Site Section Links
KRONOS Vol VII, No. 1
A Holographic World
Editorial Preface: The following excerpt from Marilyn Ferguson's The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s presents some exciting ideas from brain research about the holographic theory of memory developed by Karl Pribram and David Bohm. The material is the final section of Chapter 6, "Liberating Knowledge: News from the Frontiers of Science". In an editorial in the updated special issue of the July 4, 1977 Brain/Mind Bulletin, Ferguson wrote: "The theory, in a nutshell: Our brains mathematically construct 'concrete' reality by interpreting frequencies from another dimension, a realm of meaningful, patterned primary reality that transcends time and space. The brain is a hologram, interpreting a holographic universe.... It is appropriate that this radical, satisfying paradigm has emerged from Pribram, a brain researcher-neurosurgeon who was a friend of the western Zen teacher Alan Watts. . . and Bohm, a theoretical physicist, close friend of Krishnamurti and former associate of Einstein."
The chapter also discusses biofeedback, the punctuated equilibrium theory of neo-Darwinian evolution, the possible meaning of Bell's theorem for psychic phenomena research, and Ilya Prigogine's theory of dissipative structures. Prigogine, a Belgian physical chemist, won the 1977 Nobel prize in chemistry for this work explaining irreversible processes – the movement toward higher and higher orders of life. The theory provides a model for the role of stress in biochemical systems and societies in triggering transformations to higher levels of organization and complexity. Prigogine's theory has stirred interest among social scientists, cyberneticists and general systems theorists. Pribram's and Prigogine's theories may be related. According to Brain/Mind Bulletin (May 21, 1979), "Pribram suggested that the dissipative structures may represent the way in which the 'implicate' aspects of reality become explicate – that is, how they manifest in time and space from a timeless, spaceless primary order."
The title of the book, The Aquarian Conspiracy, trades upon Aquarius, the waterbearer, as a symbol of flow and the quenching of ancient thirst, and the literal meaning of conspire, "to breathe together". Thus, the Aquarian Conspiracy refers to the work of all those in many different areas whose independent efforts are leading to an all-pervading social transformation, a new social paradigm. The book describes the rapid and profound changes the "conspiracy" is generating in economics, education, politics, medicine, religion and the family. For example, the old economic paradigm promoted consumption at all costs via planned obsolescence, advertising pressure, the creation of artificial "need", whereas the new economic paradigm promotes appropriate consumption with conserving, keeping, recycling, quality and craftsmanship as goals. In medicine, a shift is occurring from mere treatment of symptoms to searching for patterns and causes, plus treatment of symptoms.
The book has been well-received by those attuned to holistic, "New Age" thinking while reductionists and those whose left brains are paranoid of their right brains are reacting threateningly. According to David Bohm, "If mankind is to survive, some fundamental psychological change is needed and [this] book will help give impetus to such a change." – CLE
Some scientific discoveries are premature, molecular geneticist Gunther Stent observed in 1972. These intuitive or accidental discoveries are repressed or ignored until they can be connected to existing data. In effect, they await a context in which they make sense.
Gregor Mendel's discovery of the gene, Michael Polanyi's absorption theory in physics, and Oswald Avery's identification of DNA as the basic hereditary substance were ignored for years, even decades. Stent suggested that the existence of psychic phenomena was a similarly premature discovery, one that would not be appreciated by science, regardless of the data, until a conceptual framework had been established.
Recently a Stanford neuroscientist, Karl Pribram, proposed an all encompassing paradigm that marries brain research to theoretical physics; it accounts for normal perception and simultaneously takes the "paranormal" and transcendental experiences out of the supernatural by demonstrating that they are part of nature.
The paradoxical sayings of mystics suddenly make sense in the radical reorientation of this "holographic theory". Not that Pribram was the least bit interested in giving credence to visionary insights. He was only trying to make sense of the data generated from his laboratory at Stanford, where brain processes in higher mammals, especially primates, have been rigorously studied.
Early in his career as a brain surgeon, Pribram worked under the famous Karl Lashley, who searched for thirty years for the elusive "engram" – the site and substance of memory. Lashley trained experimental animals, then selectively damaged portions of their brains, assuming that at some point he would scoop out the locus of what they had learned. Removing parts of the brain worsened their performance somewhat, but short of lethal brain damage, it was impossible to eradicate what they had been taught.
At one point Lashley said facetiously that his research proved that learning was not possible. Pribram participated in writing up Lashley's monumental research, and he was steeped in the mystery of the missing engram. How could memory be stored not in any one part of the brain but distributed throughout?
Later, when Pribram went to the Center for Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford,(1) he was still deeply troubled by the mystery that had drawn him into brain research: How do we remember? In the mid-sixties, he read a Scientific American article describing the first construction of a hologram, a kind of three dimensional "picture" produced by lensless photography. Dennis Gabor invented holography in principle in 1947, a discovery that later earned him a Nobel prize, but the construction of a hologram had to await the invention of the laser.
The hologram is one of the truly remarkable inventions of modern physics – eerie, indeed, when seen for the first time. Its ghostlike image can be viewed from various angles, and it appears to be suspended in space. Its principle is well described by biologist Lyall Watson:
Light falls onto the photographic plate from two sources: from the object itself and from a reference beam, the light deflected by a mirror from the object onto the plate. The apparently meaningless swirls on the plate do not resemble the original object, but the image can be reconstituted by a coherent light source like a laser beam. The result is a 3-D likeness projected into space, at a distance from the plate.
If the hologram is broken, any piece of it will reconstruct the entire image.
Pribram saw the hologram as an exciting model for how the brain might store memory.(2) If memory is distributed rather than localized, perhaps it is holographic. Maybe the brain deals in interactions, interpreting bioelectric frequencies throughout the brain.
In 1966 he published his first paper proposing a connection. Over the next several years he and other researchers uncovered what appeared to be the brain's calculative strategies for knowing, for sensing. It appears that in order to see, hear, smell, taste, and so on, the brain performs complex calculations on the frequencies of the data it receives. Hardness or redness or the smell of ammonia are only frequencies when the brain encounters them. These mathematical processes have little common-sense relationship to the real world as we perceive it.
Neuroanatomist Paul Pietsch said, "The abstract principles of the hologram may explain the brain's most elusive properties." The diffuse hologram makes no more common sense than the brain. The whole code exists at every point in the medium. "Stored mind is not a thing. It is abstract relationships.... In the sense of ratios, angles, square roots, mind is a mathematic. No wonder it's hard to fathom."
Pribram suggested that the intricate mathematics might be per formed via slow waves known to move along a network of fine fibers on the nerve cells. The brain may decode its stored memory traces the way a projected hologram decodes or deblurs its original image. The extraordinary efficiency of the holographic principle makes it attractive, too. Because the pattern on a holographic plate has no space-time dimension, billions of bits of information can be stored in a tiny space – just as billions of bits are obviously stored in the brain.
But in 1970 or 1971, a distressing and ultimate question began troubling Pribram. If the brain indeed knows by putting together holograms – by mathematically transforming frequencies from "out there" – who in the brain is interpreting the holograms?
This is an old and nagging question. Philosophers since the Greeks have speculated about the "ghost in the machine," the "little man inside the little man" and so on. Where is the I – the entity that uses the brain?
Who does the actual knowing? Or, as Saint Francis of Assisi once put it, "What we are looking for is what is looking."
Lecturing one night at a symposium in Minnesota, Pribram mused that the answer might lie in the realm of gestalt psychology, a theory that maintains that what we perceive "out there" is the same as – isomorphic with – brain processes.
Suddenly he blurted out, "Maybe the world is a hologram!"
He stopped, a little taken aback by the implications of what he had said. Were the members of the audience holograms – representations of frequencies, interpreted by his brain and by one another's brains? If the nature of reality is itself holographic, and the brain operates holographically, then the world is indeed, as the Eastern religions have said, maya: a magic show. Its concreteness is an illusion.
Soon afterward he spent a week with his son, a physicist, discussing his ideas and searching for possible answers in physics. His son mentioned that David Bohm, a protégé of Einstein, had been thinking along similar lines. A few days later, Pribram read copies of Bohm's key papers urging a new order in physics. Pribram was electrified. Bohm was describing a holographic universe.
What appears to be a stable, tangible, visible, audible world, said Bohm, is an illusion. It is dynamic and kaleidoscopic – not really "there". What we normally see is the explicate, or un-folded, order of things, rather like watching a movie. But there is an underlying order that is father to this second-generation reality. He called the other order implicate, or enfolded. The enfolded order harbors our reality, much as the DNA in the nucleus of the cell harbors potential life and directs the nature of its unfolding.
Bohm describes an insoluble ink droplet in glycerine. If the fluid is stirred slowly by a mechanical device so that there is no [dispersion], the droplet is eventually drawn into a fine thread that is distributed throughout the whole system in such a way that it is no longer even visible to the eye. If the mechanical device is then reversed, the thread will slowly gather together until it suddenly coalesces again into a visible droplet.
Before this coalescence takes place, the droplet can be said to be "folded into" the viscous fluid, while afterward it is unfolded again.
Next imagine that several droplets have been stirred into the fluid a different number of times and in different positions. If the ink drops are stirred continuously and fast enough, it will appear that a single permanently existing ink drop is continuously moving across the fluid. There is no such object. Other examples: a row of electric lights in a commercial sign that flashes off and on to give the impression of a sweeping arrow, or an animated cartoon, giving the illusion of continuous movement.
Just so, all apparent substance and movement are illusory. They emerge from another, more primary order of the universe. Bohm calls this phenomenon the holomovement.
Ever since Galileo, he says, we have been looking at nature through lenses; our very act of objectifying, as in an electron microscope, alters that which we hope to see. We want to find its edges, to make it sit still for a moment, when its true nature is in another order of reality, another dimension, where there are no things. It is as if we are bringing the "observed" into focus, as you would bring a picture into resolution, but the blur is a more accurate representation. The blur itself is the basic reality.
It occurred to Pribram that the brain may focus reality in a lens like way, by its mathematical strategies. These mathematical transforms make objects out of frequencies. They make the blurred potential into sound and color and touch and smell and taste.
"Maybe reality isn't what we see with our eyes," Pribram says. "If we didn't have that lens – the mathematics performed by our brain – maybe we would know a world organized in the frequency domain. No space, no time – just events. Can reality be read out of that domain?"
He suggested that transcendental experiences – mystical states – may allow us occasional direct access to that realm. Certainly, subjective reports from such states often sound like descriptions of quantum reality, a coincidence that has led several physicists to speculate similarly. Bypassing our normal, constricting perceptual mode – what Aldous Huxley called the reducing valve – we may be attuned to the source or matrix of reality.
And the brain's neural interference patterns, its mathematical processes, may be identical to the primary state of the universe. That is to say, our mental processes are, in effect, made of the same stuff as the organizing principle. Physicists and astronomers had remarked at times that the real nature of the universe is immaterial but orderly. Einstein professed mystical awe in the face of this harmony. Astronomer James Jeans said that the universe is more like a great thought than a great machine, and astronomer Arthur Eddington said, "The stuff of the universe is mind-stuff." More recently, cyberneticist David Foster described "an intelligent universe" whose apparent concreteness is generated by – in effect – cosmic data from an unknowable, organized source.
In a nutshell, the holographic supertheory says that our brains mathematically construct "hard " reality by interpreting frequencies from a dimension transcending time and space. The brain is a hologram, interpreting a holographic universe.
We are indeed participants in reality, observers who affect what we observe.
In this framework, psychic phenomena are only by-products of the simultaneous-everywhere matrix. Individual brains are bits of the greater hologram. They have access under certain circumstances to all the information in the total cybernetic system. Synchronicity – the web of coincidence that seems to have some higher purpose or connectedness – also fits in with the holographic model. Such meaningful coincidences derive from the purposeful, patterned, organizing nature of the matrix. Psychokinesis, mind affecting matter, may be a natural result of interaction at the primary level. The holographic model resolves one long-standing riddle of psi: the inability of instrumentation to track the apparent energy transfer in telepathy, healing, clairvoyance. If these events occur in a dimension transcending time and space, there is no need for energy to travel from here to there. As one researcher put it, "There isn't any there."
For years those interested in phenomena of the human mind had predicted that a breakthrough theory would emerge; that it would draw on mathematics to establish the supernatural as part of nature.
The holographic model is such an integral theory catching all the wildlife of science and spirit. It may well be the paradoxical borderless paradigm that our science had been crying for.
Its explanatory power enriches and enlarges many disciplines, making sense of old phenomena and raising urgent new questions. Implicit in the theory is the assumption that harmonious, coherent states of consciousness are more nearly attuned to the primary level of reality, a dimension of order and harmony. Such attunement would be hampered by anger, anxiety, and fear and eased by love and empathy. There are implications for learning, environments, families, the arts, religion and philosophy, healing and self-healing. What fragments us? What makes us whole?
Those descriptions of a sense of flow, of cooperating with the universe – in the creative process, in extraordinary athletic performances, and sometimes in everyday life – do they signify our union with the source?
The experiences reported so often on the Aquarian Conspiracy questionnaires, the hours and even months of "grace," when it seemed one was cooperating with the life source itself – were these instances of being in harmony with the primary level of reality? Millions are experimenting with the psychotechnologies. Are they creating a more coherent, resonant society, feeding order into the great social hologram like seed crystals? Perhaps this is the mysterious process of collective evolution.
The holographic model also helps explain the strange power of the image – why events are affected by what we imagine, what we visualize. An image held in a transcendental state may be made real.
Keith Floyd, a psychologist at Virginia Intermont College, said of the holographic possibility, "Contrary to what everyone knows is so, it may not be the brain that produces consciousness – but rather, consciousness that creates the appearance of the brain – matter, space, time, and everything else we are pleased to interpret as the physical universe."
Access to a domain transcending time and space might also account for the ancient intuitions about the nature of reality. Pribram points out that Leibniz, the seventeenth-century philosopher and mathematician, had postulated a universe of monads – units that incorporate the information of the whole. Interestingly, Leibniz discovered the integral calculus that made the invention of holography possible. He maintained that the exquisitely orderly behavior of light – also crucial to holography – indicated an underlying radical, patterned order of reality.
Ancient mystics also correctly described the function of the pineal gland centuries before science could confirm it. "How did ideas like this arise centuries before we had the tools to understand them?" Pribram asked. "Maybe in the holographic state – the frequency domain – four thousand years ago is the same as tomorrow."
Similarly, Bergson had said in 1907 that the ultimate reality is an underlying web of connection and that the brain screens out the larger reality. In 1929, Whitehead described nature as a great expanding nexus of occurrences beyond sense perception. We only imagine that matter and mind are different, when, in fact, they are interlocking.
Bergson maintained that artists, like mystics, have access to the élan vital, the underlying creative impulse. T. S. Eliot's poems are full of holographic images: "The still point of the turning world" that is neither flesh nor fleshless, neither arrest nor movement. "And do not call it fixity, where past and future are gathered. Except for the point, the still point/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance."
The German mystic Meister Eckhart had said that "God becomes and disbecomes." Rumi, the Sufi mystic, said, "Men's minds perceive second causes, but only prophets perceive the action of the First Cause."
Emerson suggested that we see "mediately, not directly," that we are colored and distorted lenses. Perhaps our "subject lenses" have a creative power, he said, and there are no real objects outside ourselves in the universe: the play and the playground of all history may be only radiations from ourselves. A booklet published by the Theosophical Society in the 1930s described reality as a living matrix, "every mathematical point of which contains the potentialities of the whole...."
Teilhard believed that human consciousness can return to the point "where the roots of matter disappear from view." Reality has a "within," he said, as well as a "without." In the Don Juan books, Carlos Castaneda describes two dimensions that sound like the holographic primary and secondary dimensions: the powerful nagual, an indescribable void that contains everything, and the tonal, a reflection of that indescribable unknown filled with order.
In The Man Who Gave Thunder to the Earth, Nancy Wood's retelling of the Taos stories:
Arthur Koestler described "reality of the third order," which contains phenomena that cannot be apprehended or explained on either a sensory or a conceptual level, "and yet occasionally invade them [these levels] like spiritual meteors piercing the primitive's vaulted sky".
In an ancient sutra of Patanjali, knowledge of "the subtle, the hidden, and the distant" is said to arise by looking with the pravritti a Sanskrit term meaning "before the wave." This description parallels the idea of an apparently concrete world generated by interference patterns, by waves.
And, this extraordinary ancient description of a holographic reality is found in a Hindu sutra:
The brain he was raised on was a computer, Pribram told a San Diego audience in 1976, but "the brain we know now allows for the experiences reported from spiritual disciplines".
How brain processes can be altered to allow direct experience of the frequency domain is still a conjecture. It may involve a known perceptual phenomenon – the "projection" that permits us to experience the full, three-dimensional stereophonic sound as if the sound emanates from a point midway between two speakers instead of coming from two distinct sources. Research has shown that the kinesthetic senses can be similarly affected; tapping on both hands at a particular frequency eventually causes the person to feel a third hand midway between. Pribram has suggested possible involvement of a deep brain region that has been the site of pathological disturbances, of déjà vu, and seems involved in the "consciousness without a content" of mystical experience. Some alternation of frequency and the phase relationships in these structures may be the open sesame for transcendental states.
Mystical experience, Pribram says, is no more strange than many other phenomena in nature, such as the selective de-repression of DNA to form first one organ, then another. "If we get ESP or paranormal phenomena – or nuclear phenomena in physics – it simply means that we are reading out of some other dimension at that time. In our ordinary way, we can't understand that."
Pribram acknowledges that the model is not easily assimilated; it too radically overturns our previous belief systems, our common sense understanding of things and time and space. A new generation will grow up accustomed to holographic thinking; and to ease their way, Pribram suggests that children should learn about paradox in grade school, since the new scientific findings are always fraught with contradiction.
Productive scientists must be as ready to defend spirit as data. "This is science as it was originally conceived: the pursuit of understanding," says Pribram. "The days of the cold-hearted, hard-headed technocrat appear to be numbered."
Pribram engagingly admits at times, "I hope you realize that I don't understand any of this." The admission generally provokes a sigh of relief in even the most scientific audiences.
The wide relevance of Pribram's synthesis of his ideas with those of David Bohm, like Prigogine's model, has stimulated excitement among social scientists, philosophers, and artists.(3) Symposia have been organized for interdisciplinary groups around the country and for government officials in Washington. In a workshop at one invitational conference, Pribram discussed the concepts with five Nobel laureates.
There is surely a message in these rapidly converging scientific revolutions: in physics, psi, the interaction of mind and body, the evolutionary thrust, the brain's two ways of knowing and its potential for transcendent awareness.
The more we learn about the nature of reality, the more plainly we see the unnatural aspects of our environment – and our lives. Out of ignorance, out of arrogance, we have been working against the grain. Because we have not understood the brain's ability to transform pain and disequilibrium, we have dampened – it with tranquilizers or distracted it with whatever was at hand. Because we have not understood that wholes are more than the sum of their parts, we have assembled our information into islands, an archipelago of disconnected data. Our great institutions have evolved in virtual isolation from one another.
Not realizing that our species evolved in cooperation, we have opted for competition in work, school, relationships. Not understanding the body's ability to reorganize its internal processes, we have drugged and doctored ourselves into bizarre side effects. Not understanding our societies as great organisms, we have manipulated them into "cures" worse than the ailments.
Sooner or later, if human society is to evolve – indeed, if it is to survive – we must match our lives to our new knowledge. For too long, the Two Cultures – the esthetic, feeling humanities and cool, analytical science – have functioned independently, like the right and left hemispheres of a split-brain patient. We have been the victims of our collective divided consciousness.
Novelist Lawrence Durrell said in Justine, "Somewhere in the heart of experience there is an order and a coherence which we might surprise if we were attentive enough, loving enough, or patient enough. Will there be time?" Perhaps, at last, Science can say yes to Art.
1. He worked on his landmark book, Languages of the Brain, in an office next door to Thomas Kuhn, who was writing The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
2 Among those researchers who first suggested a tie between phenomena of consciousness and the holographic principle were Dennis Gabor, discoverer of holography; Ula Belas of Bell Telephone Laboratories; Dennis and Terence McKenna; physicists William Tiller and Evan Harris; biologist Lyall Watson; and inventors Itzhak Bentov and Eugene Dolgoff.
3. How does the holographic theory fit with the theory of dissipative structures? Pribram says the dissipative structures may represent the means of unfolding from the implicate order, the way it is manifested in time and space.
Meanwhile, Apolinario Nazarea of the University of Texas at Austin expressed "quiet optimism" that theoretical work on dissipative structures may "vindicate in its main outlines the so-called holographic theory . . . though from a different direction."
SUGGESTED ADDITIONAL READING