For centuries, philosophers have been attempting to explain the roots of memory. Plato made a distinction between two types of memories: a priori, which is inherited memory and knowledge that we possess without direct experience and sensory memory, a posteriori, which is memory that we attain through experience, the latter which more closely aligns with materialism and the writings of David Hume, which in itself became the basis of Skinnerian behaviourial psychology, that states that everyone is essentially a blank slate, who can be conditioned to become anything.
But are we just blank slates that can be rewritten with positive and negative conditioning? Wouldn't that defeat our will? Our self-agency?
In the postmodern world, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, psychoanalysis attempted to examine the roots of memory and Carl Jung developed a theory of the collective unconscious; in which everyone possesses the same archetypes of memory and his argument with Sigmund Freud diverged in that Freud believed that the roots of memory were derivative of our subconscious behaviours, the id that controls our "impulses," mainly of a sexual nature. This would become our contemporary architecture of how we view our self, our identity and of our self-agency: Nature vs. Nurture, but there was something else that would eventually eclipse that theory.
The psychoanalytical theories of Carl Gustav Jung (left) (1875-1961) and Sigmund Freud (right) (1856-1939), have shaped our contemporary view of the self and identity.
On the fringes of science were the events that people couldn't easily explain- which were dismissed as illogical and more derivative of imagination than in reality. Although I've always had a fascination with religion in mainly a historical and sociological context, many researchers and scientists of the early 20th century disregarded religion as "unscientific" and perhaps even "radical," as the institution of religion had been primarily used as a political tool to control the population between the 11th-20th centuries, which eventually paved the way towards a reactionary rebellion into atheism in our contemporary era.
Entry of the Crusades at Constantinople, 1840, Le Louvre. In history, religion was utilised for political power and The Crusades (1095–1291) was a war between political factions, between Christians and Muslims in 11th-12th century Europe and Asia, not unlike our contemporary era of war between the West and Middle Eastern nations. Depicted by French artist Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863).
However, as we enter the 5th Industrial Era, science is becoming more closely aligned with eastern philosophies of the past, in which current research leads to evidence or possibly, conclusions as to why people often have had "mystical" beliefs.
I remember when I visited London and Tokyo for the first time, I had felt as if I had been there before, although in my waking memories, it was the very first time I had visited the cities as a university student. As I was walking around, I distinctly had the recollection that I had lived in these cities before, and everything seemed familiar to me, whilst at the same time, they were new. In addition, listening to certain languages I've found had a profoundly soothing effect on me- for instance, Russian and German, both languages which I have never studied before but in a state between half-awake and half-asleep, I found momentarily that I could completely understand both languages, until I became consciously jolted awake and realised I had actually never studied these languages before.
The hippocampus (in red) in the brain, is responsible for much of our memories of past experiences and ability to develop new memories.
Everyone has experienced these feelings of familiarity before at least once in their lives. In the past, these feelings of déjà vü were easily dismissed by researchers as a double firing of neurons in your brain- which made you feel like you were familiar with a certain place, or had known a person before, or felt a strong affinity towards a certain culture or language, although you had never previously had experience with the object of your déjà vü. It was certainly easy to dismiss these kinds of occurrences as something out of the ordinary, but probably something that one shouldn't develop an obsession about- like those crazy occultists or lunatics who believed in past life regression and other such nonsense.
So it is interesting to consider these anomalous events in the present context, and be able to assess them from the emerging viewpoint of epigenetics, in which the study of inheritable changes in gene expression that is not directly coded in our DNA could now explain how our life experiences may be passed down to our children and our children's children.
According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up [in particular circumstances]— all carry with them more than just memories.
Perhaps eastern philosophy's ideologies of karma and past lives, and Arthur Koestler's the roots of coincidence and synchronicity could now be explained in a tangible way. Even in Western philosophy, Plato had attributed memory to past life experiences in which he determined that we all inherently had knowledge before birth that had been passed down to us, this a priori knowledge could all have a basis in how we can now explain in cognitive neuroscience as forming memories in the hippocampus and thalamus, and in epigenetics, the methylation process of our DNA which we inherit from our ancestors.
Non-stop likelihoods, 2010, Saatchi Gallery. Conjoined twiglets in resin that resemble DNA chromosomes by the London-based artist Jack Strange.
Plato believed that memories were dormant until a catalyst brought them out into consciousness, not unlike Freud and repressed memories or the process in epigenetics in which certain factors in our environment become catalysts for gene expression.
As we enter this brave new world, a world in which ancient beliefs merge with current scientific and genetic research, we have to consider that what we used to dismiss as "magic" and "fantasy" in the past, we can now consider with an open-minded, new perspective.
Demis Hassabis, one of the founders of DeepMind Technologies, wrote in his PhD thesis at University College London that "patients with hippocampal amnesia cannot imagine new experiences," or in other words, people with dementia cannot imagine a future.
So much of our perception of memory is linear, in that we experience the perception of past, present and future. Without this fabric of time organisation in the hippocampus, much of our lives would seem as chaotic as in a dreamstate, where multiple timelines occur at once, and many sequences of events move in a non-linear way; there would be no "future" per se, because the future would also become the present and the past. However, these multiple timelines is also what seems to be emerging in research in quantum physics, in which there exists parallel events on an atomic scale, but our human perception sees it as a singular event.
Atomic qubits can be made to exist in two states at the same time, a disturbingly strange property that not only underpins the power of a quantum computer, but also the sensitivity of qubits as nano-sensors.
Einstein called this event, a "spooky coincidence" or quantum entanglement, a state where two particles or groups of particles are simultaneously affected by the other, despite time and space.
Long-distance connection: quantum entanglement posits the theory that two particles are connected beyond space and time and simultaneously affected by the other.
I always recall that anytime I was in a particularly distressed state, my mother would ring me at that particular exact moment when I was in distress. Despite being thousands of miles apart, across different continents, she would always magically know that exact moment when I needed to talk. In the past, people would've dismissed this event as simply coincidence, but according to current research, this could be an event that can be attributed to quantum entanglement, and perhaps both quantum physics and epigenetics can now paint a bird's eye view of these occurrences that we had easily dismissed in the past as simply, "crazy" or perhaps even "strange."
By Sierra Choi