A study has been touted on social media by Juhi Chawla & Subramanian Swamy as proving that Sanskrit makes you smarter. But that’s not what the study said.
Bengaluru: Sanskrit emerged as a talking point on Twitter last week as an old post by actor Juhi Chawla started doing the rounds again just as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Subramanian Swamy tweeted on the same lines.
Indian culture is ammmaazziingggg !!! 🙏🙏🙏🌟🌟🌟why are our kids not made to study sanskrit in school … ??? why is it not a compulsory subject like english or math or geography …?? 😡 …???? pic.twitter.com/Wl7dPkRDWo
— Juhi Chawla (@iam_juhi) June 18, 2018
Neuroscience and the ‘Sanskrit Effect’ https://t.co/P2H0uFOgRW
— Subramanian Swamy (@Swamy39) December 9, 2018
Both posts sought to draw attention to an article published in the Scientific American that they claimed proved the so-called ‘Sanskrit effect’, the belief that the millennia-old language plays a role in enhancing human memory and thinking.
Embedded in Chawla’s June tweet was a screenshot of a post made by The New York Times journalist Ellen Barry, who had, the same month, tweeted a link to the Scientific American article with her own brief description of its purported conclusion.
Children raised reciting Sanskrit mantras have measurable & unusual growth in the brain's right hippocampus, which controls critical verbal memory organs, neuroscientists have found. https://t.co/TndIl4cyr1
— Ellen Barry (@EllenBarryNYT) June 16, 2018
Soon enough, then as now, several Twitter users began to rue India’s lack of respect for its culture and traditions despite their globally-acknowledged benefits. It was all very well, but for the fact that the study had never claimed to derive any inference specific to the language.
Reading it wrong
The Scientific American article was published in the beginning of 2018 and is written by James Hartzell, a researcher studying memory who is among the authors of a study on the effects of Vedic Sanskrit memorisation on the brain. The study had as subjects 21 Sanskrit scholars.
The write-up dives deep into how Sanskrit scholars who recite the six-hour Yajur Veda in its entirety show higher development of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that deals with memory and emotions. The subjects were also reported to show an increase in size in brain regions that control speech and voice.
The author, from his personal experience with Sanskrit and its effect on his memory, said the team set out to test if the impact was language-specific.
For the study, Sanskrit scholars trained for at least a decade were tested against untrained people of similar gender and age.
But the authors say that they couldn’t really establish a connection that was exclusive to Sanskrit. “Although this initial research … could not directly address the Sanskrit effect question… we found something specific about intensive verbal memory training,” Hartzell concluded in the article.
The researchers also attempted to decode whether the increase in gray matter meant any reduced risk of Alzheimer’s: If it does, Hartzell wrote, vulnerable patients could be made to perform verbal memory exercises to prevent the onset of the debilitating disease.
Study and results
The hippocampus is the brain region associated with spatial navigation and verbal memory. The authors set out to explicitly study if this region of the brain is affected by intense training and memorisation like the scholars’.
They recruited 42 male volunteers — 21 of whom were professionally qualified Vedic Pandits from New Delhi who could recite the 40,000-word Yajur Veda fully and were trained for at least seven years or over 10,000 hours.
The other 21, who formed the control group, matched the scholars in gender, age, and number of languages spoken.
The researchers performed scans on the brains of all the volunteers. In an attempt to avoid a sampling bias, the scholars’ backgrounds were studied to ensure they weren’t selected from a family of traditional Sanskrit scholars.
The study states that there are definite morphological and structural differences in the brains of regular students and the Sanskrit scholars, with the latter showing increased quantities of grey matter, specifically in the hippocampus.
“This was an exploratory pilot study,” Hartzell told ThePrint. “We would like to conduct a follow-up study but we don’t have the funding at the moment.
“We still have some additional data that we collected from the same participants to analyse before we think about how to design a language-specific study,” said Tanmay Nath, a postdoctorate at Harvard University and one of the authors of the paper.
What the results mean
The authors of the study note that their results are similar to those obtained from other studies, like one conducted in 2006 on London taxi drivers. The London study analysed the brain scans of taxi drivers, who often rely on memory to find destinations, against those of bus drivers, who follow a set route.
The result was that the former were found to have increased grey matter in parts of the brain that deal with memory and spatial navigation.
The near-identical effects can be attributed to the memorisation of large volumes of data.
Even so, the jury is out on whether bigger means better. According to experts, the improved capacity to memorise and process that kind of data may not really indicate overall intelligence, as the use of the phrase “brain regions associated with cognitive functions” in the Scientific American article might be interpreted to be.
“These changes cannot be taken as an indicator for improvement of overall intelligence,” said Sridharan Devarajan, professor of cognition and computation & behaviour at the Centre for Neuroscience (CNS) at IISc, Bengaluru. “The changes in the areas that are to do with [a] certain set of skills simply mean that the person is more proficient in performing those skills.”
Marc Ettlinger, a former neuroscientist and researcher at the US department of veteran affairs, agreed. “I have no doubt the same results would be found in Muslims who memorise the Quran or even people who memorise the dictionary for spelling, or digits of Pi,” he told ThePrint.
Establishing specificity to Sanskrit
To evaluate effects specific to Sanskrit, the study would need to add several other controls.
Firstly, the control group here was untrained, which meant that they did not memorise large volumes of Sanskrit, or any text at all. They simply spoke an equal number of languages as the test group.
“You’d have to perform the study for 10 years with another control group that memorises large amounts of text, like the Quran or Shakespeare,” Ettlinger added.
Hartzell echoed the view.
“The specificity of the type of training and concentration on oral precision, and extent of textual memorisation in the Vedic Sanskrit memorisation/recitation practices is remarkable,” he said.
“To conduct a cross-sectional study with other memorisation/recitation traditions, one would need to match these characteristics (years of training, text lengths, accuracy of oral reproduction, age range of practitioners, etc),” he added.
To study the effects of Sanskrit texts vs others, the researchers could potentially look to actors in their follow-up studies, said Devarajan of IISc.
“As a part of their jobs, actors are required to memorise large volumes of text,” he added. “Their brains can be used to compare with the Sanskrit scholars’.”
To determine if hippocampal changes actually improve cognitive function, subjects would need to undergo cognitive tests, which are standard memory tests like word lists and numerical reasoning.
“Since this was a preliminary exploratory study, we did not perform cognitive tests,” said Hartzell.
Ettlinger added that the follow-up study should ideally also have controls for several other factors, including the socioeconomic status of the pandits participating in the study.
A reason to learn Sanskrit
Among those who responded to Chawla and Swamy’s tweets, some people questioned the rationale behind learning Sanskrit.
However, while it is unclear whether learning the ancient language enhances your intelligence, it is not as useless as someone might think. For one, learning one language can be a very beneficial stepping stone to learning others.
It was because I excelled at Sanskrit that I was able to learn German easily as a young adult years later. They map almost perfectly and nothing about the 3 genders will faze someone who learnt Sanskrit or German first.
— Shefaly Yogendra, PhD (@shefaly) December 8, 2018
Studies have shown that learning a new language can change knowledge and thought. Consider the German word ‘schadenfreude’, for example. Even before the word came to be used in English, the sentiments it described existed. They just didn’t have a name and thus weren’t talked about in appropriate situations as frequently as they are today.
Another example is the colour blue. When we look around us, it is everywhere. But the colour did not exist in all of history simply because there was no word for the colour. Homer famously described the ocean as being ‘wine-red’ and the colour blue does not even exist in nature.
This hypothesis, that new words give rise to new ideas and newer thinking, is called ‘linguistic determinism’ or the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. It is a branch of psycholinguistics.
While the scientific community is yet to arrive at a consensus regarding this theory, studies have shown a clear correlation between learning a new language and its influence on thought.
“A study that measured bilingual toddlers’ cognitive function showed that they were able to outperform monolingual kids in specific tasks,” said Devarajan.