By Mahesh Nayak
Mangaluru, July 1, 2015: Acquiring the ability to see beyond closed doors has been a much cherished dream of mankind. Ostensibly, one can imagine the spooks and gizmo geeks at CIA HQ burning the midnight oil endlessly trying to achieve this breakthrough – all in vain of course. And in the process, draining public money by the million too! Now relax, achche din have truly arrived. For as little Rs. 25,000/- an outfit called ‘Spoorthi MBM Foundation’ has come forward to transform your kid into a whizzkid and do the impossible – that is to actually see in spite of being blindfolded.
So have they finally cracked the secret of seeing what the human eye cannot? Quite so, if you go by the claims made in Spoorthi’s publicity posters and advertisements. For the record, Spoorthi MBM Foundation is just small fry – a mere local franchisee - in a competitive market teeming with several players. They go by various aliases like Super Brain, Third Eye, Genius Mind Development, Abha International Academy and Ingenius. But all of them are into the same business. Spoorthi’s own affiliates are MBM Midbrain Master Training Center, a Bangalore based firm. Go to their website, and you’ll find elaborate descriptions of the scientific process by which it becomes possible for kids trained by them to perform the miraculous feat of seeing with a blindfold on. If its bad grammar doesn’t put you off, then you will also learn that it offers an impressive menu of programmes like ESP Basic Level Course, ESP Photo graphic Memory, ESP Enhancement Program Advance Level and ESP Quantum Speed Reading. ‘ESP’, in case you did not know it, is an abbreviation for ‘Extra Sensory Perception’ – the ability to gather external information without the help of our five known senses.
According to their website, the brain is equally divided into ‘Right’ brain and ‘Left’ brain. The portion between these two halves is the ‘Midbrain’ or ‘Interbrain’. It further states that the interbrain is awakened by stimulating a hormonal discharge. Following is a reproduction of its rationale for mid brain activation:
“In the human body, it is the pituitary gland that regulates the hormone secretions and this function has to be awakened. For this, it is necessary to activate the neighbouring pineal body. The pineal body secretes two hormones: melatonin and serotonin. The secretion of melatonin increases in the dark and decreases when it is bright.
Serotonin is said to be very closely related to the evolution of species and has the capacity to increase the intelligence of the right brain. Since the midbrain is responsible for communication with the left and right hemispheres of the brain, the process of “activating” the midbrain will result in better communication with the left and right hemispheres.
As individuals grow older, the brain has the tendency to automatically assign one hemisphere of the brain to become more dominant in performing certain tasks (a process known as lateralisation). This means we end up using much less of our brain than we actually could! The process of “activating” the midbrain reverses this trend and allows us to use our brain more efficiently, hence the improvement in cognitive abilities. Another interesting effect of midbrain activation that it allows children to sense the visual properties of objects without actually seeing them with their eyes (blindfolded).”
MBM’s chosen means of ‘activating’ the midbrain is through eye ball exercise, 3D image games, meditation, games and dance activities, ‘Brain Gym’ exercises and so on. Liberal sprinkling of high sounding words like neural network, sensory, sensitizing, motor system and cognitive system gives it a knowledgeable and authoritative feel. The outfit also claims a Korean lineage and hails one Japanese Professor Makoto Shichida as a pioneer in this field.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. MBM’s ultimate claim to fame is the live demo, whereby their protégés baffle you with their magical ability to accurately tell you the color of objects and perform other amazing feats while blindfolded. Proud parents beam on the fact that their child has acquired genius level mental prowess. Stuff like this never fails to get good press and the parents too will not miss an opportunity to brag and tell all about how smart their kid has lately become. All this only serves to push other parents to make a beeline for local midbrain activation centre. Thereby becoming unwitting accessories in a game of … fraud!
The starting point: Spoorthi MBM Foundation’s publicity banners in Mangalore
The man who first smelled foul play and raised the alarm was Professor Narendra Nayak, President of Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA). A lifelong skeptic, Professor Nayak is perhaps the country’s best known myth buster and exposing miracles is his pet project. While not chasing ghosts and demons, he will be found busy unmasking evil god men, astrologers, charlatans and other phonies who are out to exploit the gullible public. He is famous for his grand offer of a cash prize of Rs. 5 lakh for any contender who can display supernatural powers of any kind under controlled conditions. The amount remains unclaimed to date. Even while on a quiet evening walk, his sharp eye will be always on the lookout for quacks, fakes, imposters and those making tall claims for commercial gain. It was on one such occasion that the retired biochemistry teacher noticed Spoorthi MBM Foundation’s advertising poster soliciting kids for programmes with names like ESP Photographic Memory and ESP Quantum Speed Reading. To be precise what caught his eye was the infamous ‘ESP’ prefix attached to every course name.
Despite its high sounding feel, ‘ESP” is a term that enjoys well deserved notoriety in the scientific world. First coined by Prof. J. B. Rhine of Duke’s University, USA, it stands for ‘Extra Sensory Perception’ and it became a household phrase with the publication of his book of the same name in 1934. Prof. Rhine and his wife Louisa were very creative in coining new terms and also gave us ‘parapsychology’, which purports to be a branch of psychology dealing with supernatural psychic phenomena. Rhine devised elaborate card games using specially designed playing cards for conducting his experiments to study ESP. While his assertions were sensational, his legacy is rather dubious as independent investigations have consistently failed to repeat his findings or deliver satisfactory results.
Prof. Narendra Nayak demonstrating the futility of blindfold reading at a mass awareness meet
Hence alerted by the term ‘ESP’, Professor Nayak suspected a scam and renewed his offer: He threw a challenge to the local franchisees to prove their claims under foolproof conditions. Though the franchisee initially agreed, he later panicked and referred the matter to the franchise owners in Bangalore. In a spirited show of open door policy the franchise owners not only furnished their version of the scientific basis for blindfold reading, but also invited the professor to Bangalore for their trump card: the Demo! But Professor Nayak is no stranger to such disarming openness. After dealing with miracle mongers of all types for the better part of his life, he is well versed in their methods.
“My first brush with MBM was about an year ago when one of the members of the audience at an interaction for children had challenged to make me a pauper by making a child read the number of a sealed currency note,” says Prof. Nayak, “That was in response to a challenge for those having supernatural powers — one of which is to read the serial number of a sealed currency note. MBM claims that children who have completed their course can see up to hundreds of kilometers. Though a year has elapsed numerous attempts on my part to achieve bankruptcy have come to a naught, as he has not obliged me so far! So when MBM set foot in Mangalore in September, 2014 I renewed my challenge to them.”
Professor Nayak very well knew that though MBM projected itself to be open-minded and upfront about his challenge, they would in fact be evasive and he would encounter hurdles in various forms. Predictably the open challenge failed to reach its logical conclusion.
“They invited me for a live demo at Bengaluru and as I did not have the time I told them that two of my friends would attend,” says Professor Nayak, “We sent two activists from Bangalore, Dolly Koshy and Atheeb, to visit their premises on the 1st of March. They were not allowed to investigate any of the children, they were prevented from questioning them, and were not allowed to take any photographs. The famous blindfolded reading technique was shown to them, and when Dolly performed the same, she was accused of peeking through the gap between the nose and eyes. When Dolly pointed out to them that it was the same thing that was being done by the children, she was attacked!”
Nayak is convinced that the entire idea of midbrain activation is hogwash. The claim to impart or develop supernatural powers is something that he has often come across in his myth busting career. In almost every case, some form of cunning, trickery or a pre-existing weakness in the target is used to achieve the desired spectacular effect. It could be something as simple as viewing through a gap in the blindfold or something more sophisticated as signaling by accomplices or taking cues from the sensory or human environment. “I made some queries with psychiatrists, child psychologists, educationists and people who train specially talented children,” says Nayak, “Not even one of them has endorsed this concept.”
Hence Narendra Nayak decided to launch a nationwide campaign to raise public awareness and combat the menace of this fraud. Then followed a series of public awareness meetings at various cities like Bangalore, Mysore, Calicut, Erode, Bhopal and Itarsi. The campaign continues in a big way and at each meeting Narendra Nayak gives a demonstration of how blindfolded reading is impossible under test conditions where the eyes are completed sealed from all sources of light and even the human and sensory environment is controlled by the investigator.
But what worries Nayak and his rationalist friends is not just that a mega level fraud is taking place, but rather, what it does to the little kids. “Little children are encouraged to cheat and lie in order to defend a falsehood,” he rues. Now Nayak has doubled his reward. He has offered two prizes of Rs. 5 lakhs each and the prize money is maintained in separate bank accounts. Says Professor Narendra Nayak: “Since their banners all over the city promise that it is not a superstition, we would be glad to put their claims to the test of reason — in fact two of them — one on ESP brain window where contestants identify colours and letters without ordinary sensory input by using the left brain five senses. The second promises the same using the right brain input. So we are offering two prizes.”
The brain is the most valued, yet the least understood organ of the human body. Considered to be the hub of man’s biology, it operates in unseen and unknown ways – by means we are yet to fathom. This has made it into an object of mystery and countless myths. There is for example the common belief that the regular person uses only 5% of his or her brain and one can be a genius just by increasing this a few notches. There is also the concept of right brain / left brain divide – known as lateralization of brain function. As the brain exists in two distinct hemispheres, it is commonly believed that the right side and left side have specific functions and one side’s dominance translates into certain discernible character attributes in the person. As pop psychology puts it, left side dominant persons are “logical” or right dominant ones “creative”.
All this is just urban legend, mere speculation having no scientific basis. Human understanding of brain function is too meager to support any credible claim for measuring its utilization. In fact harbouring such a simplistic view would be to undermine the complexity of brain function. Science identifies brain parts as hindbrain (rhombencephalon), midbrain (mesencephalon), forebrain (prosencephalon), neural pathways, neuro endocrine systems, neuro vascular systems and dural meningeal system. The midbrain or mesencephalon is a portion of the central nervous system associated with vision, hearing, motor control, sleep/wake, arousal (alertness), and temperature regulation. Not much is known about how the brain functions and how we can control and direct its functioning, though research continues in this sphere. It is precisely because of the ambiguity that exists in brain function, as also the premium that we place on ‘brain’ related aspects of our personality, that there is a looming space for carrying out this fraud.
Despite the terrific scientific advances of the last century, universal education and ready availability of scientific knowledge on the internet, human gullibility continues to be astounding. Greed, vanity and wishful thinking are often the root cause of man’s eagerness to be fooled. Just when society begins to feel complacent in its achievements comes a superhero with a hoax big enough to put us in our place. There is nothing new to this. Just two decades back, an ordinary conman called Ramar Pillai singlehandedly pulled off India’s greatest hoax. He managed to baffle an audience comprising top IIT professors with a live demonstration of his ability to produce petrol from water by adding a few magical herbs. He called this his ‘secret formula’ and sought investment support, while also projecting conspiracy theories and death threats from oil moguls whose lucrative business would be destroyed as a result of his invention. After seeing the demo with open eyes, the learned professors swore that the man was genuine and he had made a breakthrough discovery. Then one day he was caught adulterating his herbal concoction with real petrol and the CBI booked him for fraud. So merely being an IIT professor does not render you immune to cunning.
Says magician and mentalist Nakul Shenoy, who has aligned with Professor Narendra Nayak in the campaign against midbrain activation: “Sound knowledge and expertise in magic is necessary to examine most claims of the paranormal. Utilizing scientific and academic knowledge can only take you to a certain point; expertise in deception takes it to a different paradigm, as it helps weed out the use of trickery.”
Indeed it is the most detestable form of cunning that midbrain activation specialists are employing – they are relying wholeheartedly on the child’s tendency to lie. Through all this elaborate pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo, and the theatrics that accompany them, an environment is created where the child feels compelled to lie. The reasons could be varied: the urge to win the game, the pressure to live up to expectations, the keenness to please the parents and significant others, or even the peer pressure to duplicate the claims of other children could be the reasons why young children act as if they could see through the blindfold. “Teaching children to lie at a very young age is the real tragedy of this bogus scheme,” says Prof. Narendra Nayak, “Even worse than that is that the parents are made to collaborate with the perpetrators of this fraud. Every parent has a desire for his or her child to be a genius. As a result they are often predisposed to not see the reality or to believe that something exists while it is not really there. This fundamental weakness in the parent’s mental make-up works is being exploited by the fraudsters.”
Blindfold activities are an age old gimmick and a popular trick among stage magicians. There is nothing great about it. But what is objectionable is the modus operandi of these operators. While stage magicians openly admit that it is a trick performed for providing entertainment, the midbrain activation people claim authenticity using pseudoscience. The scientific evidence they provide is only flimsy based on conjecture or a vague plausibility – something like how a Hollywood director might have you believe a ridiculous stunt based on a hairline possibility merely because you are desperate for the thrills. But then at least we can be thankful that the experience of movie watching is not as character destroying. What parents need to understand urgently is this: that kids are neither bird brains nor superbrains and all they need is a happy and trusting environment for good upbringing.
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