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
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
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
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. (www.quantumconsciousness.org/)
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:
firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2005 Harold Williamson.
Other Articles by Harold
Improvisation From The Proscenium, Epilgoue
Improvisation From The Proscenium, Part Three
International: US Monkeying With Human Rights
Improvisation From The Proscenium, Part Two
Newsweek Damage America's Image?
Improvisation From The Proscenium, Part One
Watching George Bush Trying to Pull a Rabbit Out of His Hat
Shooting the Messenger Who Reported Human Rights Abuses in Afghanistan
Orange -- Thirty Years After
Missing WMD: Bush's Red Herring
Darkness in America
Spinning The Vietnam War: What Goes Around Comes Around
Dare Call It Murder
Isn't God Who is Crazy
Trust Anybody Over Thirty
Faith in the Postmodern World
Remember Who The Enemy Is
Obscenity, A Sign of the Times and the Post
Thinking Anew: A Do-It-Yourself Project
America's Blind Faith in Government
Tanks and the Brainwashing of America
for the Bush Doctrine: A Natural History Perspective