A HOLOGRAPHIC WORLD
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."