Saturday, 16 May 2009

Is this what the afterlife is like?

Memory flashbacks - where unbidden, memories spring into your mind - are an interesting phenomenon that neuroscience could do well to explore.

Flashbacks from the past can suddenly take you from your day-to-day activities to a moment in childhood, so intensely and perfectly captured, the precise mood, atmosphere, favour, feeling (I will use the Polish word klimat as this means all those words rolled into one) of that moment. These flashbacks can occur several times a day, each lasting a fraction of a second.

Over many years, I’ve trained myself to identify the time and the place that the flashback is linked to. But what causes these flashbacks that tug my awareness back to recall some distant moment with such precision, creating such a sense of pleasant familiarity of Past? Was there a trigger? Smell is a most potent memory trigger, and easy to identify. The smell of summer rain on dusty ground. Taste also - a childhood ice cream (such as a Lyon's Maid Raspberry Mivvy). Other triggers are harder to pinpoint. It maybe a combination of light and colour on the retina, a particular word, spoken or read; the feeling of frost on the face as I walk out of the office on a winter's night; a splash of water on the neck – and BAM! suddenly that memory bursts into the mind, for a split second crowding out other mundane trains of thought and bringing that exact flavour of that moment in the past. The strangest are the flashbacks that are not only unbidden, but untriggered - totally spontaneous.

Like an archeologist, I find myself analysing these fragments of memory as if they were shards of ancient pottery.

The flashbacks that seem untriggered or unbidden are indeed puzzling. Do they happen for a reason? No external trigger has set it off, no attempt to seek a memory has been made. I'm driving, cooking, writing – then out of the blue comes a sudden, strong yet short memory moment. Some can be back to my early childhood (a visit to Bushey Park) or to something that happened very recently (a railway journey to Manchester).

Even more puzzling are the flashbacks, triggered or untriggered, to a time and a place of which I have no first hand knowledge, which I can't track down to my childhood, adolescence or more recent past. Though rarer than the childhood flashbacks, they feel equally and immediately familiar, they are pleasant and comforting and happen in exactly the same way. I’ve had these since childhood, and they conform with one another, they are consistent in atmosphere or klimat. The reality of this phenomenon is the nearest I personally have to intimations of my awareness spanning back before my birth.

Where are these extraneous, anomalous memory events from? America from the 1920s to the 1950s, Scandinavia in the 1950s. This is how they feel to me, this is how they have felt to me for decades, since I first started having these flashbacks as a four or five year-old. There are others, rarer; Edwardian England; the Prip'yat Marshes in the 19th century.

An interesting point about these flashbacks is that while living in London, with its specific grey climate and architecture of Empire, I’d dismiss these flashbacks as not being related to any concrete reality, time or place. While they felt vaguely 'American', they were just from a dreamworld. They were real enough for me to look for explanations - parallel universe? signals from elsewhere? But after moving to Poland in 1997 – and more specifically after moving to Jeziorki, a suburb on Warsaw’s southernmost rim – these flashbacks became more far frequent and coincided or were triggered by the landscapes around me, the flat fields of Mazowsze, punctuated by billboards, radio towers, newly-built bungalows, blue skies, proper winters, proper summers – walking around Jeziorki, I feel a similar klimat to those flashbacks so familiar to me since childhood. Indeed a return to forever.

So what's causing these flashbacks? Over the years, I have pondered numerous explanations, but one that cannot be dismissed is that these are echoes from the consciousness of a human being who had previously experienced these feelings and atmospheres.

Should I chase down these flashbacks, these anomalous memories, seeking one dead individual whose awareness impinges upon mine every now and then? Are we one? Is this a continuum of consciousness? And to refer back to that most important question from my previous post – does this suggest that my awareness shall continue beyond my current life and into a new body? Will a small child one day be perplexed by anomalous memories seeming to come from Britain in the second half of 20th century and Poland in the first half of the 21st century?

Atheists, sceptics, reductionists, followers of Dawkins, would poo-poo my experiences (or at least my interpretation of them) saying that this is woolly wishful thinking. Yet science has yet to discover the seat of consciousness, the brain itself is so complex that anomalous phenomenon such as this one splits scientists into so many camps. At the end of the day, this phenomenon is as real to me as the sensation of seeing the colour green on a wall, sniffing a tangerine, tasting coffee, stroking cat’s fur or hearing a phone ring.


Unknown said...

Czesc Michael,
You should see my favourite film of all time. Slaughterhouse 5. Based on a book by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr. the film has the most amazing transitions between time scenes. It will give you another perspective on time. It is all about flashbacks and is wonderfully unhollywood. It could be a representation of string theory but book and film predate this by decades!
PS I used to live in Joliborz and my secretary Serafin used to work at Delta. Tiny world eh. Strange to find you only wrote this an our ago. Scary!

Michael Dembinski said...

The universe is indeed held together by a web of coincidence. (You'll know the universe is about to implode when you stop noticing coincidences.)

Where abouts in Żoliborz did you live?

Thanks for the Slaughterhouse Five recommendation - I shall acquire on my next visit to London.

Anonymous said...

Check this book:

"An Experiment with Time is a long essay by J. W. Dunne on the subjects of precognition and the human experience of time."

"Dunne posits that in the dreaming state this way of interpreting time ceases to be as concrete as when we are awake. Thus we are capable of having what we call precognitive dreams as consciousness finds itself free to roam across past, present and future. From this Dunne posited that we exist on two levels ourselves, both inside and outside time, thus suggesting the notion of Immortality contained in his later books The New Immortality and Nothing Dies."

I haven't read him; but he apparently influenced Tolkien and this is how I have heard of him.

Michael Dembinski said...

Baduin - even as I write I have the book in my hand. Inside I find a hand-written note, dated summer 2004; it is a list of my anomalous dreams and flashbacks (America, 1920s and '30s, WWII in the Pacific, Scandinavia in the 1950s, post-war West Germany). Thanks for mentioning the book! I'll check the Wiki link. Another coincidence that holds the universe together!