‘Time is a mirror in which you see yourself;
you have already stepped into the mirror, and there
you walk blindly; you have stepped
into the mirror; nothing
can annihilate your birth: you are among the living.’
Time and memory seem somehow inextricably linked: we remember that which took place in a time other than the one in which we’re now living. But leaving the whole question of time aside for the moment, what is memory? Is it merely the impressions made in our physical brain cells by the things we experience in life, something that begins to disintegrate as we age and then vanishes altogether along with our bodies when they die? I think that I more or less assumed this for years, without ever actually examining my notions on the subject in any kind of detail. But now I think there’s certainly much more to it than that. One theory among some scientists today, for example, is that the brain functions not as a physical storage place for memories and other information, but as a kind of modem or connector, a sort of relay station, as it were, that allows us to access memories our brains have at one time processed, the memories themselves being stored someplace else, a non-physical place which is nonetheless closely, even intimately linked to our physical selves so that the passage of information from us and to us can take place with relative ease. I find this theory most intriguing. An analogy might come from our use of computers, in which we more or less instantly access data not physically stored in our computers and also send data that is stored there to some other distant spot, the transfer of the data itself not taking place in a physical way.
Plato believed that every material being and object had its corresponding non-material existence, or ‘form’, as he termed it. The concept of the Platonic ‘forms’ thus became absorbed into the theoretical systems of many of the philosophers who followed him. We might express this idea by saying that every being and even object has its own individual ‘soul’, unlike any other, unrepeatable and indestructible. When our body dies, many believe, our soul or ‘form’ remains incorruptible. Could this be where the information is stored? Perhaps the truth is that my body merely serves as part of the complex apparatus by which I physically perceive and experience the world, in conjunction with my non-material ‘form’. My brain then processes that experience and stores the data it processes in some part of my ‘form’ or ‘soul’, which exists in conjunction with my physical self in life, but remains quite intact, along with all the information and data it has acquired, after my physical self is gone. If this is the way things are, such a state of affairs would answer the otherwise vexing question of why my memories, processed by the brain, are not just sent out into the stratosphere someplace to mingle indiscriminately with the rest of the universe.
I like the idea of the brain serving basically as a kind of modem. It would help explain why, for example, elderly people often have vivid memories of things that they experienced in their very early lives (when their physical brains were in top form, able to process data efficiently and pass it on for non-physical storage), and very hazy or even non-existent memories of things they have experienced quite recently (indicating that it is the aging physical brain which is at fault, as it begins to break down as a transmitting modem). The vivid memories of youth are stored out there beyond the body someplace, in other words, and the brain can still retrieve them, but that same brain has begun, as modem, to lose its power to process and pass new data on for non-physical storage. The data, or memories, meanwhile, are very much intact and safely stored, as always, in the non-material part of us which, though connected intimately with our bodies during life, survives them quite nicely after ‘death’. Indeed, the Platonic ‘form’ or ‘soul’ knows no death. It is alive by its very nature. Only death is dead.
Well, this is all very interesting to speculate upon, and I hope more scientists and others come up with more theories to give me more food for thought. I have included the photo of a recent sunset as seen from our back deck here because sunset, with its magnificent palette of colors and its dying light, is a time when I often think about the past. Which leads me to consider time and memory as well. And material and non-material survival after death, because both seem quite possible to me. And the lines from the Spanish poet Luis Rosales express an idea which, in one way or other, the two of us share: ‘nothing can annihilate your birth: you are among the living.’ I must look into his concepts more. He seems like the kind of person with whom, across the abyss of time and space which divides us (for he died in Madrid in 1992), you could have a really great conversation.