Blog

Time Symmetric Quantum Mechanics




Practically a century ago, Albert Einstein challenged the advent of Quantum Mechanics, perhaps most well-known through the phrase “God does not play dice with the Universe”. Today I want to provide a short, cursory introduction to my favorite flavor of Quantum Mechanics, which provides an answer to why God might want to play dice with the Universe, as well as provide interesting insight into Free Will. Let’s start by looking at what the two main branches of physics – classical mechanics and quantum mechanics – have to say about the nature of reality.





Classical Mechanics consists of the physics (electromagnetism, celestial mechanics, etc) which describe the macroscopic world. One key characteristic of the physical laws in this domain is that they are deterministic in nature. Given a set of initial conditions, one can predict future trajectories. In addition, objects are considered to have precise historical trajectories. The classic example is billiard balls. Given some initial force by the que stick in a given direction, one can determine exactly where those balls will end up. The billiard balls also had precise historical trajectories along the way, in that they followed a definite path at a definite speed across the pool table. So, what does this say about free will? If we are just large collections of molecules, which were set in motion at the beginning of the Universe (amongst many, many other molecules), we’re all just like those billiard balls bouncing around. All our actions and thoughts are pre-determined by the initial conditions of the Universe, which leaves zero room for Free Will. Not looking promising so far, but let’s move on to Quantum Theory. 




Quantum Mechanics (QM) is an altogether different story and a very exotic place. A simple example is a quantum particle which has only two spin states – spin-up and spin-down. (Spin is equivalent to a top spinning, or even the Earth rotating, but in QM spin states are quantized, or restricted, to certain values) Classically, one would expect the physics to be able to predict whether one would get spin-up or spin-down upon measurement. Instead, QM says the best one can do, even in principle, is predict the probability of what one will get upon measurement. For a physicist who is used to being able to precisely predict outcomes, this can be a bit disconcerting, which is partly why Einstein said “God does not play dice with the Universe”. Perhaps even more troubling than the probabilistic nature of the predictions is that before measurement the particles are considered to be in a superposition of spin-up and spin-down, which would seem insane in the classical world. This applies even to the particles position, meaning they do not have well-defined historical trajectories. As unfounded and strange as this all sounds, it is well verified over the past century via experiment. So, what does this say about free will? QM still presents us with an undesirable picture for free will. Here, we have a set of potential outcomes where multiple actions, or thoughts, might be possible, but they are completely left up to chance. Whether you got the bacon crisp or avocado burger for lunch was not your choice, but rather left up to the “flip of a coin”, perhaps in your neurons.


This probabilistic nature of Quantum Mechanics has been an area of great debate and intense study for the past century. Why would reality take on such a bizarre nature? Anyhow, this is how it would all seem … so far. This is what the two big pictures in physics seem to say about the nature of reality at first glance. Let’s take a look at Time Symmetric Quantum Mechanics (TSQM) and see how things change. 

Both areas of physics above assume that time is solely linear, flowing from past to present to future. If A happens before B and B happens before C, then what happens at A can effect B and C, and what happens at B can effect C. But, what happens at C will never effect what happens at B and A, and what happens at B will never effect what happens at A. This is cause and effect as we normally view things. TSQM mixes things up a bit, but in very subtle ways. Standard quantum mechanics has a wave function (the mathematical object that encodes the above mentioned probabilistic outcomes) that propagates forward in time (from A to B to C). TSQM consists of two wave functions – one propagates forward in time to the present and the other propagates from the future to the present. In other words, the outcome from a measurement obtained in the present (say, at B) depends upon information from the past (what happened at A) and the future (what will happen at C). (I would like to stress this is a very subtle type of retrocausality that in no way violates our everyday notions of cause and effect. I will get a bit more into this below). Modern experiments seem to suggest that what happens at C, can indeed effect measurement at B. See the reference links provided below.




Yakir Aharonov is one of the founders of TSQM and the insights this formulation contains.

“Aharonov accepted that a particle’s past does not contain enough information to fully predict its fate, but he wondered, if the information is not in its past, where could it be? After all, something must regulate the particle’s behavior. His answer—which seems inspired and insane in equal measure—was that we cannot perceive the information that controls the particle’s present behavior because it does not yet exist.” (*)

“Nature is trying to tell us that there is a difference between two seemingly identical particles with different fates, but that difference can only be found in the future,” he says. If we’re willing to unshackle our minds from our preconceived view that time moves in only one direction, he argues, then it is entirely possible to set up a deterministic theory of quantum mechanics.” (*)

In fact, Aharonov decided to mix things up and instead of making a claim like, “God does not play dice”, he decided to ask a question. What advantage would there be for God to play dice? Is there something we are perhaps missing, that could make us realize there is a deeper reason why nature would at first appear probabilistic. As it turns out, TSQM suggests there is indeed a larger picture we are missing here. 

Consider the following three principles:

(1) Genuine Free Will 
(2) Cause and Effect 
(3) Retrocausality 

The first two we are well familiar with and, for the most, take for granted. The third is introduced by TSQM. At first glance, all three seem to be mutually exclusive to each other. Free will seems to be prohibited by classical and quantum theory, as discussed above. All your choices are determined, or effected by a preceding physical cause, meaning they can never be truly free (and QM alone didn’t offer much help here). Retrocausality seems to contradict both. How can one have retrocausality without violating our normal notions of cause and effect? And, if there is a “destiny” out there waiting for us (let alone reaching back in time to effect the present), how can we have free will, or choose our own destiny? 

It turns out the “rolling of dice”, or the probabilistic nature of Quantum Mechanics, is exactly what one needs to allow those three principles to live together! To set Einstein straight, this is why God plays dice! 

Wow!! 

When taken in a larger context of a reality which allows a richer structure for spacetime, a seemingly bizarre and perhaps undesirable facet of reality suddenly becomes not only enlightening, but useful beyond our wildest imagination. Not only that, the probabilistic nature of the reality at the quantum scale seems to indirectly imply free will, even if at first glance it appears to be a stumbling block to it. In addition, for the three above-mentioned principles to exist harmoniously it would appear we need a richer view of time than our normal linear time, specifically one that allows for the type of retrocausal influence found within TSQM.






That these three can harmoniously exist within the framework of TSQM has been shown by physicists working in the field, although a comprehensive paper outlining the specifics is still waiting to be published. I’ll try to quickly cover some of the basics of how this works and will dig into it more in a future blog post. Of course, this will be stated in terms of a scientist having free will, or free choice, over what he does and does not measure. 

In a subtle fashion, Mother Nature protects free will choice from “destiny”, by making it so one can never be sure if what they observe in the present is really a wave function (i.e. “destiny”) propagating back in time or just error in the measurement process, which is a ramification of the type of measurement used within TSQM – weak measurements. No matter what way they have come at this problem, they cannot get around it. It is only by examining all the measurements (past-present-future) after the fact, that one is able to decipher what really happened. In this way, free choice in the present, as to what measurements one can take, are protected from these subtle retrocausal influences. Further, it has been shown that it is precisely the probabilistic nature of QM that is needed in order for (1) free will, (2) cause and effect, and (3) a subtle retrocausality, to all exist harmoniously. 

As you may already know, I also explore parapsychology on this blog, so I can’t help but point out that this is the kind of direction physics needs to head in to accommodate a phenomenon like psi. One type of psi experiment shows that folks seem to react (on an unconscious level) to certain stimuli 1-10 seconds before the stimuli actually happens. This is screaming for a richer view of reality, like the one presented in TSQM, which does allow information from the future to leak into the past. TSQM doesn’t yet provide a mechanism for psi, but it does begin to open up a new window to reality that at least seems conducive to the existence of psi.




I would imagine this blog post has raised a number of questions, even if potentially providing a number of fascinating answers to some other questions. I hope to cover more in future posts I am planning to write about TSQM. Stay tuned! 

References

Hallucinogenic Mushrooms (Psilocybin) and Ramifications For The Nature of Consciousness

How’s that for a provocative title?  As we’ll see, it’s not as crazy as it sounds! In fact, this post is about a semi-recent scientific study that was reported in Nature and Scientific American not all that long ago. 

My most recent blog post before this one discussed alternative models for the mind/brain problem, or the “hard problem of consciousness”, which attempts to answer how conscious, subjective inner experience (i.e. qualia) can arise from unconscious matter.  These alternative models assume that consciousness is primary and does not arise from matter. Instead, they hold that the brain acts as an intermediary, or as a reducing valve, or filter, or in a fashion similar to a 2-way radio transceiver.  You can poke, and prod the circuitry in a radio as much as you want looking for the source of the transmission, but you’re missing the point until you realize the radio is not the source.  The broadcast waves exist separate and independent from the radio.  It’s best to realize these are all just meant to be crude analogies to help us start looking at the problem in a different perspective, or from a consciousness-first perspective.  So, we shouldn’t take them too far.  Of course, all these analogies are opposed to the more popular matter-first perspective, which assumes that the brain produces consciousness, which would be the more natural assumption in the eyes of most.

So, the obvious question to ask would be, is there any evidence that trumps one perspective over the other?  At this point the answer is no.  However, lets look at what one might conclude based on each perspective.  If the brain acts more like a filter one would expect that if the filter is “shut off” we would have unrestrained cognition, or an enhancement in perception.  Near Death Experiences seem to confirm this, but the jury is still out.  On the other hand, we would expect the opposite if the brain produces consciousness.  Under this model, the more intense the brain activity, the more intense the conscious experience. No brain activity would mean no consciousness, which is the materialistic view of death.

Now, let’s apply this to psilocybin – the chemical agent responsible for the intense high, or the intense conscious experience,  associated with hallucinogenic mushrooms.  A study was recently done in the UK which investigated the brain activity of folks under the influence of psilocybin.  Of course, the obvious expectation in line with the “brain produces consciousness” perspective is that these guys would have their brains lit up like Christmas Trees under fMRI scanners.  On the contrary, they found an overall reduction in brain activity, which is in correspondence of what one would expect if the brain acted as a filter, while the psilocybin “loosened” the filter a bit.

To be fair, mainstream neuroscience has come up with ideas in an attempt to explain findings like these.  One posits inhibitory brain processes in one area allowing excitatory process to grow unchecked elsewhere.  However, there was no increased activity found anywhere in the brain during the psilocybin studies.  Ultimately, the problem really comes down to the fact that all mainstream theories are unproven and fall short of their ultimate goal. As David Chalmers points out,  we have made essentially zero progress in the last 100 years on answering the question of how inner conscious experience can arise from matter.  Similarly, the “consciousness is primary” camp isn’t exactly able to say how the brain acts as a filter, or receiver, nor can they definitively point “out there” to some field of consciousness.

However, even the Nature and Scientific American articles (referenced below) note the following.

“In his 1954 book The Doors of Perception, novelist Aldous Huxley, who famously experimented with psychedelics, suggested that the drugs produce a sensory deluge by opening a “reducing valve” in the brain that normally acts to limit our perceptions.” *

“The new findings are consistent with this idea, and with the free-energy principle of brain function developed by Karl Friston of University College London that states that the brain works by constraining our perceptual experiences so that its predictions of the world are as accurate as possible.” *

As hinted at in the quotes above, there could indeed be a survival advantage to the brain acting as a filter, thereby limiting conscious experience.  One does not need to be distracted by other ethereal realms, or angels, while being stalked by a saber tooth tiger!  The body evolves within and for efficient function in this world, not the next.

The consciousness-first perspective also jives up with the age old wisdom from cultures around the world.  I’m currently reading a book by Sri Aurobindo called “The Life Divine”.  Aurobindo talks about the natural and ultimate state of all things, which is referred to as Sat-chid-ananda.  Sat means being, existence, the thing that truly is.  Chid means knowledge, or the free, all-creative self awareness of the Absolute.  Ananda means Bliss, or Beatitude, or refers to the self-delight which is the very nature of the transcendent and infinite existence.  This refers to the original state of unity, which I discuss in my Middle Way, Part II blog post.  The idea that Aurobindo puts forth is that this unity is reduced into multiplicity, at least partly, by ego consciousness.  One could then view the brain as the house of ego consciousness, or the tool which enables the ego experience, or which filters the state of unity down into multiplicity.

How will we eventually know which perspective on consciousness is the correct one?  I see this potentially playing out in several ways.  (1) A study like AWARE unambiguously shows that consciousness can exist independent of the brain.  (2) The accumulating evidence for psi becomes undeniable and perhaps backed up by a compelling theory.  (3) Psi and spiritual experiences become common enough amongst the population to where it will become natural to view consciousness as more than just the brain.  Or, (4) enough experiments like the one talked about here will make the consciousness-first perspective the more parsimonious viewpoint.  In reality, it will probably end up being an interplay of all these factors, plus ones I did not think of, that ultimately bring about an acceptance that consciousness is indeed primary.  As you can tell, I do feel fairly confident things will eventually trend in this direction, although I can’t be sure.

Factor 4 is very similar to what may be currently happening within Quantum Mechanics.  There are two formulations of Quantum Mechanics I have been following: (1) the popular interpretation of QM where time is linear and unidirectional, which is our normal way of viewing time; (2) the time symmetric formulation (TSQM) which has a richer view on time, including a type of retro-causal influence.  Although they sure don’t sound like they would be, these two theories turn out to be mathematically equivalent, i.e. they make the same predictions.  Therefore, no single experiment can trump one over the other, at least as far as we know.  Ten to fifteen years ago, TSQM was not given a high level of consideration.  Why evoke such an exotic concept of time when it provides no extra value?  Since then, however, a number of modern experiments have been done that are actually more simple and elegant to explain within the TSQM framework, while being convoluted within the standard QM framework.  Therefore, more physicists are beginning to find the TSQM framework compelling.  But, the jury is still out on which view truly represents physical reality.  More on this in a future blog post!  Perhaps more experiments could make the “consciousness is primary” model more compelling in a similar fashion.

I think all this shows, once again, that it is best for us to keep an open mind on the mind/brain problem, while waiting to see where the evidence takes us.

(*) Psychedelic chemical subdues brain activity, Nature

(**) Hallucinogenic Chemical Found in Magic Mushrooms Subdues Brain Activity, Scientific American

(***) Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin, Original Paper Found In Proceedings of the National Academy of the Science, PNAS

(****) Disembodied Trippers by Bernardo Kastrup, for analysis similar, but superior, to my own.

Was Buddha Just A Nice Guy?

With the Holidays and other distractions, I have been slacking on the blog writing for a little while now.  I thought I would ease myself back into it by sharing one of Dean Radin’s recent presentations called “Was Buddha Just A Nice Guy”?  I…

Reincarnation – Scientific American: Ian Stevenson’s Case for the Afterlife

Scientific American Article

This was an interesting article about Ian Stevenson who conducted the first systematic and rather monumental research effort into reincarnation.  Stevenson was a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia for ~50 years.  His work is continued there today by other folks in the Division of Perceptual Studies.   It was a bit shocking to see an article like this in Scientific American, especially one that acknowledges any rigor or the compelling nature of Stevenson’s work.  Indeed, despite what certain folks think of reincarnation, it is rare to hear disparaging comments thrown in the direction of Stevenson.  Perhaps that alone says much for his repute of a scientist and the quality of his work, even if folks may not like the topic.

Overall, the article seemed like a fair assessment of his work.  I’ll quote some of it here with a link to it included below.  I will also briefly discuss reincarnation further below, with a focus on Christianity.

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/bering-in-mind/2013/11/02/ian-stevensons-case-for-the-afterlife-are-we-skeptics-really-just-cynics/

Stevenson’s main claim to fame was his meticulous studies of children’s memories of previous lives. Here’s one of thousands of cases. In Sri Lanka, a toddler one day overheard her mother mentioning the name of an obscure town (“Kataragama”) that the girl had never been to. The girl informed the mother that she drowned there when her “dumb” (mentally challenged) brother pushed her in the river, that she had a bald father named “Herath” who sold flowers in a market near the Buddhist stupa, that she lived in a house that had a glass window in the roof (a skylight), dogs in the backyard that were tied up and fed meat, that the house was next door to a big Hindu temple, outside of which people smashed coconuts on the ground. Stevenson was able to confirm that there was, indeed, a flower vendor in Kataragama who ran a stall near the Buddhist stupa whose two-year-old daughter had drowned in the river while the girl played with her mentally challenged brother. The man lived in a house where the neighbors threw meat to dogs tied up in their backyard, and it was adjacent to the main temple where devotees practiced a religious ritual of smashing coconuts on the ground. The little girl did get a few items wrong, however. For instance, the dead girl’s dad wasn’t bald (but her grandfather and uncle were) and his name wasn’t “Herath”—that was the name, rather, of the dead girl’s cousin. Otherwise, 27 of the 30 idiosyncratic, verifiable statements she made panned out. The two families never met, nor did they have any friends, coworkers, or other acquaintances in common, so if you take it all at face value, the details couldn’t have been acquired in any obvious way.” *

This Sri Lankan case is one of Stevenson’s approximately 3000 such “past life” case reports from all over the world, and these accounts are in an entirely different kind of parapsychological ballpark than tales featuring a middle-aged divorcée in a tie-dyed tunic who claims to be the reincarnation of Pocahantas. More often than not, Stevenson could identify an actual figure that once lived based solely on the statements given by the child. Some cases were much stronger than others, but I must say, when you actually read them firsthand, many are exceedingly difficult to explain away by rational, non-paranormal means. Much of this is due to Stevenson’s own exhaustive efforts to disconfirm the paranormal account. “We can strive toward objectivity by exposing as fully as possible all observations that tend to weaken our preferred interpretation of the data,” he wrote. “If adversaries fire at us, let them use ammunition that we have given them.” And if truth be told, he excelled at debunking the debunkers.” *

“I’d be happy to say it’s all complete and utter nonsense—a moldering cesspool of irredeemable, anti-scientific drivel. The trouble is, it’s not entirely apparent to me that it is. So why aren’t scientists taking Stevenson’s data more seriously? The data don’t “fit” our working model of materialistic brain science, surely. But does our refusal to even look at his findings, let alone to debate them, come down to our fear of being wrong? ‘The wish not to believe,’ Stevenson once said, ‘can influence as strongly as the wish to believe.’ “ *

Towards the end of her own storied life, the physicist Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf—whose groundbreaking theories on surface physics earned her the prestigious Heyn Medal from the German Society for Material Sciences, surmised that Stevenson’s work had established that ‘the statistical probability that reincarnation does in fact occur is so overwhelming … that cumulatively the evidence is not inferior to that for most if not all branches of science.’ ”*

Christianity and Reincarnation

Reincarnation was a common idea around the time of Christ among the Jewish people.  It was a fairly foundational concept within Jewish Mysticism like Kabbalah.  

“The Zohar and related literature are filled with references to reincarnation, addressing such questions as which body is resurrected and what happens to those bodies that did not achieve final perfection, how many chances a soul is given to achieve completion through reincarnation, whether a husband and wife can reincarnate together, if a delay in burial can affect reincarnation,18 and if a soul can reincarnate into an animal.”**

“The Bahir, attributed to the first century sage, Nechuniah ben Hakanah, used reincarnation to address the classic question of theodicy — why bad things happen to good people and vice versa”**

Reincarnation was also very common among the Greeks.  No doubt Luke, an author of one of the three synoptic gospels, was also familiar with the concept.

Prominent early Church Fathers like Origen taught metempsychosis, or transmigration of the soul, now better known as reincarnation.

” …. ‘On First Principles’, which is the most systematic and philosophical of Origen’s numerous writings. In this work Origen establishes his main doctrines, including that of the Holy Trinity (based upon standard Middle Platonic triadic emanation schemas); the pre-existence and fall of souls; multiple ages and transmigration of souls; and the eventual restoration of all souls to a state of dynamic perfection in proximity to the godhead.” ***

Certain Bible quotes also suggest that not only was the idea common, but that discussion centered around it was not anathema.

John, Chapter 9:1-3
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.  And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?  Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”

How can a man sin before he is born?  This sounds more like “karma” from a past life than anything.  Also, Jesus did not repudiate them for intimating at reincarnation, which would be surprising if reincarnation was a taboo, off-limits topic, as it it considered to be today in the Christian tradition.

Matthew 17:10-13
“The disciples asked him, ‘Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?’  Jesus replied, ‘To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.”

Once again, this sounds like a clear case of reincarnation, specifically dealing with John/Elijah.  Not only was it not repudiated by Jesus, he played a part in the suggestion!

Let’s not also forget that reincarnation becomes an obvious theme when reading the theories within the Bible on just who Jesus was, as thought by the people of the day.

Mark 8:27-28
“Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.'”

All the theories here presented in Mark 8 clearly involve reincarnation.  Herod was also left confused by the theories he was hearing.

Luke 9:7-9
“Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was going on. And he was perplexed because some were saying that John had been raised from the dead, others that Elijah had appeared, and still others that one of the prophets of long ago had come back to life. But Herod said, ‘I beheaded John. Who, then, is this I hear such things about?’ And he tried to see him.”

Modern Day Accounts

Modern day accounts of reincarnation persist, even in cultures like our own where reincarnation is not an accepted belief.  The following is perhaps one of the more popular stories of a young boy who presumably remembered a past life, despite his parents being traditional Christians with no belief in reincarnation.  Some of the details are rather remarkable.

Here’s a few more videos on this particular case:

Case for Reincarnation – Part I 

Case for Reincarnation – Part II

Summary

The idea of reincarnation has been a very wide-spread belief across many cultures throughout time.  Why it waned within Western culture is a complex discussion I might try to tackle another time.  However, it can be found within the seeds of our beliefs, even if it is hiding at times.  It is a recurrent theme in modern day Mystical Experiences and Near Death Experiences.  Despite the fact that the evidence could be claimed to be anecdotal, I think the sheer volume suggests that it would be best to at least keep an open mind when it comes to reincarnation.  And, if studies like AWARE end up showing that consciousness can exist independent of the body, concepts like reincarnation may suddenly become rather plausible.

Here is a video by Jim Tucker who is continuing Stevenson’s work at the Division for Perceptual Studies, University of Virginia.  He provides a nice summary of Stevenson ‘s work where one can also start to get a feel for the rigor of the work and the amount of systematic studies that have been done.

References

*Scientific American: Ian Stevenson’s Case for the Afterlife: Are We ‘Skeptics’ Really Just Cynics?

**Reincarnation and the Jewish Tradition

***Origina of Alexandria

University of Virgina School of Medicine, Division of Perceptual Studies

Faith

I wanted to share my view on faith, which was partly summed up so well in a series of Alan Watts quotes.

“Faith is a state of openness or trust.”

“And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on.”

“But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

“To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.”

“In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all.”

~All quotes by Alan Watts

Living in a predominantly Christian society, it seems most folks equate faith to simply believing in Jesus.  Don’t get me wrong, I ultimately consider myself a Christian.  However, I think this view has a tendency to forget that Jesus also taught inner transformation and self-knowing, as all religions do.  Also, it is a mutually exclusive view, which seems sort of hard to reconcile these days, since fields like comparative mythology and psychology have shown that all religions are saying the same thing.  It’s also very hard to reconcile with what comes out of the Near Death Experience and the Mystical Experience, as they are reported out of all cultures and religions around the world with the same consistent, universal and inclusive themes and messages.

I view faith as a stepping stone to experience, meaning we’re not talking about a “blind faith” here.  Faith is an opening of the mind to a deeper reality that one can eventually come to directly experience, here and now.  I know this might sound strange, as most of us aren’t familiar with the idea, or the possibility, of a direct experience of God, or the ground of all being, while still alive.  But, this is what ultimately comes out of the teachings of religions worldwide.  In reference to all the literature and scripture discussing the nature of this transcendent, yet immanent, experience, Aldus Huxley called it the “perennial philosophy” and Alan Watts called it “a single philosophical consensus of universal extent”.  One can also simply call it a spiritual awakening, which typically requires first being open to the possibility of having a spiritual awakening.

In the Gospel of St Thomas we hear, “The Kingdom of Heaven is spread out upon the Earth, but men do not see it”.  The good news, which is the meaning of “gospel”, is that we can learn how.  It all starts with faith!

If you would like to read more on my views on God, religion, and the nature of reality, you may also want to check out: 

The Middle Way – Part I, Introductory Ideas

The Middle Way – Part II, Interdependent Co-Arising

If you’re interested in more Alan watts, here’s a lecture by him  on Christianity I really enjoyed.

Flatworms Lose Their Heads But Not Their Memories

We often walk around with ideas we regard as facts, which in actuality are false.  Recently, an article was published showing that two thirds of Americans mistakenly believe we only use 10% of our brains, which is now known to be false.  A significant number of people still regard as fact that creative folks are right-brained and analytical folks are left-brained, which has also been shown to be false, starting with a study done at the University of Utah.  These ideas are both “myths” in the simplest sense of that term.  Their continuing presence is, however, quite natural and expected.  As science progresses, it either refines or negates existing theories, eventually replacing them with more accurate ones.  In the meantime, old ideas do linger for a while.

However, there is an even more subtle source of mistaken notions.  This source is our worldviews, which are images of reality we form as a culture that enable us to operate in the world.  This corresponds to the broader meaning of “myth” as it is used in comparative mythology and similar fields.  Rather than showing up as one simple incorrect fact, these manifest as paradigms under which the whole of society operates, including science.  The paradigms influence not only how we view a problem, but what we think the form of the potential solution must come in.  Worldviews are always self-limiting, but we do not let go of them easily.

The dominant worldview, or myth, within Western society is materialism, which typically holds to some basic assumptions, such as physicalism (‘everything is physical’), reductionism (‘sum of its parts’) and objectivism (‘reality exists independent of consciousness’), as far as science goes, but ultimately even leads to other ideals like consumerism and the accumulation of wealth.  This isn’t too say materialism is inherently wrong, but rather self-limiting and incomplete like all worldviews have historically been.  Being under the influence of this materialistic worldview, many of us would immediately assume that the brain must be the source of consciousness.  As Richard Dawkins so bluntly stated, “We are all biological meat robots“, or as AI pioneer Marvin Minsky said, “The brain is just a computer made of meat“.  However, since we have no idea how consciousness actually works, these are assumptions, not facts.

Since memory is an aspect of consciousness, the automatic assumption would be that it too must be sourced somehow by the brain.  Indeed, most theories in neuroscience generally assume that memory is somehow encoded within the structures of the brain.  However, neuroscientists have had a hard time pinning down just how this happens, with some studies indicating that memories are stored across the entire brain, as if stored in a fashion similar to a hologram.  Further, Near Death Experience (NDEs) research and Psi (psychic ability) research seem to indicate that memories are stored external to the brain.  Reputable guys like Rupert Sheldrake have gone as far as coming up with theories like his Morphic Resonance, which is a kind of consciousness-as-a-field theory, where the brain acts more like a filter/transceiver of this field.  Even such noted folks like Roger Penrose are considering ideas where consciousness may be a fundamental and irreducible aspect of reality.

Indeed, the number of individuals starting to look at ideas beyond the typical mainstream, materialistic views is growing, at least in part because explaining consciousness under the materialistic paradigm has made very little progress.  The so-called “hard problem” of consciousness – that is, how does subjective, inner experience (i.e. qualia) arise from unconscious, inanimate matter – remains completely unsolved to this day.

However, more and more studies are coming out of the mainstream that also hint at a potential science beyond materialism.  The point of this blog post was to introduce one of these studies.  For example, one would assume that if memories are really stored in the brain, decapitation would eliminate those memories.  This is rather difficult to test for in humans, but not so difficult with flatworms (planaria), since they can regrow a head!  The results of a recent study (full text below) seem to strongly indicate that memories are not solely stored in the flatworms brain.   It’s possible the memories here are stored in some kind of “cellular memory” within somatic tissue and I am sure they will exhaust what will be considered more pragmatic explanations before jumping to something like Morphic Resonance.  However, when these results are considered alongside the results coming out of Psi research, I think this make it more compelling for us to begin to consider the possibility that memory is not only stored external to the brain, but even the body, thereby allowing non-materialist theories like Morphic Resonance to be considered a valid, competing hypothesis for attempting to explain memory formation/recall.

———————————————————————–

(Phys.org) —Tufts University biologists using new, automated training and testing techniques have found that planarian flatworms store memory outside their brains and, if their heads are removed, can apparently imprint these memories on their new brains during regeneration.

The work, published online in the Journal of Experimental Biology, can help unlock the secrets of how memories can be encoded in living tissues, noted Michael Levin, Ph.D., Vannevar Bush professor of biology at Tufts and senior author on the paper.

“As bioengineering and biomedicine advance, there’s a great need to better understand the dynamics of memory and the brain-body interface. For example, what will happen to stored memory if we replace big portions of aging brains with the progeny of fresh stem cells?” said Levin, who directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology in Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences.

Planaria have a remarkable capacity to quickly re-grow new body parts, and decades-old research on planarian learning had suggested that memory can survive brain regeneration. Difficulties inherent in complex and tedious manual worm training experiments contributed to planaria falling out of favor as a model for such research, but the new automated training system developed by the Tufts researchers may reverse that.

“We now have a reliable, state-of-the-art approach that moves beyond past controversies to identify quantitative, objective, high-throughput protocols for studying planarian long-term memory capabilities,” said Tal Shomrat, Ph.D., first author on the paper. A former postdoctoral associate with Levin, Shomrat is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I believe that investigating this unique animal that displays relatively complex behavior and can regenerate its entire brain in only a few days will provide answers to the enigma of acquisition, storage and retrieval of memories,” he added.

Toward the light

Shomrat and Levin focused their attention on planaria of the species Dugesia japonica. One planarian group lived in containers with a textured floor while the other was housed in smooth-floored Petri dishes. The worms, which naturally avoid light, were then tested to see how readily they would eat liver in an illuminated quadrant on the bottom of a rough-textured dish.

Automated video tracking and subsequent computer analysis of the worms’ movements (image above) showed that the group familiarized to the rough-floored dishes overcame aversion to the light significantly more quickly and spent more time feeding in the illuminated space than did the non-familiarized group.

Off with their heads

Both groups of worms were then decapitated and housed in a smooth-floored environment while their heads regenerated. Two weeks later, the fully regenerated segments were again tested. Worms regenerated from the familiarized group were slightly but not significantly quicker to feed in the lighted part of the container. However, when both groups of worms were given a brief refresher session of feeding in the textured environment, then removed and retested four days later, the planaria generated from familiarized segments were significantly quicker to feed than those regenerated from unfamiliarized worms—showing that they retained recognition of the link between this type of surface and a safe feeding environment.

Exactly how this memory was retained and recalled remains unclear. Shomrat and Levin suggest that traces of memory of the learned behavior were stored outside the brain, and imprinted on the newly-regenerated brain through mechanisms not yet identified. More investigation is needed to determine the basis for these interactions between the regenerating central nervous system and remote somatic tissues, as well as the mechanism by which specific memories are encoded in physical changes within the brain and body.

———————————————————————–

PhysOrg Article: Flatworms Lose Their Heads But Not Their Memories: Study Finds Memories Stored Outside the Brain

The Journal of Experimental Biology:  An Automated Training Paradigm Reveals Long-Term Memory in Planarians and Its Persistence Through Head Regeneration

Study on Rats Proposes a Mechanism for NDEs

Quite frequently a new study will come out purporting to explain Near Death Experiences (NDEs).  These are typically attempts to explain NDEs as some aspect of a dying brain.  If you’re a staunch materialist, I guess it really is the only rea…

Eben Alexander, Esquire Update

Anybody who follows parapsychology knows there is a consistent back and forth between proponents and skeptics.  Every time a new story comes out, the skeptics go hard to work to shut it down and an incessant debate rages between the two sides.  It’s been called the Culture War.  I normally try and steer clear of all this, because it gets kind of old after awhile.  However, there has been a recent ruckus over an Esquire article put out on Eben Alexander – the neurosurgeon who had an Near Death Experience and whose story went “viral”. Since I put up a post on Eben not too long ago, I feel a bit responsible to post an update, because the Esquire article has been shown to be inaccurate, at best, or possibly a deliberate hit-piece against Eben, at worst.  I want to help set the record straight, because Eben’s story has been an inspiration to many people and it deserves to be shown in the right light.  Although, perhaps this is exactly how one gets sucked into the Culture War, with no hope for return.  I’ll have to be careful, hehe!

The link below is for the Esquire article about Eben Alexander.  As you  follow the link, you’ll notice Esquire decided to make people pay for this article, which was written by Luke Dittrich.

Esquire – The Prophet

It basically consists of two arguments: (1) against Eben’s reputation as a doctor, and (2) another against the validity of his NDE.  Both parts were essentially an attack on his character, in attempt to make him appear untrustworthy.

A couple weeks ago a full rebuttal to the Esquire article came out  from the International Association of Near Death Studies.  It was written by NDE researcher Robert Mays.  It covers pretty much everything from the Esquire article in relation to Eben’s NDE, or point (2).  It’s a pretty informative read.

IANDS – Esquire article on Eben Alexander distorts the facts

I’m going to focus on a key aspect of Part (2), because I think it’s the main sticking point, as far as the validity of Eben’s NDE.  Eben says his coma was brought on by the bacterial meningitis and was persistent throughout the week.  Dittrich claims his coma was mainly chemically induced by hospital staff and that Eben was occasionally awake and delirious throughout the week.  Dittrich then makes the argument that Eben’s brain was not “off-line” and the NDE was a vivid hallucination.

It would seem Dittrich’s main reason for claiming this was from his interview from Dr Laura Potter, Eben Alexander’s ER physician.  However, when Dr. Potter learned of the article she gave out the following statement:

I am saddened by, and gravely disappointed by the article recently published in Esquire. The content attributed to me is both out of context and does not accurately portray the events around Dr. Eben Alexander’s hospitalization. I felt my side of the story was misrepresented by the reporter. I believe Dr. Alexander has made every attempt to be factual in his accounting of events.” — Dr. Laura Potter

Also, in the back of Eben’s book was a statement by Scott Wade who was his main doctor during his illness.  It says:

” …. Despite prompt and aggressive antiobiotic treatment for his E.coli meningitis, as well as continued care in the intensive care unit, he remained in a coma six days and hope for recovery faded (mortality over 90%), Then, on the seventh day , the miraculous happened – he opened his eyes, became alert, and was quickly weaned from the ventilator.  The fact that he went on to have a full recovery from this illness after being in a coma for nearly a week is truly remarkable.

In his book, Eben did talk about making guttural groans and thrashing around in his bed, but this is apparently normal for a person suffering from bacterial meningitis. This was also discussed in the IANDS article, where they quote from Eben’s book.

“Contrary to Luke Dittrich’s assertion, Eben Alexander did disclose the use of sedatives in a ‘chemically induced coma’:  ‘At times, early in the week, I would move. My body would thrash around wildly. A nurse would rub my head and give me more sedation, and eventually I’d become quiet again... By the end of the week these occasional bursts of motor activity had all but ceased. I needed no more sedation, because movementeven the dead, automatic kind initiated by the most primitive reflex loops of my lower brainstem and spinal cord—had dwindled almost to nil’

I suspect it is this part of what Dr Potter said, that Dittrich distorted.  The funny thing is, I actually thought this strengthened Eben’s case.  This showed that not only had the meningitis attacked his cortex, which was where the infection started, it had actually progressed to the point that it was attacking deeper, more primitive, brain structures.  How can one have a hyper-real lucid experience via higher brain functions within the cortex, when the brain isn’t even capable of putting out primitive reflexes?  More along these lines below.

In addition, there are a couple of other pertinent points.

(1)  There seems to be a mistaken assumption out there that one has to have zero brain activity to have an NDE.  This is just not true. NDEs have been reported from people with little, to zero, brain activity with severe trauma, to folks with no injury in the waking state but faced with an imminent and deadly threat.  This means even if the Esquire article was correct and Eben’s coma was chemically induced, it is still hard to explain away an NDE on this basis alone.  Also, whether his coma was chemically induced, or not, seems to do little to explain the other problem I talked about in my earlier post, quoted here for convenience:

…. this leaves skeptics open to claim it happened during a reboot of the brain as he came out of the coma.  Here’s the problem with that explanation, though.  Patients who fall ill with bacterial meningitis, or similar conditions, do indeed end up going through a sort of reboot process.  As the brain comes back online and the various areas start to communicate again, patients typically go through a very confused state of affairs, which is called ICU psychosis.  Dr. Alexander remembers going through this and confirmed he was pretty far out of it, as to be expected.  However, he also remembers his NDE, as a hyper-real, crystal-clear lucid experience, with near-prefect memory recall.  Why would the brain be able to produce a hyper-real, crystal-clear lucid experience at an earlier time, during coma, when it was even more impaired?  You wake up from a coma because the brain has presumably healed itself enough to regain “waking” consciousness, but it’s still not a fully-functioning consciousness at that point in time.  It is disconnected, to say the least, which is why one goes through ICU psychosis.  So, how did he have an ultra-real, lucid experience when his brain was even more impaired than this?”

(2) Again, it’s hard to argue that Eben’s brain was not severely impaired.  I covered some details of that in this blog post, but I also thought the IANDS article gave another good summary, which I will quote here.

“Eben Alexander had developed a severe case of bacterial meningitis. There were lots of measures of how serious his condition was: the very quick onset of his symptoms, persistent seizure (status epilepticus), the presence of E. coli bacteria in his cerebral spinal fluid (CSF), the high white blood cell count and high protein level in his CSF, the very low glucose level in his CSF, and the CT scans of his brain that showed diffuse edema, damage in all eight lobes of his cortex and widespread blurring of the gray-white junction

And there were several specific neurological exams showing severe alterations: abnormal posturing indicating damage to the cortex and thalamus, florid papilledema indicating elevated intracranial pressure, fixed pupils indicating brainstem damage, and no vestibulo-ocular reflex also indicating brainstem damage. Alexander’s motor response declined further to “no motor response to noxious stimuli,” indicating widespread cortical and brainstem damage.”

As mentioned, rich and complex NDEs (with veridical components) have happened in cases with less apparent brain trauma than what we have here.  It’s always a stronger case if you can show there was zero, or close to zero, brain activity, as far as showing consciousness can exist independent of the brain. But, Eben’s NDE never was generally considered one of the better NDEs, as far as providing solid evidence along these lines.  But, it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed as “just a hallucination”, either.

I think its been shown the Esquire article was an unfair representation of what really happened.  It may even have been an intentional hit-piece meant to damage Eben’s story.  It wouldn’t be the first time something like this went down, that’s for sure.  In fact, the damage is done.  Esquire has a larger reading base than IANDS.  Even with a solid rebuttal, anybody who wants to be skeptical will just go back and reference the Esquire article and confidently proclaim:  “NDE debunked!“.  If folks don’t want to dig deeper to see what really happened, that’s what they’ll walk away with.  All too often, that’s how it seems to work.

However, it’s hard to silence the truth, especially when it comes in the form of an inspirational story like Eben’s.  I’m sure we’ll learn more, as time goes on.  And, this won’t be the last time something like this happens.

UPDATE:  Skeptiko had an interview with Robert Mays, author of the IANDS article.

Esquire Proof of Heaven Expose Debunked, Dr. Eben Alexander Prevails

Supernormal by Dean Radin

I recently enjoyed reading Dean Radin’s new book.   Since my intention with this blog post is to mainly share some of the information I found fascinating, think of this entire blog post as being covered by one gigantic footnote, referencing D…