Memory does not live in the brain

We are conditioned to think that our selves and our precious memories, built over a lifetime, are all dependent on this fragile, perishable body.  Most crucial is the brain, because that is where we imagine that we live.

But there are multiple biological examples of somatic cognition, discussed as part of this presentation by Michael Levin.  One-celled organisms can learn.  Organ transplant patients can take on skills and preferences of the donor.  Planaria can be cut into pieces, and the pieces with no brain retain memories.  Caterpillars liquefy their brains in the chrysalis on the way to becoming a butterfly, and the caterpillar’s memories are retained in the butterfly.

Is memory biochemical?  Does it have an extracorporeal existence, taking up temporary residence in a particular body for a particular lifetime?

The rest of this video is about regeneration, and is equally inspiring in a different way.



It only sounds esoteric

There is a debate at the foundation of physics that even physicists avoid thinking overmuch about, and yet it goes to the heart of our sense of who we are and where we come from.

The mainstream scientific view is that the universe is an objective, physical entity made up of elementary particles and associated force fields.  Life was an accident.  Intelligent life was a further accident.  And consciousness is a big mystery that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with physical matter, but somehow arises from the electrical activity in the brain, or maybe…

“The conception of the objective reality of the elementary particles has evaporated not into the cloud of some new reality concept but into the transparent clarity of a mathematics that represents no longer the behavior of the particles but our knowledge of this behavior.”

— Werner Heisenberg, describing the Quantum revolution

In view of the fundamental re-entry of mind into basic physics, it is nigh on incomprehensible that so few philosophers and non-physicist scientists entertain today, more than nine decades after the downfall of classical physics, the idea that the physicalist conception of nature, based on the invalidated classical theory, might be profoundly wrong in ways highly relevant to the mind-matter problem…The orthodox quantum ontology is in essential accord with the dualistic ideas of Descartes…

This conclusion that nature is fundamentally mind-like is hardly new. But it arises here not from some deep philosophical analysis or religious insight, but from direct examination of the causal structure of our basic scientific theory”

— Henry Stapp, from How Consciousness Became the Universe

Henry Stapp is a theoretical physicist, an emeritus professor of at UC Berkeley.   My interpretation of this quote:

The idea of an objective physical universe was the height of 19th Century science, but it has been supplanted by 20th Century quantum physics.  There is no room for mind in 19th Century physics, but there is an explicit place for mind in quantum physics.  So why are we still working with an understanding in which our world is dead, our brains are meat computers and consciousness is an illusion?

The light of consciousness is our primary experience, something we know before we know anything else. Science is supposed to be empirical, that is, rooted in experience.  Why would science want to deny the most fundamental fact of our experience?  If physical theory led inexorably to the conclusion that the physical universe is a complete, objective system, with no room in its laws for interference by anything mental then we might understand science, pushed into a corner, would be at a loss to embrace consciousness as anything else but a curious epiphenomenon.  But this was 19th century physics.  Why has the scientific world-view worked so hard to avoid the quantum implication that consciousness has a role in fundamental physics?

Stapp has many articles and 3 books in which he offers us one alternative understanding of physics and its relation to life.  Conscious observation and conscious intention exist outside of the physical world of particles and fields, but exchanges information with that physical world.  Intention can alter quantum probabilities.  And brains are so exquisitely constructed as to be able to leverage the tiny quantum effects of our intentions turn them into thoughts, ideas, and motor triggers.

Do you remember the butterfly effect?  The weather is such a complex system, poised on the knife-edge of chaos, that it is unpredictable, because the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in Tahiti six weeks ago might affect the weather in New York tomorrow.  It appears that our brains are designed on an analogous principle, but not to make neuronal activity chaotic, but to make it exquisitely sensitive to tiny quantum events that can, conceivably, be affected by this entity I call “me”.

I hope you had a delicious Thanksgiving

I hope your parents loved you and your childhood was free of trauma.

I hope the Founding Fathers were sincere in their desire to create an inclusive democracy.

I hope that two World Wars never happened.

I hope I don’t come off sounding like Erving Goffman.

Actually, I hope that I do manage to evoke the ghost of Goffman, because IMHO he was one of the funniest and most perceptive writers ever to poke holes in our blinders.Image result for wearing blinders

What does it mean to hope for something in the past that already has happened (or not)?

Heck—what does it mean to hope for something in the future?  And what does it mean to tell someone that we hope something, without really experiencing either the emotion of hope or the visualization of the desiderate event?

I hope that each time I say good-bye to my friend, I recall the image of God vouchsafing his passage.

I am acquainted with the literature at the edge of experimental psychology suggesting that intention and visualization (hope) can have a real impact on the future.  There is evidence for remote healing through the power of prayer.  The finding that this effect can even work retroactively suggests a need to rebuild the foundations of modern science, flowing from the axiom that the past is an efficient cause of the future (and never the other way ’round).  No shit.

I hope that this re-evaluation might proceed expeditiously.  I don’t hope that the re-evaluation might be obviated by re-arranging the past in such a way that the principles of causality were never woven into the fabric of scientific thought in the first place.

Einstein, BTW, rooted his most influential thought experiments in the principle that an experimenter’s free will may affect the future (he called it the forward light cone) but never the past.  This reasoning was the basis of his conclusion that the notions of future and past were, in some cases, relative to the observer (but beyond limits imposed by light speed, other events are in either the past or the future, which all observers agree upon).  When the emerging laws of quantum reality seemed to show that only half of the future was determined by the past, and the other half could be influenced by events distant in space and time, either forward or after, Einstein clung too long to the suspicion that this implies a problem at the heart of quantum mechanics.

The hopes that we express in polite conversation are social lubricants, significant for facilitating a level of familiarity and safety that we establish before trusting another human with a glimpse into our inner experience.  They are devoid of literal content.  To analyze their verbal content as though it held a meaning intended for communication is the height of absurdity.  Hence my hope that you might find this column an occasion for laughter.

Image result for thumbing my nose



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The Internet of Trees

Mycelium is the neurological network of nature.  Interlacing networks of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes.  These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind.  The mycelium stays in constant molecular communication with its environment devising diverse chemical responses to complex challenges.  They can spread enormous cellular mats over thousands of acres of forest.  They not only provide channels by which individual trees (not necessarily of the same species) help one another in the forest, and they provide the intelligence that enables the forest to respond in a coordinated way to challenges of pest infestations, and even to shape their own climate.

I wonder what would happen if there were a United Organization of Organisms, where each species got one vote.  Would we be voted off the planet?

Mycelium Running, by Paul Stamets

Re-enchanting Nature and Ourselves

Isaac Newton was the father of modern, quantitative physics, but it would never have occurred to him that this precluded magic or spirits in nature.  He spent much of his experimentation with alchemy and astrology.

In the 1880s, Arthur Conan Doyle went to seances and communed with the dead, but his alter-ego Sherlock Holmes was a hard-headed scientist who sought and found a mechanical explanation for every mystery that seemed supernatural.  He read the spirit of the times.

In the early 20th Century, Sigmund Freud found abundant evidence for telepathy and extraordinary knowing among his case studies, but he wrote about this only in private letters and denied it in public.  He knew that establishing the new field of psychology as a legitimate science would be hard enough without taking on prejudice of the intelligentsia against things supernatural.

William James, his older contemporary, was much more explicit about believing in a non-material soul that survives the body and in telepathic communication.  And Freud’s student, Karl Jung, broke with Freud over his explicit embracing of mystical transpersonal connections.

The prejudice that says “Science Knows Better” is alive and well today, fueled by all of the technical successes of the science establishment.  The spirit of our times is no spirit.  We believe in the religion of no religion.  We think we know better than the Greeks who associated personalities with the sun and the wind, and we smile condescendingly at the Native American beliefs in spirits of nature.  The shamanism that is our heritage in every indigenous culture is explained away as an interesting anthropological phenomenon.

But the truth is that we have been robbed of a great deal of the beauty and mystery in life.  The community of scientists has denied the overwhelming evidence for telepathy and precognition and psychokinesis, even after classical mechanics (which is inhospitable to souls and spirits) was replaced with quantum mechanics (in which there is a natural place for the supernatural).

The result is the nihilism that dominated philosophy in the 20th Century, existential angst, anomie, whole generations of people who don’t know who they are or why they are alive, an epidemic of suicide in the most prosperous countries in the world.

Each of us has within us our dreams, intuitions and presentiments, communications from nature and from the divine.  We have learned to look past them.  We have learned to attend to the five senses and the material world, to the exclusion of half of ourselves.  We routinely suppress the very parts of ourselves that know why we are alive.

The natural world is alive and ensouled and enchanted.  We can re-sensitize ourselves to a living spirit, and listen to what the voices of the trees and the ocean.  In fact, the dominant intellectual culture of physicalism is melting in our lifetimes.



We have enslaved elephants and we have murdered elephants for their teeth.  We have “culled their herds” for the sake of preserving their habitat, before we realized that they knew much more than we do about sustaining their African habitat.

We have done everything with elephants save to learn from them.  They have much to teach us about how to care for children, how to constitute groups that offer a deep sense of community while honoring individuality.  Elephants communicate telepathically, and we have a long way to go before we even acknowledge that that is possible, let alone learn from them how to live in a communal pool of thought.

Don Ross says it’s time for us to recognize elephants as human.  Perhaps that’s an insult to elephants.  Perhaps promoting elephants is a small step toward demoting humans, recognizing that we are one among millions of unique and wonderful interdependent life forms.

The Elephant as Person

Ross’s essay uses the analytic methodology of the philosopher to argue for what it is to be human.  He concludes that it is our ability to restrain our instincts in the name of a morality that is collectively agreed.  Do elephants have this ability?  He proposes to answer this question with a sophisticated version of the kind of experiment that psychologists do in their labs.

But Ross doesn’t venture into the territory of asking what the elephants have that might be better or more valuable that what humans have.  Perhaps they don’t have to restrain their selfish violent instincts with willpower because they experience more harmony between self and community than we do.  Perhaps instead of trying to teach elephants our human ways and teach them to communicate in our language, we should be learning all we can about elephant ways, and listening in on the elephants’ language.

Book Review—Eisenstein’s Climate

“What are people for?” The last words of the man who reports to the Ethical Suicide Society in Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian story, Welcome to the Monkey House.

At this moment in the history of The West which threatens to overtake and homogenize all cultures and become the history of The World at this moment, we are caught between two visions.

Vision one.  Man has arisen from nature, but our destiny is to transcend nature, to bioengineer support systems for ourselves and to bioengineer our bodies and brains into something trans-human.  We are learning to dominate the planet, then, perhaps, expand through space. We will grow all the food we need, create the products we need to live and to thrive; we will be leaving biology behind.  The challenge is to do this sustainably with solar energy, before fossil fuels run out or the planet cooks itself from carbon emissions that is the short-term crisis man face on the way to our long-term destiny.

Vision two.  Gaia is a beautiful and dynamic organism.  Life has thrived and diversified for four billion years, and humans have come along, slashing and burning, turning the planet into a monoculture of humans, supported by the few species that we grow for food.  Hence we are in the midst of the Sixth Extinction. The human project is evil, alien to the very Mother who gave us birth. It cannot succeed, because we are thinking only of how to extract more resources faster, how to convert more and more of the earth for human use, most of which is fatuous.  No one is even thinking about the Earth as a living ecosystem, or how to sustain a living planet in the long run. Inevitably, we will run out of resources to convert, the human cancer will kill its host, then die out. But the bacteria and the cockroaches and the weeds will survive us. Nature is more robust than human life, and in a brief 10 or 20 million years, Gaia will rise again, more beautiful and diverse than ever, built on the ashes of human civilization.

Either way, you and I feel like voices in the wilderness, crying “stop!” against the relentless, mad growth of capitalism, heading toward the death spiral of humanity.  We feel a desperate urgency, or (more realistically) we feel that it is already too late to deflect the momentum of the human steamroller, paving paradise to put up a parking lot.

In his new book, Climate, Charles Eisenstein articulates both these visions with clarity, with empathy, and with an extraordinary breadth of knowledge.  The book is peppered with details gleaned from his broad readings, individual stories that help us to feel the unfolding tragedy less abstractly, more personally as members of the sisterhood of life.  The farming village in Bangladesh that took World Bank loans in order to “modernize”, and found that the only way they could pay interest on that loan was for the town’s young people to sell one kidney to Western medical pirates.  Fish biomass has decreased by more than half in the last 60 years alone, and the mass of plastic in the world’s oceans now exceeds the mass of fish.  

From the spectre of earth’s death-spiral, Eisenstein brings forth in the last chapters a glimpse of a new vision, in which humans are not simply stepping back to allow nature to thrive as before.  We have many examples in which top predators greatly enrich the ecosystems that support them. We are on this earth for a reason, and that is to make the good earth ever so much richer and more beautiful.

It is a vision that is supported by its own necessity more than by data, but Eisenstein does offer us some data.  Organic farms, believe it or not, actually produce substantially more produce than monoculture, factory farms with their fertilizers and pesticides.  They require more labor, but it’s not the kind of numbing labor of the exploited migrant worker, rather the kind of diverse activity that makes us feel fulfilled, purposeful, and connected to the land.   The Native American population, Eisenstein tells us, had not learned to live lightly on the land, but had a wise and complex relationship with nature that enhanced the beauty, the diversity, and the productivity of the land.  

Restoration of thriving ecologies is not technically difficult; all the barriers are posed by human institutions.  Forests turned to deserts have been turned back to forests in a few decades.  Wetlands have been restored.  There is a science of reconciliation ecology, largely untapped to date.  We know how to do it, and we can learn to do better yet.

This is Eisenstein’s vision for our future.  All our technological wizardly will be re-purposed to sustain life for an ever more beautiful future, rather than to mine Nature for an ever more desperate present.  We are behaving at present like a cancer, but that is not our historic role, and it is not our future.

Consider the parable of the mitochondria.  A billion years ago, life on earth was limited to single-celled prokaryotes.  One day, a parasite named mitochondria learned how to harness chemical energy, and put its new skill to work where it could do the most good.  Mitochondria invaded archaea as a parasite, converting all the host’s sugars to energy to make more mitochondria. Mitochondria plundered, killed, and moved on to the next host.  While archaea were plentiful, this was a winning strategy, but eventually mitochondria became victim of its own success. Archaea were dying out, and there were no hosts left to exploit.  Mitochondria changed course, began to live lightly on its host, allowing the host to live. Better still, mitochondria learned to support its host, to share its abundant energy for use of the host.  The parasite became a symbiont. The partnership, archaea with mitochondria, became a formidable competitor spawning a new world of diverse life. Today, every human cell, every plant and animal and fungus on planet Earth is powered by abundant mitochondria living within each cell.  Gaia’s rich diversity of metazoa, all descended from that first partnership between archaea and mitochondria.

Our vast brainpower and global capacity for cooperation is destined to be deployed in service of Nature.  In building an inspiring habitat for ourselves, we will restore the natural world to a state more wondrous, more diverse and more magnificent even than the original.   

Of course, say I, once I have read it, it is obvious.  If there is salvation for us, it must come in this direction.  It is right for us to assume this posture because only from this posture is there a way forward toward a future worth inhabiting.