Book Review: The Holgraphic Universe
Book Review: The Holographic Universe
I’ve chosen to review Michael Talbot’s The Holographic Universe because I am deeply interested in scientific models of the cosmos that attempt to provide an explanation for experiences typically deemed mystical or supernatural. Most of the traditional scientific literature with which I am familiar ignores, minimizes or disavows the existence of a diverse array of experiences: precognition, retrocognition, psychometry, psychokinesis, clairvoyance, lucid dreaming, etc. Talbot’s theory (which he also describes as a “paradigm”, “analogy” and “metaphor”, in acknowledgement of the fact that it is “still an idea in the making”[p.7]) offers us a compelling “story” about the source of these, and many other anomalous phenomena.
Talbot divides the book into three major sections. In the first, he addresses both the brain and the universe; in the second, he talks about the implications that a holographic theory of the universe holds for increasing our understanding of consciousness and perception; in the third, he discusses space and time from a holographic standpoint. He concludes by making several recommendations for the “restructuring” of scientific enterprise, claiming the first necessary step in this process is for scientists to acknowledge the existence of psychic and spiritual phenomena. He also calls on scientists to begin understanding themselves as experiencers (or participants), rather than observers. This demand seems to dovetail nicely with our “seriously loopy science” idea that the unavoidable “crack” of subjectivity that penetrates scientific enterprise can be a source of fruitfulness and information, rather than an impediment to understanding.
Inspired primarily by the work of neuroscientist Karl Pribram and physicist David Bohm, Talbot contends that the universe can be understood as a kind of holograph. He writes, “…there is evidence to suggest that our world and everything in it- from snow flakes to maple trees to falling starts and spinning electrons- are only ghostly images, projections from a level of reality so beyond our own it is literally beyond both space and time.” (p. 1) In other words, what we perceive as a world “out there”, brimming with discrete objects, is nothing but the imprecise reflection of the deeper, unified reality that gives rise to it. Just as with a holographic image, he claims, the universe is comprised of an unbroken field of wave interference patterns nested within one another. The tangible stuff of ordinary life is the secondary, explicate manifestation of a primary, implicate order. Talbot explains, “A piece of holographic film and the image it generates are also an example of an implicate and explicate order. The film is the implicate order because the image encoded in its interference patterns is a hidden totality enfolded throughout the whole. The hologram projected from the film is an explicate order because it represents the unfolded and perceptible version of the image.” (p.47)
As Talbot describes it, a holographic model of the cosmos can successfully account for many of the theoretical oddities of quantum physics, such as the seemingly organized, organic behavior of plasma electrons, and the phenomenon of nonlocality (for ex.: twin photons emanating from positron decay seem to transmit their angle of polarization to one another across large regions of space instantaneously when they assume the form of particles in the presence of an observer) Talbot (making use of Bohm) argues that these electrons and photons are not “communicating”. Rather, these quanta are enfolded and sustained by a quantum field; “they” are, in fact, a wholeness that presents two different angles to the observer.
Holography also provides us with a cogent model for understanding the human brain, according to Talbot. In the brain, he argues, just as within a holographic image, each part contains the whole within it.(If you were to cut a holograph of an owl in half, each half of the image, when exposed to laser light, would reveal the entire original image of the owl. You could then cut that half into halves and still discover the whole image on each of the pieces, and so on.) Talbot bases this idea on the observation that memory, vision, recognition, and many other cognitive functions are distributed throughout the brain, as opposed to localized to specific regions. (As we discussed in class.) He contends that a brain-damaged person doesn’t seem to lose specific memories; rather, her memory seems to grow hazy in a more general way.
While this may true, I’d like to point out that the distribution of complicated cognitive functions like memory across regions of the brain need not entail the notion that each “part” of the brain contains the “whole” of it. Instead, we might understand the complexity of any given memory as involving an array of operations in the visual, language, emotional and conceptual (and other) “centers” of the brain. The dizzying interconnectivity of our neural circuits ensures a great deal of overlap and communication among these areas. Where Talbot posits a kind of micro/macro wholeness, we might look to the redundancy and creativity of memory. If an area of the brain is damaged, but a person is still able to remember things typically associated with that region, perhaps the brain is “filling in the gaps” – generating patterns- with what it would expect to find there, just as it does with the blind spot of the optical nerve. (The brain is a storyteller, as we discussed in class.)
Talbot’s holographic theory does, however, provide us with satisfying (and I think rational) ways of explaining a host of purportedly “extra”sensory experiences. Fully two-thirds of the book explores the traditionally scientifically taboo subjects of precognition, retrocognition, telemetry, out-of-body experiences, the ability to perceive auras, lucid dreaming, alternative and healing techniques, altered states of consciousness and shamanism, among other things, and explains how the interconnectivity of the holographic universe can account for these phenomena. If separation in space and time is nothing more than an illusory projection from a unified field of (sentient?-Talbot sometimes claims this…) energy, and if as Talbot argues, each part IS the whole, such paranormal activities become, suddenly, a lot less mysterious. Talbot argues that the ability to access “psychic” perceptual states is innate in each of us, but that civilization has caused these capacities to atrophy in most. His hope is that a holographic model can assist in restoring us to a state of awareness of own vast potential. As he points out, many ancient religious and wisdom traditions, such as Hinduism, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, aboriginal shamanism and the mystery cults of ancient Greece shared some of the beliefs about illusory nature of the material world and the unified composition of the cosmos put forth by the holographic universe theory.
Talbot makes use of the stories of quantum physics, neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, theology and spirituality in order to craft an exciting model of the cosmos and of consciousness- one which can provide us with the means of understanding a host of anomalous experience. The Holographic Universe is a fascinating and inspiring book, and especially recommended to readers with an interest in the relationship between science and spirituality.