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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Follow up on Chapter 1

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

This is a follow up on my initial letter to all of you. In that letter I mentioned how neurosciences and genetics are advancing. I mentioned that even consciousness is coming under scientific scrutiny. Interestingly, in this week’s issue of Science, there is an interesting article on Consciousness and anesthesia ( Consciousness and Anesthesia Alkire MT, Hudetz AG and Tononi G . Science Vol 322:876-880, 2008). This issue of Science also has a review article on Genetic mapping in human disease. In addition, this issue is dedicated to several articles on genetics of human behavior. This journal is sometimes available in County Public Libraries. Hope you will read them when you are ready.

May I also recommend you read two books, if you get interested in thinking about consciousness? One is a textbook, with the title Consciousness – An Introduction by Susan Blakemore published by the Oxford University Press in 2004. The other is by Douglas Hofstadter with the title “I am a strange loop” and published by Basic Books in 2007.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Readings and Reflections of a Grandfather

Chapter 1: Letters to grandchildren

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi, Ariana and…………..

This is a message of love to you and through you to all the children of the world. This comes out of what I have learnt and have thought about. There is an urge inside of me to share this with you. You are not ready to read and understand all of this yet. When you are, I hope you will reflect on what I have said, build on these ideas and pass on to your children, if you agree with the message.

I am writing this because I believe that the civilization is at a major crossroad in its history. Which road will “it” take? Rather, which road do you want “it” to take? You, your friends and your children will be making that decision. You are arriving on the scene during an era of unprecedented growth in scientific knowledge. In the physical sciences, the advances are phenomenal. There are great advances in the biological sciences also. We are at the threshold of understanding the role of genes in all the functions of living organisms. Neurosciences are advancing rapidly too. We are even tackling a topic which was considered sacred – Consciousness.

This is also the age of communication and global network. Information is available at the click of a mouse. Ideas spread more easily. You can communicate with anyone with common interest anywhere in the world. It is as easy to spread wrong information as good, noble and useful information. It is important for you to learn how to assimilate, analyze and make sense out of all the available information.

Unfortunately, this is also a time in history, when people are polarized. Fanaticism and clannishness are in the ascent. The school of reason is challenged by the school of faith.

You need time to think, more than ever. You need to think on your own and develop your own value, and not get dazzled by slick media people and “wordsmiths” and “word sculptors” or get brainwashed by silver-tongued fanatics. You need tools to think with. That is what I propose to do in the following essays.

I wrote the first three essays in 2003, during my visit to Italy. These ideas came out of my thinking about the history-changing events of September 11th. Subsequent essays will deal with thinking on your own and listening to yourself. I will state my own considered positions on various questions. I will also share several tools, none of them original, that helped me with my thinking habits.

Before I start, let me quote Khalil Gibran, because it is a note of caution for me.

“ Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you, but not from you.

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls.


You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

I do not wish to tell you how you should or should not think. I just wish to share some thoughts and some tools for thinking.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Media Awareness 3

One website from Canada ( gives the following suggestions to parents on how to help children with their use of the internet. Children should be made to think about the following questions:

What is the purpose of the site you are visiting? Is it to inform and educate, entertain, to persuade or to sell?

Who are the creators and authors of this website? Are they credible? Do they have the expertise to talk on this topic?

What other sites does this site link to?

What other sites link to this one?

When was this web-page created? When was this updated?

Who is the sponsor of this site? (My personal comments: You will be surprised how often a sales organization will create an educational entity as its front; but its real motive is to sell its product. Invariably the report will be biased. This is true of some of the so-called Think Tanks which are issue-based. Their research data may be accurate. But their methodology (such as their sample selection) is often chosen to favor the results they want! At the least, you should be careful with accepting the reports from these institutions.)

Here are some more suggestion for parents from Be Web Aware site.

Make sure your children verify the information they collect on the internet with other sources.

Encourage them to use variety of sources, not just the internet.

It is easy to get summaries on the internet and someone’s interpretations. Teach the children to go to the original source. It will teach them to read some classics and learn to read critically.

Sit with your children and explore some commercial sites. Teach them how these are created and get their attention and vulnerabilities. (Also see site)

Discuss hatred, bullying, racism, and other prejudices disseminated over the internet.

Make sure children discuss with you before making any purchases over the internet. Use the opportunity to teach them about spams, identity theft, savings habit etc

I have given practical suggestions till now. If you are interested you may explore the topic of media literacy in depth. Media literacy is an academic subject and several educational institutions are working on conceptual issues. If you are interested, please look at some of the websites I have given below. The Center for Media Literacy has developed some important basic concepts. Their Five Core Concepts are:

1. All media messages are constructed.

2. Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.

3. Different people experience the same media message differently.

4. Media have embedded values and points of view.

5. Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power.

Based on these concepts, the Center for Media Literacy suggests ways to deconstruct media messages and teach children depending on their age levels. Five key questions we want children (and us too) to ask are:

1. Who created this message?

2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?

3. How might different people understand this message differently?

4. What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in or omitted from this message?

5. Why is this message being sent (to me)?

This can be restated as authorship (who wrote this and what methods were used), format, message, intended audience and the motive (purpose).

Resources on Media awareness

American Academy of Pediatrics

American Academy of Child and adolescent Psychiatry

Center for Media Education

Center for Media Literacy

Coalition for Quality Children’s Media

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Media Awareness 2

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization (WHO) have published recommendations for the proper use of media.

WHO is so concerned about the effects of media on the mental health of adolescents that it recommends policy makers to monitor the nature, extent, and context of violence in all forms of media and implement appropriate guidelines, standards and penalties. It further recommends that education in media awareness become a priority and a part of school curricula.

WHO further recommends that parents should be aware of the risks associated with children viewing violent imagery as it promotes aggressive attitudes, antisocial behavior, fear and de-sensitization. The last point about sensitization needs a word of explanation with the following example. Suppose we come upon a scene of accident, what will we do? Our natural response will be to go and help. Scenes depicting violence are common in prime time programs and in non-educational afternoon programs for children. When we see an accident or a violence being committed in TV, we are passive observers sitting there munching on snacks as if nothing has happened. When we sit through several such scenes over the years, we get desensitized and lose the natural human tendency to help.

WHO recommend that parents review the nature, extent, and context of violence available to their children before viewing and assist children understand the imagery.

American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents do not provide TV/computer in children’s bedroom, limit media use to 2 hours per day, monitor the use of media by children, watch TV with children and follow up with a discussion of the program itself as outlined earlier.

What about the risks associated with the use of Internet and interactive media? All of you are aware of this. However, for the sake of completion let me list them for you. You may wish to add more.


Invasion of privacy

On-line predator

Cyber bullying


Violent pictures

Spam/gambling and so on

So, what can we do about all of this?

First, know the current status of how you and your family members use the media. You and your child can answer the following questions developed by the American Medical Association for use by physicians during office visits.

How many hours a day do you watch TV?

How do you decide what shows to watch? Movies?

Where is (are) the televisions in your house?

Are there house rules regarding viewing (eg: no viewing until home work is completed)

What are your favorite TV programs? Movies?

Are there rules regarding music videos? Video games?

Who watches TV with you?

Do you surf the internet? For how many hours? For what?

You can also look at your style in managing your child’s media habits. Are you restrictive? Are you instructive? Or, do you just let the child do what he or she wants to do with media? Or, do you use several methods? Do you use media as baby-sitter?

Be a role model for your child; do not become a TV addict. Set house rules for use of media; include children in setting rules. Teach them that TV is not reality. Teach them that TV is commercially driven. Watch TV with children; discuss with your child what you saw, after each show. Use the following ideas for discussion, as suggested by a website ( They are:

After watching a program:

Ask them open-ended questions

LISTEN to their answers

What did they like and dislike?


If they like things that you do not like, tell them why – DO NOT PUT THEM DOWN


If you watch an AD together:

Use PBS site on “dontbuyit” to teach about how ads are made

Teach them to ask questions

What is the message?

Who is behind this message?

Is this person qualified to talk about this subject/product?

Is this person doing it for money?

Does this person have a conflict of interest?

Is he/she telling me everything about this idea/product or leaving out some?

If the person is leaving out, what is that information? Why is this information left out?

What is the technique used to convince me and influence me?

If it is a violent show or movie you have been watching:

Ask questions such as

If this happened in real life who will be hurt?

How will the victim and family feel?

Will their lives ever get back to normal?

Even if does, at what cost to emotion, happiness and finances?

Who is scared, mad or sad?

How much will be the damage to property and Hospital bills?

How about some non-violent methods of solving the conflict?

If this happened in front of you in real life, what will you do? What should you do?

In the March 27, 2006 issue of TIME magazine, Dr.Edward Hallowell gave several ideas to help parents. They are:

Create time to be with your children doing non-tech things such as : Outings, car wash, gardening – tell them that this is not time for I-pods etc. It is family time.

See the shows with them. Spend a few minutes after that to discuss. This is a teaching moment.

Get on the internet and download MP 3. Let the children show how to send messages. Let the children be your guide. That will make them feel good. You can see what they are doing. Make sure you then teach them how to use the media safely and wisely.

Set limits: On duration of time spent, on content and on location ( eg: no TV or ipods during meal time); Control accessible sites on TV and internet.

Teach them “techno-manners”.

Look for positive ways children use media and give them positive feedbacks. Use this to enhance relationships.

Teach them difference between reality and fantasy. Teach them that real life decisions and actions have real consequences. Teach them alternative ways of dealing with anger, conflicts, difficult friends etc.

Involve the children and develop media rules for your family.

DO not be just a disapproving elder.

Be a role model – by not being a TV addict yourself!!

Teach children media literacy and financial literacy

Teach children healthy activities to relieve boredom.

Use TV diary to monitor yourself and the children

Note: We still need some ideas on how to help parents who feel guilty about not spending time with children and yield to the children on important matters such as video time etc and those who use media as “baby-sitters”.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Media Awareness 1

Media Awareness

What is Media Awareness? Why is this important? What does the word “media” mean?

In Communication, it stands for mass media. It is the plural of medium. Wikipedia defines it as “storage and transmission tools used to store and deliver information and data”

What does the word Media include? There are Passive media such as the Print, TV, Movies and videos. And there are Interactive media such as Video games, Internet, and the Computer.

You will hear about Media literacy and Media awareness. Media literacy is a comprehensive term that includes creating messages using a variety of media and using the media. We will focus on media awareness.

Media Awareness is about understanding how media messages influence us and our children, how they affect and interfere with the physical, emotional and economic aspects of our lives, how they bring into our homes values we do not approve of in our children and learning about the proper use of media

Media Awareness is NOT “media bashing” and it is not to “save” children from the media. It is meant to point out the role of parents in educating the children and to teach children how to use media carefully and critically.

Why do we need media awareness? “Media no longer just influence our culture. They are our culture.” says the Center for Media Literacy (

“We must prepare young people for living in a world of powerful images, words and sounds” says a report from the UNESCO 1982.

Media are essential and useful. Media have major positive influences in the modern society. It has contributed enormously to education and entertainment. It is a major force in bringing humanity together and in globalization of commerce and cultures. It offers instant availability of information at any place at any time. We need the media.

Then why are we worrying? It is because children spend significant amount of time with TV, Internet, video games. They are vulnerable. They are often left to explore these contents without guidance and supervision. Consequently they fall victims to propaganda and enticements and get into trouble.

Marketers know that children spend several hours a day with media (TV,Video & Internet). In general, children spend 25% of waking time with TV/monitor. Young people spend 16 – 17 hours per week on TV. If you add computer and video it is 35-50 hrs/week. 32% of 2 to 7 year old have their own TV (in their bedroom). 65% of 8 – 18 year olds have their own TV. Advertisers know this.

Recent report from FTC documents that food and beverage marketers spent 1.6 billion dollars in ads directed at children in 2006. This includes direct marketing to children through product placement, special events and games. This can be tracked. But cross-promotion with a new movie or popular TV program or animation characters cannot be tracked.

Commercial organizations also know that children are future customers and are vulnerable. They can be “trained” to become loyal customers.

James Twitchell says that commercialism consists of “commodification or stripping an object of all other values except its value for sale to someone else and marketing”. The following quotes are attributed to folks involved in commercialism and marketing

“Children are consumers in training”

“Children are cash crops to be harvested”

Parents are “gatekeepers”

Children have to be taught to increase the “nag factor”.

“Antisocial behavior in pursuit of a product is a good thing.”

This is gross misuse of the vulnerability of children and human psychology. When I read these quotes, it made me very angry. Indeed when I presented these data to a class of 9th graders, some of them were surprised to learn how they are being used and became furious. I hope it makes you angry too.

The advertisers use variety of tactics such as making “it” look “cool” or fun thing to do or to possess a toy or a game or a dress, by making it look absolutely essential, by making it appear as if “everyone” is doing/buying “it” or, or by saying that a so-and-so “celebrity” uses “it” or by connecting it with some other toy or prize.

I think that this a good place to share the eight logical fallacies as taught by Aristotle. You may know these already. If so, this is a good time to share these with your children and grandchildren. These are the same false arguments used often by marketers and all of us! Hopefully, your children will learn how to recognize these fallacies in ads and in the argument used by others and themselves.

Aristotle’s 8 Fallacies are:

1. ad hominem – appealing to personal prejudice (“This cream will make your skin smooth”) populum – appealing to mass emotions (“If you use this everyone will love your company”) baculum – appealing to brute force (“This is recommended by every doctor on earth”)

4. ad crumenam – appealing to money ( “This will make you rich”)

5. ad verecundiam – appealing to prestige (“This actress uses it”) misericordiam – appealing to pity (“Don’t let your children “suffer” without this!”) ignorantiam – appealing to ignorance (“Only this product has the miracle ingredient”)

8. ad captandum vulgus – any catch-all dishonest argument (“Everybody in your school has it”)

In his book on The Art of Clear Thinking, Rudolf Flesch combines these categories into two major material fallacies. In one, an irrelevant point is brought up and in another a relevant point is left out. When irrelevant points are used, the language is apt to be more concrete aiming at personal interests, emotions and prejudices. The best way to deal with this fallacy is to ask “so what?”. For example, if an ad says that “Mr. so and so uses it” , ask “so what?”. Omission of relevant points will be marked by wide, non-specific language. This fallacy unravels when you ask for details. For example, when an ad says “this is the best beer in USA”, ask for details of how they came to that conclusion.

Negative impacts of active and passive media are well known. In addition to giving wrong information, biased information and only portions of information, they often give images without substance and bring in values you and I will not approve of.

There are several studies documenting the negative effects of TV and passive media. These include displacement effects, so called because they take the children away from essential, positive and growth-promoting habits such as reading/home work, practice of skills (eg: music), sports, thinking, sleep and socialization.

There are several studies published in pediatric journals to document the negative effects of media on children’s physical health (obesity), mental health (violent behavior), behavioral health, economic health (credit card debts). If any of you are interested, please call me or write to me and I will give you the actual references.

Although these negative effects on children are well known, industries are NOT likely to act, since their focus is profit and their client is the shareholder (which incidentally includes all of us since most of us do invest in stock markets). Legislators are NOT likely to act effectively because of differences in basic political philosophies, conflicts of interest, effective lobbying from all sides and a general atmosphere not conducive to compromises.

Therefore, we have to depend upon parents and pediatricians who are the advocates for children’s welfare and on professional organizations such as the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Stop and Think

Welcome to my virtual school. I am Balu Athreya, a retired pediatrician. I was taking care of the physical health of children with chronic illness for more than 50 years. Now, I wish to care for their emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. Will and Ariel Durant said that “ if a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children”. (The Lessons of History. Will and Ariel Durant, Simon and Shuster. 1968. Page 102). That is what I am trying to do.

For a long time, I have wanted to start a school of my own. The purpose is to provide a forum and an atmosphere in which children and adults can develop their own ideas on important issues, reason them out and reflect on them. My role will be to provide the fodder to chew on.

I even coined a name for the school - Svabodhanaalaya (that is a Sanskrit name for School for self-learning) or School for Reason and Reflection. But starting a school is not that easy. I need space, consistent availability of time, supplies, and ability to publicize and promote the course.

Then I realized that in this era of internet and virtual classrooms, I do not need physical space. I just need a virtual space. I already have a virtual space for clinicians ( Therefore, I asked myself “why not start a new blog site where I can share my thoughts on non-medical subjects?” I spoke with several people, some in education and some in IT. They agreed. That is how this blog site got started.

Welcome to my web site. This is my virtual school. The name is “Timeforthought”.

My original plan was to have three schools within this school - one for Physicians, one for children and grandchildren and one for everyone else. Then I realized that there may be problems addressing children directly. Indeed it may be better if adults look at the content first and then pass it on to their children or grandchildren in their own words, if they wish. In addition, if I write for children, I have to write at different levels of comprehension to suit different ages. Therefore, I combined the schools for children with those of adults.

There are two schools within this primary site. One is for physicians and you can see the link at the box ( The other is this site you are on and is meant for friends and colleagues and the children of the future.

The site for physicians and medical students will discuss clinical skills such as listening skills, observation skills, diagnostic skills, caring skills, communication skills, problem solving skills and helping skills.

The site for friends and colleagues will deal with several philosophical issues. The site will also include materials for children on subjects such as Listening skills, Thinking Skills, and Media awareness. The emphasis will be on Thinking Skills and tools to think with.

My habit is to keep notes in an organized fashion while I read. My readings include both oriental literature and western literature. It includes science and metaphysics and everything in between. It includes literature in three languages. I have synthesized ideas from many great thinkers, added my own thoughts and came up with some common themes. I wish to share them particularly with children and grandchildren.

This site for friends and children is a closed one. I do not want to go out to the rest of the world with these ideas before I try them out with family members and close friends. Please share your reaction to my thoughts, correct my viewpoints and challenge my conclusions. I can then polish my ideas and open them to the rest of the world.

Why do I want to do this?

As a pediatrician I am concerned about the way media are shaping the world-view of all of us, particularly children. There is a need to make children aware of danger zones in mass media, “informatials”, propaganda and advertisements. Come to think of it, we adults can use some help too!

This is the age of information and communication. Because of the nature of explosion in knowledge and information technology, there is an enormous potential for communication and cooperation. At the same time there is also potential for misuse of information, spreading of wrong information, brainwashing and miscommunication. The sender of information will always seek an advantage to influence us. It is up to us, the receivers, to learn how to sift useful and beneficial information from wrong information and misinformation.

The second reason is that I love teaching. As a teacher I try to support my statements with my own reason or better still with the writings of respected teachers and elders. With this in mind I plan to share the names of several books I have read and summarize them for you. In addition I hope that some of you will go to the original texts and taste some of these classics.

The third reason is that I feel that traditional teaching methods emphasize logic and dialectics and not reflection.

Scientific methods of observation, generating and testing hypothesis, reasoning, consideration of alternate explanations and analysis have contributed enormously to the acquisition of new knowledge and to our understanding of the universe. Traditional teaching methods also emphasize dialectics to arrive at conclusions and convince others. These are time-honored methods. However, there is very little emphasis on the third mode of acquisition of knowledge, namely reflective learning.

I plan to focus on Reflective Knowing at this site. The emphasis will not be just on the acquisition of information, but on the ability to reflect on the information we have acquired and the ability to integrate it into our value system.

The fourth reason is that the current definition of thinking is not accurate, as pointed out by Prof.Edward de Bono. De Bono argues effectively to show that words and language are useful for communication, but not for perception or for thinking. (Read his book on “I am right….You are Wrong”, Penguin Books, 1991) He shows how most of our thinking uses logic, whereas most of the problems and pitfalls in thinking have to do with perception and inability to look at a problem from different angles. This requires an open mind and imagination, humility and creativity.

More importantly, all of us, particularly children need time and supportive atmosphere to reflect.

It appears to me that there are four basic requirements to be good at reasoning and reflecting. They are: ability to LISTEN to others (includes reading widely); ability to listen to oneself (REFLECTION); TIME to reflect and TOOLS to reason and reflect with.

You have to make the time. I will help with ideas to fulfill the other requirements, within the limits of my knowledge.
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