Interview with Aswini Madhira, Early-Career Artist and Scientist

I’m please to bring you an interview with my friend and colleague Ms. Aswini Madhira. Aswini is a cognitive science researcher, and an artist in her spare time. She has previously contributed a personal essay to this blog. Today we speak about art and science; and about passion vs. pragmatism in choosing a career.

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Amita: How did you become interested in art? Did you have formal lessons? Mentors?

Aswini: I think my experience with art started with me, no different from any other toddler, scribbling on the walls and my parents giving me a sheet of paper and a couple of crayons to save the walls from meeting their doom. As a kid I have always enjoyed filling up colours in the colouring books. Multiple volumes of colouring books were a part of my birthday gifts for a very long time.

Slowly I started recreating the images from those printed drawing books. This had become a weekend ritual when my mom noticed it and enrolled me into drawing classes. But the impatient kid that I was, wanting to turn Picasso overnight, got bored of the circles and strokes that I was asked to draw over and over again. What followed was a chain of events of me joining classes and quitting classes as a kid.

I was an impatient kid when it came to learning art and I wanted to become an artist overnight. As kids, we look for immediate results and we are vulnerable to disappointments, but we are also quick to overcome it and start all over again.

I hardly knew the concept of something being innate, somebody being born with it. Now I do think that it’s easier for someone who has a predisposition to art to develop the skill, but it is not impossible for someone without the predisposition to pick up a skill and master it, too. As a kid I don’t remember associating my failures to myself as a person, which as an adult I find myself doing more often than I like. I’m working on changing that.

I should say that not only have I become less impatient now about immediate success at a new endeavour, I’m also learning to value mistakes and failures for what they actually are – stepping stones.

Amita: The changing art-classes frequently – was that from impatience?

Aswini: My impatience was only a small factor. That resulted in me cribbing rather than in me moving on to another teacher. The quitting and joining different art classes was because of my father’s transfers. Sometimes, the class timings and my school timings would clash which led me to shift from opting for daily classes to weekly ones… I kept changing mentors every time we moved to a new city.

Amita: Did these moves interrupt your learning?

Aswini: Partly yes. I found myself going through the basics quite a few times over, because every time I joined a new class, the teacher would test my knowledge up until that point, and then only take me under their wing. And each of them had a new style of teaching. It made me very adaptable as a student and also made my basics strong. But had I spent the same duration learning under one mentor, I definitely would have learnt more.

Amita: When did you become serious about art?

Aswini: I think it was when we shifted to Chennai when I was 10, that I had started practicing drawing at home and enrolled in Carnatic Music classes out of compulsion (or rather, my mom’s passion for singing). I should thank her for pushing me then, for ever since, drawing, painting and singing have been my go to. I think I indulged in art when I was too young to understand the concept of ‘inspiration’.

The first ever artist I was introduced to was Raja Ravi Varma and the first ever singer I was introduced to was M.S Subbalakshmi. Personally, art has been my inspiration more than the artist. I am amazed by quite a few artists, but I still stick to the art for inspiration.

Amita: How did you discover these artists?

Aswini: I came across Raja Ravi Varma paintings in an art exhibition that I had visited in Hyderabad. The paintings were so lively, I was in awe! M. S. Subbalakshmi’s ‘Bhaja Govindam’ was the first thing I used to hear waking up. My grandfather used to play it on his tape recorder every morning immediately after he woke up.

Amita: Did your school have an art programme? Was art as important to you as academics?

Aswini: I am a proud DAV’ite [Dayanand Anglo-Vedic Trust group of schools]. Having studied in DAV school for 6 years, part of the pride is the immense exposure we got as students towards co-scholastics. Every week we had a 45-minute class for art, and we also had an art exam every year. It was probably the only exam I looked forward to.

Added to this, we were encouraged to participate in many inter-school competitions, be it art and craft, music, dance, literary activities, sports and many more. Consequently, I had participated in many such competitions and bagged prizes, which majorly boosted my morale to not take art lightly.

Amita: How did your family respond to your artistic pursuits?

Aswini: My parents never stopped me from taking part in such competitions in order to focus more on academics. I am fortunate enough to have parents who, till date, have only encouraged holistic growth. They never let the societal ‘trend’ or ‘fad’ influence the career path that their children chose to walk.

Although I had not considered art as a full time profession, I never wanted to give it up even as a mere hobby. The reason for not taking it up as a full-time profession was the naivete that came with growing up in a society that emphasised on ‘education’ and ‘marks’ and also needing to do a ‘real job’ and not wanting to let go of the comfortable life other ‘promising’ careers offered.

Amita: That sounds like a wonderfully nurturing environment. But you never considered doing art full-time? Has technology changed the viability of an artistic career?

Aswini: Yes, it was a question of whether I wanted to pursue it, myself. Given that the scope of ‘success’ in the field was less back then, it didn’t seem like a fair deal to me.

Times have definitely changed. I feel the success of an artist as a professional lies in how far your work reaches. And for our work to reach far and wide, it had to be of higher credibility.

But nowadays with increasing networks on social media, sitting at one place I can get 100 people to see my art at the least in the one hour of me posting an artwork online. Whether they like it or they don’t comes later, but the reach has definitely widened and that increases the opportunities that an artist could get to become successful. More of art is exposed and thereby greater the chances of it being an inspiration to many. The field sure seems to be providing greater opportunities which might not have been possible if there aren’t  as many takers. So I think art inspires artists and artists make art. It’s interlinked, if one could say.

3) What inspires you to do art? Do you have a schedule? Do you wait for inspiration?

Aswini: I really wish I had a schedule, but I am bad at sticking to it.

I think my art is deeply driven by two things – my emotions and my primary job. Most often than not, me indulging in painting or singing has become a consequence of the workload that I have.

I’m of the opinion that when your passion is not your whole and sole profession, it becomes very difficult to balance both. Irrespective of how much I try, my primary job starts to determine the time I get to spend with art and music. At times, I manage to do three paintings in a week, and at times one painting in three months.

The only promise I have made to the artist in me, is to not ignore the urge to do art when an idea hits me, and at least make a quick drawing if not something elaborate, so as to not lose touch with the artform. In a way, during such hectic work schedule, singing helps, mostly because I can do it from where I am sitting (Thanks to my mom for pushing me to learn music too, I don’t think I can ever thank her enough for that).

Amita: I’m delighted that you make time for art in your busy schedule. Do you revisit your sketches later, to develop them?

Aswini: I’m afraid I don’t. Art and its perceiver share a unique characteristic. It may or may not elicit the exact same emotion every time. For me, it’s a different thing every time. As much as there are chances of me developing them, my fear of me spoiling them is dominant. Hence, I don’t as much as touch the paintings once I feel like it is done.

Amita: What role does art play in your personal life?

Aswini: Art is a major pick-me-up. When I have something running in my mind and I really need to think, I tend to sit and paint. Sometimes even just doodling helps me organize the tangled mess that’s in my head. Similarly, music calms me too. Just singing some songs or randomly singing Carnatic lessons that I was taught as a kid, helps me get through daily chores easily.

Amita: What advice do you have for aspiring artists? How important is a support system for artists?

Aswini: I would call myself an aspiring artist too. I’m no professional. I don’t personally believe in advice when it comes to art, to each their own.

If I could, I would tell my naive self from a couple of years ago to have more patience and that no skill can be acquired in a day. Had I not been impatient, I probably would have been one of those child artists who get interviewed for the art they do. Just kidding.

I’m of the opinion that  more than anyone else, it is the artist who needs to be patient with oneself, for if we don’t respect our skill, no one else will. With the will to pursue it and the brains to propagate is, any artform can become a profession in our country.

Amita: So you’ve become more patient about taking the time it takes to acquire skills. When and how did this change happen?

Aswini: I don’t think I can recollect how the change happened, but I think interacting with people who learnt/were learning different skills helped. The interactions helped me realise the amount of time and practice it took to be so good at something and from then on I started having expectations proportionate to the amount of time I invested. Slowly, I started investing more time in practicing. 

Amita: How did you become interested in science?

Aswini: I don’t know to which extent I deserve to answer this question, for I had always run away from science as we know it – physics chemistry and biology – back in school. It wasn’t until recently that I acknowledged myself as doing sciences.

I decided to be a psychologist towards the end of my schooling. Getting to study how we think and behave, getting to observe people intrigued me a lot. I had come across the subject called psychology when my mom was pursuing her post-graduation in Education, in distance and I was in my 12th grade.

Coming from a family of engineers, contrary to my belief, my choice of career was considered a breath of fresh air. My interaction with the subject per se was very little prior to me taking it up as a major for my under graduation. However, I do not regret my choice till date.

Amita: Do you think psychology and the behavioural sciences should be introduced in school at an earlier date? Both fields are growing rapidly in India, and there is demand for both in public policy and in industry.

Aswini: If you mean to introduce them as possible fields that one could opt, then may be yes. But if you meant to introduce them as subjects at a school level, then I am not sure if introducing the subjects at an early stage than is already will make a difference. I wasn’t aware of what happens in an engineering course nor the details of the subjects it covers when in 8th or 10th grade. Yet engineering is relatively a better known field than psychology or other behavioural sciences. I think it’s more important to talk about the profession rather than the subject per se.

Amita: How did you become interested in cognitive science?

Aswini: During my undergraduate days, I was exposed to a couple of mental health centres and the life of a counsellor and a clinical psychologist, as a part of my internship. I had understood that it was not my cup of tea, but the thought of not being able to study the same was not sitting well with me.

Amita: Tell us more about this. Many people still believe that psychology means just ‘clinical psychology.’

Aswini: True. Psychology is often associated with just therapy. It’s either that, or the moment I mention that I am studying Psychology, the first thing that people ask me is “Can you read my mind?”

We do not read minds. We study them. They are two completely different things.

Therapy and mental health were not my focus primarily. I wanted to go beyond that. It is one thing trying to study what is ‘healthy thinking’ versus what is ‘unhealthy thinking’, but I was talking on the lines of ‘How does thinking happen in the first place?’

One of my seniors then suggested that I consider a post-graduation in cognitive science where I would get to study human behaviour but from multiple perspectives. I was sold.

The first cognitive scientist I admired was Jonathan Smallwood, for his work in the concept of mind-wandering. I had related to the concept of zoning out and daydreaming, for I have caught myself engaging in the act multiple times. It intrigues me that something which is considered as lack of concentration, lack of focus, being very distracted, and is often frowned upon, became a phenomenon of fascination to this man.

There started my quest to research how one mind-wanders, how one thinks out of the box, how art happens, so on and so forth. What better way to club my love for art and my respect for science.

Amita: So Smallwood’s work questions the prevailing view that mind-wandering is a bad thing, the product of a lack of self-control? What were your own views of the intersection between mind-wandering and creativity?

Aswini: I didn’t know that the act of falling into self-induced thoughts that I engaged in was called mind-wandering. But the phenomenon as such was definitely not novel to me. Smallwood studies this phenomenon. I don’t think his aim was to question the stigma behind it.

Have I been scolded for mind-wandering, no. I did realise that mind-wandering could be a good thing slowly when it helped me come up with ideas (not considering the quality of the ideas) for painting. I would often just go into a thinking frenzy from one topic to another and end up with some kind of a muse for my next artwork. I have not really considered about what facilitates mind wandering as such, but somebody calling my name definitely snaps me out of mind-wandering. I don’t think I plan, decide and engage in mind-wandering. It seems to just happen.

The moment I get into a PhD and study either of these questions, I shall answer better! Until then, I am only a silent observer of my own mind blissfully wandering away. Just kidding.

Amita: Tell us a bit about your work in cognitive science.

Aswini: I study creativity cognition. I want to know how people come up with creative ideas, what does it take to come up with something novel, how do we identify something as ‘being creative’. It is not too long since I entered the field so I don’t think I can unravel any Pandora’s box, but so far my work entailed understanding if a wandering mind can brew rather creative ideas.

Amita: How do you study creativity? It’s often considered undefinable?

Aswini: I don’t think creativity is undefined. It is definitely defined and the most common way we understand it is as being something different from routine. I think the question is, are we (the research community) satisfied with this definition of creativity.

One of the experiments that we did as a part of my masters was to ask people to take part in an activity that vaguely required them to think out of the box and come up with novel functions for some regular objects. In a way creativity tapped in the lab is close to creativity that we see outside, but how practical is it to ask someone to ‘get creative’ within the four walls of a lab, within some stipulated time period and to which extent do we tap creativity in its true form, is indeed a question I am seeking answers for.

It has been little over a year since I completed my post-graduation and till date I have only enjoyed my journey.

Being a researcher, we are often found reading something or the other, picking up a new skill within the field or outside the field, interacting with people, having discussions on any given topic (silently cribbing about the salience of random articles on the internet that start with ‘Researchers say’ or ‘Research has found that’) and taking some time off in the whole of 24 hours to do absolutely no’think’ing.

Cognitive Science being an interdisciplinary field requires us to interact with people not just from the same field but any given field in general. Personally, I have yet to come across a field that does not concern mind or humans (aren’t we a self-centered lot).

I agree we get a lot of work done from inside the laboratory with proper facilities bolstering our work, but I’m of the opinion that a researcher with a mind that observes what is happening outside the lab, in the real world, will benefit more from the resources that any University or Research centre has to offer. I come from a family that highly respects the Indian culture of ‘Guru Parampara’ and ‘inheriting’ knowledge, not just acquiring it. I would say, having a mentor is of utmost importance in any field, not just cognitive science.

Amita: Tell us more about this concept. I’m not familiar with it.

Aswini: The way I understood it, the passing of knowledge is the key aspect of “guru parampara,” the lineage of teachers in other words. Taking the gurukul system of teaching, a Guru tests the eligibility of the person seeking to be taught before he accepted the person as his student. In a way, one had to earn the knowledge that one wishes to learn from the Guru. I think respecting that system, my parents have always emphasized that we work on becoming an eligible student worthy of learning something new from experts in the field, rather than learn things by ourselves.

Amita: And do you have mentors? In cognitive science, in other aspects of your life?

Aswini: Yes, I do have quite a few mentors from different phases of my life, who I go back to, who have helped me at times when I was confused or lost regarding a couple of decisions with respect to my professional life and sometimes even with respect to my personal life. My mentors have always been there to show me things from perspectives that I might not have been able to see from.

I think a mentor plays a major role in making us believe in the possibility of attaining a goal. When I believe that I have what it takes to be their student, I seek and approach potential mentors and ask him/her if they are willing to take me as their student. That’s my side of the argument. Now how did my mentors pick me, is something only they can answer. I’m not sure if I want to know their answer.

Amita: Cognitive science is a new field in India. What are the pros and cons of being a cognitive scientist in India?

Aswini: The awareness for cognitive science in our country is definitely less compared to other fields. It does seem to be increasing, but I feel it’s going to take longer for cognitive science aspirants to hear ‘Oh! That’s a good choice.’ and not ‘Oh! What’s that?’ whenever we speak of picking a career in this field. Even within the field heavy research is observed to happen in select topics when compared to the available spectrum of research abroad. With time, I hope to see that change.

On the brighter side, I have enjoyed the flexibility that cognitive science provides. During my post-graduation, as a batch we were all from varied educational backgrounds. From psychology to computer science engineering, from physics to medical research and life sciences, we had students with diverse backgrounds come together to study cognitive science and further continue as cog sci researchers.

Amita: “Flexibility” in what sense?

Aswini: Cognitive science being an inter-disciplinary field has a diverse course structure. From research and statistics to neuroscience, and mathematics to psychology, computational programming to judgement and decision making, we had covered wide horizons. In a way if one was good at certain subjects owing to their background, they faced difficulties understanding certain others. End of the day it was about which approach one would like to take to study mind/brain, what is the philosophy or school of thought that one would stand by, and so forth. That is the flexibility that I was referring to.

There are differences in how a psychologist vs a physicist approaches cognitive science, whether one comes up with a formula that explains a behaviour, or one uses codes and numbers to spin a theory, or one purely observes behaviour from the outside and speculate a trend, it is influenced by what a person’s belief is, and also what he/she is comfortable with, I guess.  

Amita: Has being a cognitive scientist changed your approach to daily life?

Aswini: More than cognitive science as a field per se, I find myself influenced by the complete experience of post-graduation. Having studied about certain irrational biases we experience when we make decisions, it is easier for me to notice it now when I am being biased or making irrational choices (I still fall for biases. Now I just feel better knowing I’m not alone in falling for them). I do observe certain small changes in my personal life, in how I think, how I handle my emotions and attributions, and so forth, but to which extent do I owe it to cognitive science as a subject or to my experience of post-graduation I’m not sure. On a lighter note, I definitely enjoy mind wandering more now and I don’t blame myself for zoning out.

Amita: Working in academics is often costly to mental health. How do you prioritise your health at work? Are there accessible formal structures in place to get help easily and without shame?

Aswini: Research is an on-going process. So far, I haven’t come across any researcher who treats it like a 9-to-5 job. We are reading on the go, we are discussing on the go, we are thinking on the go. Of course, I don’t mean it in the sense of being a workaholic, it’s just that an idea could come from anywhere. Building it into a hypothesis, and converting it into a project requires that we sit at it, but the muse, in such a field, could be everywhere. Being in the atmosphere where everybody is constantly researching something, publishing their work, and so forth, it is difficult to keep calm. That could eventually take a toll on how we define our success. It helps having a schedule for oneself and voluntarily ensuring to not vex ourselves with things and take healthy breaks in between.

Academics not being a 9-to-5 job might not be the actual cause of stress. Not having a scheduled on and off time, results in us charting out our schedules by ourselves. Unwinding becomes the researcher’s responsibility. If the zeal comes from within then I don’t think that would cause someone to be stressed out. On the contrary, it is healthy that they are pushing themselves to do something, or produce papers, and so on for their own satisfaction. But falling prey to other’s zeal and enthusiasm and making ourselves believe that its either that way or highway is not healthy. Publication bias! I have heard a lot about it. I haven’t really reached the stage where I experienced it first-hand. But it’s sad if one is to assume that ‘non-significant results’ don’t carry the significance that ‘significant results’ seem to do. Is research all about confirming to things? I’m not sure.

Amita: Researchers often work alone; we end up feeling isolated. What role does working in isolation play in stress in academia?

Aswini: Do they work alone? Hmm, maybe I have confronted only the rosy side of it in the past few years of my association with research. For, I have always had my peers and seniors holding my back during my post-graduation and the help of my colleagues now as a research fellow at work. I think it depends on how one likes to work! I have learnt to be open about asking for help if I am stuck with something and so far I haven’t received a negative response, and even if I did,  I was at least directed towards another source that could help me. Bringing multiple skills to the same project sounds like fun, but I don’t think we can rule out the difficulty of co-ordination when it comes to such a thing. I personally haven’t encountered such work myself, so I’m not sure if I can comment on that. When it comes to writing papers, yes it’s a one man’s job. But again, I like it that way, so I’m not complaining!

Having said that, we are not immune to stress and mental disorders, neither are we immune to the taboo that is attached with it. We do find people (within the academic community) to be more considerate when it comes to matters concerning mental health. If we reach a place where people can listen to someone talk about their visit to the therapist without feeling awkward, I think that would be a good step to begin with; being open enough to support a discussion, but not casual enough to conclude things about mental health, that is where I’d like to place myself.

Amita: What advice would you offer someone embarking on a PhD in India (any field)?

Aswini: I am embarking on that journey myself. All that I tell myself throughout the pursuit is that, getting admitted into a doctoral program doesn’t make someone an eligible doctoral candidate and getting rejected doesn’t make someone any less knowledgeable in the topic one is working on.

Academia in my little experience is a vast ocean, one can only be prepared to an extent and over a period one needs to surf based on the waves that hit them. The thought of embarking on my postgraduate studies came automatically while I was pursuing my bachelors and I don’t think I want it any other way.

My motivation is basically to continue research in the field and contribute back to the field.

Added to this, I have always wanted to teach. Interacting with students keeps me motivated. As a package, PhD seems like the next step towards becoming a professor and teaching. Hither forth I’m passing information that I have been enlightened with, for my experience is not yet first hand.

The topic we choose to work on for our PhD plays a major role in how we spend the next 5+ years. As much as it is possible to work on different things in the span of one’s career, the 5+ years of work and experience and the subject knowledge one builds during one’s PhD, drives the path forward. Further, having a mentor who is experienced in the field makes the transition into academia relatively smooth.

The most undervalued part of one’s PhD is the lab and the peers not just for the guidance and support concerning subject matter, but also to bolster us throughout the journey. Afterall, they would be our warm cup of coffee on a gloomy day, and as I have been warned, there would be many such gloomy days. After a hectic week of sitting with research papers and writing articles, if an interaction with a bunch of students can make me feel better, I’d consider myself happy in academia. The way I see, being in academia is an amazing exposure if only we grab an opportunity as and when it comes our way.

Amita: Any parting words for people considering, or beginning, a career in art or science?

Aswini: The journey is not going to be smooth. It is not a bed of roses. You are most likely to encounter sticks and stones. Being as they may be, they don’t come with the career choice you make. I don’t think the difficulty is a trait of the career choice. It is the trait of how efficiently you want to traverse the path. One could make any career choice a bed of roses, if mediocre work is satisfactory enough, but if one wants to make the most it, I think we’ll have to prepare ourselves for a roller coaster ride!

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Aswini enjoying a spirited student performance at her Freshers’ Party at CBCS, Allahabad University. To quote Dorothy Gale: ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore!

Aswini is an artist by passion, and a passionate researcher by profession. She is currently employed as a junior research fellow at Centre for Creative Cognition, S.R.University, Warangal. She is an avid reader, and enjoys reading books on philosophy, sci-fiction, satirical humour and majorly cognitive science which she claims, comes as an occupational hazard. She is trained in Indian Carnatic Music for 6 years. Occasionally, she tries her hand at poetry too. If you are on a solo vacation to one of the least happening cities and if there is a lady with a Murakami book in her hand and a cup of coffee in front of her, sitting in the silence of an empty cafe with some slow jazz music playing in the background, you have most likely found the woman in question. She enjoys discussions on topics with which you can never reach a conclusion. She safely promises that most often than not, they end with both the parties going back home in one piece.

Follow Aswini’s art on Instagram: Fauve_2020

Email Aswini: aswini.m@cbcs.ac.in

Guest Post: Book Review: Milan Kundera’s *The Joke*

By: Guna Saketh Parimi

Today, guest blogger Guna Saketh Parimi reviews Milan Kundera’s The Joke. Guna reviews books at Instagram, which is how we met. He reviews a book every few days, and many of the books he reads are challenging and unusual.

Amita Basu

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Guest Post: Book Review: Milan Kundera’s The Joke

By: Guna Saketh Parimi

This book by Kundera, is his first work, and a deeply political and philosophical one at that. I have read “Immortality” of his, and completely loved his style of writing. I must accept that this book turned out to be a pleasant surprise, for I clearly did not have the faintest idea of Kundera’s political writings.

The book revolves around the life of the protagonist whose political affiliations, tone of satire, choice of friends, his personal attitude towards situations, his social conditioning, and his will power – all, make their presence felt in his life in ways unanticipated. The book also raises some very important philosophical questions about sense of righteousness, a person’s loyalty, the concept of loyalty firstly, love, jealousy, and revenge.

The book made me ponder, what is the most intimate emotion that a human can ever experience? It made me question the sense of belongingness we feel towards people we love. Do we belong more to the people we love, or we hate? Who occupies our mind more? Whose life events affect us greatly? Who is that person who can give us a sense of fruition in our life – a lover or a foe? Do we take that one extremely risky gamble in our life for the people we love, or the one’s we abhor? Do we respect our morality when we take that gamble? Or, do we mold our morality to accommodate our actions in seeking vengeance?

The interesting part about the book is that the questions it poses do not stop here. It subtly questions the concept of monogamous marital relationships. What is fidelity? Is it just physical, or emotional too? But, can emotional intimacy be restricted by a monogamous relationship? Can it be restricted by any relationship at all? The book beautifully, emphasizing again, beautifully explains the inner transformation of feelings towards a person we love – how it changes from love to lust to parental concern to friendship to camaraderie. This, in turn again, makes us question again, can a person feel both parental concern and lust at the same time, while probably breaching the social contract of monogamous marital relationship.

I needn’t say further, that the book posed more questions than it answered. It made me think. It made me feel. It made me simmer. It made me ashamed. It challenged me. It soothed me. It embraced me. And, it punched me in the gut. The book is nothing but a telling of person’s life, swayed by their dominant emotions, their pride, their guilt, and fate, if it exists.

The simplistic, yet unfiltered narration of the book is what it makes it special, attractive, and undeniably absorbing. If there is one aspect the book portrays clearly, it is nothing but the illusionary dimension of one’s feelings. I must agree that it is safe to conclude that ‘The Joke’ is a joke on us, humankind, who are wholesomely predictable, yet inconsistent.

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Guna is a management consultant by the day, and a rudderless muser by the night. He is passionate about motorcycles, politics, history, and understanding intersectional perspectives of the world events. He believes that books and travel are the most effective ways to challenge one’s philosophies and explore unchartered territories. He aspires to make the world a kinder place, one person at a time.

Email Guna: theoxfodcomma91@gmail.com

Follow Guna’s book reviews on Instagram

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View From My Window: Photo-Essay

By: Achint Sharma

For today’s guest post on Artists & Scientists, I’m pleased to introduce my dear friend and colleague Ms. Achint Sharma. Achint is a cognitive scientist, a reader, and a trekker. Achint faces life with bravery and grace. When an opportunity comes along, she smiles and says, “Why not?”

I’ve known Achint as a fellow researcher, a companion on backpacking trips, and a friend who turned up whenever you were in trouble. When I thanked her for doing me yet another favour, Achint answered me simply with a Punjabi proverb: ‘A friend is she who hears you and comes to your aid, even when you’re standing 500 miles away crying in the middle of the road.’

With her reflexive generosity, Achint combines honesty. My own journey as a writer is still young, but already owes much to Achint’s kindly-meant but unflinching critique. Achint doesn’t let her friends get away with laziness or injustice. She’ll help you move house and do the lion’s share of the work, and she’ll sniff out and support you in any crisis — but she won’t take your side in a dispute just because you’re friends, and she won’t let you soothe your ego with kind lies.

In this there’s no righteousness: it is of herself that Achint is most critical. As much as her optimism and her generosity, it is Achint’s rare ability to hold herself and her friends to a high standard that makes her an invaluable friend and colleague.

Achint’s research work started with autistic children in India, and now involves migrant children in the US. After an MSc in cognitive science in India, Achint recently moved to a research position in Chicago. The pandemic happened soon after, followed by the Black Lives Matters protests and police violence. Through all this frightening, depressing turbulence — Achint has managed to keep alive two things that depend on one another: her sense of humour and her sense of proportion.

Today Achint writes about her adventures looking out of her window.

Amita Basu

View From My Window

By: Achint Sharma

Achint pretending to read for this essay.

With pandemic crossing our paths, our daily routines are upended. We all have become prisoners of our houses in this pandemic and my window is compensating for my social life. While I stay inside every scene remains constant except what’s happening on the street. I still go to work though the places are emptier. With alternative work weeks I saw less of my friends. Post work life too got disrupted with most public places closed or avoided for safety concerns. Also, as the day progresses to the dusk Chicago’s streets become violent, so safe bet is staying inside.

2020 Black Lives Matter protestors marching up the same roads that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., trod on in the 1960s. Image source.

Even before this I had fascination with windows. Also, I think otherwise this piece would have been boring romantic ode to windows but now more people will be able to relate to it. I have dreamt of peacefully sitting in my window enjoying rain and hot chocolate. Somehow this wasn’t possible before due to unsuitable positioning of windows or roommates guarding the prime real estate.

We walk our dogs and our children. Why not ourselves? Image source.

The days when I’m not at work, I prefer to start with tea and activities outside of my window. Often, I see a hairy half naked man who probably shares my love for windows, but some discretion is always appreciated. Houses designed in variation of Georgian and Classical style with windows covered with folded papers used as blinds. I see parents taking their kids and dogs for walk. This often strikes me why we think walking dogs and kids is important, but I see less people taking strolls. I can vouch for walking dogs; it is fun. My previous host family had this cute dog and whenever she saw other dogs, she would go crazy and run towards them. I often wonder why I don’t share similar love for fellow humans. I just like to watch their activities from a distance. Never had the urge to participate. I don’t know if just observing is sign of being creepy or a good scientist.

Chicago Housefront. Image by Achint Sharma.

Staring outside has often given me clarity after moments like getting frustrated from writing multiple unsatisfactory pieces of SOP or giving my roommates basic lessons on hygiene. After this I need a reset to act normal. Blankly staring out of my window helps. Or running scenario’s like It would be cool to watch rear window movie’s pandemic sequel.

If you have started creating image of my window in your mind, please also put a string of fairy lights around the frame. Mine has one. Given my love and gratitude for it I had the compulsion to decorate it. Not sure how many would agree but fairy lights have this magical effect of uplifting moods. The other magical things attributable to the window are chirping birds, running squirrels and windy city’s cool breeze. Reading a book sitting by the window is a pleasure multiplied reading it otherwise.

Along with other discoveries I made about myself, one of it is that part of my brain stopped maturing since childhood. I still enjoy listening bedtime stories and I get excited seeing a heavy vehicle in the street. So, the days when the street was being repaired, were quite savory. There was so much happening in the street after a long time. I loved every aspect of it. One machine shooting concrete in the other truck and little bobcats going around cleaning afterwards. Honestly the second day wasn’t much fun, still big trucks were an attraction.

After the quite times & empty roads during the quite of the pandemic, there were days when I also witnessed masses protesting on the streets. My street had remains of placards, clothes and water bottles. My window was also becoming the source of noises of shattering glasses, cars honking, helicopters all over the city and people screaming. I could sense the tension during the quite hours of curfews.

Weeks have gone by since then we are back to chirping birds, winds and recently a storm. I sit by in my window, sip tea and read book.

A book, a mug of (invisible) hot chocolate, a few minutes looking out of the window and into yourself — and the light of hope turns back on in your life.

END

Queen Achint, crowned by a Christmas tree in Chicago.

Achint is a cognitive scientist currently working as an intern at an institute for immigrant children in Chicago.

Follow Achint on Instagram

Email Achint: achint.s@cbcs.ac.in

***

In Retrospection: Life Away From Home

By: Aswini Madhira

[Image: Sunset at Naini Bridge. Photograph by Aswini Madhira]

For today’s guest post on Artists & Scientists, I’m pleased to introduce my friend and colleague Aswini Madhira. Aswini is articulate, even-tempered, and spirited. She’s as enthusiastic about an impromptu outing to the newest restaurant in town, as about a discussion re: the best way to approach teaching. I’ve known Aswini as an endlessly patient participant in long and boring experiments, as the rare student who’s both sharp-witted and soft-spoken, and as a friend who senses without words when you’re feeling low. 

Aswini’s sartorial style is as colourful as her visual art. She has a jawline to give Olivia Wilde a run for her money. But the asset I most envy Aswini is her spirits. Through the rigours, excitements, and inevitable disappointments of life away from home, I’ve never seen Aswini without a smile.

Today, Aswini writes about her two years pursuing an MSc in Allahabad. It was her first time away from south India, away from home, exploring an exciting new field.

Amita Basu

In Retrospection

By: Aswini Madhira

It was the first time I was moving out of home.

Having lived with my parents for 20 years of my life, of which a big chunk of 11 years were spent in Chennai, it was the first time that I was moving out of home. The transition from “kathrikaai, vendakaai, kaayi, kaayi” (vegetable vendor putting forth his gem collection in Tamil) to “aaloo lelo, pyaz lelo, sabji lelo” (the very same in Hindi, in an alternate universe called Allahabad) was not easy. The transition from “coffee venuma kanna?” (would you like to have coffee, dear?) to “chai dhoon beta?” (Would you like to have tea, dear?), was not easy either. Is this going to be yet another North vs South rant rail?

Nope.

Far From it.

This is me ‘looking back’ at  the two years of my post graduation. This is me reminiscing 2 years, what now feels either like a film reel that could pass through my eyes in a jiffy, or a chest of memories that I could sit with for days together. When I look back there was simplicity in how I lived. Although far an analogy, I lived the life of a ‘brahmachari’ (a ‘brahmacharini’ if one wants to be gender sensitive) – sole purpose being learning. I grew up listening to tales told by my parents and grandparents of how they were deprived of options and how they had to make do with what they had. In those two years, I had experienced exactly that. How often do you hear your professor tell you “It’s a small city and there is just one decent theatre and you are most likely to cross paths with me there too anyway.

To start with, I was elated that I was finally getting independence. I could make my own decisions, I could live by my own rules, I didn’t have to ask permission from people to do things that I liked. In return, all I had to do was keep my parents informed from time to time. It was not a  big ask according to me. The deal was on! Now when I look back, the costs were high! I wish someone had told me that I wouldn’t have anyone to fall back on. I couldn’t afford to be careless. I had to fend for myself. I had to be responsible and knowingly or unknowingly I was carrying my family’s reputation with me all along. Ironic to say, I was ‘independent’.

Interestingly enough, the city, the culture, the people there have taught me quite a few life lessons. 133 years old now, University of Allahabad is a time immemorial abode of eminent leaders, philosophers, scientists, musicians, poets and many more and I must admit, just looking at the campus made us all wannabe photographers, a few were genuinely good at what they did though. When I first landed in Allahabad, I knew it as a town disguised as a city. It has an airport that hardly has flights to any city down the Vindhyas. ‘One day at a time’ was our mantra to survive the two years. But this *city* has always found a way to surprise me. If you meet an auto driver who cheats you into paying an extra 50 bucks on a fine morning, you also meet a watchman who will greet you in your mother tongue and take you by surprise on a day when you feel homesick. The city that can feed you potatoes in every meal, was also the city that could cook amazingly different varieties of potatoes all through the year. For every complaint that there was nothing new to explore, you meet a person who makes you go “Oh wow, that’s an interesting perspective!”.

Prayag is a must in every pilgrim’s checklist, but how does it compare to the devotion of a daily motor cyclist who encounters one idol for every stone throw’s distance all along the route from his home to his workplace. To be able to take at least one dip at the Triveni Sangam – The Divine Mélange of Ganga Yamuna and the Mythical Saraswati, is a dream of many pilgrims, but I was among the few to get a chance to spend a whole evening on a boat, gazing at the sun take a dip from its 3.00pm peak to its 6.00pm trough into the banks from amidst the strokes of the oars. It was beautiful singing ‘Hailesa’ (a folklore in telugu, my mother tongue) there but what made it a memory was the folklores (sung by my friends) that echoed back to me in 6 other languages of our country. Adding to this, I had the privilge of visiting the Kumbh mela in the year 2019. I think it was the only time in my 22 years that I felt so tiny, my life felt so small, and everything else was absolutely magnanimous.

The city of my alma matter offers a life of peace to those who see it and a peaceful after life to those who believe in it.

And with that, I rest my case.

END

Aswini enjoying a spirited student performance at her Freshers’ Party at CBCS, Allahabad University. To quote Dorothy Gale: ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore!

Aswini is an artist by passion, and a passionate researcher by profession. She is currently employed as a junior research fellow at Centre for Creative Cognition, S.R.University, Warangal. She is an avid reader, and enjoys reading books on philosophy, sci-fiction, satirical humour and majorly cognitive science which she claims, comes as an occupational hazard. She is trained in Indian Carnatic Music for 6 years. Occasionally, she tries her hand at poetry too. If you are on a solo vacation to one of the least happening cities and if there is a lady with a Murakami book in her hand and a cup of coffee in front of her, sitting in the silence of an empty cafe with some slow jazz music playing in the background, you have most likely found the woman in question. She enjoys discussions on topics with which you can never reach a conclusion. She safely promises that most often than not, they end with both the parties going back home in one piece.

Follow Aswini on Instagram: Fauve_2020

Email Aswini: aswini.m@cbcs.ac.in

THE DA’ VINCI CODE: Art or Science?

Featured Image: “Legion.” Watercolor on paper by Christelle Maria Lewis.

By: Christelle Maria Lewis

I’m pleased to introduce my friend and colleague Ms. Christelle Maria Lewis. Christelle is a cognitive scientist, a visual artist, a guitarist, and a cook. To all she does, Christelle brings courage, love, and energy that she could bottle and sell as Cocaine+. Christelle is a full-time researcher who still makes time for friends and family. In addition, she finds time to produce striking paintings of stunning range. She’s continually experimenting with style and medium. Her motifs are clever, but the cleverness never violates aesthetic integrity.

“Like all of us, Christelle faces personal challenges. She handles these challenges with grace and openness, managing to be both tough and vulnerable. Growing up with multiple talents sounds like a dream. But at some point, we need to grow up and commit to one career. In today’s guest post, Christelle addresses the forces that push and pull us: norms about what constitutes an acceptable career, our own abilities, the love affair with an intoxicating new field — and the need to explore life from all angles.

Amita Basu

The Da Vinci Code

By Christelle Maria Lewis

A beautiful mind is always plagued with thoughts about what it ought to eventually invest its all; what path should it follow to keep its heart happy, its spirits high and its drive steady; in other words- seek and maintain a satisfying make believe purpose to get by every day. For now, I speak of human beings and not other beings for one, the mere purpose of constricting my contemplation to just the human race that often baffles me, and two, I am only human, and can never truly do justice to vouch for some other being other that those relatively  similar to me. I would therefore humbly acclaim that every individual has a beautiful mind; some never discovered, some never given an opportunity to choose to be beautiful,  some exaggerated for its contents,  some polished to shine throughout the sands of time, some forgotten , and some misunderstood under the context of gender, race, and status.

Who am I among these labels? I am but one too many like these at different times. If I had to narrow it down, I’d like to be called an artist and a scientist. And that’s where all the problem starts. When the world has standardized labels, it’s hard owning up to more than just one of them; because the world expects you to be picture perfect, all for a nice inspiration to make all those aspirants in the rat race believe that they’re not a mere cog in the machine and that there is hope for all one day.

Is that what we are? Meat for slaughter? After being born and raised with love, ambition, and determination, we have to sacrifice everything unrelated to our “label”  so as too fit with a normalized means of existence.

Like everyone, I started my journey from the same place. My parents made sure I never missed out on anything. They didn’t have much, but they managed to make ends meet. They made sure I played in the mud, in the rain, and up on the trees, they made sure I inculcated the habit of having a head full of dreams and heart to go get them. I’m sure they did all this to make me capable of being a good human being;  that could see things differently, to make the best of the times we are alive. I’m sure all our parents did it for that. But was it really worth it? All those piano lessons, dance classes and dusty trophies from sports meets were all considered secondary to what we are “actually” supposed to do with our life.

When it was time to pick our dream job, being a music teacher, a cook, or an artist, isn’t always a desirable answer. On the other hand, being an astronaut, or a doctor, or an engineer-Boy, did that fetch you a lot of attention. In the corner of every conversation with an “adult who had life figured out” was the silliest most stupid question lurking to be asked. “What are you going to be when you grow up?”. I was asked this atleast once a year. I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up ever since I was 10. ” I want to be a Scientist, like mamma! ” I always jumped up and down while answering.

It all starts with a role models; with way too many doctors, lawyer, and engineering around little kids, everyone looks the same; and kids love novelty. All I had was my mom.  My mom is a marine scientist and at the age of 12 I was showing off in front of all my friends with her deep sea adventure stories. I remember proudly saying that I wanted to be like Indiana Jones  and go on an adventure to find the garden of Eden, or climb the Everest to find an ancient civilization who sacrificed little girls to a false God, or even find the cure for Aids. I even had a laboratory where I mixed water, shampoo, and dishwasher liquid, and wait for it to go Kaboom. It was no fairy tale to a 12 year old girl. It’s all I ever wanted.  I thought being a scientist was all about quenching your curiosity and going on adventures one after the other.  But most of all, I wanted to feet important. Like all those “adults” around me. So I was determined!  All I had to do now was to pick a science to master.

In time I did. Watching my school peers  prepare for medical and engineering entrance meant I was running out of time. I knew all about the rat race. No one tells you anything explicitly about what’s ahead. It’s a feeling akin to watching  soldiers march on past you when the battle drum plays. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t afraid back then. And just like that I dropped everything; Quite literally. With no purpose, I was lost. I stumbled in the dark on something so bright. I found a science that I came to love: Psychology; and soon after that, Cognitive Science.

I’ve never been more curious. I wanted to know more. I was never the studious kind, studying was such a drag. But the high I got from reading cases and theories was was so addictive. I wasn’t satisfied enough with all the theories they taught; there were just too many correlations. I wanted more answers of its causation. In my final year I was introduced to research and that was an arena that I could showcase all my management skills. Talking to people, no problem! Telling them something they haven’t heard: not an issue! Convincing them to do something they really don’t want to. Goddamn yes, I can be saddistic and still be ethical. It was a performance. And I was the only audience. It felt like a trance: from asking research questions to finding answers, to meeting people and being in command of the experiment. Every task from drafting a proposal to submitting the final draft, felt liberating. If this was science, I wanted more. It was then that I understood that there isn’t a fine line between science and art. When it’s something you love, Everything feels aesthetic. Sometimes science is more art than science. And that’s the path I wanted to pursue. 

During my post graduation studies, I was thrown into the eye of the hurricane. I had to unlearn everything and start from scratch. I was neck deep in science but that feeling of high was hard to obtain. There came a point where I couldn’t ask questions anymore, I was only obsorbing information not knowing what to do with it all. Occasionally I got the high from reading about my science but it left sooner than it came. Is this reality? There was no gratification. And the feeling of aesthetics was no where to be found.

At times like this, I resorted to art. Drawing was an escape. My curiosity knew no bounds; I spent many hours painting, knitting, and learning all sorts of skills. Like every other person fighting a mental health crisis, I tried to remain strong and resorted to look for immediate stimuli to quench my curiosity. I was involved in many things. Anything to take my mind of my feeling betrayed by a dream. It was here that I felt my ego spilt. And I embraced that. This embrace of something that’s not normalized still pricks me. As much as we run away from the labels of society, we find ourselves coming back to square one. I am now not just one label, but two distinct ones that’s considered to be world’s apart.

My beautiful mind is an artist to give unto the world full of beautiful minds, and a scientist to take what the beautiful minds in the world have to offer. But most of all, my mind is beautiful because it loves what it does. it has one purpose and that is to seek that Aesthetic high; a satisfying flow of mental process where the mind is allowed to roam free, irrespective of what it’s supposed to do.

It’s time we normalize being da’ Vincis. We’re not made to invest out all into one thing if it’s eating us away. We are all legions of labels coexisting peaceful; one sustaining the othes. We are all beautiful minds that deserve to be free, to feel a high, to feel happy everyday, to be bathed in the feeling of our aesthetics, and to wake up every morning knowing that our purposeless existence mean something atleast to us.  

END

Christelle Lewis is a Junior Research Fellow currently working on Design fixation, advertisement psychology, and visual working memory. She is soon to start her PhD in cognitive science to unravel the mysteries of aesthetics.  Due to the covid 19 lock down, she’s back in Kochi with her family of 6, excluding her pet fishes, kittens, and birds.  She spends her time working on her projects, watching anime, painting, and gardening with her family.

Christelle, framed picture-perfect by greenery living and painted.

Check out Christelle’s art:

Instagram  

Deviant Art

Email Christelle: christelle.m@cbcs.ac.in

MAKE THE DEMON PRETTY: My experience with Depression

By: Shilpi Bharadwaj

I’m pleased to introduce Ms. Shilpi Bharadwaj, my dear friend and colleague. Shilpi is a fellow student of cognitive science, an avid reader, and a talented photographer and visual artist. Shilpi is equally serious about work and fun. She is interested in everything, sees the best in everyone, and lights up any room she walks into. Shilpi has taught me to be kinder to other people. I’ve helped her to accept herself as she accepts other people. 

For the last few years, Shilpi has been battling with several health issues, including major depression. Her valour in the face of adversity humbles and inspires me. Today, Shilpi writes about her experience of depression — as a cognitive scientist living with this extremely common, underdiagnosed, and potentially devastating disorder.

Amita Basu

Make the Demon Pretty

By Shilpi Bharadwaj

I don’t yet exactly know how to put into words the experience of being depressed. It’s akin to being possessed by a demon, the kind they show in horror movies. The only difference is that this demon is real for sure. It’s your own experiences, your own memories, your own mind making you suffer. I often wonder if it’s some sort of punishment for not taking care of it, for not resolving issues, for not complaining enough, for not lashing out when I should have, for not fighting back and for carrying the burden of other people’s mistakes.

Depression can be acute or gradual. It starts like a haunting and ends up as a constant, perpetual harrowing. The demon keeps digging its claws in your wounds and it knows exactly where it hurts the most. It makes you dislike everything. You forget what happy feels like. You forget what motivated feels like. You forget what taking care of yourself means. You forget the things that made you you. Your memory starts betraying you. Your body starts trembling for no apparent reason. And sometimes, you even forget to breathe. You have trouble making trivial decisions. Everything becomes a chore. You either never feel hungry or always feel hungry. You can’t pay attention to anything happening around you. You can’t work, even the work you used to be good at. The quality of your work deteriorates and gradually the quantity goes down until you can’t work at all.  All you know and feel is impending doom.

I have been battling this demon for about a year. I have been taking prescribed anti-depressants to keep me functioning during the day and sleeping pills to stop me from functioning during the night. The medication helps, but it brings with it a number of uninvited friends. Weight gain, nightmares, nausea, headaches, tremors, upset stomach… (https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/coping-with-side-effects-of-depression-treatment#1). But[AB1]  the good news is that not everyone experiences these side effects, and not everyone experiences side effects so severe. I have been prescribed SSRIs, NDRIs and Zolpidem. I have experienced headaches, severe insomnia mood swings, weight gain and memory related issues ever since I started taking medication. It took my psychiatrist a few months to figure out the right combination of medication that has minimal side effects. The only side effects I am still dealing with are night terrors and insomnia.  But I am not sure if these are the side effects of medication or a symptom of my persistent depression.

I often [AB2] stumble upon articles written about depression starting with ‘Fortunately, it’s highly treatable!’ I don’t want to paint a grim picture but recovery from depression isn’t always linear or quick. Not everyone recovers at the same pace. There are multiple factors that need to coalesce in order for a person to completely recover. The hopelessness that a person feels because of depression makes them stay hidden, makes them fear and believe in the worst, and prevents them from seeking help.

But what precipitates a major depressive episode? There is no direct answer to that question. Feeling sad for no apparent reason can be extremely frustrating. Some people may get depressed because of trauma, prolonged periods of stress, accidents, alcohol addiction, financial troubles, turbulent relationships, death of a loved one – basically anything that causes you pain for longer that it should. And some people can’t really figure out what went so wrong that they have succumbed to hopelessness and sadness. Feeling sad is a normal human experience. But feeling sad most of the time for more than a couple of weeks is something that you should pay immediate attention to, and seek help for. Don’t let constant sadness, loss of interest, loss of sex drive, and loss of your sense of purpose become your new normal.

Apart from the well-known emotional disturbances, depression also makes your cognition rot away slowly until you start feeling like your brain is mush. Academic and clinical focus on depression-related cognitive impairments (also known as pseudo-dementia) is very recent. This phenomenon affects cognitive processes including but not limited to attention, processing speed, executive function, working memory, learning, and cognitive affective bias (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22823136). (Altered cognitive affective bias shifts our focus from positive to negative stimuli.) These problems are the main symptoms of an acute episode of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).

It wasn’t at all obvious to me, until I read about it, that I was in fact obsessing over negative thoughts – so much so that even the most significantly positive event failed to capture my attention. This is one of the perils of being depressed. You know that something is wrong, but you don’t exactly know what.

This is where therapy comes in. A skilled psychotherapist will help you acknowledge your disturbed thought processes and problematic behaviors.  Therapy is also important because – even after the emotional symptoms like anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure), dysphoria (disturbed mood), and sleep disturbances subside – the cognitive impairment can continue (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20932356).

For depression, the two most researched and dependable types of psychotherapy are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Interpersonal therapy (IPT). A psychotherapist works with clients to curate a therapy that suits them the best. A therapist specializing in CBT will help you identify negative thoughts and behaviors, and work with you to change or correct those beliefs and interact with others in a more positive way. A therapist specializing in IPT will help you improve your relationship with people in your life, and to solve problems in a healthier fashion.

I am now going to go ahead and write about the things that have helped me deal with my depression.

Medication acts as a kind of a scaffold while you rebuild yourself, so it is important.

Self-acceptance is another key. I have realized and accepted the fact that I can never go back to what I used to be. I’ll never be the same ‘me’ again. We really can’t step in the same river twice. This clinging onto the past probably comes from the inability to see anything meaningful in the future. Even if my past wasn’t that good, I think I’d prefer it to my current reality, which is coloured by being depressed. I have been told again and again by various people to try building new happy memories. I used to be appalled by such outrageous suggestions. How could I? Make memories? And happy memories! At a time like this, when I am barely alive! It sure seemed impossible. But then I also desperately wanted to be okay, to feel normal again, to be able to enjoy work again, enjoy being with people again.

So, I started with the thing I thought was the easiest: Making a salad. I made a salad. I didn’t make any promises to myself to do it every day, or to start living a healthy life, or anything that was way too far into the future. I just made a salad and to my surprise, enjoyed it. Next day I didn’t. A day after that, I did again. In the same way, I started exercising. I chose the easiest way in which I could move my body. Again, I made no promises. And I stuck to it.

It’s been a month now of me chanting One day at a time,and I have stuck to eating one healthy meal a day, and exercising 6 days a week.

Exercise is one of the most beneficial things that you can do to keep your mind and body healthy (https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-is-an-all-natural-treatment-to-fight-depression ).

Even as I am writing this, I am making no promises that I’ll keep at it for a month or even a week. Today, I did what I could. Tomorrow, I’ll wake up decide. I guess making long-term promises when you can’t even think three hours into the future puts a whole lot of pressure on an already stressed-out system. Planning makes me anxious. Planning about changing something scares me. So, I have started doing things randomly. Feel like calling someone, call right now. Feel like exercising, do it right now. Feel like singing, sing right now. Doing these things might not always make you happy – but more often than not, it will.

Another thing that has helped me is trying to have unconditional positive regard for myself. It was extremely difficult to do. It sometimes still is. People suffering from depression feel tremendous guilt that usually has no solid grounds. I try my best to praise [AB3] myself for even the slightest achievement. I have a partner, a sister, and a few friends who do it for me when I can’t.

I have been consulting with a psychotherapist as well. Speaking with her has helped me uncover many problematic areas [AB4] in my behavioral patterns that I had never thought about before. I found out that the things I thought had no effect over me affected me a lot. I used to think that I had left behind my love-hate relationship with my mother and it was all love now but I was wrong. I was and still am mad at her. I thought that I could live a life independent of my father. I didn’t even think about him much. But it turned out that a major part of my negative thoughts were related to him and his flaws. Every time I went to see my therapist, I came back with a new insight, a new monster that I thought I had buried too deep for it to ever crawl back up.  Having an unbiased expert look at you is important when you or the people around you can’t think straight. People around you, and you yourself, want to rush back into normalcy without going through the painful process of peeling the layers of trauma, abuse, and sometimes nullity.  [AB5] Once you start treatment, you want to get better as soon as possible. To this end, in the beginning, I relied on medication way too much, wishing it’d magically make everything okay. But it doesn’t work like that.  Depression is not a vitamin deficiency that can be fixed with vitamin pills. It doesn’t show up on any tests.

That said, you should get a health checkup done, as there are some nutrient deficiencies that can cause depression or make the symptoms worse. (www.everydayhealth.com/columns/therese-borchard-sanity-break/nutritional-deficiencies-that-may-cause-depression/  ). On a routine blood test, before starting medication, I discovered I had severe Vitamin B12 and vitamin D deficiency.

Activity scheduling is another thing that has often worked out for me. I try to plan the next day before going to bed. I make sure that I do at least one thing every day that is for the sole purpose of having fun. The idea of having fun sounds alien when you are depressed, but I try my best to be hopeful that I will have fun. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I just get exhausted.

Failures might get you thinking that you are never going to get better. But you’ll never know until you try again. And again. The most important thing to remember is to be kind to yourself. You are sick and you need to treat yourself with love, kindness, and compassion. You will get better. The journey might be slow. It might be hard. But you will get there.

I am going to leave you with an excerpt from a poem by Mary Oliver titled “The Journey”:

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

END

Shilpi before she got her demon.

Shilpi Bhardwaj is a Cognitive Science PhD candidate working on Mind wandering, meta cognition and Meditation. She enjoys jotting down her thoughts every once in a while. She is also working on a project to understand the relationship between mindfulness and self related perceptual processing.

Follow Shilpi on Instagram

Contact Shilpi: shilpi.b@cbcs.ac.in