Posts Tagged ‘memory’

The New World

Below the stars

Before I went to live below the stars,
I was be-taught the task-of-life that did await
Completion at my hand.  Then loomed the gate
That led to lands so full of strife and wars.
And, as I passed where none may dare refuse,
A cloud of deep unknowing shrouded me.
I lay as in the arms of that which hews
The finest features from the clay and dews.
Of dust now was I fashioned ; lacking sense ;
No pains beset me yet, as I was warned.
Of warmth and shadow was I made in dense
Awareness.  Sounds, a part of me intense.
Was this the tenor of life enjoyed below?
Alas no more than this was I allowed to know.

© Jamie MacNab 2013


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What do we know, we creatures bound to soil,
Of heaven’s glory?  Have we looked within,
Below the tangled log of daily broil,
To depths profound, where memories begin?
Recall genetic thirst, my anxious heart !
Regret your waywardness at Lethe’s shore ;
Where lost was all that you did know to start
Your worldly life anew.  So speaks the lore.
My mind, recall the sorrowing mother, Eve,
Who likewise feasted, disadvised, on fruit
That wiped her mem’ry, leaving her to grieve
On that which might have been, had she stayed mute.
What do we know, we creatures, bent by toil?
We from amnesia’s folly must recoil.

© Jamie MacNab 2013

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In a sense, everything is history.  For example, when I look at an object such as my computer screen, I am aware that I see it not as it is but as it was a fraction of a second ago ; this is because it takes a definite length of time for it to be neurologically processed and to be presented to conscious awareness.  When we move away from that kind of example towards more everyday awarenesses, to thinking about what to have for breakfast for example, things get even more historical ; if I decide on cornflakes, then where does my liking of them come from if not from pleasant memories of breakfasts past?

In a sense, then, while the arrow of time is always pointing forward, our sense perceptions of the world are always pointing backward.  It is as if Nature made us to feel more comfortable to look at the past rather than the future.

And in a sense, everything is spiritual.  For, even though I can persuade myself that I am looking at a material thing as I gaze at the computer screen, the moment I start to think about it, it becomes entirely a phenomenon of consciousness ; i.e., not material at all but spiritual.

These thoughts and others like them were crossing my mind as I enjoyed reading the history of the events following the Norman conquest, from the time of King William himself to King John.  I was conscious of enjoying that period of history as a purely spiritual pleasure ; for there is no way I could possibly enjoy it as a sensory one.  I might have imagined what it is like to be clad in heavy chain mail on the Sussex Downs ; I might have imagined what the weight of a swinging sword or mace might feel like ; I might have imagined the pain of taking an arrow-hit in the eye.  But there is no way that I can experience these things that are long in the past and beyond hope (or fear) of repetition.

“How wonderful life must be for the historian, I thought, living one’s subject entirely through one’s imagination!”

And imagination is but one short step back from its alluring cousin, fantasy.  “How comforting it would be,” I thought, “If the nobler Anglo-Saxons had never allowed themselves to become embroiled with those ghastly Normans and French!”

But then, history is history, as they say, and the events cannot be realistically imagined as being different from what they actually were.  All ‘what if’ scenarios are mere fantasy.  Perhaps that is why so many students of history see their subject as elaborate lists of dates, names and deeds ; nice and safe lists with little margin for error.  But surely this is not history at all ; it is  little more than chronology.

So, perhaps that is why they also like to have each item in the list tagged with the opinion of their teacher ; in the belief that this somehow adds veracity to the content of the list.  But such opinions are so often conditioned by the political opinions of the teacher, which always contaminate history with modern ideas alien to the age being studied.

Of course, history is bound to contain large amounts of historians’ opinion, but I do not think that this is what it is really about.  For, surely, no subject is worthy of study unless the student is in some way in love with the subject being studied.  And what is being studied in ‘History’?  it has to be simply people.  So the first requirement of an historian is to love people and, from that, to desire to know what they did and why they did it.  The ‘what’ is easy enough ; that is the bare menu.  But the ‘why’ is where the recipe is ; it leads to the kitchen where the tale of entire nations and civilisations is cooked up.

History is a tale with many story-lines, therefore with as many aims ; but apparently without an over-arching plot.  In 1066 nobody in England had the faintest suspicion of a Hanoverian monarch.  History has many chronologists but not an all-knowing author.

And yet there are patterns in history, which suggests something about human nature.  And the patterns do not lead to mere repetition of events, which suggests that human nature is changing.  For example, in general, the farther back we go, the more violent are the methods of government ; and this suggests that we are moving in a direction where force as a method is giving way to persuasion.  And violence, of course, is the outcome of ways of seeing the world and of ways of thinking.
Therefore, it seems to me that history is the tale of the evolution of human consciousness.  It is a spiritual tale.

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If there is one human habit you can rely on it is the habit of taking matters to extremes.  Once people have discovered a Good Thing, their impulse is to work it to death – or something like death.  There are numerous examples, from the trivial to the grand, and these examples span all of history.  Warcraft has often been seen as a Good Thing, if only to provide defences for civilised people ; but war can be glorified and lead to the downfall of martial states ; Persia, Greece and Rome come to mind.   In modern times, we have our own Good Things.  We ensure that we have an abundant food supply because food is a Good Thing ; and we enjoy so much of its goodness that many people now are so overweight that they will surely die early and painfully.  On the other hand, modern folk have a superstition that it is good to live for as long as possible and with as few bodily inconveniences as possible.  So people pay unconscionable amounts of money to medical gurus to try to keep them alive for ever, even selling all that they own to pay for it ; with the rather unsurprising result that dying has never been a more miserable affair.

Amid all this confusion, there is no doubt at all that these banes (and others) that afflict people began as good things ; but were carried to extremes.  I do not doubt that Aristotle was right when he said, “Moderation in all things,” words that were also used by Jesus of Nazareth and by many of the wise, both before and since.

These thoughts were going through my mind a wedding I attended recently – which goes to show what wonderful thing the human mind is – for what on earth has a wedding to do with such matters as war and food and medicine, etc?  But the mind is a potentially wild thing ; in its knowledge or memory, it finds connections everywhere.  Psychologists have a model for memory (one of several) which they call the spreading activation model. In brief, it says that, whatever your recall alights on in memory, other related memories are stimulated to present their knowledge to you.  So, if you think of breakfast, immediately the memory of coffee might arise, then the memory of toast, then marmalade – and so on.  And each of these subordinate memories can lead you on to recall things which apparently have nothing at all to do with breakfast!

So it is hardly surprising that my ‘wedding-mind’ wandered to the question of having too much of a good thing.  After all, it might have strayed anywhere!  It might have meandered to any extreme.  I wonder it didn’t wander to the idea that, since a wedding feast is a Good Thing, we’d all be better off if we ate nothing but wedding feasts.  More Boeuf  Bourguignon, vicar?

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Just one of the satisfying things about retirement is that one is out of the rat race ; in fact, one is out of all races.  And this is satisfying because the rat moves so fast, as fast as the hare ; and, like the hare, it overlooks many things that the tortoise knows well.  It isn’t a question of whether the tortoise leads a better life than the hare, but of whether it is better to sample both kinds of life.  We might say that the hare is a doer, while the tortoise is a thinker.  The hare enjoys life ; the tortoise contemplates it and meditates upon it.

While I was scribbling some notes about the double-life of the rose plant I was already thinking about its triple-life.  I posted the double-life a few minutes ago, so you can see it as it appears next to this one.

So, in its double-life, the rose lives as a physical thing in the flower pot ; and also within the brain of the beholder ; in these two places it grows day by day.  What is remarkable about the rose in the brain is that its entire life can be captured, as it were, by the observer ; and that life can be enjoyed again and again simply recalling it.

But I am getting ahead of myself here ; for to recall something is to bring it into conscious awareness.  But memories in the brain are not conscious ; they are merely the physical arrangements of brain cells.  It is those physical arrangements that we consult when we want to re-enjoy the colours, scents and other things that define the rose for us.

The hare is content simply to enjoy these things, but the tortoise likes to think a little deeper about that enjoyment.  The tortoise says, “Hold on now, you have told me that the rose has its life in the flower pot ; then that it has a second life in the neurones of the brain.  That is mysterious enough.  But now you are telling me that the rose has a third life – a life enjoyed as my conscious memories of it.”  To which, I can only reply in the affirmative.  The third life of the rose is a remarkable one, for it is potentially immortal.

It is fairly clear to us that the life of the rose in the pot follows the arrow of time.  It begins as a cutting ; it sprouts buds and roots ; it grows taller and spreads wider ; it flowers ; it reproduces ; and eventually, after a number of seasons, it perishes.

Not so in my conscious awareness.  For here, I may give the rose many new lives, simply by recalling what I have seen it do in its pot.  I can recall the rose at any episode in its life and hold that episode for as long as I like ; I can stop the arrow of time.  I can even recall the life of the rose and run it backwards, seeing the rose first in its old age and then at progressively earlier ages until it becomes a mere cutting again.    I can reverse the arrow of time.

The rose as I understand it in my mind has a sort of immortality.  It will live in my mind for as long as my mind exists – and potentially for much longer than the rose in the pot exists.

So far so interesting.  So far so mysterious.  But the tortoise will not let the matter rest there, for he is a thinker ; and all thoughts lead on to other thoughts.

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Things that grow generally fascinate us ; there is a mystery to life that we cannot quite get our heads round.  Is life itself a material thing?  or is it a non-material thing that happens to be associated with material things?  I read once that some ingenious experiments were carried out which involved weighing a dying animal at intervals before its actual death and continuing those weighings after death.  The aim was to see if there was a larger decrement in weight at the moment of death, which would signify that life itself had mass – i.e. that life was a material thing.  The concerns of people are so interesting, aren’t they?

But planting a young rose in a patio pot can be interesting, too.  Just looking at it is interesting.  At the beginning of its life, it might appear to be very much like a dead twig protruding from the soil.  As we gaze, we can become aware that we have formed a percept of a dead-looking twig.  And we remember it.

But what do we mean by a percept?  And what do we mean by remember?  Let us leave psychology to one side and think instead of neurology.  Neurologists tell us that we process the visual information of the rose by modifying our brain cells.  Thus the image of the dead-looking twig is stored in our brains as a modification of some cells.  The image causes some of our cells to grow in highly particular ways.  Thus the physical structure of the twig is re-presented to us as a physical structure in the brain – and it was the twig that caused it.

If we were to leave the rose unseen for a month or so, and then return to it, a similar remarkable event occurs.  As we gaze at it, we notice that the twig has formed  a small bud ; we form a percept of this changed form ; the brain cells modify themselves again by growing a little more, in proportion to the new growth on the twig.  And we remember this, too.

Now that we have more than one percept of the rose, we can say that we are forming, or growing, a concept of it.  We can say that we are forming the concept of its growth.  We can do this because we remember both percepts and the temporal order in which they were formed – and we compare them.

If we repeat this experiment over a number of months, we assemble many percepts of the rose as it changes its form – leaves appear ; flower buds appear ; the flowers open ; new colours appear ; the rose becomes taller and also spreads out.  Thus we form a more complete concept of the growing plant.

And we note that, as the rose grows, so does our brain.  The physical growth of the rose causes a corresponding physical growth in the brain.  It is as if the rose enjoyed two lives – one in the pot and the other in our head.

So the rose lives within us.  And its life within us is physical, for it is neurological.  A real growth of the plant produces a real corresponding growth in the brain.

What would a poet make of all this?

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In the field of cognitive psychology it seems fairly well established that our knowledge is comprised of complex chemical compounds distributed within the networks of nerve cells of the brain.  Thus my knowledge of the shape of an apple, say, is actually a chemical construct which would seem to bear no geometrical  relation to the actual apple.   Similarly, my knowledge of its hardness, texture, temperature, smell and taste are said to be chemical constructs in the brain.

Somehow, between the apple on the table in front of me – and the workings of the brain – the apple has been altogether lost.  What resides in my brain is not an apple but a neuronal model of the apple ; a collection of bodily substances, chemicals.

One obvious question arises : what is the relation between the neuronal model and the apple itself?  If it were possible to examine the chemicals that comprise the particular neuronal model, would I recognize them as representing an apple?

Perhaps before plunging into such a quest, I might pause to ask another question.  If my knowledge of the apple is made of chemical constructs in my brain, then surely it follows that my knowledge of my brain and its chemicals is also a neuronal model.  My knowledge of my brain is not my brain itself.  And, of course, my knowledge of the chemicals is not the chemicals themselves.  So what is the relation between the chemical constructs in my brain and my brain itself?

It is strange to think that, as we look at the world around us and even as we look at our own bodies, we do not neurologically perceive what is actually there ; we actually make chemical models of what is there.  We simplify the situation for ourselves by making conscious pictures, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings – cognitive models – all apparently derived from the chemicals.   We assure ourselves that our conscious awareness of the world is a true representation of it.  But that assurance does not come from either psychology or neurology.

Our models – neuronal and cognitive – are evidently deficient of explanatory power.  Or perhaps our theories of perception might just be plain wrong.

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