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Saturday, November 27, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 5

 Next is an example of how reading the original article can help assess the validity of an essay in a non-medical journal. This method will also be helpful to read essays on scientific subjects in any journal or on the internet. Many journalists do not have the training or time to evaluate the accuracy and validity of scientific papers they review. They go for headlines, breakthroughs, press briefings and capsule summaries.

The essay I was assessing for its validity was on meditation. The conclusion of that essay was that meditation may not be helpful to many and may lead a few into more selfishness. This was written by a reporter based on an article published in a scientific journal.

It is easy to just accept that report and keep passing on that information, because it is interesting and may be true. If you are already inclined towards that point of view, you are more likely to accept it without any verification. But, before I accepted the reporter’s conclusion, I wanted to go to the original scientific report and read it for myself. But why?

First, most reporters are not trained in reading and understanding scientific reports. Most of them are not familiar with statistical concepts. They report on the conclusions, most of the time without knowing for certain whether the conclusion was valid.

Fortunately, most journals give us a reference to the source and several on-line publications even give a link to the source article. This is what I did and found the original using the link provided.

The questions I wanted to get answers for were: What was the hypothesis these authors were testing? How rigorous was their methods and procedures? Given the methods they used, do I think they could have tested their hypothesis correctly/ What was the data? What was their analytical methods? What were the limitations of the study such as selection of subjects, accounting for the biological and methodological variables? Is their conclusion valid given the data they got? If it is, how generally can this conclusion be applied? Is it applicable to just a limited group of individuals similar to the subjects in the study or to a wider group?

With these questions in mind, when I looked at the methods the authors used, here is what I found. (All the italicized sections within parenthesis are “cut-and-paste” from the original article)

The author's question (hypothesis) was: "Does mindfulness makes m people more generous and cooperative, or is it possible that it can actually make people more selfish?"

First, in biology and behavioral sciences, definition of words such as mindfulness, cooperative attitude and selfishness are essential. When you then try to quantitate these qualities which we cannot even define consistently, another layer of difficulty creeps in. In addition, there are several scales to measure behaviors such as cooperation mindfulness and selfishness. Which one of these scales did the authors choose and why?

Their hypothesis was that mindfulness which developed in societies in the orient which emphasize interdependence and cooperation may not work to the same level in the western societies which emphasize individuality and autonomy. The authors said that “Individuals with independent self-construals tend to act in ways that are consistent with goals of autonomy, separateness, and self-maximization; whereas those with interdependent self-construals tend to value the well-being of other group members, relationships, and interpersonal harmony (Gardner et al., 1999; Holland et al., 2004)”.

In addition to centuries of observation, recent studies have documented that mindfulness helps us learn to avoid distractions and develop sustained attention on the task at hand. Sustained attention helps develop and hone one’s skills. This is one reason, mindfulness is taught, to help develop sustained attention to the task at hand. One can become great researcher by being good at focusing on a research question. One can get good at prayers without letting the mind wander. So can a thief who can get good at being a thief, if that is how he wants to use his mindfulness training.

That is the problem when meditation is practiced out of context and without its inherent spiritual component.

In the Method section, we find that the authors used 366 undergraduate students from one University who were part of another study on the pro-social behavior of students. Therefore, the results of the study may or may not be applicable to other age-groups. Fortunately, the sample included males and females and also a mixture of whites, Afro-Americans, Asians and those of mixed race. Therefore, the sample population is a good one. 

In describing the procedure, the authors use the word “meditation manipulation” and use this designation several times throughout the article. This suggests that the authors were biased against it even at the start of the research.

 All the participants “completed measures of personality, trust, and prosocial tendencies that were not the focus of this investigation and then were randomly assigned to a meditation condition: either mindfulness meditation or a meditation control (mind wandering)”. The test subjects were given instructions on mindful breathing. “Both the mindful breathing and meditation control instructions were presented over the course of a 15-minute meditation period”. Members of the control group were asked to “Use the time to let your mind wander and think freely without needing to focus hard on anything in particular.” 

This is the biggest weakness of this study. How can anyone learn mindful meditation in a single short session?

 The authors measured:  Self-Construal using the Relational Interdependent Self Construal scale; Compassion using the Cameron and Payne’s compassion scale and Prosocial Behavior using the number of envelopes participants stuffed. The last one is a strange way to study pro-social behavior. 

The participants were asked to stuff envelopes of donation for a worthy cause soon after they finish reading an article about that cause in a newspaper article. The number of envelopes they stuffed was considered a measure of whether the participants became “caring” and more altruistic following the meditation. In the words of the authors: “Following the meditation manipulation, participants read an article from a local newspaper, ostensibly randomly chosen to assess how meditation affects information processing”.

  How can anyone measure a behavioral change immediately after a 15-minute meditation and how valid is it even if it shows changes in measurement? It takes many years of practice, if at all, to develop an open mind or to become compassionate. 

 The authors conclude by saying that the comparison between the test group and the control group showed a difference. They also said this score correlated with the score they obtained in the scale for selfishness and selflessness. 

  How can anyone measure a behavioral change immediately after a 15-minute meditation and how valid is it even if it shows changes in measurement? It takes many years of practice, if at all, to develop an open mind or to become compassionate.

 Simple logic tells me that this study was full of flaws in methodology. Therefore, the conclusions of this study are not valid.  

I hope this exercise gives a glimpse of how I read scientific essays whether they are published in non-medical journals or in medical journals.


Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 4

 Another extremely important idea on reading came from Sir William Osler, legendary Professor of medicine at four universities - the Johns Hopkins University, University of Pennsylvania, McGill University and the Oxford University. His suggestion was about how to read medical literature. He said: “ whenever you want to learn about a disease, go to the most original paper on that subject and then read the latest review”.

That advice led me to read the Edwin Smith Surgical papyrus which describes medical knowledge in the ancient Egypt. There I found a  great description of tetanus, although they did not know at that time in history what it was. I also found a description of a charioteer who fell, hit his head on one side and lost use of his limbs on the opposite side. At that time in history, they did not know that the right half of the brain controls movements of the left side of the body and vice versa. There was also a description of how to reduce dislocation of the clavicle.

I have read and have a copy of the translation of Kashyapa Samhita. Kashyapa was a student of Athreya at the ancient university of Takshashila and probably practiced pediatrics in ancient India. I have read the original description of mumps by Hippocrates. During my visit to Padua, Italy a friend of mine arranged for me to see at the University library the original print of the first book ever published on Human Anatomy by Vesalius.

I also read passages from Morgagni’s original descriptions of organ pathology. Morgagni showed that clinical symptoms during life correlate with diseases of specific organs. For example, there is one description of a young boy with acute glomerulonephritis in this book. The clinical description of the boy during his illness includes swelling of the face and feet. The pathology findings in the kidney of this boy were those of acute glomerulonephritis. That book was the beginning of clinical medicine as we practice today, because Morgagni established that specific signs and symptoms exhibited by patients correlate with disease of specific organs.

By reading the original description we will understand what was it that the original observer saw which was different from what was known at that time. This also makes us humble, for we “stand on the shoulders of giants”.

By reading the latest review, we will learn how that original observation led to other observations and developments resulting in the current knowledge about that topic and also what questions have not been answered. To get the full benefit from reading the latest review, we have to read some of the crucial references cited in the review article or book. We need to make sure the studies were well-conducted, proper statistical methods were used and the conclusions are valid, given the methods used in the study.

Most of the original classics are in ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Latin, or Aramaic. This can be used as an opportunity to learn that language. This is a bonus with rich dividends and reading pleasure. It also gives an idea of how languages have evolved over the years. I am finding this pleasure of reading classic books in my own mother tongue. Those books use Tamizh language as used more than 1,000 years back. Using dictionaries and other sources one can understand the meaning of these words.

Fortunately, most of the classic texts are available in English translation. I found it helpful to start with one of those translations even for books in Tamizh and Sanskrit because of ease of searching with the Index list. Searching with the Index list in English is easier still in the electronic versions of very long texts and passages. Once I locate the passage or verse I am interested in, I go to the text in its original language and read it for myself, if it is in English, Sanskrit or Tamizh. 

In this process, you need to find a translation which is true to the meaning of the words as used originally, not interpretive translations. A case in point is English translation of Maha Bharata. By reading reviews of several translations, I found that Prof.Ganguli’s was the most authentic for verse-by-verse translation.

As mentioned earlier, I like to read a translation which gives exact references. For example, if I want to find passages in Rg Veda, I use The Artful Universe by William Mahoney. To read passages from Satapata Brahmana I read Roberto Calasso’s Ardor. To know more about Indian History, I read A L Bhasham’s The Wonder That was India. By using references in these books, I was able to get back to the exact passages in many Sanskrit  and Tamizh originals. That is how I found out about Rishi Dirghatamas  and Asya Vamasya Sukta.

In a book with the intriguing title “Nothing”, physicist Frank Close starts his discussion on “Early ideas on no-thing” with the following passage from Rg Veda: “There was neither non-existence nor existence then….”  Tracking it back to the source, I learnt about the Nasadiya Sukta of Rg veda. 

Friday, November 12, 2021

Reading skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 3

This leads me to share one of my habits (learnt from others, of course) when I read anything, even novels and poetry. This is to keep a dictionary by my side. I have one English,  two Tamizh and one Sanskrit dictionary by my side when I am reading. With modern technology, you do not even need a print edition. There are several online dictionaries - in all languages. It is by using the dictionary I learnt what an adobe is (mud house), a tepee is (a movable tent with a triangular shape) and wigwam is (a lodge), while reading Hillerman’s novels. I also learnt several Tamizh and Sanskrit words with their several meanings.

Another great recent experience was reading Thirukkural in Tamizh and looking up the meaning of the words Thiruvalluvar used. It is obvious that Tamizh in those days was different from the Tamizh we use today. The meaning of words has changed in some. Some words had several meanings. Some of the words are not used anymore. For example, the word for a tooth in those days was எயிறு. But now we use this word for the gum. The word கொடிறு meant what we call கன்னம் (cheek) today.

In addition, whenever Ramaa and me went to any country, we asked the locals about the most celebrated author(s) of that country. We also asked them for suggestions. That is how we found the writings of Jorge Amado (The War of the Saints and many more) and Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist, Zahir and many more) in Brazil and of Ifgan Orga in Turkey. Fortunately, most of the classic books from any language have been translated into English. However, it is not the same as reading the original. But the next best.

When we were in Istanbul, we walked into one of the University Book stores. One young man working there, probably student, was eager to try his English language skills with us. We asked our usual questions and that is how we found this author and his wonderful book on Portrait of a Turkish Family . This is a real-life story based on life in Turkey soon after the fall of the Turkish empire.

This leads me to point out that one way to learn about history, culture, philosophy and religion of any country is to read fiction based on history by authors who do good research. We from Tamil Nadu know how much we learnt about the Pallava and Chola kingdoms by reading Sivakamiyin Sabatham. There are several other examples. “The Source” by James Michener is a remarkable documentation of the history of the Jewish people. I read it just before I went to Israel and was able to relate to everything I saw and heard. (It is a very long book, though). The other book is a classic fiction, Sophie’s World,  in which you can learn about various schools of western philosophies. This was written by Jostein Gaarder, a schoolteacher for use in his class, became a classic and got translated into several languages.

When you read a lot, certain things happen spontaneously. You learn to read faster and faster. That is because you learn to scan the lines instead of reading every word. Actually,  I began to scan without even knowing, until I learnt that this is the method taught in courses on speed-reading.

There is no inherent benefit to speed reading. Obviously, you cannot do that if you are reading course materials. When you are reading for pleasure, enjoying the language and style of the author, you want to read slowly and savor. Speed reading is meant for executives who have to read lengthy reports. We do not want to hurry and skip. The point is that when you read a lot, you tend to read faster because of practice. You do not miss the main points. In fact, I have found that after this many years, my eye seems to catch critical words and phrases in any page. I have learnt without knowing how to scan a passage and a page.

This leads to another point or two. As years advance, you are reading faster and faster and that means you read more books and journals. You also get time to go back and read some books you want to dive into. When you do that second time (or third time as I have done with some books like Sivakamiyin Sabatham and Death of Ivan Ilyich), you catch a few ideas, phrases and references you missed during the first read.  

While reading new authors, I am also looking for newer angles to old ideas and for newer ideas, as it happened recently to me while reading The Four Quartets by T S Eliot for the second time. I also try to relate the style and content of the current author (T S Eliot) I am reading to those by other scholars and poets I have read in the past. During my second reading I found that what Eliot says about time and the present moment to the ideas Buddha presented two thousand years back. This ability to correlate and compare writings by several authors becomes easy when you read some of the classics a second time. This is another advantage of consistent reading habits. This kind of correlation between what you are currently reading and correlating with ideas you have read in other books also improves your memory.

You become a life-long reader and therefore a life-long learner.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 2


Just like any other skill, reading skill can be developed. First step in the process is setting up a routine and sticking with it. For example, I spend the first hour of the day in reading (after meditation and coffee). The other day I added up the number of hours I would have read in the past 40 years. It is about 14,600 hours! Can you imagine how much more one can read if we include other opportunities to read such as during holidays, during travel or when waiting for an appointment?

The main point is making a habit and making time for it. I prefer mornings since it is usually quiet, and the mind is fresh. Fortunately, my wife was also a voracious reader, and we will sit and read separately in our own favorite corners in the mornings – me at the dining table and she on any seat close to a window.

You may be a bed-time reader or may have some other favorite time and place. That is OK. But it must become a habit, and not something for which you have “to find” time. Reading in bed is not my favorite. I do not want to make reading as an aid to sleeping. Many folks indeed fall asleep reading. If that is what you like to do, that should be fine. Sitting up seems to be better for being alert and awake. Curling up in a couch with a book is even better.

It is true that there is so much to read. But we have a whole lifetime ahead. An interesting episode recounted by Bill Moyers in his Introduction to the book on The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Doubleday NY 1988, page xv) in which a student at Sarah Lawrence College was overwhelmed by the weight of reading assignments Joseph Campbell gave each week. She asked him how he expects the students to complete all the assignment in a week when they have so many assignments from other courses they were taking. Joseph Campbell’s answer was: “I am astonished you tried. You have the rest of life to do the reading”.

Reading school assignments is a different thing. I wish to focus on reading for our own pleasure and benefit. Do you like to read to just pass or "kill time"? Do you wish to read for the sheer joy of reading? Are you interested in the substance or the topic of the book or the language or the style of writing of the author? Do you like history? Biography? History? Philosophy? For knowledge? Looking for different points of view? Do you keep to one genre or are you open to several? Do you read books in different languages?

In the beginning, I read several topics since I did not know what my interests were. But I found myself interested in all topics – science and spirituality, history and language, cultures and anthropology, of course medicine. Earlier in life I read in my mother tongue(Tamizh) only. When I started reading English, I zoned in on detectives (Sherlock Holmes) and silly humor (P G Wodehouse) like many folks in my age group. Eventually I started reading on several topics.

When I came to this country in 1958 and lived here for five years with practically no contact with Indian culture and languages, I was afraid I will forget Tamizh and Sanskrit. Therefore, I was always reading one non-medical book each in English, Tamizh and Sanskrit, at any one time. Of course, I was also reading books and journals in medicine. Since I was single, lived in a hospital dorm and had no household responsibilities, I had plenty of time.

Over the years, after having read many novels, by current authors and those who lived in earlier era, I found that there are very few novels with substance. Most novels, particularly the modern ones have no or very little message. Those with a message start preaching. I have become very choosy. I would rather read the classics of famous authors from bygone era than reading books on the best seller lists. Ramaa used to call me a “snob” and I agree!

I have rough time with poetry, particularly English poetry, although I do read them with external help such as a critical review by a scholar. For example, T S Eliot’s The Four Quartets is a classic and Rev. J.C. Wood’s commentary was very helpful in understanding it. One will definitely need help to read old Tamizh classic poetry such as Manimekalai. Some of the modern English poems are easier to understand such as those by William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost.

It is certainly understandable if you find yourself attracted to certain genre of writing or certain authors. Interest changes over time. There is also more time after retirement. So why not expand the horizon? For example, recently I was introduced to writing by  Tony Hillerman, whose detective novels are all located in the Native American territory around New Mexico and Colorado. The plots are excellent. The writing is excellent. In the process of reading these novels I learnt a whole lot about Native American Culture.

I read often for useful information which will open my mind to newer topics or to new angles in old topics. Of course, the definition of the word “useful” can be challenged. But I also read for pleasure, like anyone else. I enjoy reading books for elegant use of language (Kalki and Kannadasan), beautiful ideas (Pudumaipitthan, Paulo Coelho), silly humor (P G Wodehouse, Henry Cecil, Tom Sharpe). Norton Juster’s book “The Phantom Tollbooth” written for children is a modern classic on the use of English language and my children introduced me to it. I like to read about new way of seeing things (Cosmocomics by Italo Calvino and Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), history wrapped in fiction (Kalki’s books, James Michener’s The Source, Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World) and books with some great message (Death of Ivan Ilyich).

I do not like to read single issue books commonly found in the best seller lists. My reasons are: They take one issue and make one point, which can be expressed easily in an essay. But the authors seem to elaborate this one idea with several examples to fill a specified number of pages. They often do not  mention the disadvantages of their point of view and other points of view on that topic. In short, they are one-sided.