Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia).
He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia."
Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill.
This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.
Modern imaging techniques like functional Magnetic Resonance
Imaging ( f MRI) enable scientists to
study the human brain in real time. Areas of the brain that are active would
“light up” when the subject perform a function or activity, giving us an idea the
parts of the brain involved. Likewise, when the part of the brain that should
light up when doing a certain activity but does not in a particular person
doing that same activity, that also tells us something of the abnormality in
that person’s brain. This particular observation is highly relevant in such
conditions as autism.
principle of f MRI is based on
changes in local blood flow in the brain that correlates with increased nerve
cell activities. This increased flow alters the ratio of the oxygenated
(unused) hemoglobin pigment versus the deoxygenated (used), which is picked up
by the f MRI.
fascinating studies on babies and also adults across cultures that help us
better understand the workings of the human brain.
The brain is unique in that it
is far from fully developed at birth. It has considerable post-birth growth,
making the birth process pivotal as interferences during it impacts the brain’s
subsequent development. There are many examples of the tragic consequences on
brain development from birth complications. Both nature and nurture influence
genetic factors predominate, as with chromosomal abnormalities. Environmental
factors like lack of essential vitamins (folic acid) and nutrients or the
presence of toxins (lead, infection) could also be consequential.
brain has the same number of neurons as the adult’s. These neurons continue
making their connections with each other (synapses) after birth, a process
called synaptic growth. This is influenced by both nature (primarily genetic)
and nurture (the baby’s physical and emotional experiences). Such activities
like hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting stimulate the growth of
these neural connections.
pathway is used frequently, the brain recognizes its importance and covers the
nerve cell branches with a fatty myelin sheath to insulate it so the impulses
would travel faster and not stray, as well as to protect the nerve fiber. This
myelination process is most dynamic up until adolescence but continues on
though much more slowly into adulthood.
with synaptic growth is another process both complementary and in the opposite
direction, that of synaptic pruning. Those connections not used will atrophy,
as illustrated by the experiments on suturing shut the eyes of kittens cited
three theories on brain development. First, the maturational perspective,
postulates that brain development depends on the natural maturation process of
its various parts and largely determined by nature. The environmental role
would be restricted to only interference or acceleration of that maturation
process. The child for example, would not learn to control its sphincters until
the appropriate parts of the brain controlling those functions are mature (at
about three or four years); likewise, learning to talk or walk (at about two).
the interactive specialization theory. Brain development (especially postnatal)
involves organizing interactions between the different parts of the brain where
the development (or lack) of one part affects the others. Meaning, primarily a
process of integration. The studies on children blinded at birth with cataracts
and later given sight-restoring surgery support this contention. The child does
not “see” right after the surgery but has to learn it.
is the skill-learning hypothesis. Imaging studies indicate that when children
learn new skills, like walking, the frontal cortex (“higher” part) of the brain
is activated. As they become facile, the active part shifts more posterior. The
inference is that the frontal cortex is concerned with learning, but once that
skill has become automatic (as with walking), brain activity shifts to the
back, the non-thinking part.
learn a new skill like playing a musical instrument, the front part of our
brain would be active. Later when we have mastered it, the brain activity would
shift to a more posterior part of the brain, from the learning to the routine
center as it were.
is also supported by the findings that children who receive little social
stimulation or opportunities to explore their world have 20 to 30 percent
smaller brains than children of comparable age. Similarly, children exposed to
prolonged stress, as with abuse or trauma, will have altered brain function as
a consequence of that constant high level of the stress hormone, cortisol. They
have difficulty developing warm and secure relationships. We saw this with
Harlow’s baby monkeys.
the earlier nature-nurture dichotomy and the consequent heated controversies were
misplaced. Instead we have a complex interplay of the two, one influencing and
in turn being influenced by the other. It is a dynamic as well as adaptive
development in modern genetics is epigenetics. Briefly explained, it is the
inheritance of traits that are not due to changes in one’s underlying genes but
induced by alterations in our environment. In traditional biology, only genetic
changes are inherited; that still holds true. However, changes in the
environment (like stress, starvation, exposure to drugs and chemicals) could
alter how those genes would be expressed (phenotype), and then those changes
would be passed on to the next generation. The gene itself is unchanged, only
concept, it is an old one, predating Darwin, as with Lamark using it to explain
the long neck of giraffes. The modern concept, with its understanding at the
molecular level and integrating it with existing knowledge of DNAs, is very
only the codes for proteins, and only that. Proteins are complex molecules, and
how they function is influenced by its final shape or conformation even though
the molecule itself is unchanged. Gene expression also depends on its conformations,
and that in turn is influenced by its microenvironment.
the “simple” water molecule, one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. Imagine a gene
coding for it. At room temperature that chemical as water could be used to
erode a slope; at higher temperatures as steam, to power turbines to produce
electricity; at low temperatures as in the Arctic, it could crush the ships’ steel
hulls. Same code for the same molecule, but with different environment you get
vastly different consequences.
similar with the workings of our genes. Depending on their conformations (shapes),
different parts have different polarities, some more positive, others negative.
Chemicals like the stress hormone cortisol has varying own polarities on its
molecules. They would be attracted to the opposite polar parts of the genes,
thus altering their shapes ever so subtly to the extent that the genes could
not be expressed. This change in conformation would then be transferred to the next
generation such that even though it has the genes, they are not expressed,
which is the same thing as not having the genes.
with rats showed that when the mother licked its babies frequently, they grew
up to be contented and relaxed. Those babies in turn would have babies that
were also contented and relaxed, and would lick their own babies frequently,
thus perpetuating the transmission. Meanwhile those mothers that did not lick or
prevented from licking their babies would have stressed babies. They in turn
would not lick their young and produce yet another generation of stressed
babies, and the cycle continues. The genes themselves have not changed rather
the behaviors of the mother would be transmitted through the mechanism of
epigenes to the next generation, influencing whether those genes would be
rearing practices (and that would include what and how we feed as well as nurture
our babies) vary with culture. Those practices, as with the licking of rat babies,
affect our epigenome, and we pass that on to the next generation.
simply, we pass on through our biological mechanisms not only our genes (our
nature) but also our cultural practices (nurture) through our epigenomes.
major period of change is during adolescence. Again, the environment is crucial.
This impact is consequential and defining enough to merit the designation of
the “adolescent brain.” Nothing has changed with respect to the “nature”
component, only the environment. One is internal, the surge of new hormones
(primarily sex hormones) and the other, external, the cultural rites of
passage. The effect on the brain at puberty however is not as critical though
no less profound as with during the first few years.
different parts of the brain develop at different rates. The subcortical limbic
system that controls emotions develops much faster than the cortical part, the
“rational” center. Stated in Freudian language, the id maturing before the
superego. Thus, teenagers are predisposed to impulsive and dangerous behaviors.
Insights from studies of the adolescent brain have tremendous impact on the
criminal justice system, questioning the basic premise of culpability and
liability with these teenagers.
California, when a child is involved in an accident it is never at fault; it is
always the adult’s. Likewise, the criminal records of juveniles are sealed or
destroyed once they reach a certain age, based on the same principle.
Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind,
published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was
released in January 2016.
The behaviors of others have a profound impact on us. If
those “others” are authority figures or have influence over us (leaders, ulamas,
teachers, parents), the impact is magnified. It would not take much especially
in the absence of dissenting views for us to internalize the “consensus.” This
is true of individuals as well as society.
experiment with preschool children. They were given a marshmallow with
instructions that if they were not to eat it right away, they would be rewarded
with another one 15 minutes later. Imagine putting temptations in front of
fearsome fours! Amazingly, about a third of the children were able to restrain
themselves. The rest would succumb, with a few giving up just shy of the
experiment demonstrated that there are individual differences to delayed
gratification (or reactions to temptations) and that these could be discerned
as early as the preschool age. The other conclusion was that young children did
not always seek immediate gratification. If those were the only findings, the
study would not have been “one of the most successful behavioral experiments.”
years later when those kids were of college age, the lead experimenter, picking
up on anecdotal accounts on those earlier participants, did a follow-up study. Those
kids who succeeded in deferring eating their marshmallows did better
academically and had less disciplinary problems in school. Indeed, delay in
eating their marshmallow was a better predictor of SAT scores (scholastic
achievement) than IQ tests or the parents’ educational level!
The other valuable insight came not
from the data but from observing the children. The “impulse controlled” kids
were busy distracting themselves. They sang, sat on their hands (lest they be
tempted to grab the marshmallow), closed their eyes, or played with their clothes.
dynamics of the children closing their eyes were akin to Ulysses making his
sailors stuff bees wax into their ears so they would not be tempted by the
Sirens’ melodious songs. Those children faced as much internal tension in
restraining themselves as Ulysses did in tying himself to a mast lest he too
would succumb to the call of the Sirens.*
It is not
enough to tell children or anyone to just restrain themselves, as in “Just Say
No to Drugs!” campaign. We must also train them to distract themselves by
engaging in other activities.
original study involved preschool children from the Stanford community, meaning,
above average in income, intellect, and social class. That study in turn was
stimulated by an earlier Jamaican one on racial stereotypes Blacks and East
Indians there had of each other. The Indians viewed Blacks as impulsive
hedonists, always living for the present and never thinking of the future. The
Blacks thought the Indians did not know how to live, stuffed their money under
the mattress, and never enjoyed themselves. Sounds uncomfortably familiar to
Malaysians! In that study the experimenter substituted chocolate bars for
revealed that stereotyping correlated more with social class and less with
race, a finding that should interest Malaysians.
This ability to delay
gratification has vast implications. If a culture is predisposed to immediate
gratification, it would be unable to save for future needs. Economists tell us
that capital formation (achieved through savings, meaning, delayed
gratification) is key to economic development.
The insight from the marshmallow
study explains some incomprehensible patterns of behavior. For example, those
who come upon wealth through inheritance or lottery rarely keep it while those
who acquire it through hard work do.
those FELDA farmers who became instant millionaires when their land was
acquired for the new Sepang Airport. A few years later they were back to being
poor farmers. On the other hand, an entrepreneur who built a successful business
keeps his wealth.
FELDA farmers were kids who could not resist their marshmallows. They did not
preoccupy or distract themselves from their treats. The entrepreneur on the
other hand is still preoccupied with his business. The fact that he is making good
money (meaning, well rewarded) is further gratification for him, a validation of
his work and inspiring him to continue.
the late Steve Jobs. When forced to resign from Apple, he could have just
enjoyed the tons of money he had made. Instead he busied himself starting another
enterprise. Consumed with his new company he had no time to even consider
squandering his wealth. In terms of psychological dynamics, his involvement
with NeXT (his new enterprise) was the equivalent of the little girl singing to
distract herself from her marshmallow.
weakness to squander easily-acquired or windfall wealth is not unique to FELDA
farmers. Winners of lotteries and liability suits in America suffer the same
fate; likewise, newly-rich Malays who acquire their wealth through corruption,
rent-seeking activities, or political patronage. Once they are out of the
lucrative loop, their wealth dissipates and they are back patronizing warong kopi instead of five-star
Advertisers take full advantage of
our propensity for immediate gratification. Consider home mortgages. Traditionally,
if you have a mortgage of $150K you still owe that amount even if the house has
doubled in value. That restrains your spending.
Enter the concept of home equity.
With slick advertising, bankers would have you believe that you do not owe
$150K rather that you have an equity, the difference between the house value
and the mortgage. Now you feel rich and be inclined to spend on lavish
vacations and fancy cars, forgetting that you are spending borrowed funds.
were very effective in making homeowners eat their marshmallows right away, for
the value and number of home equity loans quickly ballooned. That led to a boom
not only for equity mortgage lenders but also purveyors of consumer goods and
home equity loans later, and we have a housing bust. When property values
dropped, those mortgages and equity loans went underwater, triggering the 2007
American financial crisis that rivaled the Great Depression.
As much of this desire for instant
gratification is learned, we could just as well unlearn it. Or to put it in the
context of modern neuroscience, we can carve new neural networks so the old
nonproductive ones could be bypassed or “synaptically pruned” (discarded).
Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a
system of charter schools in New York, is going beyond the traditional 3Rs by
incorporating much of the insights from the marshmallow studies in its
curriculum. To the school, character matters, and one of the fundamental
character strengths which the school instills is self-control in their students,
for them to learn to not devour their
marshmallows right away.
We can teach that to young and old. When
Muslims fast, we practice exactly that–self-restraint, not just for 15 minutes
but the whole day. We do that every Ramadan. However, this important lesson in
self-restraint is lost with our preoccupation on the rituals of fasting.
Back to those now poor FELDA
farmers, much could have been done so they would not devour their marshmallows
(spend their money) right away. One would be to have a structured distribution
instead of a lump sum payment, with the principal deposited in Tabung Haji, for
example. Had that been done, combined with competent and sensible financial
advice, those FELDA farmers would still be enjoying their bounty today. Pension
funds are not distributed as a lump sum but converted to an annuity-like
distribution to last your expected lifetime. Likewise, enlightened American judges
now structure the payouts to successful plaintiffs over a period of time.
As can be
seen, the insights from human psychology experiments, even seemingly simple ones
involving four-year olds, can have profound implications and practical
Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind,
published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was
released in January 2016.
* In Greek
mythology, the Sirens are mermaid-like seductresses with melodious voices who
lured sailors to shipwreck onto a rocky coast.