts are all variations of the first two people we meet. Jose Arcadio Buendia who is big, strong, boisterous, extravagant, intelligent and imaginative and his wife Ursula who is tiny, quiet, pious, industrious, and grounded. Their defining characteristics get shuffled into several permutations and combinations as their children and their children's children live and breathe and fight and make love and bear children who grow up to repeat the patterns of their parents' lives.

All this reads as quite mundane, I realise now but that is what life is often like. On the whole, we live out our lives engaged in our passions and in our routines and these are often only significant to us because we live them.

A friend once told me, if there was a God, we'd be like ants to him. Running around in little circles, trying to preserve our precious little lives. When I asked her if she thought that we were gods to ants, she thought the idea was hilarious.

There was this throwaway line in an otherwise average film I saw recently - 'We are, each one of us, the hero of their life.' seeming to suggest that even at its most unremarkable, each life is inherently extraordinary.

And after reading this book, after sifting through these lives, I'd say I agree. All lives end, all hearts are broken. But it matters that we lived and it counts when we loved.