Response to Bernardo's presentation at Science & Non-Duality 2013

By Michael Larkin

(This guest essay is an interesting essay in reaction to an earlier post of mine. I particularly like Michael's interpretation of space-time under the idealist framework of the whirlpool metaphor, as described in that earlier post. I trust you will enjoy it at least as much as I did!)

Space-time representation under Relativity theory.

The materialist paradigm implies that everything is perceived internal to the brain. There must be something "out there", but as far as each of us is concerned, it's rendered in terms of neuronal signals. We perceive things we call "stars", but those twinkly things are perceptive impressions in our brain inside our skulls. And, of course, the interpretations of those impressions are held to be thoughts, also the result of neuronal interactions.

The "things themselves", the stars, and all the different things we perceive, are actually inside our heads. Even if you argue that you can set up some kind of detector that is outside the brain, the output of that detector once again comes through sense organs to the brain. The "real world", "out there", is ineffable: we don't actually know what it is; all we know of it is what we perceive internally.

Even if we say that we agree we perceive the same thing inside our skulls--that that agreement comes from "out there"--we haven't thereby actually externalised what we perceive. Everything is subjective: what is objective is deemed so by agreement of a number of subjects, each of them individually inside their brains. According to the materialist paradigm, never in our lives do we get so much as a millimetre outside our skulls. Human beings are merely transducers of reality, and if I've understood him correctly, Bernardo is saying that that idea is metaphysical to its core.

It could make more sense to say that what is "out there" is contiguous with what is "in here"; that "in here" and "out there" are illusions set up as soon as one thinks in dualistic terms. This seems for me to tie in with what Rupert Sheldrake says: our consciousness isn't inside our heads: stars and everything else (including brains and skulls) are within our field of consciousness, which is potentially as big as the universe.

It's as if our consciousness reaches back in time to perceive distant objects. This applies to anything at a "distance", which is related to time. We see the stars instantaneously "where they were some time ago", where they effectively "are" for us. But we usually think in terms of light having a certain speed and travelling to our eyes so that we can see objects inside our brains in the present moment. It's a conditioned way of conceptualising "reality" that we have great difficulty seeing differently.

Reflecting further, I have arrived at a fresh concept (for me) of the distance/time (or space/time) concept. It's only recently in human history that when we look into the night sky and see what we call stars, we have come to think of them as being suns like our own; but since they appear much smaller and fainter, we deem them to be very far away. However, another possible explanation is that--being constricted in our ways of perceiving by our "whirlpools"-- we don't *notice* them as much as our own sun: they don't impinge as much on our consciousness, even if they might be bigger and brighter than our sun. This isn't limited to perception of light; it could also be applied to perception of sound, for example. An atomic bomb exploding in the Mojave desert might be inaudible not because we are "far away", but because the current conformation of our whirlpool imposes restrictions on how much can be perceived: hence we don't notice the explosion.

So in this model, time/distance and apparent effects on us are a function of how much something impinges on consciousness as constricted by our whirlpool. If for some reason our whirlpool conformation changes, but consciousness remains, then we might in theory have a different perception of reality.

It seems to me that key to the idea of the whirlpool is that it represents the limitation imposed on the perception of reality when we're what we call "incarnate". In certain conditions, such as what we term "NDEs" and various other "spiritual" experiences, its conformation might change so that we perceive a lot more, including phenomena that we might otherwise not notice. We might then still have an individual POV, still possess *some* limitation on how much of reality we can notice, even if by comparison that were to be vastly more than in our usual waking state. This might allow, for example, for what we would think of in the ordinary incarnate state as telepathic communication; merging with other entities; instantaneous "travel" or interaction facilitated by attention and intention, etc.

I like this idea of persistence of the whirlpool in different states of conformation because it readily explains reincarnation and the inaccessibility (usually, at any rate) of information gleaned in previous incarnations. It's also compatible with ideas of individual evolution. The typical "human" conformation might allow us to periodically have certain experiences that help us in some way refine a higher-level conformation. At some stage, we might cease to reincarnate in human form, and move permanently to the next level of conformation: and who knows, there may be yet further levels of conformation to be analogously progressed through. There's also the possibility of merging back into the ultimate conformation of all conformations, that which we might call Source or God.

"Physical death", then, might not completely disrupt the whirlpool. It might rather change its conformation so that it's more aware of the reality that's there: in other words, after death, we might still have a sense of individuality of some sort, but with a greater appreciation of reality. As long as one has individuality in some degree, then one wouldn't be aware of all there actually is. Indeed, individuality could perhaps be seen as being in a state of some degree of ignorance of all there is. The ultimate evolutionary impulse could be the desire to overcome all ignorance through merging with Source, thus allowing It to have the experience of knowing Itself as if there were something else other than It.

I can't help recalling the words of the famous Hadith Qudsi: "I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known. Therefore, I created the Creation so that I might be known."

Copyright © 2013 by Michael Larkin. Published with permission.

My presentation at Science & Non-Duality 2013

Bernardo presenting at Science and Non-Duality Europe 2013.

Here is a video of my recent presentation at the 'Science & Non-Duality' conference 2013, where I discuss parts of my upcoming book 'Why Materialism is Baloney.' The presentation was very well received there, so I hope you enjoy it too.


Implanted memories... or are they?

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Are memories stored in the brain as physical traces?

This week several people sent me a link to an article just published on Scientific American. The title promised something extraordinary: "The Era of Memory Engineering Has Arrived: How neuroscientists can call up and change a memory." That certainly sparked my curiosity, so I decided to read it tonight, while sipping some cold Riesling in my garden, trying to cool off from the heat of the day. In the end, I was indeed amused, but not for the reasons I thought I would be... allow me to elaborate.

The article starts with references to science fiction films in which the hero, at some point, realises that his memories were all implanted by 'evil' scientists. None of the past he remembers actually happened, but was artificially synthesised and inserted into his head. I immediately thought of Total Recall (the original), where people could go to a shop called 'Recall' and order custom-made memories of holidays, adventures, heated romances, or what not, without actually having to live through any of that. The author goes on to suggest that cutting edge work done at MIT is comparable to these amazing sci-fi scenarios. He writes: "...these scientists have captured specific memories in mice, altered them, and shown that the mice behave in accord with these new, false, implanted memories. The era of memory engineering is upon us, and naturally, there are big implications for basic science and, perhaps someday, human health and society." Wow, really? Have we been able to synthesise and implant memories like in Total Recall? I mean, no need for entire narratives... if even a simple memory (say, of switching on the lights) could have been synthesised and implanted, it would be very significant not only for science, but for philosophy as well.

You see, if it were possible to synthesise and implant memories that way, it would imply that we knew exactly what memories were, as well as where and how they were encoded in the brain. So the author's opening lines in the Scientific American article caught my attention. However, things weren't as they seemed...

When you read the rest of the article critically, and with attention, here is what you discover:
  1. No memories were synthesised at all.
  2. What was actually done was this: they found a way to measure and record the pattern of brain activity in mice when they were placed in a certain environment, and then they managed to 'reactivate' that same pattern of brain activity later on, in another environment.
  3. When they re-activated the pattern in another environment, they gave the mice electric shocks, scaring the heck out of them.
  4. When they put the mice back in the original environment, without the shocks, the mice were paralyzed with fear.
That's it. Now, let's look at what this actually means.

Both the experiences of the environment and of the electric shocks weren't 'implanted' memories. They actually happened. They actually shocked the mice. They actually placed the mice in that environment. All the experiment accomplished was to create an association between the original environment and the electric shock, without needing to actually make the two happen together, as in classical conditioning. So there is a sense in which one could perhaps say that the 'memory of the association' was 'implanted,' but that's totally different from what the article suggests in the beginning. It has very little, if anything, to do with Total Recall-type memory implants. No memory was synthesised at all, not even a very tiny simple memory. All experiences involved were actual experiences of the mice. They just tricked the mice into linking one real experience to another real experience. This is rather a cognitive link than a memory. They 'implanted' association, conditioning, not phenomenological or experiential memories.

You might say that, by reactivating a certain pattern of brain activity, the scientists artificially created recall. This is true, but it doesn't address the important question of what memory is or where it's stored. You see, experiences correlate with brain activation patterns; we know that. So if you induce a certain brain activation pattern in mice and associate that with a shock, it's no surprise that the shock will be cognitively linked to any future experience that triggers the same brain activation pattern. But that's not the question. The question is, when I close my eyes and remember my dead father, how the heck do I know what exact pattern of brain activity to bring back to my brain? Where is the information stored that allows me to reconstruct that pattern? In the MIT experiment, the scientists created their own storage mechanism by genetically modifying the mice to grow molecular switches in each neuron activated when the mice were placed in their original environment. Only the activated neurons grew the switches, so the distribution of the switches recorded the neural correlates of the original experience. The scientists could then turn these neurons back on later, using light. Of course, this doesn't explain how mice remember things when they haven't been engineered to grow these switches! The experiment explains exactly nothing about the mechanism of memory storage simply because it by-passes it altogether! It was the scientists who recorded and stored the information, and then used this information to create a pattern of brain activity, not the mice. How do the mice do it when there are no scientists to record, store, and re-launch the information in their brains?

The experiment also says nothing new about the nature of conscious experience. That experience is correlated with certain patterns of brain activity is very old news. That they could create an association between two events by activating their respective patterns together in the brain is also no news, since this has been shown by classical conditioning since the time of good-old Pavlov. The only novelty (and, make no mistake, it's amazing and important, just not in the way the article portrays it) is the scientists' amazing ability to record and then re-activate a particular pattern of brain activity. Kudos to MIT! This might have important far-future applications in e.g. new treatments of brain diseases and perhaps even in training & education. But don't expect a 'Recall' shop near you any time soon. Don't expect a solution to the 'hard problem of consciousness' any time soon. And don't expect an answer to the nature and location of memory any time soon. None of this was addressed, not even in principle, by this work.

To me, the key value of this Scientific American article was the fact that it powerfully illustrated how, through hysteria, lack of critical judgment, and naive enthusiasm, a false idea can be hyped by the mainstream media to the point of not only looking entirely plausible, but even certain. How many well-meaning people out there, who briefly read this article, won't be thinking now: 'Wow, it's a done deal... memory and consciousness really are all in the brain'? Can we even blame them? When one is already predisposed to finding confirmation of a certain idea, it's very easy to find it if one isn't critical of what one is looking at. We tend to find what we are looking for, even if it's not there. This article powerfully illustrates it. Here is an experiment that says exactly nothing about the nature of memory or our ability to synthesise memories, yet it's hyped precisely as such.

Since you're reading this post in my blog, this time you are at least thinking a little more critically about this specific article. But how many other similar articles have you read before? How many of your implicit beliefs today have been subtly created this way? It's scary, isn't it?