Matter, Memory, and David Eagleman

In Matter and Memory, Henri Bergson writes,

“How is it that this perception is consciousness, and why does everything happen as if this consciousness were born of the internal movements of the cerebral substance?

To answer this question, we will first simplify considerably the conditions under which conscious perception takes place. In fact, there is no perception, which is not full of memories. With the immediate and present data of our senses we mingle a thousand details out of our past experience. In most cases these memories supplant our actual perceptions, of which we then retain only a few hints, thus perception using them merely as ‘signs’ that recall to signs us former images.”

It was with wide eyes that I then proceeded to read the suspenseful New Yorker article here:

In fact, upon beginning to read you will learn of David Eagleman, a unique scientific genius who has become obsessed with, among other things, our physiological/psychological perception and recollection of events and time. Inaugurated from his own experience as a child, Eagleman contrives tests that examine the classic question of whether one’s life may flash before their eyes in an instant. That is, Eagleman and many others recall near death/dramatic experiences in a slow motion, extreme detail that is astounding.

The article’s author writes:

“In one story, a man is thrown off his motorcycle after colliding with a car. As he’s sliding across the road, perhaps to his death, he hears his helmet bouncing against the asphalt. The sound has a catchy rhythm, he thinks, and he finds himself composing a little ditty to it in his head.

“Time is this rubbery thing,” Eagleman said. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.””

For Eagleman, this is not an untested hypothesis. On the contrary he has witnesses brain function and perception in a subtle yet direct relation to memory. For me, it is an astounding story and read. From my cinematic experience and understanding, I conceive it this way…

In dramatic, intense, and new moments, the 16mm film camera that is our brain increases the framerate at which it records the world, taking in more information per second. Thus, when that information is played back on the projector that is our memory, that information can be played slowly and examined carefully.

In any case, it is a fascinating thought that is worth reading about (especially if you are occasionally in awe of science).

-Colin Nusbaum

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