The ‘Sanskrit effect’

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Considerable excitement has been triggered through email and social media across India due to a recent “observation” reported by one Dr James Hartzell in the journal Scientific American. This neuroscientist has coined the term “The Sanskrit effect.” He writes that memorising Vedic mantras increases the size of brain regions associated with cognitive function such as memory (both short-term and long-term). He writes in his report that Indian tradition holds that rigorously memorising and reciting mantras enhances memory and thinking. In order to test this idea, Hartzell (and his colleagues from the University of Trento in Italy) teamed up with Dr Tanmay Nath and Dr Nandini Chatterjee Singh of the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC) at Manesar in Haryana. They chose to study 42 volunteers — 21 professionally qualified Sanskrit Pandits (aged around 22) who have been trained full-time daily for 7 years (total of over 10,000 hrs) in their childhood reciting the Shukla Yajurveda. These Pandits were recruited from Vedic Pandit schools in Delhi. As control, they chose 21 age-matched males, students from a nearby college.

Brain imaging

The brains of all the 42 participants were examined using the method called structural magnetic resonance, with the magnetic resonance imaging instrument at NBRC. This method allows the study of the size and shape of individual parts of brain. The so called grey matter (GM) of the brain is a region full of neuronal cells, and contains areas involved in muscle control, sensory perception, memory, emotions, speech and decisionmaking. And connected it to it is white matter (WM) — bundles of nerve cells that carry signals to GM. The hippocampus is a small organ located within the central region of the brain, and it registers and regulates emotions associated with memory (particularly long-term memory) and has front and back sections. The back part appears associated with better memory and supports recollection of memory. And the cortex, which is the outermost layer surrounding the brain (essentially a cover or envelope), with its tightly packed nerve cells, is responsible for higher thought processes such as decision making.

The Indo-Italian team analysed the brain regions of the 21 Pandits and 21 control volunteers and found some remarkable differences between the two. They found the grey matter in Pandits to be denser and the cortex thicker than in ‘controls’, and the hippocampus regions, associated with long- and short-term memory was more pronounced. (Interested readers can access this paper free at <http:/dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.07.029>). Indeed, a similar experiment, again using Vedic Pandits (this time in Houston, TX, USA), was done earlier by Dr Giridhar Kalamangalam and T. M. Ellmore (accessible free in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2014 Oct 20;8:833. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00833. eCollection 2014), and they too noted thicker cortex in the Pandits than in controls.

Importantly, these changes in the brain are not temporary but stay for long. That means that the power of memory, decisionmaking, sensory perception and such would last longer in those who were trained earlier. Dr Danker and Dr Anderson, who were studying this aspect, actually titled their 2010 review as “The ghosts of brain states past; remembering reactivates the brain regions engaged during coding” (Psychol. Bull., 136, 87-102. doi: 10.1037/a0017937). Here coding refers to the earlier rigorous practice and memorising.

Not special to Sanskrit

It is also important to realise that one need not attach any special power to Shukla Yajurveda as a brain enhancer. Fifty years ago, a French scientist noted that Christian monks who chanted the Gregorian Chants have exceptional memory (though no brain scanning methods were available at that time). Further, it need not be verbal or religious chanting at all. It could be visual and spatial training too. Dr Eleanor Maguire and colleagues studied the brain structures of the taxi drivers of London, each one having gone through a vigorous and extensive course called “The Knowledge.” In this course, each driver is taught and had to memorise the spatial location of every street, monument and tourist spot across greater London before being given a taxi driver license. He needs no GPS; it is all in his hippocampus, GM and cortex. (Interested readers may access Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2000 Apr 11; 97(8): 4398–4403. doi: 10.1073/pnas.070039597). One is also reminded of how the multiplication tables we had learnt by rote in primary school in India comes in handy decades later when we go shopping in stores.

(Incidentally, several years ago, a scientist claimed that listening to the music of the European composer Mozart helps in memory and smartness and termed this the “Mozart Effect”. School children were asked to do some tasks while listening to Mozart, and they did better than when Mozart was not played. This led a rush by parents to music stores to buy and play Mozart to their children. Soon enough, it was found that the effect lasts only when the music was played; the kids felt more relaxed and smoothed; after the music stopped, the effect vanished. The Mozart effect did not last long).

Systemic exercise

These studies also raise the possibility that we may exert or exercise our brains by doing “memory training,” even during later life when we are old, and need not have been Pandits, Gregorian monks or London cabbies. Indeed, the paper by A. Engwig and colleagues talks about how systemic mental exercise may induce short-term structural change in the ageing brain (in the journal Neuroimage in 2010; short summary accessible at doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.05.041). They show memory trainees to have increased cortical thickness than controls do. Just as physical exercise helps our brawn, mental exercise helps our brain. So, let us seniors do word puzzles and games, learn (relearn) languages, practice music, chant Gregorian or Vedic texts (but in the proper chanda or metre), and our brains can still be young.

 

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