Monday, 12 March 2018

Observations from another time

Lent 2018: Day 27

Early morning, West London. I'm sitting at the desk in my father's spare room when suddenly PAFF! There it is - that absolute moment of congruent consciousness. All of a sudden I experience a flashback, prefect in sensory detail. Unbidden, unprompted. It is the 1960s, summer, seaside. It could be Stella Plage in France or Eastbourne; a family holiday. The smell, the smell unbidden comes to me - back from a day at the beach, tang of salty skin, suntan oil, damp towels and swimwear; a sunlit room.

Exactly as I felt it half a century ago.

This type of experience is not unusual for me; these unbidden memories of past qualia [singular: quale] have been a feature of my existence for as long as I can remember. Reading Stuart A. Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe, over the past weeks of Lent, I can appreciate these flashbacks in physical terms; when they happen, for a split second I can observe - as in observing a quantum experiment, electrons in superposition, observed. Spin up or spin down.

Kauffman, drawing on his own work and that of others, posits that electrons may possess a property other than mass and charge, namely consciousness. Consciousness, will, memory? Ethics, even, as my brother suggested to me in a recent email.

I wrote these words a year and half ago to describe my flashback experiences:
This is deepest memory; where does it reside? In the bones? In the optic nerve? There are memories that can be recovered by thinking back to an event; there are memories that can be triggered by a smell or (as in this case) a sight; there are memories that spring into your consciousness unbidden. 
Those moments when that 'time slide' happens fill me momentarily with a yearning to return and to relive them - a brief feeling that evaporates all too quickly, leaving a residue of hope - an expression of experiencing a continuity of consciousness...
A "memory hiccup". The seaside holiday flashback is one that's entered the canon of my stored qualia; another is the Uxbridge Road in West Ealing in the run-up to Christmas, mid-1960s, looking into the shop window at F.H. Rowse's at the seasonal display of toys, in particular a Corgi model of an Aston Martin DB4 in mint green and white, racing number on the doors, running around a race track. There's a nip of frost, snowflakes in the air, a busy evening, people and cars rushing, Christmas is just days away...

Comforting; familiar.

Detail. Observation is very important in life; coupled with curiosity it is one of the fundamental building blocks of the desire to learn. Talking to my son the other week as I drove him to the airport, he was telling me about his memories of Okęcie from his childhood, before the Etiuda terminal was open. His memories are extremely detailed (such as the fact that prior to 9/11, security was conducted at the gates, the seating in the old terminal, border control prior to Poland entering Schengen).

This is conscious memory; as a child, my son was vitally interested in air travel in all its facets, and made mental note of his surroundings. So many people just pass through without really noticing. Yes; but take one of those people who pass without really noticing and prompt them - maybe some sparks of a more detailed memory emerge.

The most interesting phenomenon of memory is the unbidden, unprompted stuff. I can't recall, when on a family seaside holiday, ever stopping to think - "Ah, there's that combination of smells again..." And yet those qualia return, as precise and sharp as ever, bringing with them those emotional yearnings, savouring them.

What does one need to be open to such experiences? A certain sensitivity to klimat, atmosphere, spirit of place, spirit of time (Platzgeist and Zeitgeist), a sense that such recalled qualia are an intrinsic part of what it is to be you.

This brings me to my own, highly personal, quest - to find the causes of the anomalous recalled qualia that have the same intensity and reality as the ones described above - but are not from my lifetime. Again, I have a canon of these experienced over my 60 years; familiar, consistent in place and time; I have catalogued them most fully in this post, here.

What I've learnt so far (two crucial chapters still to go, for those who've followed my Lenten explorations this year) is the importance in quantum mechanics of conscious observation. If I have been the observer of the qualia that occurred on a childhood seaside holiday in Eastbourne, was I not also the observer of the qualia that occurred at a State Fair in the US sometime in the 1930s? Or watched fleets of silver B-29 bombers flying over the Pacific, headed for Japan? Or approached that low, long white building among the pines and birches that was my office in the 1950s?

"The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." - J.B.S. Haldane.

This time last year:
Spirit of age, spirit of place

This time two years ago:
The crux of the matter

This time four years ago:
10,000 steps is a lot for one day

This time five years ago:
Bary mleczne - Warsaw's cheap eateries 

This time six years ago:
Nikkor 45mm f2.8 pancake lens reviewed

This time seven years ago:
Old Town, another prospect

This time eight years ago:
W-wa Śródmieście - commuters' staging post

This time nine years ago:
Filthy ul. Poloneza
[Now re-named ul. Kujawiaka]

This time ten years ago:
A sight that heralds the coming of spring

1 comment:

White Horse Pilgrim said...

Michael, I find that memories such as those you describe (which I, too, have) create a sense of the variety of the world in which I grew up. There were unusual places, historical survivals, and people with unique memories. Or so it seemed. And, as it appeared to a young person, that variety existed independent to economics. One shock of growing up was that cost-benefit analysis and the profit motive would sweep away so much. Another shock was how few people cared. A joy lately discovered, of circulating amongst independent musicians, is rediscovering a realm where quirkiness and curiosity are prized.