Wednesday, September 17, 2008


In a recent issue of Newsweek Magazine (September 22, 2008) in an article entitled "Mysteries of Memory" I found the following:

"UCLA neuroscientist Itzhak Fried and his Israeli colleagues measured neural activity in the brains of 13 study participants as they watched short video clips of shows like "Seinfeld" and "The Simpsons." Afterward, while their brains were still being monitored, subjects were asked to describe whichever of the video clips came to mind. The same neurons that had fired as they watched a given clip fired again when they recalled that clip. In fact, researchers were able to predict which clip a subject was about to remember, as corresponding neurons flared up seconds ahead of actual remembering. The findings offer the first proof of a long-held assumption-that reactivation of the neurons initially involved in an experience forms the basis of human memory."

So if this is the first step toward understanding the 'mysteries of memory,' how far can we expect to go, using this method of research, toward unraveling these mysteries? Without wanting to appear like a spiritual killjoy, the purpose of this post is to try to explain the obvious limitations of this type of research.

The brain is matter. It weighs approximately three pounds and it is made up almost entirely of proteins. These proteins are organized into cells called neurons. The average human brain has approximately one hundred billion of these neurons. Neurons, like all cells, are amazingly complex, but neurons have one central function: they fire. When they fire an electric charge passes through them and that charge is transferred to another neuron through a connection called a synapse. Most neurons have approximately one to five thousand synapses, or connections, to other neurons; that means that there are roughly 100 to 500 trillion synapses in the brain and the possible number of paths that an electrical charge could follow through these various synapses is a number so huge as to be incomprehensible.

Now understand that no matter how many neurons there are and how many different paths through these neurons that a charge can take, what happens when each neuron is fired is basically the same. A charge, a measurable change in electricity, in voltage, moves through that cell. There are also some chemical changes that occur, but those seem to be relevant only as they stimulate or inhibit the firing of the neuron. Keep in mind that no matter what has been or will be discovered regarding neurons, subtle differences in chemical traces and electric charges, or the complexities of the firing patterns or the circuitousness of the routes of these paths, they will never be anything more or anything less than electrical and chemical changes.

The charge moving through pathways of neurons is commonly referred to in scientific circles as 'information.' When these neuronal pathways connect to the musculature and the electrical charges result in the contraction or release of muscles, or when they connect to the endoctrine system and result in the secretion of hormones, then the understanding of the charge as a transmitter of 'information' is clear (although the source of that information is not). But what about memory? What about thought? What about sights and sounds and tastes and touches? What about feelings? What about your entire moment to moment experience of your life? How do these electrical and chemical reactions relate to one's actual experience? As Fried and his colleagues continue to explore and tinker with these firing neurons will they eventually stumble upon Jerry and George? Will they run into microscopic electronic three dimensional and technicolor miniatures of Elaine and Kramer? Will they suddenly spy Newman and the Soup Nazi? I think we can say with confidence that they will not.

So, what is the relationship between this 'information' which is always, no matter how circuitous the path and how complex the timing of these firings, simply an electric current, and the endless variety, richness and texture of our experience? Obviously in relation to consciousness, neuronal firings are not information, in and of themselves, but they are part of a code. Perhaps that code, like computer code, consists simply of ON (high voltage) and OFF (low voltage) neurons, with each neuron functioning as a kind of brain pixel. Or, perhaps the code is also related to the timing of these firings and the location of the neurons in different areas of the brain. Again, as some scientists now think, it may be related to the electromagnetic field or cloud of energy surrounding the brain which is effected by all the firing neurons. The question is: How is that code, whatever it is, translated into the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and touches and thoughts and memories of our actual experience? Where is the equipment, the apparatus, that does that amazing translation? That equipment has never been seen or detected by any scientific instrument. And science, which deals only in what is observable, will never detect that equipment. The reason that science is doomed to fail in this regard and the reason that you may consider me a spiritual killjoy (even though my message is joyous), is that the equipment that translates these patterns into experience and the experiencer of that experience is you and you are not part of the physical, observable world.

Now if that last sentence doesn't raise your materialist hackles, nothing will. But before you get too excited, just consider this idea for a moment. Your experience cannot be observed by anybody but yourself. (And what may be even more upsetting, from a materialist perspective, is that the self that is observing your experience is not observable even to itself!) You cannot be seen! Your body can be seen, yes. But what about you, that is experiencing your body, that looks out and observes the world from the vantage point of your body? You are not observable. Yet that is this very you that is the initiator and the doer of all your activities. The eye does not take in light by itself. It only lets in light when you want to look at something. It is your focus, not the eye's focus, which is based on your interest and needs, not the eyes interests and needs, that directs the eye toward where you want the eye to do it's job. The eye takes in the light waves that you directed it toward and translates them into patterns of neural firing, but the eye does not see. You see. The brain stores information coded in chemical and electrical patterns but the brain does not remember. You remember.

Let's suppose that brain research progressed beyond contemporary scientists wildest dreams. Let's suppose that they were able to 'crack' this code of consciousness in the same way that they have begun to crack the genetic code. Suppose they could look at these patterns of excitation in your brain and tell not just that you were observing something, but that you were observing something amusing. Suppose these researchers could even tell that you were watching a Seinfeld show and that they could even determine the specific episode that you were watching. Would they then be able to experience your experience? Would they then be able to think your thoughts or remember your memories? Of course not. They would still be relying solely on their own experience and memory of the Seinfeld show to make any sense of your experience of it. They would be no further along than if you had simply told them about it or written your reactions on a piece of paper. No matter how diligently researchers work; no matter how thorough their experiments, how complicated their calculations and how complex their equations, they will never get any further than the most subtle chemical or electrical interface between your body and/or brain (the physical plane) and you (the spiritual plane).

Let's go back for a moment to the beginning of this experiment. Thirteen participants were asked to watch video clips. Through various scanning devices the researchers were able to locate which neurons were firing when these clips were being watched. But why do these neurons fire in the first place? The scientific answer is that sensory neurons have a receptive field which is a space in which the presence of a stimulus will initiate or alter the firing of that neuron. Receptive fields have been identified for neurons of the auditory system, the somatosensory system and the visual system. But just as those patterns of firings that we discussed above are not really the end of the process (the process ends with your actual experience of the Seinfeld show), the stimulation of sensory neurons is not really the beginning of the process either.

The process begins when you want to hear something; when you want to touch something and when you want to look at something. This experiment really began when thirteen people decided that they wanted or were willing to watch these videos. The initial, the causal reason that those neurons lighted up was because those thirteen beings directed their attention to the Seinfeld show. Please really consider this. I am not just splitting hairs. The eyes do not see. The ears do not hear and the skin does not feel. Eyes, ears and skin are our equipment; they are the instruments we use when we want to see, hear and touch. We turn them on. They only work when we bring our attention, our focus, through our eyes, ears and skin because we want to experience something about the outside world. We focus our attention where we are interested in focussing our attention. Our desires and our focus are also not part of the physical universe. We may be able to get a sense of where someone's focus is by seeing which neurons are lighting up, but it is our interest that directs the focus that initiates the process. Interest and focus can be inferred or deduced by observing which neurons are firing and also by observations of our speech and behavior, but they cannot be observed directly with the naked eye or with any scientific equipment. Again, this is because interest, or desires, and focus, or attention, are aspects of you, of your self, and are not part of the physical universe. We direct our attention to an object or a person or a television show. That particular pattern of light is coming through our eyes because that is the object that we want to look at, or touch or listen to. This sensory equipment with its amazingly complicated system of neuronal firings is not working by itself. You are working it. It is serving you. It is the servant of your desires; and neither you nor your desires are part of the physical universe. They are unobservable and therefore never part of the equation when brain scientists or all biologists, for that matter, study the processes of the body.

To my way of thinking, the idea of studying memory without considering 'attention' is nonsensical. What we remember is a function of what we are attending to. Let's take the example of three people walking down a sidewalk in New York City. One is on his way to a jog at the local track. He looks up at the sky and notices that an ominous gray rain cloud that he saw earlier seems to have gotten darker and closer. He tries to stretch the muscles in his calves and shoulders as he walks along and wonders if he should have worn his sweatshirt. Another person, walking the same sidewalk at the same time, is someone who has lived in this neighborhood all her life. Today is her day off and she is on her way to the local coffee shop. As she saunters down the street she looks into the two Ukrainian owned shops (she is Ukrainian) and sticks her head in the doorway to say hello. The wife of one of the shop keepers (an old family friend) has recently passed away, and she notices that the shop keeper still seems to be in mourning even though he attempts a friendly greeting. A third person, a tourist, has never been to New York before. She has heard so much about this neighborhood (the East Village) and as she walks down the street taking in all the urban sights and sounds and smells, she thinks about all the poets and artists that lived here previously.

The point is that each person, walking down the same street, is having a very different experience and, of course, their subsequent memory of that street will depend on where their attention was as they walked down it. My wife is amazingly observant of her surroundings. We can visit a friend that we haven't seen in two years and she will walk into the house and say something like, "Oh, you re-upholstered your sofa. I love it." I, of course, would be hard pressed to remember that there ever was a sofa in that room, much less what the upholstery was like. On the other hand I may have a vivid memory of their cat and the distant and perfectly serene way that the cat observed us when we walked in the last time. Even when several people are attending to the same event, like the Seinfeld show, each person is watching a somewhat different episode. One person is a fan of the show and watches with enthusiasm. One person hates the show and the only reason she volunteered to be a subject in this research project was that her brother-in-law was one of the researchers. One person loves George and thinks that Kramer over acts. Another person thinks that Kramer is the best thing on the show and never takes her eyes off him when he is on camera, etc., etc., etc. Our attention goes where our interests and our desires lead us. This results in different experiences, different memories and different sets of neurons firing for each person.

Just as much as a person's interests are shaped by their experience, a person's experience is shaped by their interests. To my mind these interests are connected to a whole set of desires, of things that you want to or need to accomplish in this life. Your desires are not part of the physical universe but they are what connect you to the physical universe, and they precede our physical bodies. We choose our birth and we do that by choosing a set of genes that will develop into the body/brain that best suits what it is that we are trying to accomplish. Being born, from this perspective, is choosing to come from an unlimited, out of time and space experience, to a single space time continuum that is connected to a particular set of genes which develops into a particular body/brain. Even the intra-uterine experience is very different for each fetus depending on the interests and desires that the fetus brings to it. So it's not so much that you are the passive victim of the genes you happenned to be born with and the particular structure of the brain that you happenned to inherit. It's that you chose your genetic inheritance to accomplish whatever it is that you wanted to or needed to accomplish in this life. The neurons of the brain are simply neutral recording devices. You record on them the experiences that you are interested in and you imbue those experiences with the emotional meaning that you want to imbue them with. There is even brain research now that shows that we actually grow more neurons in the place in our brains that is associated with a certain kind of thinking or perceiving. If you are drawn to drumming, let's say, the more you learn, the more you are able to distinguish different sounds and rhythms and qualities of drumming. You actually grow more neurons or imprint pre-existing neurons with the impressions of these separate aural experiences that enable you to draw so many distinctions. Your interest also controls the growth and direction of the axons which lead from the neuron to a synaptic connection with another neuron. These axons can be very long (in relation to the cell body of the neuron) and can connect with any other neuron in the brain. Again, it is your interest, the way that you experience your experience that is causing the growth and direction of those axons and is imprinting not only these experiences but the way you connect them with other experiences. In short, then, a great drummer is not a great drummer because he happenned to have great drumming neurons. He's a great drummer because he arrived here with a passion for self-expression which found an outlet through drumming. In the process of pursuing his passion to become a great drummer, he grew and developed the great drumming neurons and synaptical connections that he needed to realize his dream.

Some people feel, in a sense, at odds with their brains. They are trying through therapy, or some other means, to restructure the way that they think or organize their experience. So how could they have chosen that? Because the lesson they learned or are now learning which brings them to this desire for change, is the very lesson that they wanted to learn in this life-time. And with patience and guidance and perserverance they can change pathways, grow new neurons and reprogram old ones. When we first made these choices regarding the kind of things we want to experience and accomplish in this life, we were not doing it from the encumbered place that we are in now. Our judgement was much different then. We were looking at it from a perspective outside of time; of endless time. And we were not dazzled by the superficial values of any society. We ultimately want to experience and understand EVERYTHING and we come to such understanding only through the experience and understanding of the negative as well as the positive. If you are wondering what it is that you are supposed to be accomplishing in this life, just look at your life at this exact moment. What ever it is that you are doing, whatever it is that you are wondering about or struggling with, that is exactly what you are supposed to be wondering about and struggling with. If your path does not yet appear clear to you, it is not yet supposed to be clear. If you know what you want but can't seem to reach it, the frustration that you are feeling at this moment is the frustration that you are supposed to be experiencing. You are the author of your experience. And if these words that you are currently reading cause in you a paradigm shift and alter the context within which you hold your experience, then that was what was supposed to happen; and if you reject these words, or if they do not make any sense to you at this moment, then that is what is supposed to happen, too. I am just doing my best to do what I am supposed to do.

Now let's look at the memory part:

"Afterward, while their brains were still being monitored, subjects were asked to describe whichever of the video clips came to mind. The same neurons that had fired as they watched a given clip fired again when they recalled that clip." The way it is explained it seems as though these neurons just happenned to fire by themselves and then they just happenned to fire again. But that is not the memory part. The way they describe it, it seems as if there is no memory part at all. The memory part comes because they (the subjects) were asked to describe what came to mind. Memory happens when they locate that same exact spot in their brains where the coded impressions of their first experience was stored. Obviously they are locating those neurons. It's not the neurons that are locating the neurons; that doesn't make any sense. Memory is their (not their neurons) act of location. Keeping in mind that there are one hundred billion neurons, the ability to re-locate those exact neurons is pretty amazing. When you are 'trying to remember' something, you are trying to locate those coded neuronal impressions. The brain with its one hundred billion neurons is a recording device, an amazingly complex and vivid recording device, but a recording device none the less. Memory is you locating where, among those billions of neurons, you stored that impression.

So at every step of this process: the subjects focussing on the show; the subjects translating the sensory neural firings into their actual experience of the show; each subject's unique way of experiencing the show and subsequently each subject's unique memory of that show; the subject's re-locating those firing neurons and the subject's once again translating these neural impressions into their experience; through all of these, the self with it's interests and attention is front and center. In fact with every biological experiment, the self is the elephant in the room (or the laboratory). It seems that the thrust of modern biology is not only to ignore this elephant in the laboratory, this self, but the long range goal seems to be to eliminate the entire concept of the Self. (Unfortunately for them, the self is not a concept. The self is that which is entertaining the concept that the self is a concept. Whatever you succeeded in eliminating, it wouldn't be the self, because you would need your self to eliminate whatever it was that you thought you were eliminating!)

Trying to look at or describe the process of memory in purely chemical and electrical terms without including the self is like trying to describe a baseball game without including the players:

A cork and rubber ball covered in cowhide flies through the air about sixty
feet where it comes into contact with a rapidly revolving stick. The ball
bounces off the stick in many different trajectories and eventually finds its
way to a leather glove. The ball then flings itself from the glove to another
leather glove in the vicinity of a white canvas square.

All of this is true, in a way, but the entire point is missed. The ball, the bat and the bases are not playing baseball. They are the equipment that the players use. It is the players not the equipment that are actually playing the game. And exactly the same thing holds true with memory, thinking and perception. The brain and it's one hundred billion neurons and it's many trillions of synapses are the equipment that we are using when we remember, think and perceive.

So, what am I saying? That all brain research is futile; that it is just the non-physical you that is doing everything, so why bother? No! Not at all! I am saying that our brains and our bodies are not us. They are our precious equipment and should be treated and studied as such. The brain and the body are the passive conductors of the ten quadrillion biological processes that enable us to experience the world through this brain and body. If we get clear on that, and that our health, our responsiveness and our sensitivity depend on the unimpeded flow of all these chemical and electrical processes, then the main thrust of our research will be on how this equipment works and what environmental factors, what foods and chemicals, and what ideas and emotional messages about the world and about ourselves, inhibit the flow of these processes and what factors enhance the flow of these processes.

But you, not biological processes but that which experiences these biological processes, are not observable, recordable or researchable. It seems that the thrust of modern research is to attempt to eliminate you, to make you explainable in chemical and electronic terms. This will never happen. The best that science will ever do is to get to the electrical or chemical interface between the physical universe and you. You will never be understood in those terms. Yes, we are seeing the electrical and chemical activity that supports our memory, our thinking and our consciousness, but we are not seeing memory, thinking or consciousness. We are at a strange point in our understanding of the world. We continue to learn more and more about the physical universe and how it operates, and in our enthusiasm we think all will one day be known and that the self and consciousness are delusions that will be dispelled as soon as we unearth the proper formula. We think of researchers in the same way we think of medical doctors, that they will eventually be able to diagnose love, consciousness and the self, to reduce these things to some kind of physical formula that will dispel any mystical notions that we may have about them. But the self has no physical bases what so ever. Whatever physical bases is found, the self is not this physical bases, but what experiences this physical bases. What we will discover, and what physicists are already further along at discovering, is that as you look more and more deeply into the world of matter it dissolves into the world of energy, and as you look more and more deeply into the world of energy it dissolves into the world of intention and as you look more and more deeply into intention you arrive at being; being which is the origin of intention, which creates energy, which creates matter.

Let's continue to investigate with great curiosity and diligence the physical universe in ways that lead us to improve our lives and enhance our experience; but let's give up this dark and depressing fantasy that research will one day explain away and eliminate the Self, the Creator and the creative mystery of life. No matter what we discover about the ways that neurons assist us, remember that we, not our neurons, remember Jerry.

Your comments are most welcome. Thanks.


Ben said...

"(Unfortunately for them, the Self is not a concept. The Self is that which is entertaining the concept that the Self is a concept. Whatever you succeeded in eliminating, it wouldn't be the Self, because you would need your Self to eliminate whatever it is you thought you were eliminating!)"

Hey, Matt, that shouldn't be in brackets. It's the kind of wonderful logic the materialist just can't cope with. Very well put.

Andrea said...

Hi Matt,

Your writing is interesting and thought-provoking. Pleasure meeting someone else who thinks about these things!