Remembrance of Things Past (R8)

  • How is it that mentally we hold on to some things (remembering thoughts, ideas, images, experiences) in life and not others?
  • What is it that contributes to our holding some things close to our central being and not others?
  • How is it that people we know hold on to some things (thoughts, ideas, experiences) that we ourselves couldn’t care less about?
  • What is it that often results in our retaining what we individually remember for years and years while things which may be of significance to others vanish out of our own mind?

Some approaches to answers to these questions might be gained from, amongst other things, the findings of neurological research, psychological writings, spooky thinking systems, practical exercises and personal anecdote.

There is no doubt that neuroscientific studies will offer some starting points. For instance, a recent study suggests that when a new memory is first formed, there is also in us an active, dopamine-based forgetting mechanism—ongoing dopamine neuron activity—that begins to erase those memories unless some importance is attached to them, a process known as consolidation that may shield important memories from the dopamine-driven forgetting process.

So how do we attach importance to thngs?

The basic thinking has ‘always’ been that forgetting is mostly a passive process. The findings of this study suggest that forgetting is just as much an active process as remembering; it is probably regulated by the neurotransmitter dopamine becoming associated with a different part of the brain from the parts that strengthen connections.

‘Consolidation’ = ‘Crystallization’

In general it may be said that human beings are for the most part just like machines making mechanical reactions to ‘external influences’ that they do not necessarily have to, or bother to, make proper sense of; things happen to us and we react from out of whichever ‘I’ we chance to be in at the time. One ‘I’ will take this up—another will take that up, willy-nilly. To counteract purely mechanical responses to the way things are, Gurdjieff says ‘there must be a certain crystallization, a certain fusion of our inner qualities’ working independently of external influences. Crystallisation is what provides a solid base (a permanent ‘I’ perhaps) from which to make well-formed responses to external stimuli.

The process of crystallising is a kind of ‘fusion’, a synthesis of otherwise discrete experiential data (things that happen to provoke a response of some kind) resulting in what you could call an ‘inner unity’; the process of constructing a synthesis results in ‘friction’, a struggle between one interpretation of events and another: now I see it one way and now another… Without inner struggle, ‘if everything happens in you without opposition, if you go wherever you are drawn or wherever the wind blows, you will remain’ exactly as you are. But when a struggle or deliberate quest begins, particularly if you operate with purpose and intention, ‘then, gradually, permanent traits begin to form themselves; ‘crystallised desposits’ begin to settle in you.

One crystallised deposit leads us on to others and then a network begins to assert itself, which perhaps begins to form Magnetic Centre—a certain something in our being, expressed as a potent metaphor, representing the idea that we can attract generative notions, behaving like iron filings, to flourish in some secret place in us. You can get an idea/concept/image early on in life and things seem somehow to stick to it. Brain cells dedicated to picking up different features of the environment cluster similarly.

The Existence of Forests

I am around 3 or 4; My mother is reading to me at bedtime, an all too rare occurrence for me, as I recall; in the story characters of some description—I forget what—are going through a forest. I suddenly conceive an interest in the idea of a forest and ask a question about what a ‘forest’ is; the very word—its sound—has some kind of strange resonance for me. In answer my mother tells me that there are no forests any more. I am struck dumb, sent packing into the dark recesses of my interior being; looking around at the bleak suburban landscape where I spent my early years, I desperately try to make a forest materialise; huge trees sprout up from the pavement and in all the gardens; I imagine myself walking through many trees, see them stretching out in front of me up a mountain I conjure from nowhere—the primitive, if essentially misguided, Realist philosopher in me concludes that since there was the sound of a word ‘forest’ in the book my mother was reading, there must be forests somewhere…

Something was crystallised in me at this moment; it’s a mixture of things: the power of books to describe ‘reality’; the untrustworthiness of adults to say what’s true; the idea of a permanent quest—to discover a forest; the strength of words commanding reality; becoming silent when faced with contradiction and the endless struggle to understand. Personal struggle helps us to tap into the energy system (Omnipresent-active-element—Okidanokh, says Gurdjieff in Beelzebub mode) that permeates the universe of which we are a very insignificant part. We are able to vivify this energy—to make it become real for us. Pendulum work is one way of making this happen. This then that and then some active reconciliation of the two things…


Energy comes to us from somewhere or the other; we are engaged in generating it somehow; it replenishes what Gurdjieff calls ‘accumulators’ in us. It manifests itself variously as mechanical energy and/or life energy, psychic or spiritual energy and conscious energy.

For many years my thinking on this was determined by a Konrad Lorenz diagram I found in Motivation edited by Bindra & Stewart in the Penguin Modern Psychology series:-

Where the original energy flow comes from to arrive at the tap is anybody’s guess. I expect there’s some scientific way of accounting for it; whatever the case might be, experience tells us that we have ‘energy’ which we are prepared, or choose, to expend in various ways—operating as anything from Olympic athlete to stamp collector and including thinking, philosophising, tapping away at a computer keyboard, shouting at somebody and so on. According to the model, energy is collected in the reservoir which could easily be redrawn as a set of accumulators for feeling, intellect and action—separate Centres each requiring energy and depleting its stock depending on which Centre one is programmed to operate from most; the degree of interest is represented by the weight which operates the sprung valve to release energy; the greater the interest, the more the valve is opened and the further the jet of energy reaches on the 1 – 6 notional scale. When energy flows out of all six outlets then it might be said that all Centres are engaged as they should be as often as possible.

When engagement is at a peak, crystallisation happens and ideas are vivified.

The strength of the energy we are prepared to expend on anything depends very much on ‘interest’.What is it that attaches ‘interest’ to an event?


What is it causes an interest? How does interest work?

I have sometimes got into trouble in academic circles for making the provocative assertion that it’s quite unnecessary to bother reading anything about psychology after William James who died in 1910. His writing is always so lucid and experientially accurate; it covers the whole ground well.

Amongst many other things, he writes about the way interest helps the accumulation and  remembering of ‘knowledge’. Every stimulus we receive has the potential for becoming part of who we are; fortunately not every stimulus, visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory, gustatory, impinges permanently on our being, otherwise we’d be overcome by the ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’—attention is a selective process; original impressions vary in the impact they make. Something that’s of interest to us becomes so because it acts as a hook that enables us to fish up associations which have sunk below the surface.

There develops

… a network of attachments by which [a particular impression] is woven into the entire tissue of our thought. The ‘secret of a good memory’ is thus the secret of forming diverse and multiple associations with every fact we care to retain. But this forming of associations with a fact— what is it but thinking about the fact as much as possible ? Briefly, then, of two people with the same outward experiences, the one who thinks over experiences most, and weaves them into the most systematic relations with each other, will be the one with the best memory…

(William James: Talks to Teachers)

Memory is a Multiplicity

Memory as a noun is a dead thing; we should rather conceptualise what goes on for us as a verb—remembering: an active process rather than a thing. Remembering is a reconstructive process: the more we can deal with ideas, concepts, bits of knowledge, schemas, models as associations and connections the more likely we are to be able to fish things out when we need them. ‘…Intricately or profoundly woven, they are held [in the mind]: when disconnected, they tend to drop out…’

Another reason why it is misleading to talk of ‘memory’, a noun, as though it were one entity is that the process of remembering is subject-specific.

We have, then, not so much a faculty of memory as many faculties of memory. We have as many as we have systems of objects habitually thought of in connection with each other. A given object is [held in place mentally]… by the associations it has acquired within its own system… Learning the facts of another system will in no wise help it to stay in the mind, for the simple reason that it has no ‘cues’ within that  other system…

William James provides compelling examples as to why this should be so.

We see examples of this on every hand. Most people have a good memory for facts connected with their own pursuits. A college athlete, who remains a dunce at his books, may amaze you with knowledge of the ‘ records’ at various feats and games… —a walking dictionary of sporting statistics. The reason is… constantly going over these things in mind, and comparing and making series of them. [In this way] they form, not so many odd facts, but a concept-system, so they stick. So the merchant remembers prices, the politician other politicians’ speeches and votes, with a copiousness which astonishes outsiders, but which the amount of thinking they bestow on these subjects easily explains.

The Practical Upshot

Let a person early in life set him/herself the task of verifying such a theory as that of evolution, and facts will soon cluster and cling like grapes to their stem.   Their relations to the theory will hold them fast; and, the more of these the mind is able to discern, the greater the erudition will become. Meanwhile the theorist may have little, if any, desultory memory. Unutilizable facts may be unnoted and forgotten as soon as heard. An ignorance almost as encyclopedic as erudition may coexist with the latter, and hide, as it were, within the interstices of its web.

This is why thinking is no good on its own; it must issue into practice; growth of understanding comes from a systemic relationship between thought and practice. (The KUB model).

Vivification of items in our repertoire of thoughts comes from forging networks or ‘concept-systems’ of ideas, constantly making connections between one thing and another, repeating the process over and over again in new contexts. That way fosters liveliness, makes things vivid.

Gurdjieff & Vivifyingness

In Chapter One of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, when things are still relatively straightforward, before the going gets tough, the dog not yet buried, ‘vivifyingness’ is defined thus: it is ‘…a something flowing everywhere through my whole presence settled forever in every atom composing it…’ I pre-suppose that this ‘flowing’ just cannot happen when one is stuck in one Centre; it requires a balanced response from all Centres to an event for it to be capable of being viewed as vivified, for it to settle crystallised as a solid, multi-faceted something-or-other representing a life-event.

The simplified modern model equivalent to Gurdjieff’s ‘Centres’ may be thought of as neo-cortex—thinking part of the brain—limbic—feeling, remembering, sexual part of the brain—and reptile—the oldest part, responsible for activity, moving, defensive action, of all kinds…

To come to terms with the ‘flowing’, as with any other knotty idea, I find it essential to have in mind an example to work on, something that will vivify the experience for you. One might, for instance, think of something that’s a sort of driver for you, something you think of, and feel as, an intrinsic part of your being, something that sends tingles up your spine when you contemplate it. Because it’s going to be part of you, it’s pretty well certain to be something that nobody else will understand at least in exactly in the way that it comes to you. It will be something that if it were removed from your being would upset you considerably.

Here’s one example of my own that I imagine will, in essence, be pretty familiar to anybody who might happen to get this far. The smell & feel of proper books. If my library were to catch fire I would probably throw myself in the flames. ‘Getting things from books’ is often snorted at by pure experientialists but when I look round my library I see the fifty-year progress of what I like to think of as my intellectual life. But that’s not all: I feel my way round books; re-create from them; do things with the ideas in them; vivify them for myself; I sniff them; like Proust, I associate them with reading on a summer lawn or sitting in front of a log fire in the winter. When all Centres are engaged, Thinking/Feeling/Moving, there’s always something new. I can with some ease make mental shift between the apprehension of ‘book’ as object of thought, stimulus for feeling, and something to act on. And something to sniff the pages of. You maybe recognise the same process. I have chosen a relatively common experience as an example. I could have chosen ‘mowing a lawn’, cutting its edges, or ‘paddling in the sea’ or ‘coming to a boundary’ or ‘lighting a bonfire’ or ‘going a journey’… the idea of each of which sends shivers up my spine.

What might constitute that kind of experience for you?

The experience of real books is crystallised in me. Where & when did the crystal deposit start in childhood? That’s an absorbing question (for me…).

There was a glass-fronted cupboard in our dining-room (1937-1971); the doors were locked; there were books which could have been just the spines as far as I was concerned; the pages were unknown to me from birth to adolescence. The birth of interest happened sometime in these years: there was a mysterious desire to handle the books, a feeling that something very special was concealed in this cupboard that one day I’d be able to penetrate. Crystallised deposit. The way this glass-fronted cupboard struck me was totally accidental—it happened to be in our house—there was nothing like it in our neighbours’ houses—nor strangely did my parents ever look inside—I think now, sadly, that they entertained a fancy that maybe one day they would get round to reading the books which they never did; this sowed the seeds of existential angst in me which is another story. I cope with it!

All this, however, led to a raging desire to have books of my very own.

Of course, none of this was in the upper part of my Figure of Eight (for references to this model see previous posts); it was all in inexpressible pre-verbal experience, barely touching my outward emotion. But I do remember my vivid contemplation of this bookcase. I would not even now be able to put a name on the function that represents my whole feeling about all this; except for this long-winded explication, the whole still escapes precise verbal definition.

It remains a crystallised deposit in my being; the experience-of-books is vivified every time I pass through my library. Particular books also have crystallised in my Being; when I quote from a book the subject or image is usually something which vivifies aspects of my being.

Meetings with Remarkable Men

Gurdjieff’s book is, of course, one such; a relatively recent one which vivifies aspects of my being. Three crystallisations (as I take them to be) there show how Gurdjieff’s early experiences left such a vivid impression on him that in later years their special significance became part of the skeleton of the unsystematic system as he came to describe it.

The first example is what happened to him as a result of the stories his father told him.

His father was an amateur ashokh, a story-teller, bard, singer of poems, songs, legends & folk-tales. With him he attended ashokh contests, heard him participate and listened to him telling stories of an evening.

Such stories, he said, left ‘strong impressions’ on him, left ‘their mark on my whole life’ and served ‘as a spiritualising factor enabling me to comprehend the incomprehensible…’

By ‘spiritualising’ I take it that Gurdjieff simply means a vivifying, a breathing of life into experience, ‘…a something [that cannot be named] flowing everywhere through my whole presence settled forever in every atom composing it…’ What was happening to him only became clear much later on. He recounts his distress that it was only after many years that he began ‘too late to give the legends of antiquity the immense significance that I now understand they really have…’

In childhood Gurdjieff simply received ‘strong impressions’, their reality in the bottom of the Figure of Eight; he points out that something had happened in his upbringing that enabled him to be open to all experience—his organic consciousness just soaked things up in a manner of speaking. It required a ‘shock’ to alert him to the ‘beneficent result for the formation of my individuality which I only became aware of much later [twenty odd years… when] it began to serve for me as the … spiritualising factor…’

‘One day,’ says G, ‘I read in a certain magazine an article in which it was said that there had been found among the ruins of Babylon some tablets with inscriptions which scholars were certain were no less than four thousand years old…’ It was the Epic of Gilgamesh which G remembered from his father’s songs.

I experienced such an inner excitement that it was as if my whole future destiny depended on all this… the legend had been handed down by ashokhs from generation to generation for thousands of years and yet reached our day almost unchanged…

The shock of recognition was necessary to enable G to pin the ‘spiritualising factor’down with a label. Shocks can shift us into a different realm of being.

You will be able to vivify this whole episode by Googling the utterly haunting opening of the film of Meetings with Remarkable Men. Click on the icon for ‘Part 1 of 11’ on Youtube.

The Yezidi Boy

Another example might be that of the Yezidi boy unable to get out of the circle that had been drawn around him in the sand until Gurdjieff scuffed a gap in the circle and let him out.

One day I was sitting under the poplars, busy with some work ordered by a neighbour for his niece’s wedding the following day. My task was to draw a monogram on a shield—to be hung over the door of his house—a monogram combining his niece’s initials with those of the man she was to marry. I had also to find space on the shield for the day of the month and the year.

Certain strong impressions somehow deeply imprint themselves on one’s memory. I remember even now how I racked my brains to find the best way to fit in the figures of the year 1888. I was deep in my work when suddenly I heard a desperate shriek. I jumped up, certain that an accident had happened to one of the children during their play. I ran and saw the following picture: In the middle of a circle drawn on the ground stood one of the little boys, sobbing and making strange movements, and the others were standing at a certain distance laughing at him. I was puzzled and asked what it was all about. I learned that the boy in the middle was a Yezidi, that the circle had been drawn round him and that he could not get out of it until it was rubbed away. The child was indeed trying with all his might to leave this magic circle, but he struggled in vain. I ran up to him and quickly rubbed out part of the circle, and immediately he dashed out and ran away as fast as he could.

Reflecting on this experience in later life Gurdjieff perhaps came to take this as a metaphor for the idea that we exist in a prison of our own making; we need somebody else’s help to get us out.

Duel by Artillery Range

A scrap with Piotr Karpenko was to be settled not by a conventional duel but by the two boys taking their chances crouching in potholes on an artillery range. ‘What was proposed was that we should… lie down and hide somewhere between the guns and the targets and await our doom. Whichever of us should be hit by a random shell would be the one fated to die…’

It seemed like a joke at first; then when firing started, ‘…I was completely stupified, but soon the intensity of feeling which flooded through me and the force of logical confrontation of my thought increased to such an extent that, at each moment, I thought and experienced more than during an entire twelvemonth.

Simultaneously, there arose in me for the first time the ‘whole sensation of myself’ which grew stronger and stronger… my death seemed inevitable…’

I take it that this ‘whole sensation of myself’ is the origin for Gurdjieff of the practice of self-remembering which is fundamental to The Fourth Way. Forced back on the idea that he could be blown up at any moment, Gurdjieff was focussed vividly on his being: ‘This is me here now being me here now…’ The experience also gave him the ability ‘…to understand the fear of another and to enter into his position…’

Perhaps the knack of inducing vivifyingness is in the attention which we bring to bear on what happens to us, what we make of it, and the effort we put into sustaining it.


Here’s William James again:-

Whoever treats of interest inevitably treats of attention, for to say that an object is interesting is only another way of saying that it excites attention. But in addition to the attention which any object already interesting or just becoming interesting claims—passive attention or spontaneous attention, we may call it—there is a more deliberate attention—voluntary attention or attention with effort, as it is called—which we can give to objects less interesting or uninteresting in themselves…

Everything could be of interest simply because of what it is. But use, custom & habit dull human responses, make them mechanical, automatic. You pass by the rose that blooms for a couple of days and, if you notice at all, you treat it as ‘just a rose’; it can easily become interesting when you bend down to look at it more closely, observe its intricate make-up, realise that it’s the only one just like it in the entire universe. This kind of deliberate directed attention can restore ‘interest’. What would have to happen for things to be of interest in this way all the time?

I like to think that my own long-time habit of writing haiku alerts me to paying attention to the small things in experience; for example:-

observing my bare feet—
those of some old man
fresh from the desert


full moonshine
on roses
in the garden’s night


reading still
in my night clothes—hard rain
on the conservatory roof


William James continues

…it is said that genius is nothing but a power of sustained attention, and the popular impression probably prevails  that people of genius are remarkable for their voluntary powers… [But it’s obvious] …that voluntary attention cannot be continuously sustained— that it comes in beats.   When we are studying an uninteresting subject, if our mind tends to wander, we have to bring back our attention every now and then by using distinct pulses of effort, which revivify the topic for a moment, the mind then running on for a certain number of seconds or minutes with spontaneous interest,  until again some intercurrent idea captures it and takes it off.    Then the processes of volitional recall must be repeated once more.  Voluntary attention, in short, is only a momentary affair…

[However]...the minds of geniuses are full of copious and original associations. The subject of thought, once started, develops all sorts of fascinating consequences. The attention is led along one of these to another in the most interesting manner, and the attention never once tends to stray away.

Irrespective of genius, it’s the case that a person who has acquired the habit of constantly making connections between ideas, images, ways of thinking, one book and another, musical themes and ordinary observation will find their attention focussed rather more than the person who just hops from thing to thing without sustained attention.

In a person of reasonable intelligence this can result in the absent-minded professor syndrome:

A genius… breaks his engagements, leaves his letters unanswered, neglects his family duties incorrigibly, because he is powerless to turn his attention down and back from those more interesting trains of imagery with which his genius constantly occupies his mind…

William James Suggests a Simple Exercise

Attend steadfastly to a dot on the paper or on the wall. You presently find that one or the other of two things has happened: either your field of vision has become blurred, so that you now see nothing distinct at all, or else you have involuntarily ceased to look at the dot in question, and are looking at some thing else. But, if you ask yourself successive questions about the dot,—how big it is, how far, of what shape, what shade of color, etc.; in other
words, if you turn it over, if you think of it in various ways, and along with various kinds of associates—you can keep your mind on it for a comparatively long time. This is what the genius does, in whose hands a given topic coruscates and grows.

In addition: ‘…the posture must be changed; places can be changed…  Recapitulations, illustrations, examples, novelty of order, and ruptures of routine—all these are means for keeping the attention alive…’

What is the Attentive Process, Psychologically Considered?

William James answers his question thus:-

Attention to an object is what takes place whenever that object most completely occupies the mind. For simplicity’s sake suppose the object be an object of sensation—a figure approaching us at a distance on the road. It is far off, barely perceptible, and hardly moving: we do not know with certainty whether it is a man or not. Such an object as this, if carelessly looked at, may hardly catch our attention at all. The optical impression may affect solely the marginal consciousness, while the mental focus keeps engaged with rival things. We may indeed not ‘see’ it till some one points it out But, if so, how does he point it out? By his finger, and by describing its appearance,—by creating a premonitory image of where to look and of what to expect to see.

This premonitory image is already an excitement of the same nerve-centres that are to be concerned with the impression. The impression comes, and excites them still further; and now the object enters the focus of the field, consciousness being sustained both by impression and by preliminary idea.

But the maximum of attention to it is not yet reached. Although we see it, we may not care for it; it may suggest nothing important to us: and a rival stream of objects or of thoughts may quickly take our mind away. If, however, our companion defines it in a significant way, arouses in the mind a set of experiences to be apprehended from it—names it as an enemy or as a messenger of important tidings—the residual and marginal ideas now aroused, so far from being its rivals, become its associates and allies. They shoot together into one system with it; they converge upon it; they keep it steadily in focus; the mind attends to it with maximum power.

The attentive process, therefore, at its maximum may be physiologically symbolized by a brain-cell played on in two ways, from without and from within. Incoming currents from the periphery arouse it, and collateral currents from the centres of memory and imagination re-enforce these. In this process the incoming impression is the newer element; the ideas which reinforce and sustain it are among the older possessions of the mind. And the maximum of attention may then be said to be found whenever we have a systematic harmony or unification between the novel and the old.

Nowadays this would be called responding to cognitive dissonance that may result from accommodating what’s already in the mind with incoming novelty.

Anchors in NLP

Vivified images can be very practically useful.

‘Shooting things together into one system’ can be deliberately used to great practical benefit. There’s a simple technique in NLP that will help to change bits of your brain round.

Say you want to feel calm for a specific occasion. Think of one now! Now go in your mind to an occasion when you felt particularly calm. For me it would be somewhere around August 23rd when, early in the morning with my father, I was paddling on a sandy beach in Bournemouth, Hampshire as it was then (UK). I only have to go back there in my mind (seagulls crying, cold lapping of little waves, the smell of the sea, my father’s hand in mine—it helps to vivify a memory you want to use this way by associating into its sense impressions) to feel totally at peace with the world; this is an anchor for me—it anchors me in a total body sensation of calm, every atom. Just before something challenging comes up for me, I ‘fire the anchor’, bring it to mind: I feel my state change completely and I’m ready for anything. Developing a repertoire of such anchors can help to bring on all kinds of desirable emotional states.

My Understanding

Intercepting the Food of Pure impressions (the highest form of food according to Gurdjieff) is useful because we can then make a study of how experience can mess it up and render it useless. But we have to be quick at intercepting sensory data before it goes into the associative maw of working memory and then Long Term Memory.

Studies in neuroscience tell us that to acquire the Food of Pure Impressions would entail a cognitive pounce within 1/10 to 1/2 of a second; anything after that would have gone into the Personality’s mechanical associative apparatus of comparison (similarity/difference), acceptance/rejection, liking/disliking—they would be subject to all the ‘meta-programs’ that 3-brainers have chosen through habit to apply to incoming sensations.

Haiku are Pure Impressions.

‘Maybe you can verify that there are occasions when you have said, “I shall remember this moment for the rest of my life…” and find now that you do just that.

Whitejacket, Melville’s eponynous hero, tells how in idle moments on board ship he was in the habit of making an ‘almanac’ of his life consisting of a recollection of such remembered events.

For me, the pattern of a virtual rather than a thought ‘I-shall-remember-this-moment-for-the-rest-of-my-life…’ now after some years of practice becomes attached to significant events which to others will seem pretty trivial. It will vivify the most ordinary of events so that they reverberate down the ages. For a random example that’s just popped into my ‘mind’ is of laying in bed, the evening before my third birthday and seeing constantly changing mandalas of lights in the darkness—I didn’t know I was going down with measles but I did think it would be something I’d always remember and I have done, vividly. And so on…

This pattern of thinking (‘I-shall-remember-this-moment-for-the-rest-of-my-life…’) was, to use Gurdjieff’s term ‘crystallised’ within me—from an early age there occurred within me a hard, many-faceted deposit that caused me to be attuned to the idea that I could make such trivial but memorable events occur quite regularly. And it’s not too late to establish the habit.

How Thinking Can Change the Brain

I am indebted to James Taylor of South Dakota US for alerting me to an article under this heading. ‘The Dalai Lama helps scientists show the power of the mind to sculpt our gray matter…’ (Wall Street Journal 20th January 2007)

The Dalai Lama, who had watched a brain operation during a visit to an American medical school over a decade earlier, asked the surgeons a startling question: Can the mind shape brain matter?

Over the years, he said, neuroscientists had explained to him that mental experiences reflect chemical and electrical changes in the brain. When electrical impulses zip through our visual cortex, for instance, we see; when neurochemicals course through the limbic system we feel.

But something had always bothered him about this explanation, the Dalai Lama said. Could it work the other way around? That is, in addition to the brain giving rise to thoughts and hopes and beliefs and emotions that add up to this thing we call the mind, maybe the mind also acts back on the brain to cause physical changes in the very matter that created it. If so, then pure thought would change the brain’s activity, its circuits or even its structure.

The idea was rejected out of hand by ‘scientists’ at the time.

The Dalai Lama had put his finger on an emerging revolution in brain research. In the last decade of the 20th century, neuroscientists overthrew the dogma that the adult brain can’t change. To the contrary, its structure and activity can morph in response to experience, an ability called neuroplasticity.

In the first instance neuroplasticity was usedto change behaviour: it was found that ‘intensely practised movements can alter the motor cortex of stroke patients and allow them to move once paralyzed arms or legs, for example…’

The kind of change the Dalai Lama asked about was different. It would come from inside. Something as intangible and insubstantial as a thought would rewire the brain. To the mandarins of neuroscience, the very idea seemed as likely as the wings of a butterfly leaving a dent on an armored tank.

Neuroscientist Helen Mayberg had not endeared herself to the pharmaceutical industry by discovering, in 2002, that inert pills—placebos—work the same way on the brains of depressed people as antidepressants do. Activity in the frontal cortex, the seat of higher thought, increased; activity in limbic regions, which specialize in emotions, fell. She figured that cognitive-behavioral therapy, in which patients learn to think about their thoughts differently, would act by the same mechanism…

And it did.

Such discoveries of how the mind can change the brain have a spooky quality that makes you want to cue the ‘Twilight Zone’ theme, but they rest on a solid foundation of animal studies. Attention, for instance, seems like one of those ephemeral things that comes and goes in the mind but has no real physical presence. Yet attention can alter the layout of the brain as powerfully as a sculptor’s knife can alter a slab of stone…

The discovery that neuroplasticity cannot occur without attention has important implications. If a skill becomes so routine you can do it on autopilot, practicing it will no longer change the brain. And if you take up mental exercises to keep your brain young, they will not be as effective if you become able to do them without paying much attention.

And Now for the Dalai Lama

Since the 1990s, the Dalai Lama had been lending monks and lamas to neuroscientists [!] for studies of how meditation alters activity in the brain. The idea was not to document brain changes during meditation but to see whether such mental training produces enduring changes in the brain.

All the Buddhist ‘adepts’ — experienced meditators — who lent their brains to science had practiced meditation for at least 10,000 hours. One by one, they made their way to the basement lab of Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He and his colleagues wired them up like latter-day Medusas, a tangle of wires snaking from their scalps to the electroencephalograph that would record their brain waves.

Eight Buddhist adepts and 10 volunteers who had had a crash course in meditation engaged in the form of meditation called nonreferential compassion. In this state, the meditator focuses on unlimited compassion and loving kindness toward all living beings.

As the volunteers began meditating, one kind of brain wave grew exceptionally strong: gamma waves. These, scientists believe, are a signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung circuits — consciousness, in a sense. Gamma waves appear when the brain brings together different features of an object, such as look, feel, sound and other attributes that lead the brain to its aha moment of, yup, that’s an armadillo.

Some of the novices ‘showed a slight but significant increase in the gamma signal,’ Prof. Davidson explained to the Dalai Lama. But at the moment the monks switched on compassion meditation, the gamma signal began rising and kept rising. On its own, that is hardly astounding: Everything the mind does has a physical correlate, so the gamma waves (much more intense than in the novice meditators) might just have been the mark of compassion meditation.

Except for one thing. In between meditations, the gamma signal in the monks never died down. Even when they were not meditating, their brains were different from the novices’ brains, marked by waves associated with perception, problem solving and consciousness. Moreover, the more hours of meditation training a monk had had, the stronger and more enduring the gamma signal.

It was something Prof. Davidson had been seeking since he trekked into the hills above Dharamsala to study lamas and monks: evidence that mental training can create an enduring brain trait.

Prof. Davidson then used fMRI imaging to detect which regions of the monks’ and novices’ brains became active during compassion meditation. The brains of all the subjects showed activity in regions that monitor one’s emotions, plan movements, and generate positive feelings such as happiness. Regions that keep track of what is self and what is other became quieter, as if during compassion meditation the subjects opened their minds and hearts to others.

More interesting were the differences between the monks and the novices. The monks had much greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love. They also had stronger connections from the frontal regions to the emotion regions, which is the pathway by which higher thought can control emotions.

In each case, monks with the most hours of meditation showed the most dramatic brain changes. That was a strong hint that mental training makes it easier for the brain to turn on circuits that underlie compassion and empathy.

‘This positive state is a skill that can be trained,’ Prof. Davidson says. ‘Our findings clearly indicate that meditation can change the function of the brain in an enduring way.’


It may be that this study has some bearing on what I’ve written on vivification and crystallisation. My hypothesis would be: People who take steps to vivify experience and crystallise the results will have changed their brain making it more likely that they will do both in future!

5 thoughts on “Remembrance of Things Past (R8)

  1. Thanks, Colin! After reading this wonderfully rich post, I am beginning to grasp the concept of vivifyingness in terms of what you do to such an extraordinary extent in your writing – making connections. From William James to Gurdjieff, from the Dalai Lama to experimental results in neuroscience laboratories, from childhood memories to present-day musings, from haiku to NLP anchors – there is always another intellectual leap to be made, another insight to be realized, another idea to be articulated. And, of course, another post to be written! I await your next one with the usual anticipation.



    1. Thanks Tom! I do take very seriously what Ouspensky said about everything being connected. If that’s true then part of our task is to find the connections! It’s the creative impulse…
      Best Wishes


  2. Hi, Colin,
    Thanks so much for this post! I direct a program in Writing Across the Curriculum in an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) with many students who are unprepared for college-level academics. We are following a theory coined as Connectivism by one George Seimens as our principle theory of helping students use writing as a tool to enhance their learning. I would like to share much of your post here with my staff and with our faculty, if that’s all right with you. Our strategy is that we must give the student an experience of success through a “playful” writing exercise at the beginning of the class (not an English class), and then use frequent, short, shared, ungraded assignments to bring them along to eventually more complex writing that they will care about because of their own personal interest and a connection of their life with the course content in some way. Thanks again for your focus on “attention” and including the William James quotes! – Thomas Clancy, Albany State University, Albany, GA


    1. Hi Thomas
      Sounds a really purposeful program!
      Of course I’m happy for you to share my post with staff & faculty. I’d be interested in feedback too.
      You may also be interested in posts on Found Poetry which for twenty years has been an aspect of my own poem-construction.



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