Antonin Artaud wrote somewhere that blood will drip if you plant a knife in your hand. And as obvious as this might seem, it is as foreign to our understanding as it can get. Are we getting too cerebral to understanding how physical we are ? Or have we always been ? A species too attracted by the beauty of the mind, the spirit and the world of thoughts that the body we live in ends up being a means of transportation. Think of the last time you thought about your body. The last time where, going up some stairs, you thought of your quadriceps under tension. Your breath, your heart and your blood.
As cerebral as we might get however, every single aspect of our existence is deeply physical. Here's to flesh
The physicality of memory
To create a memory, a certain protein structure needs to be created in the brain. When injected with a medical substance aimed at disrupting the creation of that protein while they are trying to remember something, they are suddenly incapable of learning. And that's where it gets really strange : Whenever a rat becomes an expert in a given field, such as reacting in a certain way to a certain sound, if he is injected with a chemical at the very moment where he is about to use that skill, he will be unable to retrieve that. Only, it is only these memories he was trying to retrieve for his brain, at that very moment taht are affected. The rest of his memory and brain are intact. This means that the protein that encodes memory is encoded each time the rat tries to remember that particular skill.
Anisomycine, the medicine used here, is also used with humans to erase bad memories and trauma at the moment where people are trying to remember them. What it does is that it hinders the encoding of these memory proteins. Sp each time the patient will try and remember that event, he will surely have a trace of it in his memory, only because the intensity of emotions at the level of tonsils is toned down, because he cannot recreate the memory with the same intensity, his memory is obscured and the trauma is lessened, Memory is a protein encoded at will and delivered when summoned. Memory is extremely physical. Remembrance is hence an act of creation ad professor Yadin Dudai from the Weizmann institute points out. He reaches the paradoxical conclusion that the most perfect memory is that of amnesic people for these do not create their memories. They have none.
But going back to rats, I think the work of Ed Boyden is amazing. His approach to the mind is as physical as it gets: It omens the day where we'll be able to download our memories unto a hard drive:
What always amazed me about the technology of writing is that it single handedly engendered History. Our alphabets created our past. It gave birth to a physical trace we could now trace and recall. Writing is the encoding memory of our external acts, our memory as a civilization. Now the hardware is being upgraded and every single act it seems, every single decision has the potential to be engraved. Infinite memory is around the corner. Look at your Drop-box your Facebook pictures. And if anything is missing there, go have a look at Google.
The physicality of ideas
But despite all my arguments pointing at a ever-expanding strive to ultimate remembrance, I don't think we value remembrance or memories that much. Because other senses prime. Because we are first and foremost experiential beings. Maya Baratz, senior product manager at ABC News says that experience and memory are interchangeable. That's wrong. If you know you can go on on a vacation but won't have any trace of it later, you'll still go. Experience is superior to memory. And the reason I write this is that though the hardware is getting extremely useful at storing it all, this luxury of space doesn't mean that the software is changing : I don't believe evolution is or will ever be goal driven. What I mean is that : Evolution is. And that's all. The ultimate software that made us all doesn't aim to trace its footsteps. It doesn't have any plans in mind and I don't think there's an end goal to all of this.
Still we move forward. We invent and innovate. That doesn't mean the underlying software has a goal per se, other maybe than sustaining itself, in whatever ingenious way it can find. But as strange as that might sound : Innovation is a zero sum game. Bare with me. Need breeds innovation. Hunger made us carve our first tear-shaped stones. Hunger has been the single biggest driver of innovation on the scale of our species' History. Hunger is the ache to survive. It is this very fear of void that innovation aims to fill up.
"Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed." Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794)
Innovation is merely the transformation of a need into a means. Ideas start at a very physical level. Because we are experiential beings.
The physicality of reflection
Even at an emotional level, empathy is the physical impact of one's neurons on another person's neurons. Mirror neurons are physically affected to imprint a being with sympathy towards his fellow human. And these carve neural pathways to get to you. Extremely physical stuff these pathways ! They're the same you need to form in order to establish habits and the same you need to destroy through constant repetition to get rid of one. And the same pathways responsible for remembrance are also responsible for simulation and future projection. And who better It was Kahneman to put the fine line between experience and memory and liaise them with projections:
Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, basing his conclusion on work from memory researcher Daniel Schacter, who believes the construction of memory is very similar to the way we imagine the future :
We have argued recently that memory plays a critical role in allowing individuals to imagine or simulate events that might occur in their personal futures. We have further suggested that understanding memory's role in future event simulation may be important for understanding the constructive nature of memory, because the former requires a system that allows flexible recombination of elements of past experience, which may also contribute to memory errors.
There's this beautiful article that I simply can't sum up that traces the quantum nature of our minds. If you don't like system thinking, this is probably enough to get you hooked. How Hilbert mathematics end up finding an echo in behavioral economics is food for deep thought. Excuse the long except but it's amazing:
But the quantum world doesn't obey. When electrons or photons in a beam pass through the two slits, they act as waves and produce an interference pattern on the wall. The pattern with A and B open just isn't the sum of the two patterns with either A or B open alone, but something entirely different - one that varies as light and dark stripes.
Such interference effects lie at the heart of many quantum phenomena, and find a natural description in Hilbert's mathematics. But the phenomenon may go well beyond physics, and one example of this is the violation of what logicians call the "sure thing" principle. This is the idea that if you prefer one action over another in one situation - coffee over tea in situation A, say, when it's before noon - and you prefer the same thing in the opposite situation - coffee over tea in situation B, when it's after noon - then you should have the same preference when you don't know the situation: that is, coffee over tea when you don't know what time it is.
Remarkably, people don't respect this rule. In the early 1990s, for example, psychologists Amos Tversky and Eldar Shafir of Princeton University tested the idea in a simple gambling experiment. Players were told they had an even chance of winning $200 or losing $100, and were then asked to choose whether or not to play the same gamble a second time. When told they had won the first gamble (situation A), 69 per cent of the participants chose to play again. If told they had lost (situation B), only 59 per cent wanted to play again. That's not surprising. But when they were not told the outcome of the first gamble (situation A or B), only 36 per cent wanted to play again.
Classical logic would demand that the third probability equal the average of the first two, yet it doesn't. As in the double slit experiment, the simultaneous presence of two parts, A and B, seems to lead to some kind of weird interference that spoils classical probabilities.
The physicality of souls
This strange passage in Coelho's book Brida where a witch teaches Brida a trick involving a phone. Phones are amazingly new to our species. They separate the sound from the individual. Look at your doodles when you're on a call. Something in that call appeals to something beyond you. And if you got to this point of the post, you kind of deserve to get the word on this :
“No, no, the vision wasn’t a trick. The trick I’m referring to is the phone. For millions of years, we only ever spoke to someone we could see, then, in less than a century, ‘seeing’ and ‘speaking’ were suddenly separated. We think it’s quite normal now and don’t realize the huge impact it has on our reflexes. Our body still hasn’t got used to it.
“The practical result is that, when we speak on the phone, we often enter a state very similar to certain magical trances. Our mind tunes into another frequency and becomes more receptive to the invisible world. I know some witches who always keep a pen and paper by the phone, and while they’re talking to someone, they sit doodling apparently nonsensical things. When they hang up, though, they find that their ‘doodles’ are often symbols from the Tradition of the Moon.”
What needs to be grasped however is more subtle. And I do owe this to my friend Arne Dietrich. In a discussion Dietrich mentionned that in the brain's case, no computer metaphor does justice. Ever. Why ? Because in the brain's case : The software is the hardware. In the brain, it's the routines and the iterations that end up mattering :
And maybe it's the same for the simple small pleasures. when we understand it's these small smiles that make for a happier life, that it's not the big vacation or the two week holiday but the daily break that make for a full life just as it's the small accomplishments and the joy that comes with that that make for a life that even more perfect. Maybe when we understand that it's the marginal change that makes for an incremental variation, never the leap, never the jump as it passes by just as fast as it appeared. Sweat the details, spend time on the small stuff. That's what it means to live life in every breath.