Dr. Suprakash Roy appears in The Best Seller, a novel by Arunabha Sengupta.

A cyber conscious mender of minds, he is interested in the effect of the modern world of the internet and social networking in changing human behaviour.

The following are a demonstration of how the doctor's own mind works, extrapolated from the novel.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Net aided Neocortex and Community Stamp Collection

University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Wegner conducted an experiment to demonstrate what he calls transactive memory.

It seems all memory is not stored within our own heads. As social animals, whenever we interact closely, a lot of storage takes place outside, in combination with other cortical cells as well. Almost like a joint memory account.

He conducted a memory test involving  59 couples, all dating each other for the last three months. Half of them were allowed to form pairs between themselves, and the other half were split up and paired randomly. Wegner then asked all the pairs to read 64 statements, each with an underlined word. Eg. Midori is a Japanese melon liqueur.

Five minutes later, they were asked to write down as many of the underlined words as they remembered. Sure enough, the pairs who knew each other could remember a lot more. They seemed to have an implicit joint memory system.

Cognition in community is different from cognition of individuals. Same with memory and reactions.  The difference in the behaviour of one by himself and in a group is very well known and analysed.

A community existing together tends to develop a set of characteristics unique to the group. Where, as a group, they like, dislike, appreciate, hate, idolise and take steps that would have been alien to the individual lives of the different individuals who constitute the group.

Think what it means in terms of communities like Facebook, Orkut, Twitter and the rest. As people tend to spend more and more time within the groups, the questions crops up.

How much does an individual think for oneself?
Is it a tweet and then the migratory reflex takes over the population, with each one unsure of the direction, moving as a united whole? Much as the migratory birds do?

But then, man is a social animal.

With neocortical volumes of apes proportional to the intelligence, and that in turn proportional to the size of the groups they can peacefully cohabit, man finds himself in the biggest communities.

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar found the phenomenon very striking and also fit an equation linking cortical volume with community size.  The more a community grows, the bigger is the number of multiple way interactions that one has to keep track of. In a five member group, one has to contend with 6 interpersonal dynamics apart from the four between self and others. When the group increases to 10 members, it becomes 36 interpersonal relationships added to nine between self and others. So, naturally, living and cohabiting peacefully in a big group requires sufficient brain size to manage all relationships and interactions.

The size of the ideal human group based on the cortical volume, according to the equation derived by Dunbar, is 147.8 or roughly 150. Human beings are programmed through evolution so that more than 150 people in a group necessitates branching into different communities or creating a complicated system of hierarchy. That’s why military units are hardly ever more than 150 and some of the hunter gatherer tribes who survive to this day, like the Hutterites, make it a point to branch off into other group once the member count reaches 150. Even high tech firm Gore Associates, Newark, Delaware, follows the policy of opening a new office whenever a centre exceeds 150.

The reason for a cap in the number of members in a group is simple. Bonding as friends, or close associates, empathising and resonating takes time, and burns emotional energy. At more than 150, our channel capacity is exhausted. Then the group behaviour becomes erratic, unmanageable and unpredictable, often harmful.

However, we see people collecting friends like stamps on Social Networking sites, often ‘friends’ numbering more than 500, and moving as a unified group along with them. The 150 boundary is flagrantly overstepped.

The questions that naturally arise are ...
Is an individual losing individuality, burnt out in expended emotional energy ?
Are the friendships meaningful?
Are networks moving haphazardly, malfunctioning their way to some downfall?
Are human beings, powered by internet, evolving to have greater net aided neocortical capabilities?
How easy is it in today’s community linked world to control the minds of many in unscrupulous ways?
Is some self motivated power not already doing it?

Well ... we have to wait, watch and find out ...

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A novelist and cricket historian, Arunabha Sengupta is the author of three novels and the Chief Cricket Writer on cricketcountry.com. In his novels he deals with the contemporary world with acerbic humour. In his cricket writings he covers the history and romance in the game, while his post graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces