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(DV) Williamson: Memories and Alibis







Memories and Alibis
by Harold Williamson
June11, 2005

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The other day, one of my favorite readers and sharpest critic commented on the quotation from Macbeth that was included at the end of my last essay.  She discovered that most intriguing passage when she was fourteen years old while studying Shakespeare's plays on her own -- Hamlet and Macbeth being her favorites. She wondered about the phrase: "till the last syllable of recorded time," because she has always believed that time has no beginning nor end. She thought that Shakespeare might have been trifling with metaphysics while indulging in some pretty liberal poetic license.  It sounds to me like she has the old Bard's number.

Personally, I prefer to sing the song rather than analyze the lyrics. But I think that perhaps Shakespeare was talking about "recorded time" as being "history," which is strictly a human fabrication.  At that time, of course, Shakespeare could not have known that Albert Einstein would demonstrate that "time," as we humans perceive it, is an illusion -- being an integral part of the very "fabric" (space-time) of the universe.  And, of course, any meaning derived from any historical account would depend upon the perspectives of both its author and its reader, because each of our memories is also a fabrication. 

The brain is not a video recorder. We literally make up memories every single time, often subconsciously embellishing them with new experiences. This is why circumstantial evidence presented in the courtroom can be more reliable than eyewitness testimony.

Freeman Dyson, Professor Emeritus in the School of Natural Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, once reminisced about a cross-country automobile trip with the renowned physicist Richard Feynman that turned into quite an adventure. In order to keep the facts straight, he relied on the information in his letters he sent home at that time to his parents. He did this because he realized that decades-old memories are not very reliable -- his own personal experience being that at times his memory seems to be missing in its entirety, while at other times he quite vividly recalls things that absolutely never, ever happened. In this respect, one of the sharpest minds of our time is not unique.

To make matters even worse, we also make it up while it happens.

Cognitive science interprets sensory experiences to be mental constructs.  Research has shown that occurring in the subconscious brain is an adaptation, an interpretive creation that attempts to associate stimuli with meaning as a precondition for conscious perception. Only the details that are somehow determined to be meaningful and relevant are allowed to be a part of the process of perception, and the rest are ignored while the brain compensates by providing an illusion of wholeness from this discontinuity. The perceptual information is then encoded for storage where it will be decoded in those circumstances where it can be useful in new constructs for memory and other perceptions.  One of the best accounts that I have read about this phenomenon is in the book Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett, Director of the Centre for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

I am also familiar with Renee Baillargeon's work with infants in her lab at the University of Illinois.  It seems that up to the age of around 3-1/2 months, an infant perceives that an object does not exist if it is hidden from view -- out of sight, out of mind.  Beyond that age this no longer makes any sense and becomes counterintuitive.  But this earlier perception could be closer to reality than one might think it to be [double entendre].

Quantum mechanics has been the most successful theory of physics to date, and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory states that nothing exists unless it interacts with an observer -- the properties that are observed are those of the interaction with an observer and not of the thing-in-itself.  Of course we are talking about the tiny realm of quanta, but everything is made of the same stardust, including our brains.

So far, the best attempt at connecting the underlying and strange quantum world to the more intuitive classical world of conscious experience has been the work of physicist Roger Penrose at the University of Oxford and physician Stuart Hameroff at the Arizona Health Sciences Center.  Their hypothesis is that within certain neural structures called microtubules a secluded environment exists where quantum events could occur; and due to quantum events in the brain, consciousness emerges. (

But we have become accustomed to a simple view of our perceptions, and we teach our children that things are either present or absent regardless of whether they are seen or not.  Yet it is curious that we are not born with this insight.

So how, you might ask, does any of this have any bearing on our everyday lives?

Well, I plan to relate all of this to my wife who is extremely annoyed with me because the remote control to the television has been missing ever since I last interacted with it.

Wish me luck.

Harold Williamson is a Chicago-based independent scholar. He can be reached at: Copyright 2005 Harold Williamson.

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