Posts Tagged ‘memory’
. . . 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?
This short sequence sheds some light on the Parliament of Selves sequence.
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.
Just read an article by Robert Epstein on the Aeon website, flagged up by Gordon Kerr on his FB page. It ducks the mind–brain question, but brilliantly demolishes the computer model of the brain. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.
No matter how hard they try, brain scientists and cognitive psychologists will never find a copy of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the brain – or copies of words, pictures, grammatical rules or any other kinds of environmental stimuli. The human brain isn’t really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does – not even simple things such as ‘memories’.
Our shoddy thinking about the brain has deep historical roots, but the invention of computers in the 1940s got us especially confused. For more than half a century now, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists and other experts on human behaviour have been asserting that the human brain works like a computer.
To see how vacuous this idea is, consider the brains of babies. Thanks to evolution, human neonates, like the newborns of all other mammalian species, enter the world prepared to interact with it effectively. A baby’s vision is blurry, but it pays special attention to faces, and is quickly able to identify its mother’s. It prefers the sound of voices to non-speech sounds, and can distinguish one basic speech sound from another. We are, without doubt, built to make social connections.
A healthy newborn is also equipped with more than a dozen reflexes – ready-made reactions to certain stimuli that are important for its survival. It turns its head in the direction of something that brushes its cheek and then sucks whatever enters its mouth. It holds its breath when submerged in water. It grasps things placed in its hands so strongly it can nearly support its own weight. Perhaps most important, newborns come equipped with powerful learning mechanisms that allow them to change rapidly so they can interact increasingly effectively with their world, even if that world is unlike the one their distant ancestors faced.
Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.
But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.
We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.
Computers, quite literally, process information – numbers, letters, words, formulas, images. The information first has to be encoded into a format computers can use, which means patterns of ones and zeroes (‘bits’) organised into small chunks (‘bytes’). On my computer, each byte contains 8 bits, and a certain pattern of those bits stands for the letter d, another for the letter o, and another for the letter g. Side by side, those three bytes form the word dog. One single image – say, the photograph of my cat Henry on my desktop – is represented by a very specific pattern of a million of these bytes (‘one megabyte’), surrounded by some special characters that tell the computer to expect an image, not a word.
Computers, quite literally, move these patterns from place to place in different physical storage areas etched into electronic components. Sometimes they also copy the patterns, and sometimes they transform them in various ways – say, when we are correcting errors in a manuscript or when we are touching up a photograph. The rules computers follow for moving, copying and operating on these arrays of data are also stored inside the computer. Together, a set of rules is called a ‘program’ or an ‘algorithm’. A group of algorithms that work together to help us do something (like buy stocks or find a date online) is called an ‘application’ – what most people now call an ‘app’.
Forgive me for this introduction to computing, but I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.
Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will. Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers?
Given that bad memories lie behind more poems of mine than good ones do, I’m not very keen on the idea explored in this article. Still, it seemed intriguing so I thought I’d share it. It brought back memories of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favourite films, which investigates some possible consequences of deleting what you don’t like from your memory bank. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.
A mental adventure familiar to most students is that of cramming one’s mind with knowledge in the run up to an exam. Once the exam is done, we gleefully evacuate our brain of all this hard-won learning that’s no longer needed. Within days, we can barely remember the subject matter, let alone the details. At such moments, it’s as if we’ve forgotten on purpose.
It might then come as a surprise to learn that until recently, there was little scientific evidence that people could have any deliberate influence on their rates of forgetting. But in the last few years, a small family of experimental techniques have showed that, under the right conditions, we can in fact deliberately forget things. The effects are subtle, but nonetheless suggestive: being able to forget at will would, after all, be a killer life skill.
But how does deliberate forgetting work? An exciting new study sheds light on the question.
Jeremy Manning and Kenneth Norman have been doing wonderful work on memory for years, and in a remarkably cunning experiment, they provide evidence that we forget things by discarding the mental context within which those memories were first learned.
What they observed is that the brain that attempts to remember keeps active the mental context that was present during the learning – whereas the brain that tries to forget discards that context, letting go of the mental scaffolding that had (probably) supported the construction of those memories in the first place.
Posted in Book Reviews, Science, Psychology & Society, Spirituality, tagged Bahá'í Faith, consciousness, Jenny Wade, John Lorber, Karl Pribram, memory, Pim van Lommel, Robert Rosen, soul on 17/07/2015| Leave a Comment »
As recent posts touch on the relationship between science and religion I couldn’t resist republishing a sequence of posts that tackle that issue as part of the mind/brain debate, another issue very close to my heart. It is in four parts. Two were posted over last weekend: the third was published yesterday. This is the last.
Having sought to establish, in his book Close Connections, that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, and that much that materialists see as explained away completely by the brain in fact has its roots in this other dimension, Hatcher shifts his focus onto a closer examination of some of the detailed implications of this.
For me, perhaps the most fascinating one of all concerns the issue of memory. I’ve blogged about it a number of times. It is by no means settled yet what memory is and where it resides. Hatcher deals with this at some length. He explains his model in terms of spirit (page 251):
. . . . according to [the] Bahá’í perspective, the memory of self – even the recollection of specific events – will be retained by the soul and regained once the constraints of the associative relationship with the body are severed and the soul is released from its . . . . indirect connection with reality.‘
It may seem improbable that there could be any empirical basis for this. However, I have reviewed on this blog Jenny Wade’s book – Changes of Mind – and she is unequivocal that for her the evidence in favour of memory being held outside the brain is compelling. She reviews a mass of data based on careful investigations of the experiences of children, either from interviews with children or work with adults about prior experiences. What they described was carefully checked against the reports of independent witnesses (page 44):
Regression subjects … have accurately reported incidents long before any significant brain growthis possible, in some cases before the embryonic body was even formed.
Her model states that at conception the soul is independent of the body and its memories can be accessed by the child until about the age of four, after which the body becomes a barrier denying access. This is uncannily reminiscent of Wordsworth’s lines in the Ode on Immortality. I need to quote the whole stanza (lines 59-77):
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
What other evidence have we for supposing something rather more special than a mechanical process is going on here?
For me the growing literature on near death experiences (NDEs), which I have reviewed elsewhere, settles the question that consciousness is not produced by the brain and resides somewhere else. The brain simply decodes it for our body to use. It’s a no-brainer then that memory is no different. The brain can access it but does not contain it. Hatcher discusses other lines of thought that tend in the same direction.
Computer models do not provide an adequate account of how new learning is recorded and memories laid down. On page 252 Hatcher quotes from an article by Joannie Schrof ‘What is a Memory Made of?’
Where a computer encodes data in strings of 0’s and 1’s, the brain forms ephemeral patterns of chemical and electrical impulses. Where computers record information in serial order like an index-card file, the human brain creates sprawling interconnections; more than a hundred billion nerves cells each connected to hundreds of thousands of others to form a billion connections.
In addition, he points towards Robert Rosen‘s book Life Itself (pages 253-54) who writes:
. . . no new information . . . can be processed by a computer if the computer has not already been programmed to consider this information. The brain, however, can effectively create new sequences and new pathways.
Others that I have referred to elsewhere have also raised radical doubts about the computer model. Take Pim van Lommel again, in his book Consciousness beyond Life. He quotes the conclusions of a computer expert and a neurobiologist (page 193):
Simon Berkovich, a computer expert, has calculated that despite the brain’s huge numbers of synapses, its capacity for storing a lifetime’s memories, along with associated thoughts and emotions, is completely insufficient. . . . . . Neurobiologist Herms Romijn, formerly of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, also demonstrated that the storage of all memories in the brain is anatomically and functionally impossible.
Credibility is lent to the implications of this argument by exceptional but genuine cases of brain damage, take for example (page 194):
John Lorber’s description of a healthy young man with a university degree in mathematics and an IQ of 126. A brain scan revealed a severe case of hydrocephalus: 95 percent of his skull was filled with cerebrospinal fluid, and his cerebral cortex measured only about 2 millimeters thick, leaving barely any brain tissue. The weight of his remaining brain was estimated at 100 grams (compared to a normal weight of 1,500 grams), and yet his brain function was unimpaired.
Though some critics feel that Lorber has overstated his case, the general point that severely compromised brains can function improbably well is not in question.
Where Hatcher goes next surprised me. He draws on the work of Pribram. I had read, as an undergraduate, his early work on plans and the structure of behaviour but perhaps I qualified too soon to benefit from the direction of his later work, that Hatcher refers to now. He describes (page 255) Pribram’s 1985 ‘holographic theory.’
As a concept of how the brain processes ideas or memory, the holographic theory implies that each portion of the brain contributing to the recollected idea would contain the complete thought, not a piece of it.
This took Pribram somewhere even more radically different from what I was taught in the 70s and early 80s (page 257-259):
Pribram has stated that the more he studies the brain and its functions, the more he feels that there may well be something outside the brain that accounts for its activity and capacity! . . . . . the source from which the brain receives its “program” needs to be greater than the brain itself – the cause has to be greater than the effect it produces.’
And we find ourselves back with a familiar metaphor (page 257):
. . . Pribram has observed that when he studies the brain, he feels that in truth he is examining an elaborate transceiver rather than the ultimate repository of memory, the ultimate origin of self-consciousness, the primal engine of creativity, the seminal source of will, or the instigator of action.
Hatcher pushes this further and confronts the basic question which he feels is unanswerable in material terms (page 258): ‘. . . how can the brain be in charge of making itself function as a brain?’
This for him constitutes irrefutable grounds for believing in a transcendent reality imbued with a higher consciousness (page 258):
The most elaborate and powerful computer we have created or will ever create cannot program itself unless it is programmed to program itself. In short, there must exist for any given machine – or machine model of the brain – some willful input from an outside source for it to have any sense of goals or values, or for it to be capable of evaluating progress towards those goals.
And this brings him to a powerful and important point. We have a delicate and complex instrument entrusted to us for purposes that we are hardly even beginning to understand and we have to treat it with the utmost care and respect (page 259):
. . . the brain, as a counterpart of the soul and its faculties, . . . . must be capable of mimicking in physical . . . terms everything the soul feels, conceives, decides, or wills. This fact explains why a human soul cannot associate with (operate through) anything less complex or less ingeniously devised than the human brain. . . . . Any practice or substance that distorts the associative relationship between soul and body or that tampers with the brain endangers our ability to function as complete human beings and, thereby, to fulfill our earthly purpose of attaining the knowledge of abstract reality . . .
For me this book pulled together thinking from many disciplines into a coherent and compelling case for the soul. The work he adduces usefully complements my own reading and suggests many directions I could now take it. For that I am most grateful. The least I could do, I felt, was bring this thoughtful book to the attention of others.