Earlier in Chapter 3 of Chandogya Upanishad, it is said that Man himself is the Yagya. “Purusho Vaava yajna” (3 -16). He has to do Mantra recitation every day throughout his life. By that his creativity is not reduced, but his Ayush – longevity is increased. This chapter details how the first 24 years of one’s life is protected by Gayatri; the next 44 years by Trishtup and further 48 years by Jagati. In all these 3 phases one is protected against diseases. MahIdasa, known as Aitareya, the son of Itara lived by this recitation for 116 years free of diseases. (Read here for Shankara Bhashya on these verses)
On the Indology List today, James Hartzell, of the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences at the University of Trento, Italy, announced the publication of a groundbreaking paper on changes in the brain structure of Vedic reciters.
With James' permission, i repost his post in full below, which includes a link to the important paper just published by James and his collaborators:
"Brains of visual memory specialists show anatomical differences in language, memory and visual systems"
A quick link to the full paper here: http://tinyurl.com/pg5sj7t
After giving James' post verbatim below, I add a few comments on this meticulous article -- admittingthat I'm green with envy reading it. Way back in 2000, on the old Indology List, we had a long discussion of how rote memorization of texts by premodern reciters changed brain structure.
At one point I speculated on one way to test that idea. Little did I imagine at the time that someone would actually have the chance to do that. Great work, James et al.!
Here is james' post. You can see some of the future here: this is cultural neuroscience at its best.
Originally published on 5 August 2015 on the Indology List:
Herewith a link to the published (in Neuroimage, open access), peer-reviewed study we did of the brain structure of Delhi-area, qualified Yajurveda Pandits from government Vedic schools. I hope this may be of some interest and/or use to some members of the list.
We found very large changes in the grey matter (neuronal tissue) of the Yajurveda Pandits' brains. The evidence we found strongly suggests that 7-10 years of intensive, professional-level training in memorizing and reciting the Yajurveda Samhita (and related texts) is associated with some of the largest changes in brain structure ever reported for a cross-sectional study (i.e. one that compares two closely matched groups, here two groups that differ primarily in the Yajurveda training).
Article Title: Brains of verbal memory specialists show anatomical differences in language, memory and visual systems
Authors: James F. Hartzell, Ben Davis, David Melcher, Gabriele Miceli, Jorge Jovicich, Tanmay Nath, Nandini Chatterjee Singh, Uri Hasson
• We compared professional Sanskrit verbal memory specialists and well-matched controls.
• We measured cortical thickness (CT), gray matter density (GM), and gyrification (LGI).
• Pandits showed increases in CT and GM in lateral temporal cortices.
• Pandits showed relative decrease in subcortical GM and occipital LGI.
• Findings suggest brain organization supporting intensive oral memorization/recitation.
We studied a group of verbal memory specialists to determine whether intensive oral text memory is associated with structural features of hippocampal and lateral-temporal regions implicated in language processing. Professional Vedic Sanskrit Pandits in India train from childhood for around 10 years in an ancient, formalized tradition of oral Sanskrit text memorization and recitation, mastering the exact pronunciation and invariant content of multiple 40,000–100,000 word oral texts. We conducted structural analysis of gray matter density, cortical thickness, local gyrification, and white matter structure, relative to matched controls. We found massive gray matter density and cortical thickness increases in Pandit brains in language, memory and visual systems, including i) bilateral lateral temporal cortices and ii) the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, regions associated with long and short-term memory. Differences in hippocampal morphometry matched those previously documented for expert spatial navigators and individuals with good verbal working memory. The findings provide unique insight into the brain organization implementing formalized oral knowledge systems.
This is the first of two papers from my current PhD project in Cognitive Neuroscience. The second paper will examine in detail what preliminary evidence suggests are extensive differences in the white matter (neuronal axon) tracts in the Pandit brains compared to controls.
We are, by the way, actively seeking postdoctoral funding to continue the project -- our PhD funding finishes in October 2015. Any suggestions for potential funding sources are most welcome (off-list), as are any questions about the published work (either on- or off-list).
James Hartzell, PhD
Center for Mind/Brain Sciences (CIMeC)
The University of Trento, Italy
End of James' post.
Personally, I first speculated about expected changes in brain structure in premodern reciters back in a book (_Syncretism in the West: Pico's 900 Theses_, p. 135) published way back in 1998.
In 2000 on the original Indology List (which was closed at the end of that year) a number of us (including James, as I saw today) discussed that issue theoretically in a long thread on brain structure and premodern reciters and memorizers -- not only in premodern India, but in China and the West as well.
Here is one of the last posts in that thread, in which I speculated (as i did in my earlier book) that you could expect heavily dampened originality in the thought patterns of premodern reciters simply due to the needs of the continuous overwriting of (plastic) neural networks required due to the process of rote memorization.
The test here proposed involved use of the Wisconsin Card Sorting test -- a standard neuropsychological test of flexibility in human thinking -- not the sophisticated brain imaging techniques used by James' group:
Before dropping out of this thread myself, I'd like to raise a
question that takes the discussion in a very different direction. It
involves a matter that has troubled me for the last decade. Scholars
normally focus on the *positive* aspects of memorizing canonical texts
-- on faithful oral transmittal, etc. But an equally important, but
ignored, question concerns the *negative* neuropsychological and
cultural consequences in premodern societies of intense memorization
of texts. A number of studies of famous memonists suggest that the
construction of extraordinary memories comes at a cost: loss of
creativity. Many memorists (like Luria's famous subject [Solomon] Sherishevskii) apparently perform subnormally when it comes to generalizing
knowledge, with their deficits arising directly from their continuous
rehearsal of concrete data. Luria, for example, notes that
Sherishevskii had difficulty escaping his concrete memories, "making
it impossible for him to cross that 'accursed' threshold to a higher
level of thought" (1968: 133). Thompson et al. note something similar
about Rajan Srinivasan Mahadevan, who on exams tended to paraphrase
lecturer's words (like thousands of undergraduates I've taught!) and
had great difficulty creating anything new. The implication is that
Rajan was drowning in his concrete memories.
Shifting to the historical level, I've always wondered if the typical
overreliance of scholastic writers on "authority" in general wasn't
*directly* related to the amount of time they spent memorizing texts.
Recent studies of neural conditioning (e.g., Michael Merzenich's
famous experiments involving neural plasticity) would seem to confirm
It is not often that historians can test ideas in the laboratory, but
this may be an exception. Is there anyone on this List who has access
to virtuoso Vedic reciters (I don't) and is capable of administering
to them standard neuropsychological batteries, including above all the
Wisconsin Card Sorting Test? (The Wisconsin Card Sorting Test is a
standard measure of flexibility in thinking; poor performance on it
indicates problems in frontal-lobe functioning.) To end my part in
this thread with a testable prediction: I would predict that anyone
capable of reciting any one of the four Vedas (or any similar canon)
verbatim would do subnormally on tests like these. Verification of
this prediction would have important historical implications, to say
the least, given the fact that the majority of premodern intellectuals
spent an inordinate amount of time memorizing texts. (If anyone gets a
paper out of this into _Science_ or _Nature_ on this, please sneak me
in as 10th author.)
Again, great work James! As I've often argued on this list and in lectures and many publications over the years, it is inevitable that cultural and neurobiological studies will eventually meet in revolutionary ways.
James' new paper is a case in point.