‘The Supermarket Paradox’ by Dennis Stephens

This is a new edited transcription of a talk by Dennis Stephens as discussed in a previous post.

You can download the 81Kb pdf file from this link

Stephens recorded this as background information to Level Three of TROM, and in particular to resolve an apparent paradox that people may encounter as they improve their ability to simultaneously view ‘then’ and ‘now’.

There are various theories about how memory works. How am I able to re-experience scenes from over sixty years ago with all perceptics in three dimensions, full colour and detail: familiar scratches and blemishes on plastic toys, pages of books, the smell of the old schoolroom, the grain of floorboards, our cat’s lank black fur, my first sight and taste of icecream while an electric clock ticked in Grandma’s kitchen, or the Queen’s coronation broadcast on BBC shortwave? These scenes represent more information than a lifetime of high-resolution DVDs. Where is it all stored, or is it stored at all?

The most naive explanation is that it’s physically stored in the brain as molecules or intercellular connections, as if a brain was a vast RAM chip. Yet no plausible mechanism for the permanent, integrated recording of multiple sense channels on this scale has been proposed. Stephens raises the further objection that this would involve an infinite recursion since a person’s own body, including their brain, is an element within each remembered scene.

Dianetics introduced a more sophisticated approach, attributing memory to mental image pictures that are automatically recorded and filed independently of the body as a linear timetrack like the tape in a Turing machine. This might be analogous to an external hard drive that everyone carries around in an invisible back-pack. Stephens shows the difficulties with this theory too. How can we see these past scenes from external viewpoints in addition to looking through our own eyes, and find things in them that we did not notice at the time?

The conclusion is that we don’t carry personal libraries of memory recordings. We just have the ability to perceive whatever we put our attention on, whether this is in present time or in the past. As C.S. Lewis wrote (in The Dark Tower, about 1938) “when we remember, we are not simply getting the result of something that goes on inside our heads. We are directly experiencing the past.”



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