Does Memory Reside Outside the Brain?
By Leonardo Vintiñi
After decades of investigation, scientists are still unable to explain why no part of the brain seems responsible for storing memories.
Most people assume that our memories must exist somewhere inside our heads. But try as they might, medical investigators have been unable to determine which cerebral region actually stores what we remember. Could it be that our memories actually dwell in a space outside our physical structure?
Biologist, author, and investigator Dr. Rupert Sheldrake notes that the search for the mind has gone in two opposite directions. While a majority of scientists have been searching inside the skull, he looks outside.
According to Sheldrake, author of numerous scientific books and articles, memory does not reside in any geographic region of the cerebrum, but instead in a kind of field surrounding and permeating the brain. Meanwhile, the brain itself acts as a “decoder” for the flux of information produced by the interaction of each person with their environment.
In his paper "Mind, Memory, and Archetype Morphic Resonance and the Collective Unconscious" published in the journal Psychological Perspectives, Sheldrake likens the brain to a TV set—drawing an analogy to explain how the mind and brain interact.
“If I damaged your TV set so that you were unable to receive certain channels, or if I made the TV set aphasic by destroying the part of it concerned with the production of sound so that you could still get the pictures but could not get the sound, this would not prove that the sound or the pictures were stored inside the TV set.
“It would merely show that I had affected the tuning system so you could not pick up the correct signal any longer. No more does memory loss due to brain damage prove that memory is stored inside the brain. In fact, most memory loss is temporary: amnesia following concussion, for example, is often temporary.
This recovery of memory is very difficult to explain in terms of conventional theories: if the memories have been destroyed because the memory tissue has been destroyed, they ought not to come back again; yet they often do,” he writes.
Sheldrake goes on to further refute the notion of memory being contained within the brain, referring to key experiments which he believes have been misinterpreted. These experiments have patients vividly recall scenes of their past when areas of their cerebrum were electrically stimulated.
While these researchers concluded that the stimulated areas must logically correspond to the contained the memory, Sheldrake offers a different view as he revisits the television analogy: “… if I stimulated the tuning circuit of your TV set and it jumped onto another channel, this wouldn’t prove the information was stored inside the tuning circuit,” he writes.
But if memory does not live in the brain, where does it reside? Following the notions of previous biologists, Sheldrake believes that all organisms belong to their own brand of form-resonance—a field existing both within and around an organism, which gives it instruction and shape.
An alternative to the predominant mechanist/reductionism understanding of biology, the morphogenetic approach sees organisms intimately connected to their corresponding fields, aligning themselves with the cumulative memory that the species as a whole has experienced in the past.
Yet these fields become ever more specific, forming fields within fields, with each mind—even each organ—having its own self resonance and unique history, stabilizing the organism by drawing from past experience. “The key concept of morphic resonance is that similar things influence similar things across both space and time,” writes Sheldrake.
Still, many neurophysicists insist on probing ever deeper into the cerebrum to find the residence of memory. One of the more well known of these researchers was Karl Lashley, who demonstrated that even after up to 50 percent of a rat’s brain had been cut away, the rat could still remember the tricks it had been trained to perform.
Curiously, it seemed to make no difference which half of the brain was removed—lacking either a left or right hemisphere, the rodents were able to execute the learned actions as before. Successive investigators revealed similar results in other animals.
The holographic theory, born from experiments such as those of Lashley, considers that memory resides not in a specific region of the cerebrum but instead in the brain as a whole. In other words, like a holographic image, a memory is stored as an interference pattern throughout the brain.
However, neurologists have discovered that the brain is not a static entity, but a dynamic synaptic mass in constant flux— all of the chemical and cellular substances interact and change position in a constant way. Unlike a computer disc which has a regular, unchanging format that will predictably pull up the same information recorded even years before, it is difficult to maintain that a memory could be housed and retrieved in the constantly changing cerebrum.
But conditioned as we are to believe that all thought is contained within our heads, the idea that memory could be influenced from outside our brains appears at first to be somewhat confusing.
Sheldrake writes in his article “Staring Experiments”: “… as you read this page, light rays pass from the page to your eyes, forming an inverted image on the retina. This image is detected by light-sensitive cells, causing nerve impulses to pass up the optic nerves, leading to complex electrochemical patterns of activity in the brain.
All this has been investigated in detail by the techniques of neurophysiology. But now comes the mystery. You somehow become aware of the image of the page. You experience it outside you, in front of your face. But from a conventional scientific point of view, this experience is illusory. In reality, the image is supposed to be inside you, together with the rest of your mental activity.”
While the search for memory challenges traditional biological understanding, investigators like Sheldrake believe that the true residence of memory is to be found in a non-observable spatial dimension.
This idea aligns with more primal notions of thought such as Jung’s “collective unconscious” or Taoist thinking that sees the human mind and spirit derived from various sources both inside and outside the body, including the energetic influences of several different organs (except, or course, the brain).
In this view, the brain does not act as a storage facility, or even the mind itself, but the physical nexus necessary to relate the individual with its morphic field. Last Updated Aug 30, 2008
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