One of the most interesting notions to emerge from this shiny happy alliance was a particular model of the universe that seemed to explain not only puzzling scientific phenomena but psychic experiences as well. The holographic paradigm was so named because its central metaphor is that of the hologram – or, to be more specific, a certain very unusual feature of holograms.
Holography was invented over Easter 1947 by Hungarian physicist Dennis Gabor (1900-1979), for which he received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1971. The discovery was an unexpected result (or serendipity as Dennis Gabor would have said) of research into improving electron microscopes at the British Thomson-Houston Company in Rugby, England.
Then in 1982, a remarkable event took place. At the University of Paris a research team led by Alain Aspect (1947- ) performed what may turn out to be one of the most important experiments of the 20th century. You most certainly did not hear about it on the evening news.
Aspect and his team discovered that under certain circumstances subatomic particles such as electrons are able to ‘communicate’ instantaneously with each other regardless of the distance separating them. It does not matter whether they are 10 nanometres or 10 billion, billion (1018) kilometres apart. Somehow each particle always seems to know what the other is doing.
The problem with this feat is that it violates Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) long-held tenet that no communication can travel faster than the speed of light. Since travelling faster than the speed of light is tantamount to breaking the speed barrier and this daunting prospect has caused some physicists to try to come up with elaborate ways to explain away Aspect’s findings. But it has inspired others to offer even more far-reaching explanations.
David Bohm (1917-1994), for example, believes Aspect’s findings imply that objective reality does not exist, that despite its apparent solidity the universe is at heart a phantasm, a gigantic and splendidly detailed hologram.
The ‘whole in every part’ nature of a hologram provides us with an entirely new way of understanding physical structure, organisation and order. For most of its history, Western science has laboured under the bias that the best way to understand a physical phenomenon, whether a frog or an atom, is to dissect it and study its respective parts.
A hologram teaches us that some things in the universe may not lend themselves to this analytical approach. If we try to take apart something constructed holographically, we will not get the pieces of which it is made; we will only get smaller wholes.
This holographic insight suggested to Bohm another way of understanding Aspect’s discovery. Bohm believes the reason subatomic particles are able to remain in contact with one another regardless of the distance separating them is not because they are sending some sort of mysterious signal back and forth, but because their separateness is an illusion.He argues that at some deeper level of reality such particles are not individual entities, but are actually extensions of the same fundamental something – the same Oneness.
To enable people to visualise better what he means, Bohm offers the following illustration. Imagine an aquarium containing a fish. Imagine also that you are unable to see the aquarium directly, and your knowledge about it, and what it contains, comes from two television cameras, one directed at the aquarium’s front and the other directed at its side.
As you stare at the two television monitors, you might assume that the fish on each of the screens are separate entities. After all, because the cameras are set at different angles, each of the images will be slightly different. But as you continue to watch the two fish, you will eventually become aware that there is a certain relationship between them. When one turns, the other also makes a slightly different but corresponding turn; when one faces the front, the other always faces toward the side. If you remain unaware of the full scope of the situation, you might even conclude that the fish must be instantaneously communicating with one another, but this is clearly not the case.
This, says Bohm, is precisely what is going on between the subatomic particles in Aspect’s experiment. According to Bohm, the apparent faster-than-light connection between subatomic particles is really telling us that there is a deeper level of reality we are not privy to, a more complex dimension beyond our own that is analogous to the aquarium.
And, he adds,we view objects such as subatomic particles as separate from one another because we are seeing only a portion of their reality. Such particles are not separate ‘parts’, but facets of a deeper and more underlying unity that is ultimately as holographic and indivisible. And since everything in physical reality is comprised of these ‘eidolons’, the universe is itself a projection, a hologram.
In addition to its phantom-like nature, such a universe would possess other rather startling features. If the apparent separateness of subatomic particles is illusory, it means that at a deeper level of reality all things in the universe are infinitely interconnected.
In a holographic universe, time and space could no longer be viewed as fundamentals. Because concepts such as location break down in a universe in which nothing is truly separate from anything else, time and three-dimensional space, like the images of the fish on the TV monitors, would also have to be viewed as projections of this deeper order.
Since ‘time’ and therefore ‘speed’ are not material parts of the physical universe, but are rather human artefacts (more precisely it is information), it should therefore be handled with the utmost care.
This premise immediately makes the ‘velocity of light’ suspect. This so-called ‘constant’ is not a universal truth, but in fact, it is only a human crutch to help us to try to make sense of our physical environment.
In physics, we measure time in relation to distance (i.e. waves and wavelengths), in biology time is seen as change (e.g. growth), and in psychology time is a mere perception of the human ‘mind’. Time is not ‘real’ – it exists in our heads only. Time is an illusion, a phantasm, an eidolon, the ultimate hallucination/illusion – time is a critical distortion of our perceptions of reality!
At its deeper level reality is a sort of super-hologram in which the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously. This suggests that given the proper tools it might even be possible to someday reach into the super-holographic level of reality and pluck out scenes from the long-forgotten past – as in a time machine.
What else the super-hologram contains is an open-ended question. Allowing, for the sake of argument, that the super-hologram is the matrix that has given birth to everything in our universe, at the very least it contains every subatomic particle that has been or will be – every configuration of matter and energy that is possible, from snowflakes to quasars, from blue whales to gamma rays. It must be seen as a sort of cosmic storehouse of ‘All That Is’.
In his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980), Bohm emphasised the inadequacy of a non-holistic worldview: “Science itself is demanding a new, non-fragmentary worldview, in the sense that the present approach of analysis of the world into independently existing parts does not work very well in modern physics. It is shown that both in relativity theory and quantum theory, notions implying the undivided wholeness of the universe would provide a much more orderly way of considering the general nature of reality.”
Similarly, it has been discovered that in addition to their other capabilities, holograms possess an astounding capacity for information storage – simply by changing the angle at which the two lasers strike a piece of photographic film, it is possible to record many different images on the same surface. It has been demonstrated that one cubic centimetre (‘1 cc’) of film can hold as many as 10 billion (109) bits of information.
Encoding and decoding frequencies is precisely what a hologram does best. As the religions of the East have long upheld, the material world is an illusion (Maya), and although we may think we are physical beings moving through a physical world, this too is an illusion.
We are really ‘receivers’ floating through a kaleidoscopic sea of frequency, and what we extract from this sea and transmogrify into physical reality is but one channel from many extracted out of the super-hologram. The brain is possibly “not the source of thought, but a thought amplifier.” (See Stalking the Wild Pendulum, by Itzhak Bentov, 1988)
In particular, Stanislav Grof (1931- ) feels the holographic paradigm offers a model for understanding many of the baffling phenomena experienced by individuals during altered states of consciousness.
In the 1950s, while conducting research into the beliefs of LSD as a psychotherapeutic tool, Grof had one female patient who suddenly became convinced she had assumed the identity of a female of a species of prehistoric reptile.
During the course of her hallucination, she not only gave a richly detailed description of what it felt like to be encapsulated in such a form, but also noted that the portion of the male of the species’ anatomy was a patch of coloured scales on the side of its head.
What was startling to Grof was that although the woman had no prior knowledge about such things, a conversation with a zoologist later confirmed that in certain species of reptiles coloured areas on the head do indeed play an important role as triggers of sexual arousal. The woman’s experience was not unique.
During the course of his research, Grof encountered examples of patients regressing and identifying with virtually every species on the evolutionary tree (research findings which helped influence the man-into-ape scene in the movie Altered States (1980) with actor William Hurt). Moreover, he found that such experiences frequently contained obscure zoological details which turned out to be accurate.
Regressions into the animal kingdom were not the only puzzling psychological phenomena Grof encountered. He also had patients who appeared to tap into some sort of collective or racial unconscious. Individuals with little or no education suddenly gave detailed descriptions of Zoroastrian funerary practices and scenes from Hindu mythology.
In other categories of experience, individuals gave persuasive accounts of out-of-body journeys, of precognitive glimpses of the future, of regressions into apparent past-life incarnations.
In later research, Grof found the same range of phenomena manifested in therapy sessions which did not involve the use of drugs. Because the common element in such experiences appeared to be the transcending of an individual’s consciousness beyond the usual boundaries of ego and/or limitations of space and time, Grof called such manifestations ‘transpersonal experiences’, and in the late 1960s he helped found a branch of psychology called ‘transpersonal psychology’ devoted entirely to their study.
Grof noted that if the mind is actually part of a continuum, a labyrinth that is connected not only to every other mind that exists or has existed, but also to every atom, organism, and region in the vastness of space and time itself. The fact that it is able occasionally to make forays into the labyrinth, and have transpersonal experiences no longer seems so strange.
The holographic paradigm also has implications for so-called hard sciences like biology. Keith Floyd has pointed out that if the concreteness of reality is but a holographic illusion, it would no longer be true to say the brain produces consciousness. Rather, it is consciousness that creates the appearance of brain – as well as the body and everything else around us we interpret as physical.
Such a turnabout in the way we view biological structures has caused researchers to point out that medicine and our understanding of the healing process could also be transformed by the holographic paradigm. If the apparent physical structure of the body is but a holographic projection of consciousness, it becomes clear that each of us is much more responsible for our health than current medical wisdom allows. What we now view as miraculous remissions of disease may actually be due to changes in consciousness which in turn effect changes in the hologram of the body.
Similarly, controversial new healing techniques such as visualisation may work so well because, in the holographic domain of thought, images are ultimately as real as ‘reality’ – in fact, they are reality.
Even visions and experiences involving ‘non-ordinary’ reality become explainable under the holographic paradigm. In his book Gifts of Unknown Things, Lyall Watson describes his encounter with an Indonesian shaman woman who, by performing a ritual dance, was able to make an entire grove of trees instantly vanish into thin air. Watson relates that as he and another astonished onlooker continued to watch the woman, she caused the trees to reappear, then ‘clicks’ off again and on again several times in succession.
Although current scientific understanding is incapable of explaining such events, experiences like this become more tenable if ‘hard’ reality is only a holographic projection. Perhaps we agree on what is ‘there’ or ‘not there’ because what we call consensus reality is formulated and ratified at the level of the human unconscious at which all minds are infinitely interconnected.
If this is true , it is the most profound implication of the holographic paradigm of all, for it means that experiences such as Watson’s are not commonplace only because we have not programmed our minds with the beliefs that would make them so. In a holographic universe there are no limits, to the extent to which, we can alter the fabric of reality.
What we perceive as reality is only a canvas waiting for us to draw upon it any picture we want. Anything is possible, from bending spoons with the power of the mind to the phantasmagorical events experienced by Carlos Castaneda during his encounters with the Yaqui brujo Don Juan, for magic is our birthright, no more or less miraculous than our ability to compute the reality we want when we are in our dreams.
Indeed, even our most fundamental notions about reality become suspect, for in a holographic universe, as Karl Pribram has pointed out, even random events would have to be seen as based on holographic principles and therefore determined.
Synchronicities, or meaningful, coincidences suddenly makes sense, and everything in reality would have to be seen as a metaphor, for even the most haphazard events would express some underlying symmetry.
Whether Bohm and Pribram’s holographic paradigm becomes accepted in science or dies an ignoble death remains to be seen, but it is safe to say that it has already had an influence on the thinking of many scientists.
And even if it is found that the holographic model does not provide the best explanation for the instantaneous communications that seem to be passing back and forth between subatomic particles, at the very least, as noted by Basil Hiley, Aspect’s findings “indicate that we must be prepared to consider radically new views of reality.”
Psychics and New Age types were quick to latch onto this notion. The holographic model, taken to its logical conclusion, could explain a wide range of phenomena such as precognition, telepathy, poltergeists, lucid dreaming, and near death experiences, to say nothing of religious and mystical experiences.
The theory is that our brains habitually unfold the implicate order in predictable ways, but as we can change the frequency or angle of a laser beam, perhaps we can experience other places, times, and knowledge – all equally present everywhere in the holism movement – given the right circumstances.
This was the major thrust of The Holographic Universe. Michael Talbot (1953-1992) took the holographic model well beyond what Pribram and Bohm outlined to explain a vast array of paranormal phenomena.
Ken Wilber (1949- ), who edited the book The Holographic Paradigm, takes a contrary view of the model’s viability. He thinks it is worthwhile in a limited sense, but considers it a grave mistake to apply the model too broadly, or to read too much into it. He resists, for example, attempts to equate the implicate order with God or Brahman.
Moreover, he worries about trying to understand something transcendent (or trans-mental) in mental terms. If you want to have a transcendent experience, he says, that requires the long, hard work of spiritual transformation – not simply learning to picture the world differently.
The holographic paradigm – and, for that matter, the entire movement to integrate physics and mysticism – has lost a lot of steam over the last decade or so. Pribram’s theories never found widespread acceptance; David Bohm died in 1994 without convincing many physicists of his views; and most of the prominent advocates of the model have moved on to other interests. It is not that the theory is any less interesting or plausible than it ever was, but there is just not a whole lot one can do with the notion.
Supposing the universe really was something like a hologram, what would that mean in a practical sense? In addition, how could it ever be proved or disproved? It is certainly fascinating to ponder a unified theory that explains the mysteries of physics, time, space, consciousness, and mysticism.
However, just as you cannot build muscles by studying exercise, you certainly will not master the workings of the implicate order of the Universe by reading about it.