Do You See The Problem Now?

I am all for progress and am generally highly appreciative of the advances made in medical science, but when it comes to determining one’s eye power, I can be heard sharply drawing the breath. One need not be a sensory expert to know that I am being censorious. Stay with me while I explain the case.

One time, there I was, strapped in at the optometrists chair, by those offensive looking goggle-like contraptions across the bridge of my nose. The ophthalmologist, a brisk, happy old man, asked me to relax. He put in a lens and asked me to read something
I D 1 0 T
P I G

He then put in another one and asked me to do the same thing.
I D 1 0 T
P I C

By now, I had the Idiot Pie in apple order and could read them with my eyes closed, but they make doctors Diligent & Determined, and he would not let go of me. Can you see better with this? Or with this? Or this? Or the one before that? he said swapping the lens out and in like a conjurer pulling a rabbit trick in front of his admiring audience. He smiled with every swap of the lens and reminded me of an old avuncular dentist of my childhood days, who had the same courteous friendly bedside (chair-side) manner though he knew fully well that getting up and running was not an option for the patient and could have danced a doodah-dance with sticks.

I was tested this way and that and that way and this way again, making the poor doctor a very confused man. I could not understand this. Was he not happy that I could read? Was I doing something wrong?

I quizzed him and he said in a very concerned voice, ‘Are you sure you can read this?’
Well, if I try hard and squint a bit, I can read it, I said. I got the distinct feeling that had professionalism not stopped him, he would have thought nothing of giving me a quick one across the head with a fly swatter.
‘No, no – don’t strain your eyesight! What’s the point of straining your eyes when we are trying to get you glasses so you don’t have to strain your eyes? Just relax and tell me whether you can see.” he said.

I said okay, but I have to come square and confess: I had no idea how to relax and see. When people tell me to see, I try hard to see. Try, try and when you cannot, try harder was something I was told almost perpetually and yet, now at this crucial juncture of forgoing dinner at the optometrists chair, I was being told not to try hard. Curious.

He did a few more impressive lens swaps, and his round face crinkled with worry again, and I asked him what the problem was. He said that for my age, the power should be increasing or staying the same, but I was saying that it was reducing, and he wanted to make sure that I was getting the right pair. So, I buzzed with a light bulb over my head and told him to start off with my current power and take it up from there. It was the end of a long day, and he wanted to go home, and so did I. I emerged after a few minutes, bleary eyed, looking like a rhinoceros sentenced to rimless spectacles on my horn, while he headed home mopping his brow, filled to his brim with tales of how he is forced to earn his living getting idiots to see.

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A few days later, there was some sort of medical fair in the old work spot, and I was told that I needed to swab my cheeks with a earbud. Apparently, that was enough to do gene sequencing or some such thing. I took the information hard, and looked up with a jerk running the risk of losing my precious spectacles. With a cheek swab, if we can find possible donors for bone marrows and what-not, why can we not have a simple procedure to find one’s eye power?

Lens making has been around for at least three hundred years now: Telescopes and microscopes we nailed, yet we seem to need a conjurer to do the magic of rabbit swaps to find our eye power today. Tut Tut. Most baffling.

Of Dinosaurs, Genes & Aliens

The thing about travel is it lets you indulge in conversations that you otherwise may not have: With car drivers (White Tiger, Driver Shiva or Murugan and Driver KillerMan ) for instance.

We were returning from a trip to Chichen Itza by van. The drive is a good three hours, and the husband was chatting amiably with the van driver, while we pulled out our books to read. I settled down with ‘The Gene’, By Siddhartha Mukherjee. The book is one that requires concentration, especially for one who made stout Biology teachers quail. The book is held tight by a web weaving historical context, scientific detail and personal insights. It is a fascinating read, if somewhat heavy going in places.

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Genetics as a discipline had a number of misdirections and key researches almost lost to mankind, like Mendel’s experiment with pea plants, but for a lucky discovery of his article over 50 years after his death. The book touches upon many such instances. It talks about the supposed brilliance of scientists, how scientists are after all human and how their personalities can sometimes thwart and stifle growth. I particularly enjoyed the little quotations at the beginning of every chapter.

Every now and then, I stopped to take in the rustic scenery outside in the Yucatan province. Up in the front, the conversation was flourishing, if in a somewhat one-sided fashion. The van driver liked his audience and his theories grew wilder, and his tales more grandiose.

The man said he was originally from Canada, then moved to US before settling in Mexico. His tales, at any rate, portrayed a colorful life – a trucker, a pop-star, construction, sound recording. We had niggling doubts as to why his life had followed the pattern it had, but did not dig too closely. (He had the power of the van remember?)

‘How is Gene?’ asked the husband turning his head wife-ward. I had gotten past the horrifying section on Eugenics thankfully and said a thing or two about what all mankind is answerable for. Evolution, I said, better have a good reason for cruelty.

’Ah! Evolution. I don’t believe in evolution as a theory. I have a theory’, said the van driver, perking up since he hadn’t spoken for all of three minutes. He bore the look of a man doing a grand flick off some sad sop’s tale from the internet, ‘My theory is that aliens are responsible for life on earth. I think that the aliens had tried to see if life can flourish on Earth with dinosaurs.’
Four second pause.
‘And then they found them too big. The dinosaurs were too big, you know? I think that the asteroid that hit the Earth was nothing but a nuclear bomb sent by aliens. You see it all the time, don’t you?’

‘Eh… What do I see all the time?’ I asked. I have to come clean and admit that I don’t see dinosaurs all the time. Or aliens if you come to think of it, and definitely hope not to see nuclear bombs sent by the unseen aliens to hit the now extinct dinosaurs. I like a quiet life.

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‘I mean, look at the size of those computers earlier on, and look at them now.’ He stopped here for dramatic effect, like one coming with the argument that clinches all.’ The aliens then got a much better model with humans and current life forms and decided to drop a nuclear bomb on Earth to get rid of the dinosaurs.They were just too big for them.’

The husband and I exchanged significant glances in our minds without once looking at each other. “I will take it that you just consider it a theory.”, said the husband, a man who would have obviously done well in the diplomatic services.

“Well…evolution is a theory no doubt,” said the driver, as though conceding a poorly paid chess move by dim witted opponents. “But aliens is a better concept. You know the supposed asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs fell right here? Yes – right here in the Yucatan desert.” , he said opening his arms wide, and the van jerked alarmingly. I implored him to hold the steering wheel, to which he laughed, ‘Of course, it was a nuclear bomb sent by aliens, and it is funny that centuries later, we are talking about it, and trying to fit in theories like evolution.”

crater
The Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, the site of the impact that decimated the dinosaurs.(Illustration: Detlev van Ravenswaay / National Geographic)

I set out to explain the experiments with pea plants, how the evidence set up the basis for genetics etc, but the man was bored, and said I must open my mind a little and consider the aliens theory. I bridled. I love a tall tale as much as the next one, but… The husband seem to sense my state, and shot me a warning look.

I had to concede that here was a fellow who had obviously educated himself on the Internet, and was proud of it. The Science teachers in his school days had done their best, and I too must learn to accept that he liked his erudition because he understood complex theories like aliens implanting life on earth.

By the end of the trip I needed some time to reflect, and when I did, I realized that travel had once again made sure I met a person so different in ideologies than myself. I hope he thought a little bit about things that could be proven vs things that could not be, when he reflected later on.

I, for my part, was able to understand why it is easy to believe compulsively written theories on the Internet.

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe?utm_source=nextdraft&utm_medium=email

Science lessons seem so far off tucked away in the recesses of the childhood brain. What time is left after earning one’s livelihood can easily be spent in the entertainment industry’s efforts to keep us glued: An industry that thrives on blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

As Lisa Randall says in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs:
The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows us to think about crazy-seeming concepts, but with an eye to identifying the small, logical consequences with which to test them.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/28/dark-matter-and-the-dinosaurs-lisa-randall/

What we need is to be able to travel more, so we get to see another’s view point every now and then, even if we do not agree. Especially if we do not agree.

After all, we are nothing but star dust.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/02/01/we-are-all-stardust-steven-weinberg-interview/

Another World

We are back from what can only be termed an exotic vacation by the seaside, and the old brain nudged me to look for something written on marine life a while ago, and I did. I had written this post a few months ago, and forgot to publish it.

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So, here is the old post while I marshal my thoughts from the vacation.

One evening over dinner, the husband asked in what he thought was a nonchalant tone whether we should go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium that week-end.

“Hmm…Did they send you the renewal plea for the annual pass?” I asked shrewdly.

He laughed and said that they had indeed.

We are as gullible as galloping oysters in fish sauce when it comes to the annual pass gab. We look and analyze the thing from all angles and figure that if we go just once more in the next year, it all makes sense and buy the annual passes. The year ahead seems to be sprawling with empty week-ends. Week-after-week, month-after-month: having nothing to do, we say why not set aside one week-end a month for the Science museum, one for the zoo, one for the natural history museum and another for ecological preservation?

Then, of course life unfolds, which in the nourish-n-cherish household has been established to be somewhat erratic, and hectic, and we are left wondering whether the weekdays with all its attendant worries is calmer than week-ends with all its hectic activity. Before we know it, the renewal plea arrives and we try our best to scramble in another visit before the annual pass expires.

“If we go straight to the Diwali party from the museum, we can work in that week-end.”, we say and scramble in a trip to the Aquarium.

Anyway, what I meant is that we went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium a few months ago. The salty, tangy, eucalyptus-scented air ruffles your hair as you make your way towards the museum. The cawing of the seagulls and the faint smells of seals and seaweed greet you long before the wonders inside.

Observing marine life is as mesmerizing as it is mystical. Standing there in front of the large glass tanks and looking at sharks, turtles, fish of every color and variety, is magical.

There is one section where we can see jellyfish boink around. Jellyfish that are colored brilliantly, transparent jellyfish, and jellyfish that contain bioluminescent bacteria. As I was standing there marveling at the brilliance of nature, I noticed that there were patterns in the glowing bacteria. Some had patterns that if one squinted one’s eyes resembled constellations in the night sky. I don’t know whether the patterns in the jellyfish are unique to each one much like the Zebra’s stripes are, but it would definitely not surprise me if that were the case. Nature’s patterns are as varied as they are diverse.

We came home that night, reluctantly pulling ourselves away from the enthralling environs of teeming marine life, and sat around for a hastily thrown together dinner. The conversation drifted towards marine life, a topic that is dear to the daughter’s heart. The love started young as we know to our chagrin – we might have watched Finding Nemo five hundred times when she was growing up. Every little fish and piece of coral was much loved in the home. The conversation flitted dangerously close to the ‘I wish I could live in the sea’ theme. The husband watched us for a moment and said in a strangely ruminative tone: “It is a scary world out there isn’t it? A-fish-eats-fish world.”

I was reminded of a quote that floats up in my mind every so often when I am observing the world around us. A quote that is prominently placed in the Monterey Bay Aquarium too:

The sea is as near as we come to another world: Anne Stevenson

Yes, it is a fish-eats-fish world, but it is also the world of beauty, survival, co-existence, and a symbiosis of life.

Good Food Mood

This article was published in The Hindu 

Some of my articles, especially ones that involve the night sky have me pondering on the nature of our existence and how minuscule we are in the scheme of things. The precise sequence of things that led to this particular form of life on this planet and so on. Generally, the night sky is simply a becalming experience that inspires humility, and some vague musings.

The scale of the universe is one that is awe inspiring. We are minuscule compared to the universe, but we also contain millions of minuscule particles compared to our own size. As far as the microbes are concerned, we, each of us: deer, goose, humans are a universe unto ourselves. There is something deeply spiritual in that : we contain multitudes and we enable multitudes. The diversity and beauty of the microbial world is immense, and one that is still emerging in our understanding of it. With the sound of rain pattering outside, I was sitting snugly inside reading I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong, stopping every now and then to read out an interesting piece to the children.

Ayar padi maligaiyil thaai madiyalil kanrinnai pol
ஆயர்பாடி மாளிகையில் தாய் மடியில் கன்றினைப்போல்
maya kana thoongugindran thaalaelo
மாயக்கண்ணன் தூங்குகின்றான் தாலேலோ
Avan vaai niraiya mannai undu mandalathai kaatiya pin
அவன் வாய் நிறைய மண்ணை உண்டு மண்டலத்தை காட்டிய பின்

Roughly translates to: Here is little Krishna, sleeping like a little calf after eating a handful of mud and showing us the universe within it.

The son played the video for the nth time on the television, and the daughter said, “Oh no – not that again. How many times will you see that video?”

“See…see here – when baby Krishna opens his mouth, his mom can see the whole universe inside it. The whole universe!” he says his eyes widening, quite unable to comprehend why this fact is not as astounding to his elder sister.

“Yes – but you said that already.”

“I always watch what you are seeing!” said the fellow stung at this accusation of hogging the television. His sister scowled, the toddler tensed and I sensed it was time for dinner before the situation escalated, and rivers of tears joined the gurgling rivers of rainwater outside.

Inside the house, we sat down around the dinner table with hot food and slurped at it. We kept getting interrupted by alerts giving us flash flood warnings, and it increased the gratitude for being inside, relishing warm food and enjoying one another’s company. Minutes into the meal, the situation had considerably lightened and the children were rolling off their chair giggling at something inane. I watched them bemused.

Countless writers have written about the effects of good food. Jerome K Jerome from Three Men in a Boat goes on to describe the effects in great detail:

It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon it says, “Work!” After beefsteak and porter, it says, “Sleep”. After a cup of tea(two spoonfuls for each cup, and don’t let it stand for more than 3 minutes), it says to the brain, “Now rise and show your strength. Be eloquent and deep and tender; see with a clear eye, into Nature, and into life: spread your white wings of quivering thought and soar, a god like spirit over the whirling world beneath you, up through long lanes of flaming stars to the gates of eternity!”

What is it with food and mood? Is there a direct connection between the gut and the brain?

It turns out that there is. In ‘I Contain Multitudes’, Ed Yong goes on to write that there are now studies directly linking gut bacteria with mental well-being. We have a long way to go in understanding the role of gut bacteria.  Some studies indicate reduced symptoms of depression in people with irritable bowel syndromes after consuming certain types of probiotics.

If research advances enough to diagnose certain types of borderline psychiatric patients and is able to treat them with specific types of probiotics to enable well-being, would that not be great?

An excellent article on the topic by Maria Popova here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/10/i-contain-multitudes-ed-yong/

The future could hold in store for us enough advances in microbiology & genetics, to enable personalized treatment options that aims at holistic healing. That is a promising, if distant, future to strive towards.

Quote:
It is estimated that every human contains 100 trillion microbes, most of which live in our guts. By comparison the Milky Way contains between 100 million and 400 million stars.

Maybe the mud that baby Krishna swallowed contained bio luminescent bacteria that made the universe inside of him light up when he opened his mouth.

krishna_universe

Whatever it is, like Jerome K Jerome says: “We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach, Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach and diet it with care and judgement. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart.”

Blame The Toxos

Every once in a while a book comes along that changes the way you fundamentally view things. I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong is one such. In the book, the author covers various types of microbes, bacteria and pathogens that we carry within ourselves or encounter in the world. A fascinating adventure awaits the reader on this microscopic journey.

The book shows us how each being is a complex symbiosis unto itself. A concept we know vaguely but appreciate deeply when we read the book.

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We have heard of parasitic infections that control the minds of hosts like rabies. Rabies makes its carriers aggressive and the only way for it to spread is by biting and scratching another being. ( Rabies is probably the basis for the myth of the werewolf.)

There is one particular type of parasite that is chilling in its tale. Toxoplasma Gondii or Toxo is a single celled organism that latches itself onto brains. It is also referred to in the TED talk linked below for further information.

Quote : Toxoplasma Gondii is a brain parasite otherwise known as Toxo. It can only sexually reproduce in a cat; if it gets into a rat, it suppresses the rodents natural fear of cats and replaces it with something more like sexual attraction. The rodent scurries towards the cats with fatal results, and T.gondii gets to complete its life cycle.

Toxo has been known to manipulate mammals. It makes rats run towards cats and offer themselves as prey just so toxo can reproduce. Classic tale of self destructive behavior, wouldn’t you agree? It is also proven that many humans play host to Toxo.

TED Talk by Ed Yong

The book led to many happy, wild conjectures such as:
(a) Could that be the reason Cat videos are so popular on You-tube? I mean, I have always wondered: Why Cat Videos? Why not hippo videos?

(b) Humans affected with Toxo also fare differently on personality tests, showing different trajectories when it comes to risk taking and pleasure seeking behaviors. Could a combination of Toxo and Dopamine releasing behaviors such as increased reliance on social media have engineered the elections?

It sounds like a weird sci-fi scenario: Toxo encourages self-destruction, dopamine clamors for fake news, and the world falls prey to single celled organisms manipulating mammals (us), while we run around like zombies thinking we have free will.

The understanding of human biology has fascinated mankind for centuries. But advances in microbiology itself is less than 200 hundred years old. Even then, our narrative surrounding the understanding has been harsh: Bacterial infections, germs, plagues, survival of the fittest. While there are numerous examples of these, the truth is that we also play host to a large number of helpful microbes and bacteria.

Theodore Rosebury, a microbiologist, wrote in 1928, during his research that:

“The knowledge that micro organisms can be helpful to man has never had much popular appeal, for men as a rule are more preoccupied with the danger that threatens their life than in the biological forces on which they depend. The history of warfare always proves more glamorous than accounts of co-operation.”

A fact so timeless that we ought to have it framed in halls of learning if it isn’t already.

P.S: Please watch the TED Talk by Ed Yong – it is only 13 minutes long.

Stop and Look at the Snails

After enduring a particularly long spell of drought, we are relishing the rains lashing down on us this year. The clean, fresh air after the rain is one we relish. As the toddler son and I make our way to school every morning, our heart lifts at the marvelous rainbows, the cherry blossoms starting to bloom and the beautiful snails out on the roads.

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Sometimes, we come up with silly names for the little creatures we find on our path. Turbo the Snail is always a welcome sight. Earthy Worm invokes the same curiosity if not adoration. Toby Turtle is remembered with affection, and we wonder aloud how we can find ways to hobnob more freely with turtles.

Watching the snails leave a shiny trail behind them one rainy day, we squatted there wondering whether that trail left behind by snails is poisonous. That innocent minute squatting on the sidewalk looking at snails criss-cross our path raised so many questions. It looked to us like a snail could not get very far if it had to flee a predator.

Where do they live when it is not raining and can’t move?
What if we had slippery slopes for snails? said the toddler always keen to help.
Do only snails walk the slippery slope? (completely lost on the toddler of course) and so on.

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“Amma, we will be late! Hurry up.” said the conscientious fellow and we galloped past the snails wondering how much there was to do in the world, and how little we manage to do.

The thought that there is so much more to be done can sneak up at you in the most unexpected moments. Like the time I was reading a love story written by Alexander McCall Smith in the book Chance Developments. The story imagined the life of a young man in Scotland using a vintage photograph of a young man helping to change a car tire in the presence of a beautiful young lady in a cream colored coat.

 

In the book, the young man is taking a stroll around a loch and is fascinated by some plants that many ignored because they were believed to be poisonous, but he nibbles at them lovingly almost, since his father had tried and demonstrated to him that these particular plants were not poisonous at all. He had studied the properties of the plant, and traced the origins of the myth to a Celtic folktale, and though most tales started off with a kernel of truth, this one probably did not.

How is a story as innocuous as that supposed to make one feel like there is so much to be done? Because they are so many ways in which we can remain curious, to question the this-is-how-it-is-done-s of the world. The fact that we can bust one myth just by questioning it is good. And it proves that we pave the path for one more myth to be broken and then one more.

It has been a few years since I read ’Surely, You’re Joking Mr Feynman – Adventures of a Curious Character’ By Richard Feynman. I remember one passage in which the celebrated scientist talks of watching ants as they made their way around his backyard. Marveling at how they navigated obstacles placed in their path, and admiring the innate steadfastness of the species.

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The quest for knowledge can be a curious, interesting journey, if only we take the time to stop and look at the snails.

Richard Feynman on the Meaning of Life – Brain Pickings

Toby Turtle’s Lessons on Life

Toby the Turtle came home for a week. He was a much loved member of the family, and soon after helping to cook a meal would join hands with heroic forces to battle evil in Spiderman Vs Sinister Six wars. Toby the Turtle is the kindergarten classroom stuffed toy who comes home for a week to the proud Star of the Week. It is a great honor for the children, and I saw the kindergartener in our home puff out his chest and look important, as he carried Toby around. He loved having someone to take care of, and I must say Toby lightened the atmosphere in the house.

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We all seemed to like having the stuffed toy around, not least because of the change in pace, but also because Toby brought the class journal with him. Every child who had Toby had written a page or two about what they did with Toby, and how much they loved him.

“Toby is my friend.”, ” I wish I could keep Toby with me forever.” seemed to be common sentiments across all the pages in the journal, and I must say had I been Toby, I would have loved it.

In other news, I recently read a book on aging, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Dr. Atul Gawande. Atul Gawande is a surgeon, and the book is a must read for all of us who must contemplate mortal life. The business of living with dignity, pride, compassion and meaning. In the book, Dr Gawande explores the process of aging using multiple examples, interspersed with his experience with his own father, who was also a surgeon. His father gradually loses his health, and despite his deterioration, was determined to lead life on his own terms.

Modern medicine has made phenomenal advances. Life expectancy has increased, and for the first time in the history of mankind, we have as many people under the age of 5 as above 80.

When something happens and people make it into hospitals, the attending surgeons and doctors will do everything in their power to ensure that they can save lives, and often let the near and dear know what the problem is, and what the medical options are, but not much more.

Dr. Gawande explains that it is up to us, as patients, family members or friends to ask and be equipped with the critical questions of living. Questions such as:

1. What is your understanding of your illness and how far along has the condition progressed?

2. Your fears or worries for the future

3. Your goals and priorities

4. What outcomes are unacceptable to you? What are you willing to sacrifice and not?

And later,

5. What would a good day look like?

Though it examines a serious subject, it is not a morbid book, and pragmatically looks at the problem of aging in the current medical system. There are lively portions that explore the elements of a happy life as much as it opens our eyes to mortality. Take for example: Bill Thomas’s effect on Geriatric care.

Dr Gawande talks about one scenario where Dr Bill Thomas, a director of a medical facility in upstate New York, was upset about the well-being of those in the geriatric ward. He being a quirky, brilliant gentleman, and felt that it was the lack of vibrant life around hospitals that is the cause for long term residents to suffer from boredom, loneliness and depression.

Having grown up on a farm himself, he petitions the management that the missing link was teeming life. After some work, he manages to convince the management that having some plants, birds etc would help people get better sooner. As soon as the nod came, he got busy, and before people knew what was happening, truck loads of living beings descended on the premises: Not a dog here and a cat there, but hundreds of parakeets, dogs, cats, rabbits, hens – a whole menagerie.

aging

The next few days were mayhem as nurses and doctors worked hand in hand trying to get the birds into cages and making sure there was someone to feed the birds and so on. The hospital was furious, nurses complained about having more to do as if caring for the old people were not enough. Administrators complained about infections, they complained about cleanliness.

But something phenomenal came about from the experiment: Patients who were uninterested and mute took notice. They would watch the birds, and weeks later would talk, and in some cases, patients cared for the birds, and whenever they could, took up feeding the birds. In time, it resulted in fewer health interventions. People were happier and general health improved. Every body liked having some being to care for.

(You can read the section of his interview here, though the book has the whole story)

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/10/atul-gawande-on-being-mortal.html

Quote:

And it didn’t boil down to how the animals saved them. It boiled down the idea that people need to have purposes in their lives, and that you could offer ways that they could connect to them. That they could live for something larger than just being alive.

That is the essence of humanity. We need to care, we need to feel needed and wanted, and we need to feel empathy: whether we are 5, 40 or 80.

Toby the Turtle taught us that. Kindergarten teaches us about life in lovely ways.