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by Marilyn Ferguson

Editorial Preface: The following excerpt from Marilyn Ferguson's The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s presents some exciting ideas from brain research about the holographic theory of memory developed by Karl Pribram and David Bohm. The material is the final section of Chapter 6, "Liberating Knowledge: News from the Frontiers of Science". In an editorial in the updated special issue of the July 4, 1977 BrainlMind Bulletin, Ferguson wrote: "The theory, in a nutshell: Our brains mathematically construct 'concrete' reality by interpreting frequencies from another dimension, a realm of meaningful, patterned primary reality that transcends time and space. The brain is a hologram, interpreting a holographic universe.... It is appropriate that this radical, satisfying paradigm has emerged from Pribram, a brain researcher-neurosurgeon who was a friend of the western Zen teacher Alan Watts ... and Bohm, a theoretical physicist, close friend of Krishnamurti and former associate of Einstein."

The chapter also discusses biofeedback, the punctuated equilibrium theory of neo-Darwinian evolution, the possible meaning of Bell's theorem for psychic phenomena research, and Ilya Prigogine's theory of dissipative structures. Prigogine, a Belgian physical chemist, won the 1977 Nobel prize in chemistry for this work explaining irreversible processes - the movement toward higher and higher orders of life. The theory provides a model for the role of stress in biochemical systems and societies in triggering transformations to higher levels of organization and complexity. Prigogine's theory has stirred interest among social scientists, cyberneticists and general systems theorists. Pribram's and Prigogine's theories may be related. According to BrainIMind Bulletin (May 21, 1979), "Pribram suggested that the dissipative structures may represent the way in which the 'implicate' aspects of reality become explicate - that is, how they manifest in time and space from a timeless, spaceless primary order."

The title of the book, The Aquarian Conspiracy, trades upon Aquarius, the waterbearer, as a symbol of flow and the quenching of ancient thirst, and the literal meaning of conspire, "to breathe together". Thus, the Aquarian Conspiracy refers to the work of all those in many different areas whose independent efforts are leading to an all-pervading social transformation, a new social paradigm. The book describes the rapid and profound changes the "conspiracy" is generating in economics, education, politics, medicine, religion and the family. For example, the old economic paradigm promoted consumption at all costs via planned obsolescence, advertising pressure, the creation of artificial "need", whereas the new economic paradigm promotes appropriate consumption with conserving, keeping, recycling, quality and craftsmanship as goals. In medicine, a shift is occurring from mere treatment of symptoms to searching for patterns and causes, plus treatment of symptoms.

The book has been well-received by those attuned to holistic, "New Age" thinking while reductionists and those whose left brains are paranoid of their right brains are reacting threateningly. According to David Bohm, "if mankind is to survive, some fundamental psychological change is needed and [this] book will help give impetus to such a change." - CLE

Some scientific discoveries are premature, molecular geneticist Gunther Stent observed in 1972. These intuitive or accidental discoveries are repressed or ignored until they can be connected to existing data. In effect, they await a context in which they make sense.

Gregor Mendel's discovery of the gene, Michael Polanyi's absorption theory in physics, and Oswald Avery's identification of DNA as the basic hereditary substance were ignored for years, even decades. Stent suggested that the existence of psychic phenomena was a similarly premature discovery, one that would not be appreciated by science, regardless of the data, until a conceptual framework had been established.

Recently a Stanford neuroscientist, Karl Pribram, proposed an all-encompassing paradigm that marries brain research to theoretical physics; it accounts for normal perception and simultaneously takes the "paranormal" and transcendental experiences out of the supernatural by demonstrating that they are part of nature.

The paradoxical sayings of mystics suddenly make sense in the radical reorientation of this "holographic theory". Not that Pribram was the least bit interested in giving credence to visionary insights. He was only trying to make sense of the data generated from his laboratory at Stanford, where brain processes in higher mammals, especially primates, have been rigorously studied.

Early in his career as a brain surgeon, Pribram worked under the famous Karl Lashley, who searched for thirty years for the elusive “engram" --the site and substance of memory. Lashley trained experimental animals, then selectively damaged portions of their brains, assuming that at some point he would scoop out the locus of what they had learned. Removing parts of the brain worsened their performance somewhat, but short of lethal brain damage, it was impossible to eradicate what they had been taught.

At one point Lashley said facetiously that his research proved that learning was not possible. Pribram participated in writing up Lashley's monumental research, and he was steeped in the mystery of the missing engram. How could memory be stored not in any one part of the brain but distributed throughout?

Later, when Pribram went to the Center for Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, he was still deeply troubled by the mystery that had drawn him into brain research: How do we remember? In the mid-sixties, he read a Scientific American article describing the first construction of a hologram, a kind of three-dimensional "picture" produced by lensless photography. Dennis Gabor invented holography in principle in 1947, a discovery that later earned him a Nobel prize, but the construction of a hologram had to await the invention of the laser.

The hologram is one of the truly remarkable inventions of modern physics - eerie, indeed, when seen for the first time. Its ghostlike image can be viewed from various angles, and it appears to be suspended in space. Its principle is well described by biologist Lyall Watson:

If you drop a pebble into a pond, it will produce a series of regular waves that travel outward in concentric circles. Drop two identical pebbles into the pond at different points and you will get two sets of similar waves that move towards each other. Where the waves meet, they will interfere. If the crest of one hits the crest of the other, they will work together and produce a reinforced wave of twice the normal height. If the crest of one coincides with the trough of another, they will cancel each other out and produce an isolated patch of calm water. In fact, all possible combinations of the two occur, and the final result is a complex arrangement of ripples known as an interference pattern.

Light waves behave in exactly the same way. The purest kind of light available to us is that produced by a laser, which sends out a beam in which all of the waves are of one frequency,* like those made by an ideal pebble in a perfect pond. When two laser beams touch, they produce an interference pattern of light and dark ripples that can be recorded on a photographic plate. And if one of the beams, instead of coming directly from the laser, is reflected first off an object such as a human face, the resulting pattern will be very complex indeed, but it can still be recorded. The record will be a hologram of the face.

Light falls onto the photographic plate from two sources: from the object itself and from a reference beam, the light deflected by a mirror from the object onto the plate. The apparently meaningless swirls on the plate do not resemble the original object, but the image can be reconstituted by a coherent light source like a laser beam. The result is a 3-D likeness projected into space, at a distance from the plate.

If the hologram is broken, any piece of it will reconstruct the entire image.

Pribram saw the hologram as an exciting model for how the brain might store memory. If memory is distributed rather than localized, perhaps it is holographic. Maybe the brain deals in interactions, interpreting bio-electric frequencies throughout the brain.

In 1966 he published his first paper proposing a connection. Over the next several years he and other researchers uncovered what appeared to be the brain's calculative strategies for knowing, for sensing. It appears that in order to see, hear, smell, taste, and so on, the brain performs complex calculations on the frequencies of the data it receives. Hardness or redness or the smell of ammonia are only frequencies when the brain encounters them. These mathematical processes have little common-sense relationship to the real world as we perceive it.

Neuro-anatomist Paul Pietsch said, "The abstract principles of the hologram may explain the brain's most elusive properties." The diffuse hologram makes no more common sense than the brain. The whole code exists at every point in the medium. "Stored mind is not a thing. It is abstract relationships.... In the sense of ratios, angles, square roots, mind is a mathematics. No wonder it's hard to fathom."

Pribram suggested that the intricate mathematics might be performed via slow waves known to move along a network of fine fibers on the nerve cells. The brain may decode its stored memory traces the way a projected hologram decodes or de-blurs its original image. The extraordinary efficiency of the holographic principle makes it attractive, too. Because the pattern on a holographic plate has no space-time dimension, billions of bits of information can be stored in a tiny space--just as billions of bits are obviously stored in the brain.

But in 1970 or 1971, a distressing and ultimate question began troubling Pribram. If the brain indeed knows by putting together holograms--by mathematically transforming frequencies from "out there" --who in the brain is interpreting the holograms?

This is an old and nagging question. Philosophers since the Greeks have speculated about the "ghost in the machine," the "little man inside the little man" and so on. Where is the I--the entity that uses the brain?

Who does the actual knowing? Or, as Saint Francis of Assisi once put it, "What we are looking for is what is looking."

Lecturing one night at a symposium in Minnesota, Pribram mused that the answer might lie in the realm of gestalt psychology, a theory that maintains that what we perceive "out there" is the same as--isomorphic with --brain processes.

Suddenly he blurted out, "Maybe the world is a hologram!"

He stopped, a little taken aback by the implications of what he had said. Were the members of the audience holograms--representations of frequencies, interpreted by his brain and by one another's brains? If the nature of reality is itself holographic, and the brain operates holographically, then the world is indeed, as the Eastern religions have said, maya: a magic show. Its concreteness is an illusion.

Soon afterward he spent a week with his son, a physicist, discussing his ideas and searching for possible answers in physics. His son mentioned that David Bohm, a protege of Einstein, had been thinking along similar lines. A few days later, Pribram read copies of Bohm's key papers urging a new order in physics. Pribram was electrified. Bohm was describing a holographic universe.

What appears to be a stable, tangible, visible, audible world, said Bohm, is an illusion. It is dynamic and kaleidoscopic--not really "there". What we normally see is the explicate, or un-folded, order of things, rather like watching a movie. But there is an underlying order that is father to this second-generation reality. He called the other order implicate, or enfolded. The enfolded order harbors our reality, much as the DNA in the nucleus of the cell harbors potential life and directs the nature of its unfolding.

Bohm describes an insoluble ink droplet in glycerine. If the fluid is stirred slowly by a mechanical device so that there is no [dispersion] , the droplet is eventually drawn into a fine thread that is distributed throughout the whole system in such a way that it is no longer even visible to the eye. If the mechanical device is then reversed, the thread will slowly gather together until it suddenly coalesces again into a visible droplet.

Before this coalescence takes place, the droplet can be said to be "folded into" the viscous fluid, while afterward it is unfolded again.

Next imagine that several droplets have been stirred into the fluid a different number of times and in different positions. If the ink drops are stirred continuously and fast enough, it will appear that a single permanently existing ink drop is continuously moving across the fluid. There is no such object. Other examples: a row of electric lights in a commercial sign that flashes off and on to give the impression of a sweeping arrow, or an animated cartoon, giving the illusion of continuous movement.

Just so, all apparent substance and movement are illusory. They emerge from another, more primary order of the universe. Bohm calls this phenomenon the holomovement.

Ever since Galileo, he says, we have been looking at nature through lenses; our very act of objectifying, as in an electron microscope, alters that which we hope to see. We want to find its edges, to make it sit still for a moment, when its true nature is in another order of reality, another dimension, where there are no things. It is as if we are bringing the "observed" into focus, as you would bring a picture into resolution, but the blur is a more accurate representation. The blur itself is the basic reality.

It occurred to Pribram that the brain may focus reality in a lenslike way, by its mathematical strategies. These mathematical transforms make objects out of frequencies. They make the blurred potential into sound and color and touch and smell and taste.

"Maybe reality isn't what we see with our eyes," Pribram says. "If we didn't have that lens--the mathematics performed by our brain--maybe we would know a world organized in the frequency domain. No space, no time--just events. Can reality be read out of that domain?"

He suggested that transcendental experiences--mystical states may allow us occasional direct access to that realm. Certainly, subjective reports from such states often sound like descriptions of quantum reality, a coincidence that has led several physicists to speculate similarly. Bypassing our normal, constricting perceptual mode-- what Aldous Huxley called the reducing valve-- we may be attuned to the source or matrix of reality.

And the brain's neural interference patterns, its mathematical processes, may be identical to the primary state of the universe. That is to say, our mental processes are, in effect, made of the same stuff as the organizing principle. Physicist s and astronomers had remarked at times that the real nature of the universe is immaterial but orderly. Einstein professed mystical awe in the face of this hannony. Astronomer James Jeans said that the universe is more like a great thought than a great machine, and astronomer Arthur Eddington said, "The stuff of the universe is mind-stuff."

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