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Issue 10

Women in STEM: Nipped in the Bud.

The gender imbalance in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related jobs in India is apparent even without examining statistics. A quick look at historical leadership positions in organizations allied with STEM such as CEOs of Biotech companies, Chairman of the Indian Space research Organization (ISRO), Director General of the Indian Council of Medical research (ICMR), Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Presidents of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), Aeronautics Society of India (AeSI) and Indian Mathematical Society (IMS)  to name a few, additionally highlights how stark this gap is among the higher ranks. 40% STEM graduates are women but they share only 14% STEM-associated jobs (PIB, January 2021) and this begs the question of why there is a disproportion between women choosing STEM education but not employment.

Government programs supporting the education of the girl child have had a substantial impact in increasing the numbers of primary and middle school educated girls. Incentives at the level of higher education in the form of reservations or financial support have vastly improved but not equalized the gender imbalance. Studying the gender composition of various disciplines in STEM education reveals intrinsic biases and perceptions of what constitutes a suitable job for a woman. Women receive tacit signals to condition their career choices not based on their own aptitude or interest but the convenience of a work schedule that allows them to fulfil their obligatory duties as care-givers. Thus, teaching-focused careers which usually have fixed and predictable hours are encouraged by parents over research-oriented careers within science. With respect to engineering, computer science is considered eminently more ‘suitable’ and only a few women graduate with degrees in fields like aeronautics, mechanical engineering or civil engineering with this number reducing even further when representation in core engineering jobs is considered.

Are we raising future daughters, sisters, or mothers and not future individuals?

Higher STEM education is often seen as an additional qualification to increase marriage prospects for girls rather than a means to make them financially secure individuals with the ability to make independent, informed choices. Learned behavioral traits that are important for developing STEM career goals in children such as decision making, critical thinking, curiosity and making independent choices outside of care-giving duties are either neglected or actively discouraged in a girl child from a young age. Family chores and activities such as assisting adults with minor electrical repairs, finance-associated tasks, playing computer games, household science experiments, help in the kitchen, cleaning and sewing are segregated based on gender. This fails to nurture interest and even leads to lack of awareness of certain STEM career options in young women. Preconceived notions, archaic attitudes (“girls are bad at mathematics”; “boys are better at engineering”, “biology needs a lot of memorization which suits girls”, “girls are caring so should become nurses”, “women can’t be surgeons, they are too delicate/emotional”) condition and limit a certain STEM expertise or profession with a gender. This conditioning may not always be obvious even to the most educated among us and may unintentionally trickle down to those we have influence over.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and not diamonds are a girl’s best friend!

Encouraging gender equity in STEM careers needs diverse approaches at various levels but the foundation has to be laid early on. The thinking that gender is not a limiting factor for a career choice should be encouraged from a young age in all children using real-life role models and literature centered on the idea. Awareness about the current existence of implicit or obvious situations of gender bias and discussions about specific situations should be a part of education at all levels. Women from all socio-economic backgrounds should have free, accessible avenues to learn about the various career options in STEM through workshops, community initiatives and CSR endeavors. The latter will ensure that they themselves can either be inspired, bring awareness to people under their influence, not participate in gender bias themselves and help create a support system that bridges the gender gap in STEM careers.  

Rama Akondy is an Associate professor of Biology in the Trivedi school of Biosciences. She received her PhD from the National Institute of Immunology (New Delhi, India) and worked at Emory University (Atlanta, USA) first as a post-doctoral researcher and then as junior faculty. Her primary area of interest is understanding immunological memory in humans by observing how our immune system reacts to viruses, vaccines and tutors. Her proudest moment has been when a figure from her paper made it to a textbook! (Plotkin’s Vaccines). 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 10

Decimating the Ego: Exploring the Discourse Around Dreams, Drugs and the ‘Trip’ to Scientific Discovery

In his address for the German Chemical Society in 1890, renowned chemist August Kekule recounted how the idea of linking atoms came to him one day when he fell asleep by his window and dreamt of gambolling atoms. Twinning and twisting, the atoms morphed into a snake seizing its own tail and this image inspired Kekule’s structure of the Benzene molecule. 

Seen as divine instructions, spiritual communication and an expression of our innate desires and fears, dreams and the unconscious mind have always fascinated human civilizations. With advanced technologies in the field of neurobiology and Oneirology (i.e. the scientific study of dreams) at our disposal, modern scientists have been able to stray away from mere theories and get an actual glimpse into our dreams. A study published in the journal Science Direct On 18th February 2021, illustrated how for the first time, scientists were able to communicate with participants while they were lucid dreaming (a form of dreaming wherein the dreamer is aware that they are in a dream state and can actively participate in their dreams, interact and engage with and even modify their environment). Using electrophysiological signals, people were able to perceive questions from an experimenter and provide answers to basic yes-and-no questions and even solve elementary math problems. 

This is a major breakthrough for the scientific community as we have finally been able to get an insight into the dream state, a state of unconsciousness that has inspired many scientific discoveries like The Theory of Relativity, Theory of Evolution, The Periodic Table, etc. Srinivasa Ramanujan, the eminent, self-taught Mathematician, claimed that his formulas were presented to him in his dreams by the Hindu Goddess Namakkal. He would see visions of flowing blood (the symbolic mark of the Goddess), followed by a hand that would write various elliptic integrals. He dedicated his work to proving these theorems which led to the discovery of the infinite series, elliptical functions, the analytical theory of numbers, continued fractions, and more than 3000 mathematical theorems. 

In her book, The Committee of Sleep, Deirdre Barrett arrives at a simple explanation for why so many scientific and artistic discoveries have been inspired by dreams. It turns out when the mind intakes data while awake, it can later synthesize it and process it in an extremely efficient way while it is in an unconscious state. That’s why sometimes the best solution when facing a difficult problem is to just sleep on it

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the Id-Ego-Superego also helps substantiate Barrett’s theory. Although Freud’s theories have been widely contested, his ideas can still help us conceptualise the complex aspects of our conscious mind. In his essay, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud established that our conscious mind is made up of three elements – namely id (which is the primitive, instinctual part of the mind), ego (which is the realistic part that mediates and controls the desires of id) and the superego (which is our moral conscience). In an unconscious state, the id comes to life in the form of dreams, expressing our innate desires and primal fears, while the ego and superego are suppressed. Since there is less concern about social and moral values, dreams can often feel irrational and nonsensical, bizarre. But at the same time, this state of unconsciousness, allows us to freely explore our ideas in a new reality unbound by conventional logic and reasoning and unconstrained by rational, realistic thinking. Thus, enabling us to come up with creative solutions to complex real-life problems by providing us with the necessary conditions to look at our problems from an entirely new angle. 

Operating on the same principle as the Committee of Sleep theory, the use of psychedelic drugs have also shown a similar increase in creative thinking and problem-solving skills. Drugs such as LSD, Psilocybin, Peyote, etc. dissolve our ego and help us create new neural networks (by establishing new pathways and increasing  connectivity throughout the brain). This phenomenon, known as “ego death”, is an experience that changes the way we perceive ourselves, our personalities and how we look at the world around us. As people tend to lose their sense of self-identity they can dissociate themselves from worldly concerns and events. 

Research conducted by International Foundation for Advanced Study has shown that with the use of LSD, an astonishing number of subjects were able to achieve significant breakthroughs in their work and showed a significant improvement in three conventional creativity tests. Although there are risks associated with consuming these drugs (such as suffering from hallucinations or having a bad trip), these risks can be minimised if the drugs are taken in a controlled setting and administered under the supervision of an expert. 

Inspired by Aldous Huxley (the English writer English and philosopher), who noted his experience with psychedelic drugs in his book, The Doors of Perception, many scientists began micro-dosing on psychedelic drugs to enhance their thinking. Nobel laureate Dr Kary Banks Mullis claimed that he ‘seriously doubted’ if he would have been able to invent the PCR (i.e. a technique that facilitated easier isolation and testing of DNA) without using LSD. Other prominent scientists such as Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize winner who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA and Physicist Richard Feynman have also been known to use psychedelic drugs. Even Steve Jobs said that using LSD was “one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.” 

Hence it is evident that there seems to be some correlation between the exhibition of higher levels of problem-solving and creative thinking skills, and our unconscious mind in the absence of ego, rationality and the laws of our reality. Although, it may take us a while before we are able to gather new and advanced empirical evidence. Psychedelic drugs defined the 1970’s era, and later, became integrated with the anti-Vietnam War movement. This led to the demonisation and stigmatization of psychedelic drugs and resulted in an immediate drop in funding for research related to psychedelic drugs. 

However, in 2020, 5 states in the U.S. legalized marijuana and this change in attitudes is credited to multiple reasons such as a decline in religious affiliation, punitiveness, and a shift in media coverage for the same. Today, organisations such as the Beckley Foundation are actively working towards conducting more research in order to understand the implications of psychedelic drugs on our minds and integrate their use in modern society. The new research projects in the field of neuroscience and the effects of psychedelic drugs, coupled with the recent breakthroughs in Oneirology, thus, hold tremendous potential for expanding our understanding of the unconscious mind and our ability to induce creative thinking.  

Ashana Mathur is a student of Economics, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 10

The Scramble For Mars: Why Are We So Obsessed With the Red Planet?

The mysterious disappearance of Mars’ ocean witnessed a major breakthrough in the past week – it might have never been lost at all. A recent NASA-backed study found that between 30 to 99 percent of the planet’s water is likely held within its crust in the form of hydrated minerals. While the extraction of water from these minerals may not be an easy feat, the study has gathered substantial traction at a time when humanity is looking to Mars like never before. Why are human beings obsessed with colonizing Mars – and what does this obsession represent?

The desire to explore Mars initially stemmed from a curiosity to enhance knowledge about the conditions that lead to life on a planet. It is also studied to understand how critical shifts in climate fundamentally alter planets. Recently, though, the paramount motivation to explore the planet is rooted in the objective of establishing an interplanetary human civilization – as a crucial safeguard against mass-extinction.  

The obsession with colonizing Mars is a product of several factors. One argument holds that only a space-faring human civilization faces the best odds of survival. This perspective is closely linked to the fear of death and the desire for “immortality” which motivates sending humans to other worlds. Moreover, a “biological motive(s)” with respect to the innate human desire for migration has been repeatedly suggested to substantiate extra-terrestrial prospects for the human race. Additionally, the romanticization of establishing an interplanetary existence for human beings also arises from optimistic perspectives of establishing a “utopia”. Setting up a space-faring civilization is expected to unify humanity and positively impact perspectives on socio-political and economic systems to finally create an “ideal” society. 

As alluring as these reasons may be, they are not grounded in reality – especially given the glaring gaps in scientific knowledge about how to establish self-sustaining human life on Mars. The argument that only colonizing Mars, and other planets will significantly improve the chance of human survival can be countered by arguing that sending humans to other worlds may not prove to be safer beyond a probability analysis. Attempting to address crises on Earth – such as the climate emergency – may increase the probability of human survival as well. The prospect of reaching Mars can disrupt efforts to find possible solutions to problems on Earth.  

Secondly, it is important to acknowledge that the idea of human progression is one that is culturally propagated. Just as human beings have historically shown tendencies to migrate, they have also displayed the desire to settle down. Justifying colonization of other planets on this basis ignores the fetishization of space travel, that equates space exploration with technological advancement and national power. 

 Thirdly, notions of a utopian human existence on faraway planets are naïve. The connotations of the usage of the word “colonization” elicits references to intergenerational torture unleashed at the cost of building “moral” and “civilized” societies. The modern interaction between “colonization” of planets and the advent of large-scale capitalism is bound to have similar consequences. Though human activities in space are governed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which posits that international law applies in outer space, the moon and other celestial bodies, the ambiguities in its laws allows corporate entities to circumvent its clauses.

This came to life in the case of SpaceX, a private company based in the United States that designs and manufactures rockets and spacecrafts. The company has declared that the services of one of its products will not fall under the jurisdiction of any Earth-based government; in addition, Earth-based governments will also agree to recognize Mars as a free planet. This position becomes more dubious when analyzing SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk’s, claim that “loans” and “jobs” will be made available for those unable to pay for the exorbitant trip across space to sustain their life on Mars; essentially representing an interplanetary repackaging of indentured servitude. Hence, given the current state of space legislation, it will not be anytime soon that economic and social equality will be ensured for a space-faring civilization – completely shattering any possibility of “utopia” on Mars. 

The colonization of Mars, consequently, also raises important moral questions – particularly about how a Martian society would operate. A new approach suggests that once human beings arrive at Mars, they should disconnect from their Earthly relatives. This “liberation” perspective implies that once permanent human settlers arrive at Mars, they should relinquish their planetary citizenship for Earth – instead adopting Martian citizenship. From that point on, the Martians should be left to their own devices. Any entities – governmental, non-governmental – must not engage with the economics, politics, or culture of this society. While scientific exploration by Earth’s citizens can continue on Mars, sharing research and information should only take place to achieve medical or educational goals. Most importantly, the citizens of Earth must not make any demands for Martian resources. 

The idea behind this position is simple – in order to develop a Martian extension of human civilization, it must be allowed to freely determine its fate, just as human beings did on Earth. Often the mission to establish human existence on Mars is projected as a “moral” position by governments and businessmen, in which case the liberation approach is the most principled execution of this goal. The reason why this idea doesn’t sit well with human society – and probably never will – is because colonizing Mars is, inherently, a selfish, human fantasy. This fantasy emerges from the desire to possess and profit – either in the form of capital or nationalist feats, or both. It is impossible to isolate the race to establish human settlements on different planets from geopolitical, social and economic processes existing on Earth; the maniacal pursuit of Mars is about scientific triumph as much as it is about a show of power.

The obsession to populate Mars, hence, represents the manifestation of the worst in humanity – never-ending curiosity coupled with little regard for ethical, sociopolitical, or economic consequences of the same. Instead of addressing the glaring issues that currently exist on Earth, there are strong desires to “advance” to the perceived next stage of human existence. While it can be debated whether occupying other planets will objectively be beneficial, the only thing that becomes painfully clear is that humanity is preparing to leap from one ill-fated land to the next – with little awareness or regard for the problems it will inevitably carry to the new worlds it explores. 

Aarohi Sharma is a Psychology student at Ashoka University. Her academic interests primarily focus on the intersection of politics and psychology in society.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 4

The COVID-19 Vaccine: Will It Flatter To Deceive?

Since the ending of 2019, the shroud of ‘SARS CoV-2’ virus has engulfed the world. The pandemic has taken a toll of more than 1.2 million lives worldwide and a renewed tsunami of a second wave of infection looms large in the horizon. Such catastrophic infection rates along with loss of human lives has also seen massive economic downturns and widespread unemployment. The Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), has reported a 27% rise in unemployment rate and a 38% loss in market capital by the end of May and August 2020 respectively. 

Under these challenging circumstances, scientists across the globe are racing against time to design an effective anti-SARS CoV-2 silver bullet in the form of vaccines or drugs. An efficacious protective vaccine appears to be the most promising means to contain the spread of SARS CoV-2 since the virus has shown few signs of mutating from the highly contagious to a weaker avirulent form. This is in sharp contrast to what was witnessed in case of the influenza pandemic of 1917-19. It has been estimated that the availability of a vaccine will prevent the loss of nearly 375 billion US dollars per month from the global economy and also prevent the loss of millions of lives.

Scientists and biotechnologists are burning the midnight oil to put together an ideal vaccine against SARS CoV-2. But what is this ideal vaccine? It is one that is safe, devoid of side effects and at the same time induces a robust and protective immunity in the body to counter future attacks from the virus. In field trials, the average protection rate should be greater than 80%. Furthermore, the protection should be long term. It should be cheap and preferably a single-dose vaccine. Transportation of the vaccine should be easy and companies should be able to mass-produce it in a short time. Unfortunately, not all existing vaccines fulfil all of the abovementioned criteria. 

Since the first vaccine was invented by Dr Edward Jenner in 1796, the field has progressed exponentially through the incorporation of an array of methods, namely- attenuated live agent, killed virulent agent, DNA vaccines and  mRNA vaccines to name a few. In the elusive search for the SARS CoV-2 vaccine, all possible avenues are being explored. About 300 such attempts are being witnessed in different laboratories.

While there are multiple avenues being explored to combat the CoVID19 pandemic, the question looming large in all of our minds is when will the vaccine be available in the market? Obviously, the candidate vaccines undergoing phase-III trial with most promising and favorable responses, will be marketed first. Phase-III trial is a multicentric one involving a large cohort, who are to be followed for a reasonably long time to assess the protection rate and duration of protection. It needs 3-6 months for the trial in cases of coronavirus infections. Until then our wait continues. Moreover, even if a protective vaccine is available, it may take- years to produce large quantities of doses for the world population. Therefore, it will require a well-planned immunization program.

               One might ask, what will be the protection rate, how long will the protection persist and does the vaccinated population need to wear masks, maintain social distancing or carry out the required sanitation measures.

 Regarding protection, none of the existing vaccines (for CoVID or any other diseases) imparts 100% protection. If a vaccine shows effective protection in 80% of the vaccinated population, it is considered acceptable. In case of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic situation, even 30-70% (an average of 50%) protection rate by multicentric trial on cohorts, would be acceptable. This is because if 50% population is protected through vaccination and another 20-30% have already developed herd immunity, the magnitude of active cases and active spreaders will come down to controllable limits. However, one apprehension still persists, that critical changes in viral antigen due to mutation might outsmart the immunity which has already developed. This phenomenon is observed in case of Influenza virus time and again. The issue can be tackled by careful surveillance of the viral genome and constantly incorporating new vaccine candidates as and when required.   

As far as duration of protection is concerned, the time is not right for any comments. Even if a candidate vaccine produces short term immunity of 3-6 months, it is acceptable under the current scenario considering the ever-burgeoning infection rates. Even short term immunity will significantly reduce the impact of the ongoing pandemic.

Finally, we will conclude by discussing the post vaccination situation.  A variable period in the aftermath of vaccination is expected to be no better than the present situation. Partial lockdown, wearing of masks, adherence to sanitation and social distancing will be continued. This is because of the fact that the vaccine might not give 100% protection. Production of adequate doses of vaccine to cover all the population will take a long time, possibly extending into months or years. To make matters worse the virus might mutate, thwarting the mass vaccination effort.

Thus, there are many variables to conquer the raging SARS-CoV2 pandemic. Our last hope might be the mutation of the virus in such a way, that it loses its infectivity and virulence, similar to what happened in the Influenza (spanish flu) pandemic of 1917-19. Until then, let us make masks a fashion statement, observe hand sanitation and maintain social distancing.

Dr. Kasturi Pal is an Assistant Professor and DBT-Ramalingaswamy fellow in the Department of Biology at Ashoka University, where she teaches courses in Physiology, Advanced Biochemistry, Developmental Biology and Advanced Cell Biology

Some candidate vaccines appear to be promising. Following is a short list of the potential candidate vaccines:

  • Category A :
PlatformDeveloperCurrent status
1.Non-Replicating Adenovirus Expressing Truncated ‘S’protein(rADV-S)International Vaccine InstitutePre-clinical
2.Replicating recombinant measles virus spike proteinUniv’ Health Network, Canada;Center for Disease Control and PreventionPre-clinical
3.Replicating MV-SARS recombinant vaccine expressing ‘SARS-CoV’ AgInstitute Pasteur Phase-III trial
4.Subunit vaccine- using receptor binding domain (RBD) of SARS-CoV spike ‘S’ proteinBaylor College Medicine(Sabin)NY blood center(NYBC)Pre-clinical
5.Subunit Vaccine using SARS recombinant spike protein plus delta-inulin.V19Vaccine Pty Ltd, AustraliaPhase-I
6.Virus like particle expressing ‘S’ protein of SARS and influenza M1 proteinNovavaxPhase-III
7.Inactivated rSARS CoV-E virus.CNB CSIC, Univ of IowaPre-clinical
8.Covishield-Oxford (Replication deficient simian virus- S11-Ch AdOx1 nCoV 19)SanofiA Licensed Product
9.Whole Virus containing surface structural glycoprotein Ag of SARS CoV2.Oxford University/Astra ZenecaPhase-II
  • Category- B  (DNA Vaccines)
PlatformDeveloperCurrent status
1.DNA prime protein S437-459 and M1-20Institute of Immunology, Sanghai Medical College of Fudan, ChinaNo Information
2.SARS ‘s’ DNA primed and HLA-A restricted peptidesSan Yat Sen Univ’, China        -Do-
3.3a DNA Vaccine State key Laboratory of Virology, China        -Do-
4.VRC- SRS DNA 015-00VPNIAID, USAPhase-I
5.DNA ‘s’Protein + IL-2State Key Laboratory, ChinaNo Information
6.p-IRES-ISS-S1Jilin Univ’, Academy of Military Medicine          -Do-
7.M and N DNA vaccineInstitute in Japan, Taiwan and Hong KongPre-clinical
  • Category-C (mRNA based vaccine)
PlatformDeveloperCurrent status
1.Antigen protein specific mRNA encapsulated in lipid Nanoparticle(LNP) inserted into a cell, which acts as a factoryfor translation into exact 3D specific Ags of the virus, here SARS-CoV 2.Moderna TX IncPhase III

Indian Vaccines:   

PlatformDeveloperCurrent Status
1.CoVaxin (Inactivated virus)Bharat Biotech (Hyderabad)and ICMRPhase II trial
2.ZyCov-D (plasmid DNA vaccine)Zydus Cadila LtdPhase II trial
Categories
Issue 2

Sitting inside the black mirror and peeking at the world beyond

Social media is all around us. One can argue that the very way in which we communicate today and conceptualize interactions with the world at large, has been fundamentally altered by social media. Television shows such as Black Mirror or the Netflix Documentary Social Dilemma have drawn public attention to the ramifications of human-computer interactions.  While there is no denying that social media has made staying in touch with friends and family, no matter where they are a breeze, as well as aided technological progress, there is unfortunately, a flipside. The problem is twofold —  one, we often believe our social media feeds an accurate representation of reality. And second, we spend too much time on our devices, which makes problem one worse.

To understand why we keep spending increasing amounts of time with our smart devices is tied to how internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Instagram etc. make money while providing services for free.   

A company, by definition, exists to generate a profit. That holds true for internet companies as well. While we are not charged for Facebook, Instagram and the likes, they monetise through ad revenues. This, therefore, makes them depend on their algorithms to detect patterns in our browsing behaviour, so that they can match us to the best possible advertisers, and if we look at an ad long enough, we might be prompted to spend money.

Two corollaries further follow: 

First, better accuracy of the algorithm in predicting our patterns of behaviour on the internet allows the company to better tailor its content for our feed. 

Second, the longer time we spend on our screen, the more ads we see, the more money the company makes by charging the vendors. 

To achieve the first goal, one of the main strategies companies use is AI based smart algorithms. Machine learning means you give the algorithm a goal and then it’ll figure out how to achieve it by itself. AI is also only as good as the data that it’s trained it on. Companies like Google and Facebook have huge data sets at their disposal, because of the vast number of their users from different countries spending lots of time online. This amounts to an unfathomable quantity of data. Modern algorithms accurately tailor social media feeds based on these patterns. By showing content we like frequently, they ensure we stay on the devices longer. Knowing this is very important, because this prevents us from believing that our social media feed is an accurate representation of the world. Once the false belief system takes hold, it makes us more partisan — to the level we cannot even consider having a discussion with people harbouring contrarian viewpoints. The lack of will to engage rationally with the other side is dangerous for public discourse. This is at the centre of exclusion, discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes based on gender, class and caste, ethnic and religious minorities. 

Additionally, most of the social media apps are designed based on the psychology of persuasion and more dangerously, addiction. In the 1930s, B.F. Skinner showed what we describe today as “operant learning”- animals repeat behaviours and learn a task when given a reward.  They don’t do this when the reward is taken away. However, when Skinner started to change the schedule of reward delivery, he found something striking.  When reward delivery follows a varied ratio interval (food pellet delivered after an uncertain number of lever presses), i.e. when the animals expect without knowing when they will be rewarded, they learn to repeat the task behaviour fastest. More importantly, even if the rewards are stopped entirely, they keep on pushing the lever. It showed that this type of learned behaviour is extremely difficult to extinguish. This is exactly the principle on which gambling and slot machines work: they keep the gambler on tenterhooks of expecting a win and in the process, they keep them playing and continue betting.

Both the brain pathways and the neurotransmitters that underlie such addictive behavior have been characterized in detail over the years.  Deep in our midbrain and brain stem sits a group of neurons that release dopamine, the pleasure chemical. This area is the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA). VTA neurons talk to another set of neurons hidden under the cerebral cortex- the nucleus accumbens, which in turn talks to the frontal part of the brain, where most important executive controls and decision making reside. Any natural rewards, such as food, pleasurable sex, or satiety, result in dopamine release at the Nucleus Accumbens, which through the cortex, causes the sensation of pleasure and reward. This is why we like to repeat what makes us feel good. Addiction hijacks this pathway, whether it is a chemical addiction such as cocaine or a physical addiction like gambling. These behaviors cause a massive upsurge in dopamine, much larger than physiological dopamine release. In seasoned addicts, the anticipation of reward releases twice as much dopamine than the actual reward. This biological phenomenon makes it hard to successfully abstain from addiction. 

Image Courtesy: drugabuse.gov

This is the mechanism that has been targeted by most tech companies. As the time spent with the devices is directly proportional to the ad revenues the companies earn, it favours the companies’ interests to make social media usage addictive. Hence, most elements of app design now use endless notifications, personalizing our feeds better everyday, and building in features like the answering bubble with moving dots when someone is replying. Most apps did not have this before. This is a classic example where the dopamine upsurge of anticipation is utilized. If this is a person of romantic interest or a recruitment manager, the anticipation of the reward can be more addictive than the reward itself. 

The fact that you pick up your phone and 25 minutes whoosh past isn’t random; it isn’t you. The anticipation of receiving curated content is arguably similar to a dopamine rush a gambling addict would get.

If this sounds far-fetched, take a simple test. Go device free for 24-48 hours. Lock them away. Track your mood changes, craving and general wellbeing and distress in this time. How irritable or uneasy are you? How much do you fear you are missing out or crave your device? Once you are able to get your device back, chart how long you have used it every day (all smartphones/tablets can tell you how much screen time you have had in a day). Now compare the usage from the 48 hours after abstinence to your regular usage. The mood charting shows how bad your social media habits are. 

 We survived fine till 2007 when smartphones were introduced. While our brains have evolved little over the past millennia, our environment has exploded over the past decades, especially in the online space. Biological evolution cannot keep up with the exponential evolution of technology. Therefore, spending too long on your devices makes you vulnerable to a range of health problems: poor eyesight, postural pains, lack of exercise etc. Also, engaging constantly with deeply disturbing content, even if they are on social justice issues, will inevitably start affecting your mental health and wellbeing. The world around is brutal and unfair. It is rife with discrimination and atrocities. While we should be aware of such inequalities, engaging with news all day can lead to a sense of loss of control over your life. All of these are good reasons to give yourself a periodic detox from social media. 

Given how all-pervasive social media is, where and how do we draw the line? Here are a few tips:

  1. Know that this is a world of your own creation. 

If you subscribe to viewpoint A, the apps curate your feeds with everything that reinforce A and negate all other viewpoints. You gravitate towards atrocities committed by members of anyone who does not subscribe to A and you behave as if the only reality in the world is understood by those who subscribe to A, and all others cannot be debated or even conversed with. Ultimately this makes the society more polarized. Arguably, this world is far more polarized than the world 40 years ago. Falling prey to believing the version of reality on your screens as absolute reality, you open yourself up to be easily manipulated to now indulge in hate speech, insensitivity, and sometimes, physical violence towards people whose views contradict yours. Listen to the contrarian view-points. Don’t allow one ideology to wholly dictate what you trust.

  1. Give yourself a digital detox every now and then. 

 When you’re not busy with work, limit your screen time.  When you go out with your friends for a much sought-after coffee, engage in conversations. Mutually agree to restrict mobile usage to 3-5 photos for the entire duration of the meet. Write physically in a journal every day. Exchange letters. Indulge in hobbies and activities that do not involve screens.  When you are on vacation, switch off your phone entirely. Activate an automatic email reply with the dates when you will return to work and the name of an interim person who can be reached out to if urgent. 

  1. Resist the temptation to document each moment of your life on social media. 

Besides adding to your digital footprint, this leads to unhealthy comparisons. Most people put their best foot forward on social media. Everyone posts pictures where they are doing something fun. Very few people post unhappy pictures on Instagram or write when they have a bad day at work on Facebook, yet negative things happen to all humans, every day. If we believe everything we see on feeds to be a true reflection of their lives, we buy into this idea that everyone has a perfect life, except, well, ourselves. This is not true. No one has a perfect life, and what people project on social media is often different from their real lives. So do not compare yourself to anyone on social media. Live your life as you want, without telling everyone about every moment of it. The “likes” only activate those short dopamine loops that provide instant gratification and are addictive. No amount of likes determine self-worth. So actively stop tying notions of self-worth with the likes and followers on social media. 

  1. Be a conscious consumer and not a prey to the influencer phenomenon. 

Social media can be used constructively. Collaborations, products and partnerships have evolved to its credit. If you are curating your own feed, use this awareness and the powerful AI behind apps to curate a feed that is good for you —  pages and channels that deliver creative content, help amplify positive messaging, promote mindfulness and healthy living. 

In that same vein, be picky about who you choose to follow as their content will make your curated feed, and likely only add similar content. We live in a country where influencers with millions of followers routinely promote misogyny, crass, classist, casteist, and majoritarian views. When you decide to follow an account,  try to determine the veracity of their claims. Do they cite data? What is the source? If you look at the data, does their conclusion make any sense? Never amplify something you have not fact checked before. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation in the post truth era. 

  1. General principles of sensible social media use

 Research has shown that constant social media usage leads to an inability to focus and restlessness. These directly affect professional or educational performance. A slew of productivity-based apps using the pomodoro technique (20 minutes for work followed by a 5-minute break) and restricting social media usage are available on all platforms and can be used for structuring the work day. The break can be used to do any activity that does not involve phones or computers. Outside work hours, make some rules for social media usage and stick to them. Turn notifications off for most apps except your calendar or reminders.  

Another effective rule is the “no phone at dinner and beyond” rule. Do not reach for your phone before sleep and as you open your eyes the next morning. Try holding off at least until after breakfast. These simple rules go a long way to ensure our internet usage stays under control.

While social media can foster a sense of community, it can also take away from face to face interactions which eventually raises a lot of concerns over your physical and mental health. Being conscious of that is relevant, simply because we cannot avoid it.

Simantini Ghosh is an Assistant Professor and PhD Coordinator for the Department of Psychology at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Categories
Issue 2

Give Me Liberty, COVID, or Cow Urine

Before 2020 the idea of the world coming together against a large-scale disaster was placed in the distant future, possibly once climate change had an apocalyptic effect. Natural disasters were far more localised, with only parts of the world being affected at any given point in time. The rest of the world stayed unaffected and in a position to provide support to affected areas. COVID-19 changed that. Suddenly, entire countries, and to some extent, the entire world had to come together to successfully control the disease. And we as a society proved our inability to do so. People around the globe continue to deny the dangers and at times even the existence of this virus which has already claimed more than 1 million lives.

Handling a disease at policy and personal levels requires a certain scientific temperament. One needs to accept advice from expert sources and follow safety measures. The basic prerequisite to this is believing in scientific evidence. In the current scenario, one can observe a lack of this temperament with too many Americans openly defying safety measures and even denying the existence of the virus. How do we understand Americans denying the virus even as their country has registered the highest number of COVID deaths in the world?

April 2020 saw widespread anti-lockdown protests across America. In Michigan, one of the hardest-hit states, protesters called their Governor a tyrant and compared her to Hitler.  Almost all the protests called for freedom, with slogans like “Give me Liberty or Give Me COVID-19” and “Freedom over fear”. Protestors ranged from those simply wanting to reopen businesses to COVID-deniers and anti-maskers. The general sentiment amongst the protestors was that stay-at-home orders and the closure of businesses were un-American because they did not respect individual choice and liberty and that the economy could not be threatened for public safety.

A common thread among these protestors was their political orientation — they were overwhelmingly conservative. Almost all the protests had Pro-Trump and MAGA posters, guns and confederate signs, and even anti-abortion signs. President Donald Trump praised these protestors, as people who “love our country”. 

Political Psychology may hold the answer to why these people underplaying the crisis were largely conservative. Decades of research on personality types has led to an understanding of conservatives as people who are fearful of change, of unfamiliar people and places. They try to maintain a sense of familiarity and comfort by following rules But by this logic conservatives should be more inclined to following government guidelines for COVID control.

Needless to say, there is a lot more nuance to the connection between our scientific temperament and political ideologies. A 2013 poll found that while liberals believed in the primacy of science during the policymaking process, conservatives were more moderate in their approach towards science. Additionally, there is a divide in the kinds of scientists either sides prefer and by extension the issues on which they will regard scientific advice as important and necessary. Liberals trust scientists involved in areas of regulation, like public health and environmental science while conservatives prefer those involved in economic production — food scientists and petroleum geologists for example. 

These nuances can help us better understand the reaction of conservatives towards COVID-19. ABC News has quoted a Michigan conservative leader as saying “bankrupting the state is not going to cure this virus.” Another protestor is quoted saying “…I don’t think that we need the Constitution suspended in order to be safe.” As we can infer from the studies, conservatives are inclined towards economic interests and are not very trusting of public health experts. They are thus more concerned with protecting their businesses, even when they acknowledge the threat posed by the virus. They are also inclined towards protecting the law and thus extremely protective of their constitutional rights, which they feel are being threatened by impositions of lockdown. It isn’t a case of dismissing science as much as it is a case of misplaced priorities.

The most important factor influencing conservatives is political propaganda. Conservative news outlets, politicians and most importantly President Donald Trump have been consistently underplaying or outrightly denying the virus, touting it as a Chinese or Democrat conspiracy to undermine Trump’s rule by crushing the economy. The virus has become a political issue rather than a scientific one. Human beings have a tendency to think emotionally more than logically. It has also been found that one can be persuaded of anything if the correct language is used, and if exposure to any kind of information is high. When one is exposed to such propaganda, one has an emotional instead of rational response to it and will be prone to believing it if it fits with one’s values. Since conservatives are being told that the virus is a conspiracy to undermine their leader, they believe this over their already weak scientific beliefs. Political propaganda and a desire to fit in has ultimately won over scientific temperament in conservatives.

It is interesting to examine India’s scientific temperament in its reaction to COVID. While American conservatives undermined the virus to align with and protect their political leaders and beliefs, Indians acted in a very different manner for similar ends. In recent times, India has become increasingly conservative with a rise in Hindu-nationalism. These ideas follow from the nationalist ideologies of the ruling political party, the BJP. PM Narendra Modi of the BJP has enjoyed immense popularity in recent years and has gained the support of a majority of conservative and right-wing groups in the country. 

Unlike Trump, Modi insisted on the dangers of the virus and the necessity for a nationwide lockdown. In his speech announcing the ‘Jantacurfew’ in India in March, he asserted, “one step outside can make way for coronavirus into your house” and “Experts are saying that ‘social distancing’ is the only way to tackle coronavirus”. His response created a sense of fear about the virus. His supporters followed his advice, but this had more to do with their trust in him than with their scientific temperament. 

This was apparent in the paranoia that followed. While Modi simply insisted on the importance of following safety guidelines, paranoia around the virus was at its peak despite the number of cases being at a few thousand. There were reports of people denying cremations to COVID patients and ostracising the ones that lived. Doctors and nurses were forcibly evicted by landlords. These behaviours continued even after the government issued notices asking the public to fight the disease and not the diseased. Unlike American conservatives whose fear was expressed through denying the virus, Indians reacted with heightened fear responses.

In addition to paranoia, scientific temperament was challenged by the government promoting traditional medicine. There were countless WhatsApp forwards about alternative medicines claiming approval from the WHO. These ranged from “Kadhas” (broths) of turmeric, honey, black pepper, cloves and every popular ingredient used by Indians to treat common colds. There were claims of methylxanthines, found in tea, declared as a cure by the Chinese doctor responsible for raising alarm about COVID early on in Wuhan. Using the WHO and names of chemicals helped legitimise these myths. Union AYUSH Minister Shripad Naik stated that COVID-19 can be treated by Ayurveda and that 60-70 percent of COVID cases in India were cured by Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha prescribed home remedies. He claimed that Ayurveda would boost one’s immunity and prevent the virus from attacking. A peculiar solution was found in cow urine, which was said to strengthen lymphocytes in the blood and be rich in antioxidants. The cow is considered holy in Hinduism and is being used as a violently nationalist symbol by the Indian right, with a leader claiming touching one helped cure her cancer. COVID gave these groups another opportunity to promote the cow. Thus followed cow urine-drinking parties organised by senior leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha. The consumption of cow urine surged to 6000 litres per day in the state of Gujarat.

Like the cow, Ayurveda and Indian home remedies have also been used as a political tool to claim the supremacy of Indian, specifically Hindu culture and tradition. The BJP and the Indian right have been trying to invoke pride in an ancient Indian history that is rooted in Hinduism, before the “invasion” by Mughals and the British, to increase nationalistic pride.

In the USA, scientific temperament was challenged by a preference for economic stability by conservatives, and by Republicans to protect the reputation of their leader Donald Trump as a saviour of the American economy. The Indian right used traditional medicine as a tool to battle coronavirus and further nationalistic sentiments. Whatever the end goal, the casualty was the same — the death of scientific temperament.

Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).