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Posts Tagged ‘memory’
An intriguing post on the Wall Street Journal two days back might help us all towards greater humility. Click on the link to read the whole article. It may be slightly over-hyped but it redresses a long-standing imbalance. I saw a tv documentary about the chimpanzee memory test some time ago. The speed with which Ayumu could see and capture the stimuli was truly mind-boggling. They were presented too fast for me to even see them!
Who is smarter: a person or an ape? Well, it depends on the task. Consider Ayumu, a young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University who, in a 2007 study, put human memory to shame. Trained on a touch screen, Ayumu could recall a random series of nine numbers, from 1 to 9, and tap them in the right order, even though the numbers had been displayed for just a fraction of a second and then replaced with white squares.
I tried the task myself and could not keep track of more than five numbers—and I was given much more time than the brainy ape. In the study, Ayumu outperformed a group of university students by a wide margin. The next year, he took on the British memory champion Ben Pridmore and emerged the “chimpion.”
How do you give a chimp—or an elephant or an octopus or a horse—an IQ test? It may sound like the setup to a joke, but it is actually one of the thorniest questions facing science today. Over the past decade, researchers on animal cognition have come up with some ingenious solutions to the testing problem. Their findings have started to upend a view of humankind’s unique place in the universe that dates back at least to ancient Greece.
I don’t feel the needle in my back
Or notice the numbness inching up the track -
Not until they test me with a touch, that is.
They wheel me into the theatre without applause.
Having no control is something of a shock.
My legs don’t work to help them slide
Us onto the table ready for the knife.
They clink their instruments. I hope it will be brief.
I gaze at the ceiling as they whisper out of sight.
I’m so numb I don’t know when they start
Or what they do. Below the waist’s a blank.
Not so my mind. That other time comes back.
At four years old I watch the ceiling sliding
Past my eyes as I lie on a gurney on my back.
My parents are nowhere to be seen.
The double doors bounce open.
For the second time I see
Tormentors in their masks and aprons
Waiting to pounce on me once more.
It takes six of them to hold me down.
I’m fighting for my breath. I don’t want to drown
Again this time. The mask they force upon my face
Is not like theirs. The cold moves down
My throat into my lungs. Oblivion
Slides like the mist of death across my mind.
Just before I sink into the void
I realise my trust in God’s destroyed:
He’s let them murder me a second time.
Even my parents do not seem to care.
From now on it’s down to me alone:
I must be forever on my guard.
It’s over they tell me, though I never felt a thing.
I flash back to the present in itself.
I’m slid onto the gurney,
Numb below the waist,
And wheeled back to Recovery
With a bottle for clear water going in
And a bag for the rosé coming out.
I reckon I’ll get over this quite soon.
As the feeling’s coming back below my waist
The memories are fading from my brain.
I’ll soon be back to my old self again.
Pete Hulme Text © December 2012
Posted in Book Reviews, Science and Religion, Spirituality, tagged Charles Sanders Peirce, consciousness, David Bohm, David Fontana, Galen Strawson, Karl Popper, Ken Ring, Lessons from the Light, memory, Michael Sabom, Near Death Experiences, Pam Reynolds, Peter Fenwick, Rupert Sheldrake on 23/03/2012 | 5 Comments »
[The] stone is the lowest degree of phenomena, but nevertheless within it a power of attraction is manifest without which the stone could not exist. This power of attraction in the mineral world is love, the only expression of love the stone can manifest. . . Finally, we reach the kingdom of man. Here we find that all the degrees of the mineral, vegetable and animal expressions of love are present plus unmistakable attractions of consciousness. That is to say, man is the possessor of a degree of attraction which is conscious and spiritual. Here is an immeasurable advance. In the human kingdom spiritual susceptibilities come into view, love exercises its superlative degree, and this is the cause of human life.
Once we have explained all the physical structure in the vicinity of the brain, and we have explained how all the various brain functions are performed, there is a further sort of explanandum: consciousness itself. Why should all this structure and function give rise to experience? The story about the physical processes does not say.
Materialism’s biggest problem is that consciousness does exist.
(The Science Delusion - page 109)
Putting my best foot forward?
Three years ago I tackled the issue of the afterlife. I felt, and still feel, that on this issue a good place to start is with the black swan problem and it works even better as an argument for the independence of consciousness from the brain.
Taleb has used this as the title for his extremely relevant guide to the inevitability of the market crashes which continue to astonish us despite all the evidence confirming their eventual recurrence, but that is not the point for now.
It’s to Karl Popper that we need to turn. He originated the term in a discussion about falsifiability. If you assert that all swans are white, you cannot prove it even by discovering an extremely long sequence of white swans. You can though falsify it. One black swan will sink the theory.
The same can be said of mind/brain independence, something which points to consciousness being more than matter. There is one near death experience (NDE) which happens to involve the mind apparently functioning without any support at all from the brain.
What is this black swan?
In Atlanta Georgia, the case of Pam Reynolds was investigated in the 1990s by Dr Michael Sabom. His account is incorporated into a wider discussion of NDEs by David Fontana, a professor of psychology, in his book “Is There an Afterlife?” (page 184 passim). Sabom states, and the surgical team corroborates it, that Pam was fully instrumented, under constant medical observation and completely unconscious as indicated for part of the time by the flatline EEG (a measure of brain activity: flatline would mean no brain activity at all that would support consciousness). It was as close to a controlled experiment as we are ever likely to get, he said on a television documentary on NDEs some time later. The surgical procedure she needed required a complete shut down of brain and heart activity in order safely to operate on an aneurysm at the base of the brain. None the less, after being anaesthetised for 90 minutes but not as the video suggested when she was flatlined, she accurately observed aspects of the surgical procedure which were either a departure from what would have been the standard order of events or had unusual features, such as the bizarre appearance of the “saw” used, of which she could have had no prior knowledge. The surgeon in the case, and others who commented such as Peter Fenwick, felt that the usual methods of registering visual perceptions and memories in the brain would certainly have been unavailable to her and could offer no explanation of how she could have subsequently had access to the experiences she described.
The problem here is that my ‘black swan’ torpedo, something that holes the titanic edifice of materialism below the waterline, is someone else’s ‘delusional anecdote’ only serving to prove how gullible we afterlifers are.
How good it is, then, to find a science heavy-weight pulling together a massive array of assorted evidence to call the whole enterprise of materialism into serious question. Rupert Sheldrake may not be a mainstream scientist accepted by the practitioners of the prevailing orthodoxy but he has too much credibility to be lightly dismissed.
The evidence he marshals in his book, The Science Delusion, covers many areas. For the purposes of this post I am focusing on the evidence that relates to consciousness in some way and supports the possibility of its not residing entirely in the brain. In fact, according to the evidence he quotes, some its most important aspects appear to be located elsewhere altogether.
Brainless means brain-dead, right?
Let me put a key point right up front.
Even the dimmest materialist can tell me that I must be wrong about consciousness because, when you do enough damage to the brain, the lights go out. Sheldrake enables me to ask, though, how much damage is enough? 25%? 50%? 75%? 95%?
He has an answer. There is no way of knowing how much damage will destroy effective consciousness and functioning in any individual case. Massive damage can sometimes have little detectable effect (page 193):
John Lorber . . . scanned the brains of more than six hundred people with hydrocephalus, and found that about sixty had more than 95 per cent of the cranial cavity filled with cerebrospinal fluid. Some were seriously retarded, but others were more or less normal, and some had IQs of well over 100. One young man who had an IQ of 126 and a first-class degree in mathematics, a student from Sheffield University, had ‘virtually no brain’. . . . . His mental activity and his memory were still able to function more or less normally even though he had a brain only five per cent of the normal size.
He looks then at the well-researched area of memory to unearth an intriguing possibility (page 194-198):
More than a century of intensive, well-funded research has failed to pin down memory traces in brains. There may be a very simple reason for this: the hypothetical traces do not exist. However long or hard researchers look for them they may never find them. Instead, memories may depend on morphic resonance from an organism’s own past. The brain may be more like a television set than a hard-drive recorder.
. . . the fact that injury and brain degeneration, as in Alzheimer’s disease, lead to loss of memory does not prove that memories are stored in the damaged tissue. If I snipped a wire or removed some components from the sound circuits of your TV set, I could render it speechless, or aphasic. But this would not mean that all the sounds were stored in the damaged components.
. . . But what if the holographic wave-patterns are not stored in the brain at all? Pribram later came to this conclusion, and thought of the brain as a ‘wave-form analyser’ rather than a storage system, comparing it to a radio receiver that picked up wave-forms from the ‘implicate order’, rendering them explicate.
And it’s a small step from there to Goswami’s ‘consciousness is the ground of being’ which we described in the earlier post (page 114-115):
The philosopher Galen Strawson, himself a materialist, is amazed by the willingness of so many of his fellow philosophers to deny the reality of their own experience . . . He argues that a consistent materialism must imply panpsychism, namely the idea that even atoms and molecules have a primitive kind of mentality or experience. . . Panpsychism does not mean that atoms are conscious in the sense that we are, but only that some aspects of mentality or experience are present in the simplest physical systems. More complex forms of mind or experience emerge in more complex systems.
It all depends upon your point of view perhaps (page 119):
The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce saw the physical and mental as different aspects of underlying reality: ‘All mind more or less partakes of the nature of matter . . . Viewing a thing from the outside . . . it appears as matter. Viewing it from the inside . . . it appears as consciousness.’
Our point of view will have consequences
It is an important issue though as our conclusions about it have implications for the way we live. Consciousness may be inherent in the universe. Bohm is another who raises this point (page 126):
Bohm observed, ‘The question is whether matter is rather crude and mechanical or whether it gets more and more subtle and becomes indistinguishable from what people have called mind.’ . . . In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when they are made by an electron.
If so what are the implications then? A sense of purpose is a major one (page 128).
It makes a big difference if you think of yourself as a zombie-like mechanism in an unconscious mechanical world, or as a truly conscious being capable of making choices, living among other beings with sensations, experiences and desires.
Maybe what we make of ourselves and of our world, in other words our entire future, will in part hinge on the answer we find to the question of consciousness (page 130):
Purposes exist in a virtual realm, rather than a physical reality. They connect organisms to ends or goals that have not yet happened; they are attractors, in the language of dynamics, a branch of modern mathematics. Purposes or attractors cannot be weighed; they are not material.
To make the point completely clear he later states (page 140):
Developing systems are attracted towards their ends or goals. They are not only pushed from the past, they are pulled from the future.
Yes, there is a push from the past and this is driven mostly from our unconscious as last week’s Horizon programme on BBC2 illustrated very powerfully. But, as we have already said, there is also a pull from the future which is mostly responded to in consciousness.
So, what is going to happen lies in our own hands and depends to a significant extent upon our conscious choices. If we come to feel that those choices are all already completely determined by some billiard-ball-type interactions among our billions of neurones, we will behave very differently from how we would behave if we felt that we could freely choose a course of action determined to a significant extent by a freely chosen vision of what we wanted to achieve. At the very least, it creates a greater sense of responsibility for our actions.
What is also important is that the concept of consciousness being explored here by Sheldrake implies a strong degree of interconnectedness that in turn, for me, suggests that more than mirror neurones lie behind the experience of compassion. It is interesting in this light to read Thomas Mellen‘s account, in his story of his near death experience, of when he encountered the being of Light (Ken Ring - Lessons from the Light - page 287):
And at that time, the Light revealed itself to me on a level that I had never been to before. I can’t say it’s words; it was a telepathic understanding more than anything else, very vivid. I could feel it, I could feel this light. And the Light just reacted and revealed itself on another level, and the message was “Yes, [for] most people, depending on where you are coming from, it could be Jesus, it could be Buddha, it could be Krishna, whatever.”
But I said, “But what it is really?” And the Light then changed into – the only thing I can tell you [is that] it turned into a matrix, a mandala of human souls, and what I saw was that what we call our higher self in each of us is a matrix. It’s also a conduit to the source; each one of us comes directly, as a direct experience [from] the source. And it became very clear to me that all the higher selves are connected as one being, all humans are connected as one being, we are actually the same being, different aspects of the same being. And I saw this mandala of human souls. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, just [voice trembles], I just went into it and [voice falters], it was just overwhelming [he chokes], it was like all the love you’ve ever wanted, and it was the kind of love that cures, heals, regenerates.
And before you say it, if my preference for this picture, based on the evidence I have adduced, has in fact really been predetermined, then so has the preference of a materialist for a different reductionist picture. So why would his or her views have more weight than mine?
We all know the choice is ours really. Nothing can rationalise that reality away, I believe. A lot depends upon it.
No pressure then.
. . . the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf. . . . .
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?
What seems like years ago I promised my wife I’d work on all those VHS camcorder cassettes we had buried in shoe boxes and make them digital. This Christmas I finally got round to starting on the task. Little did I think I’d end up playing the ghost of Christmas past to my own Scrooge. I sat and watched these images of people who had died and images of selves that had passed away with such a strange mixture of emotions.
It’s not everyday you have to encounter yourself as though you were somebody else, but I’ve been doing rather a lot of that recently, forced by circumstance to meet my old selves in video or scribble form. This post is going to have faint echoes of Krapp’s Last Tape, but without the existential dread you’ll be relieved to know.
I have subjected the readers of this blog to several depressing posts about memory lane. For those who know the kind of thing that’s coming, this may be the moment to move on to something else. I’m afraid I’ve been ambling down the pathways of the past again, but from a different angle this time and over somewhat different terrain.
What made it spookier was that some of the memories, which had already been transferred from their camera cassettes by some ham-fisted professional, were held on an ordinary VHS cassette with some of the images so blurred and distorted they looked like hybrids of impressionist paintings and bizarre moments from a fading dream. I have included one of those images at the top of this post.
Other aspects of memory, in terms of what goes on in my head compared with what ends up on paper that I forget, have proved equally spooky though in a different way. The first situation I describe was just a bit weird: the second was something I’d rather ignore, but I can’t.
In the previous sequence of posts I talked of the way I used to interweave notes from my reading with scraps of information about my day. When I wrote those posts I was trying to track down a page reference for the Koestenbaum quote (I still haven’t found it – there are pages and pages of notes from his book and I haven’t had the time to read through them all). On a scrap of paper at the very point where I began my search are the notes I made after throwing coins for a reading of the I-Ching on 30 August 1982. I wrote, as a gloss on Hexagram 45 Gathering Together, ‘religion as the basis of gathering together’ and ‘only collective moral force can unite the world’ (Richard Wilhelm: pages 616 and 175), alongside a quote from Sam Reifler, who calls the Hexagram Accord:
The path that is right for you has as its basis community devotion and a communal spiritual sympathy.
As an introverted atheist at the time I presumably felt all this was very wide of the mark, but wrote it down, as I was in the habit of doing, as a way of tracking the bibliomancy systematically in case it ever amounted to anything. Interestingly, as far as I can remember, I’ve never read those words again since I noted them down at the time. I never remembered writing them down until now. So much for the tracking theory of my motivation.
I also failed until now to register their uncanny prescience. I accept that it might have been the power of suggestion rather than of prophecy. Or it could be that the process of using the I-Ching did what it says on the tin – it resonates with and gives you information about the deeper levels of your being. Maybe it was just a coincidence: these ideas are central to the philosophy of the I-Ching and come up often. I used to throw the I-Ching a lot so some hits of this kind were bound to happen sooner or later. Anyway, it made for weird reading at this remove of time given that in December that same year I committed myself to exactly that kind of path with no clue in August that this was where I was heading, and I never threw the I-Ching again.
This rather added to the force of the surprise of discovering that I had read the Koestenbaum book in the month immediately before I realised I was a Bahá’í, rather than some years before, as I had always thought. Given that both the reading of his book and my committing to the Bahá’í path were events of great significance to me, it’s a bit deflating to realise that I had failed to retain how closely connected they were in time, and perhaps also in how the one paved the way for the other. That I transferred a lot of the Koestenbaum notes onto sheets of paper for some talks I was giving about a year or so later, didn’t seem to help me make the link, I’m afraid. It seems that my mind sometimes, perhaps often, continues to believe what it wants to believe, until forced to do otherwise.
Which brings me onto the next example of how memory works. It involves a complete distortion and will pave the way for an even more disconcerting example in the next post. When anyone used to ask me to tell them about situations where my declaration as a Bahá’í brought me into conflict with the assumptions of my profession as a psychologist, I was a touch too happy to share the story of the time I went for an informal interview for a clinical post soon after I qualified. I was walking with the neuropsychologist, I would say, down towards her office. She was dressed in a white coat so she looked like a doctor from the back. The only thing missing was a stethoscope.
As we walked she cast a sideways glance at me and said: ‘Thank goodness Blackmore has finally put paid to the idea of God, don’t you agree?’
‘Not really,’ I distinctly remembered saying,’I have an idea about God that I believe in.’
She glared at me, as I vividly recalled it, and we walked the rest of the short way to her office in silence.
I come out of that version of events reasonably well and believed, until late last month, that this was exactly what happened, not that I’ve had cause to tell that story in recent years. I believed it until, that is, I read my journal of that period looking for the page reference. Imagine my feelings when I discovered, in my own hand-writing, an almost completely different version of events. First of all it happened in September. I didn’t hear about the Bahá’í Faith until November. First hole below the waterline. I wrote:
She wore a white coat [at least I got that right] with her name written on a badge. My revulsion against psychologists who wish to masquerade as doctors was barely containable. And when I heard her mouthing with obvious contempt such things as ‘. . . .people who don’t realise that the mind is not separate from the brain’ I did not know what to say. . . . .
All I could say was ‘I haven’t thought about it a lot.’
‘I’m very sorry to hear that . . . very sorry . . . I’m very sorry to hear that indeed.’
Quite why I couldn’t fight back I don’t know. Perhaps my feelings were running too high – they were certainly strong by this time. I just wanted to get out, I think.
According to my journal I mumbled some jargon strewn with impressive names but basically ducked the point. I believed the mind was not reducible to the brain but couldn’t say so. So, it was nothing to do with God and I copped out anyway. Memory’s junk sunk.
These two accounts, though they have a kernel of common truth, couldn’t be more different. When I had become a Bahá’í I did speak out but definitely not then and not in the way I convinced myself it had happened. I clearly didn’t want to remember my craven evasion so I backdated my eventual moral courage and believed my own propaganda.
I now believe that my journals will be littered with ego deflating realities I have chosen to remember differently. I’m also pretty convinced that, without the protection of a strong value system to inoculate us, we will all chronically succumb to the virus of self-serving self-deception. I also have to recognise the probability that many other entries in my journal will have gone through a self-serving filter long before the ink hit the page.
Of course, it is also quite possible that none of these versions of reality is to be trusted; maybe all of them are distorted in their various ways and the truth is to be found somewhere completely different.
I think I’ll leave that possibility alone for now. I’m beginning to feel quite dizzy as though my view of the world is swirling and blurred in a heat haze. The last example I want to look at will have to wait till next time. It was for me the most stunning example I have ever experienced of the smoke and mirrors side of memory. In the meantime I’ll sit down and wait for the vertigo to pass.