• Posted: Apr 17, 2017 09:30:29
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Years ago, I sat and listened to a colleague tell of a night out drinking, wherein at 3 in the morning and fully inebriated he hailed a taxi back to his apartment. Upon paying the driver and exiting the cab, he found himself confronting a plate glass window, behind which a dippy-faced mannequin in a green wedding dress stared blithely out into the night. The vision so disturbed him for its vacuousness, he picked up a mostly empty soda cup from the gutter and hurled it, splattering the contents all across the window. In great contempt he stumbled back to his apartment, resolved never to have anything to do with humans ever again.
At the time, I couldn’t help sympathizing to some extent, but what really stuck in my mind over these many years is that “green wedding dress”. Of course, the dress wasn’t actually green. It was white, or some shade of white. It appeared green because the only illumination upon it came from a street light of the now mostly disappeared mercury vapor type, which used to cast a cold and lifeless blue-green pall over everything. What has fascinated me ever since is that he chose to label the mannequin’s dress “green”, just as it appeared in that light, and just as absurdly inappropriate he believed it to be at the time, instead of discounting the light source and rationalizing the dress must, in fact, be white like nearly every other wedding dress on the planet. To my mind, within that telling, we see a very clear instance of perception leading directly to action with very little volitional consciousness or thoughtful intervention. The link between perception, understanding the color to be green, and hurtling the cup was, perhaps, not as pure and direct as a reflex, like when a doctor strikes below your knee cap with a rubber mallet, but it was not that dissimilar either. It betrayed very little thought, no consideration of consequence, and no deference to wellbeing of self or others. It was, in my opinion, an example of human behavior at its most primitive.
Relatedly, neuroscience researchers from Japan and the US working at Riken-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics published something quite interesting recently in the journal Science. (See James Gallagher’s review of their findings for the BBC.) For many years, we have understood our brains to have two types of memory, much like computers do, a short-term or working memory, RAM in our computers, and a long-term memory, like a hard drive or the cloud with our computers. The assumption has been that when we perceive something, see, hear, taste, touch it, etc., we hold that perception within short-term memory for a brief time while our consciousness actively searches our long-term memories for things we already know that may help us recognize and understand our new perception. Then later, once processed by consciousness within short-term memory, our brains, perhaps during REM sleep, add what new information we’ve gleaned from our latest perceptions to its vast web of long-term memories. Contrary to that long held assumption, what this latest research discovered was that new perceptions are, instead, recorded simultaneously in both long and short-term memory, but that the memory trace in long-memory is not immediately accessible to the deliberative processes of consciousness, only the one in short-term memory is. That research was done on rat brains, but there is substantial reason to assume memory processes work similarly in humans.
Though not the conclusion of the researchers in question, what that finding seems to suggest is that our brains have a way of fact-checking our more deliberative and rationalized interpretations of perceptions. In other words, we may see something, jump to conclusions like my colleague of long ago did, then later realize we may have erred. As the simultaneously created long-term memory trace of that same event later becomes accessible by consciousness, we may then be able to re-experience our original perceptions and, perhaps more accurately, reassess our original interpretations and conclusions with some sense of evidence based confidence.
What that means for us in daily life is that we are not left helpless trying to negotiate unresolvable and unverifiable disagreements between ourselves, objective reality, and our fellows. In a very concrete sense, what that new research suggests is that people are physiologically endowed from birth with a conscience, memory processes inside our brains that accurately record, at least for a short time, what the real unadulterated truth of things is. The sad part remains, however, that volitional consciousness, weighing other considerations beyond truth, can still choose to ignore and/or misinterpret the uncorrupted evidence conscience attempts to preserve, and even try to overwrite that evidence with deluding falsehoods repeated to itself over and over again.
But, there is hope. Take a look at the two images above. At the left is ground beside a desert stream bed, cut away by the eroding power of flash flooding. At right is an image of rocks in the dry stream bed below. Undoubtedly, there are many ways for evidence within those two images to be interpreted. We could argue, or even go to war, over who has the most correct interpretation of that evidence. But, the undeniable truth is that however we choose to behave in response to these and other perceptions we may experience, there will be consequences, and those consequences will be preserved in the physical evidence we leave behind. Whatever good, evil, revenge, restitution, unthinking reflex action, or grand design we strive to achieve, the results will be recorded in the dust we raise and the sediments we leave beneath our feet. That is the fact-checked unadulterated evidence of our existence that cannot be corrupted or overwritten with falsehoods.
During this season and others, we may seek forgiveness from our gods for arrogantly and ignorantly behaving as flawed humans, but there is absolutely no forgiveness from within the legacy we leave behind. Beyond our own existence, others will follow. For their benefit, my resolve would be to try consciously making my own personal legacy something supportive and useful, a thoughtful gift for them, not something selfishly destructive, limiting, vacuously irrelevant, or pathetically absurd, like my friend’s surreal experience of that green wedding dress within a darkened store window long ago. I hope that you will join me.
(Note: With this post, this blog reaches 500 posts, a significant accomplishment, I think. And, this month will also see the crossing of the one million page view mark. Thank you very much for you continued interest. It has been inspiring. True, my frequency in posting has slowed over the last year. I don’t think it will end just yet, but I am not interested in repeating myself. Future posts will, as always, only be made when and if I feel I have something worthy of your attention to add. Best wishes to all of you. And, thank you for your encouragement.)
Saturday, April 30th, 2016