Krea Univ, Sapien Labs train focus on looking inwards

Tara Thiagarajan, founder, Sapien Labs, sought to point out that in a world where in-person interactions are being replaced with virtual ones, the impact on social behaviour is a cause for concern.
(L-R) Prof S Sivakumar, Krea, K VijayRaghavan, Tara Thiagarajan and Kapil Viswanathan
(L-R) Prof S Sivakumar, Krea, K VijayRaghavan, Tara Thiagarajan and Kapil Viswanathan

CHENNAI: Metrics tracking the declining mental health over a decade paint a sorry picture. Emerging challenges in young adults include self-image or self-worth/confidence, emotional resilience, relationship with others and suicidal thoughts. The state of understanding mental health disorders is still ‘primitive,’ said a scientist-cum-entrepreneur.

Tara Thiagarajan, founder, Sapien Labs, sought to point out that in a world where in-person interactions are being replaced with virtual ones, the impact on social behaviour is a cause for concern. Therefore, there is a crying need to focus on human brain and mind beyond interdisciplinary boundaries. Data using aggregate mental well-being score has proven that in India the internet-enabled population is showing one of the steepest declines in the younger age group and the pandemic has only exacerbated it.

Against this backdrop is the relevance of setting up the Sapien Labs Centre for Human Brain and Mind at Krea University. This was inaugurated by K VijayRaghavan, former Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, in Chennai on Thursday.

The launch event at the Krea University Office marked the collaboration between Krea University and Sapien Labs. Also present were Kapil Viswanathan, chairperson of the executive committee of the governing council at Krea University, Ramachandra Guha, distinguished university professor, Krea University and Shailender Swaminathan, Director, Sapien Labs Centre for Human Brain and Mind.

The Centre seeks to track and understand the impact of our changing environment on the human brain and its consequences for the individual and society so that it can be managed to mitigate risks and enhance outcomes. The collaboration will bring together cross-disciplinary faculty, large-scale acquisition of multi-dimensional human physiological data, cutting edge data workflows, and engagement with the non-profit, startup and government sectors.

VijayRaghavan said, “The number of nerve cells in the human brain is in excess of 86 billion neurons. The brain is extraordinary. We struggle to understand the complexity of the brain. One way to go about this would be to have an Indian brain collaboration. The failure in our system is the lack of collaboration between institutions, individuals and people working within institutions.”

Thiagarajan added, “We share with Krea the focus on bringing together research across disciplinary boundaries and also enabling real world impact from this research. One of the core focus areas of this centre will be to define what causes a decline in mental health. Soundness of the human mind is really fundamental for everything that we do and what humanity could create going forward.”

In his address, Guha provided a deeper understanding on why science research needs to find its way into universities in India. He said, “modern Indian university dates to 1857 and the three universities of Bombay, Madras and Kolkata were set up to produce people to function at the lower levels of the bureaucracy by the colonial government. But there were several revolutionary features of the modern Indian university that I would like to draw your attention to. Firstly, essentially they were the first secular institutions of India that drew people across, caste, religion and gender boundaries. Secondly, Once the universities grew in the first half of the 20th century, they also became crucibles of research. High quality scientific research was done consistently within universities as was interdisciplinary research between natural and social sciences. Thirdly, in time scientific research was largely shifted outside the university into specialised organisations. This deprived students at universities the opportunity to undertake any kind of research. But I know that the best research is still done at universities.”

“Happily, we are now moving back to a much more inclusive and integrative model. Even IITs now recognise the importance of social sciences. What we are trying at Krea here with the launch of this centre is making up for lost time by locating cutting edge research in a university setting where you can have incredibly fruitful collaborations between people across disciplines,” Guha said, adding that the centre will be looking at the social implications of technology.

On the occasion, Swaminathan shared the vision of the Research Centre and said, “we have our challenges but am delighted that various institutes from different disciplines have evinced keen interest to collaborate with this centre.”

“One particular area will be our attempt to collate high quality data. This is an initiative that requires a lot of data collection and we would like to set world class standards in genuine data collection,” he added.

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