Neuroscientist and postdoctoral researcher Dr James Hartzell has coined the term ‘Sanskrit Effect’ post his research findings that the brain's grey matter density and cortical thickness increased in those who had learnt and routinely recited Sanskrit texts. In his study he compared the brains of 21 male participants with those of 21 professional Vedic Sanskrit scholars who had memorised the Yajurveda Saṃhitā text ( a 3,000-year old oral text of approximately 40,000 words) and associated Vedic Sanskrit texts ranging from a few thousand words to over 100,000 words, and found that their brains had increased capacity in language, memory and visual systems.
This finding could be useful in the prevention of age related ailments. Whether the Vedic scholars are less vulnerable to devastating memory pathologies such as Alzheimer's, Dr Hartzell has written in an earlier paper that it is not known yet, “though anecdotal reports from India's Ayurvedic doctors suggest this may be the case. If so, this raises the possibility that verbal memory ‘exercising’ or training might help elderly people at risk of mild cognitive impairment retard or, even more radically, prevent its onset.”
Dr Hartzell spoke to CSP during his downtime
moments while scanning participants in Spain for a language and memory
experiment. His current research investigates questions, ideas and practices
from the Sanskrit and Tibetan traditions, and understanding how such ideas and
practices may relate to modern scientific understanding (continually in
development) of brain, cognition, and language.
philology warns us against the fallacy of conflating the word with the thing.
Shakespeare has pointed out that a rose by any other name would still smell as
sweet. But Sanskrit does things differently. After all, this is the language
where the word for a thing, “padaartha”, actually means, the “meaning of the
word,” establishing an inseparable bond between word and meaning. What are your
views on this?
There are some very interesting and diverse views on this topic in the Sanskrit tradition, and one should be careful not to confound different views into some false idea that the Sanskrit tradition provides a singular perspective on this topic--that would be to impoverish the phenomenal richness of the thousands of years of fascinating developments about language within the Sanskrit tradition itself. One very interesting perspective that became quite influential is Bhartrhari´s views on language and Sanskrit. A good summary of some of the key points of his thinking comes, for example, from Ferrante M (2013) Vṛṣabhadeva's Sphuṭākṣarā on Bhartṛhari's Metaphysics: Commentarial Strategy and New Interpretations, J Indian Philosophy: 41:133–149 (NOTE: VP refers to Bhartrhari´s famous work, the Vakyapadiya):
“The well-known first stanza of Vakyapadiya
provides a rapid but exhaustive view of Bhartrhari's philosophical programme,
highlighting the centrality of Brahman, its lack of limitation of any kind, its
being the cause of reality and, above all, its linguistic nature. Brahman is
without beginning and end; it is the cause of all phenomena and, being endowed
with specific powers, it is capable of becoming other than itself. In other
words, although one, it has the capacity of appearing as multiple. The second
stanza defines the relation between the unitary Brahman and the aforementioned
powers, in particular discussing whether these powers have or not any existence
independent of the Brahman's. The third stanza introduces the concept of time,
the most important of Brahman's powers: in it time is defined as the regulator
of existence, the force that permits and impedes every transformation. Finally,
the fourth stanza again discusses the role of Brahman as the cause of
transformations, while more specifically taking into account the origination of
the concrete entities of the world."
The Buddhist Sanskrit tradition in India includes some wonderful explorations of the ideas about the relationship of our own conscious experience with words and what words relate to, commonly translated into English as ´names and forms´, i.e., the names we have for things, and the forms of those things.
What is intriguing, from the viewpoint of
the development of western Linguistics, and the idea that there is an arbitrary
relationship between words and their referents, is that this idea was given
impetus by Ferdinand de Saussuere, the Swiss-French linguist who was also a
Sanskrit professor. Careful examination of his thinking as captured in the
notes from his lectures published as a book by his students, indicates that the
structure of Sausseur´s central model of language and its relationship to
conscious function bears striking resemlbances to Bhartrhari´s ideas, except
that the key notion in Bhartrhari of the intimate relationship of words to
their referents is changed to an arbitrary relationship.
One significant problem, however, is that
Bhartrhari´s ideas (and I am no expert on Bhartrhari) is that he explores
deeply a type of perspectivism that reflects thinking by Patanjali, his major
predecessor. Various really intriguing explorations of different perspectives
on language, cognition, words and their referents continued for a long time in
the Sanskrit and related traditions, so
in order to really understand the various perspectives that the Sanskrit
tradition as a whole has (still today) about the relationship between words and
their referents (whether words in Sanskrit or in other languages) one needs to
dig very deeply into the vyakarana and related philosophical literature and
teachings. While there are definitely some well-developed perspectives in the Sanskrit
tradition about bonds of various types between words and their referents, the
topic is not singular nor simplistic, but rather rich, deep, and well worth
exploring thoroughly (and using modern scientific methods).
A more interesting perspective on this
question (at least in my opinion) centers around the question: why do humans
have so many different languages and what is the relationship between these,
not just linguistically, but cognitively?
Anyone who is multilingual, typically, has some experience with the fact
that different languages can allow one to experience certain things in
different ways--languages contain many idioms shared between them, but also
usually some that are unique, as also expressions, ways of saying or thinking,
culturally-linked language dimensions that may be unique to a culture. A very rough analogy might be cuisine from
different cultures---one has nutritionally balanced meals in traditional
cuisine from Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, southern China, Nepal, Tibet,
northern Bengal, southern Kerala, Ethiopia, Egypt, France, Italy, Spain, etc.
The experience of eating meals with these cuisines may be quite different in
many great ways but all the meals will provide proper nutrition. So while a rose by any other name may smell
the same, nonetheless our varied languages may provide us differing perspectives
on the rose, on its smell, and on the possible experiences we may have when
encountering the rose.
I am quite biased about the role Sanskrit
can play in this latter perspective I´ve just gestured towards in the preceding
paragraph (otherwise I would never have pursued the extensive studies I did in
Sanskrit--BA, MA, MPhil, PhD). What I
think is incredibly cool about the Sanskrit tradition is the self-awareness of
the interaction of language with cognitive experience, and the very rich
tradition exploring these many and varied relationships. Fundamental ideas
about mantra, about yoga (e.g., what is meant by the yoking idea implicit in
the term yoga, what is yoking to what, and why?), notions of name and form,
notions of mind and language, notions of language and cognitive processes,
etc., are all are wrapped up in the Sanskrit tradition, and in my own
experience, thinking in Sanskrit, particularly in the terms of the rich
yogic-related ideas from the Vedic, Yogic, and Tantric traditions has provided
to me many rich and insightful experiences that have had a strong beneficial
effect on my life (at least I think so!).
did your interest in Sanskrit begin? Where did you first start learning it?
What are your current research interests?
I was introduced to Sanskrit as a freshman
undergraduate at Harvard University. I took an introductory world religions
course, covering the major religious traditions of the entire world, and I
became quite intrigued by the Asian traditions generally (particularly
Hinduism, Buddhist, and Taoism, and the relationship of these traditions to the
major western traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). As part of my studies, I was required to
study one or two of the major languages of one or two of the major religious
traditions, so I chose Sanskrit and Tibetan for learning about Hinduism and
Buddhism. Shortly after starting this
process, in my second undergraduate year, I changed my major to Sanskrit and
Indian Studies, and graduated with high honours in that subject.
My current research interests in the fields
of Sanskrit and Tibetan include the following: I am learning more about the
vyarkarana tradition itself, and I am continuing work from my first PhD on the
Hindu and Buddhist tantric traditions, their roots in the Vedic systems of
thought, and the evolution of tantric ideas and systems of thinking and
practice from the earliest vedic times up through the present.
My current research interests on the
scientific front are I am working on projects related to verbal memory--i.e.
how do we encode, store, and retrieve memory for language in our brains, what
are the underlying maps of the location of such storage and what are the
neuroanatomical circuits involved.
These lines of research intersect in questions
of whether it is possible to investigate, using modern scientific methods,
questions, ideas and practices from the Sanskrit and Tibetan traditions, and
understand how such ideas and practices may relate to modern scientific
understanding (continually in development) of brain, cognition, and language.
How did you research the ‘Sanskrit Effect’?
The study we published in Neuroimage and the associated blog piece in Scientific American relate to a structural analysis we did, comparing a group of professionally qualified Yajurveda Pandits from the Delhi region, and a group of very well-matched control participants. We were interested to find out whether there might be structural brain differences between the two groups, and we found substantial structural differences, as reported in the two publications.
What the study showed is that individuals with professional qualifications as Yajurveda Pandits showed, among other findings, remarkably significant grey matter density and thickness increases in comparison with the control participants, in key neuroanatomical regions associated with language and memory in some very interesting ways. Such a cross-sectional study (between two well-matched groups of participants, (one group engaging in a particular practice-training-experience not shared by the control group) strongly suggests, but does not prove, that the differences seen between the two groups are related to the distinctive practice-training-experience of the Pandit group. Nonetheless, follow-up scientific studies are required before one would know what relationship, if any, exists between the observed structural differences and the Pandit practices (e.g., the observed changes could be related to the extensive memorization, independent of Sanskrit per se, but we do not know this one way or the other as of now).
The study suggested that the type of intensive training in memorization and recitation of the Yajurveda as practiced by the Pandit group we examined has a significant impact on brain structure.
(17th cent) RaghavaYadaviyam- an ‘anuloma-viloma kavya’ that narrates the story
of Rama. But the slokas read in the reverse relate an adventure of Krishna. It
is a bi-directional palindrome, 30 slokas read left to right are about the
Ramayana, and read right to left are about Krishna bringing the Parijata tree
from the heavens to the earth. Does Sanskrit lend itself to such great
Although I never specialized in Sanskrit
court poetry, some of this literature was part of our training at Harvard, and
we learned about the ability of some highly capable Sanskrit court poets to
write pieces that could be read in two different directions, or sometimes in
the same direction but with two different meanings, taking advantage of the polysemy
of many Sanskrit terms.
Whether such practices exist in other
poetry traditions I do not know--I do not know whether or not these practices
were in any way unique to the Sanskrit tradition.