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At McGill University in Montreal, the now famous Wilder Penfield experiments took place between 1936-1960. A neurosurgeon, Dr. Penfield had several occasions when delicate brain surgery had to be conducted with a local anaesthetic and the patient, therefore, remained conscious. This gave the opportunity to insert minute electrodes into exposed parts of the cortex, and, by stimulating very small areas with tiny electric impulses, to note the patients' response.
When areas of the motor cortex were stimulated, the patient would predictably show a reflex response - a twitch of a muscle or even the jerk of a limb. Smells, sounds and other physical reactions could be stimulated.
The surprise was that when the temporal cortex (above the ears) was probed, very specific memories were elicited - "as if a movie film suddenly started to roll in my head". Many, indeed most, of these memories were of apparently long forgotten and quite trivial events. A man reported seeing a comparatively unimportant friend he had not thought of, or contacted, since childhood. A woman described hearing her mother call her into the kitchen - a minor incident 30 years previously. Interestingly, even if precisely the same spot was stimulated more than once, the same memory was not evoked, so memory seemed not to be permanently stored in a particular spot in the brain.
These discoveries are echoed by people who have cheated death and who report that their lives flashed before them. They are reinforced by recent work with hypnotised subjects. Under hypnosis patients can recall events in much more vivid detail than they were ever conscious of assimilating in the first place.
In a fascinating series of experiments a women was regressed under hypnosis to age eight. Then she was asked to draw a picture and write a short story describing that picture.
The picture, story, and handwriting were all obviously those of a little girl. What was so remarkable, however, was that the girl's mother was able to produce an identical picture and story written in the identical style of handwriting by the same woman when she actually was an eight year old girl. The recall had been perfect after 20 years.
Other examples of recall under hypnosis are well enough known. It is quite possible to tell the number of stairs in your office or the number of panes in your lounge windows - even though you have never consciously counted them.
Police have asked accident witnesses to volunteer to give evidence under hypnosis. In the normal, conscious, state they were able to give only limited detail. Under hypnosis precise detail of colours, direction and people were recalled.
At the time these details had been subconsciously and subliminally registered, but under the right circumstances the
brain can recall, not just the events on which the conscious mind was focused but the peripheral sounds and sights registered only in the subconscious mind.
A particularly impressive set of experiments has been undertaken at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Using a technique developed with the Bell Laboratories, subjects were exposed to pairs of Random Dot stereogram slides. Each individual slide contained a series of dots with no apparent meaning, but when they were superimposed one on top of the other, they combined to form letters, numbers or symbols.
The researchers first exposed one of the stereogram slides to the left eye. Then, later, the other stereogram was shown to the right eye. The time interval was progressively extended to as long as three days. In order to create the image, subjects had to hold in their memory the dots and their positions, so as to then later match this pattern to that of the second slide. The task required the subconscious memorisation of thousands of tiny dots.
These eidetic image stereograms could be successfully recognised by over half the respondents. Typically subjects needed about ten seconds to create the correct image. This is about the same time as the conscious mind needs to perceive subliminally embedded words in advertisements. The more relaxed the subject, the better the memory recall. However, as Professor Wilson Bryan Key points out in his excellent book, `Subliminal Seduction', which describes the role of the subliminal in advertising, "the perception of subliminal stimuli at the subconscious level appears to be virtually instantaneous and total" (our emphasis).
Professor Key continues: "An individual who wants to utilise a greater part of his brain-stored information, must simply learn how to move information from the unconscious into the conscious level of cognition".
There is no known relationship between photographic memory and intelligence. The sort of regressive hypnosis we have discussed, indicates that almost anyone can recall eidetic images from any stage in their life, but that these are normally available to the subconscious and not conscious mind.
In this case the key to using the natural capacity of the brain must be to "circumvent the conscious control systems that we erect during our formal schooling and allow the greater subconscious capacities to be used".
"It is quite possible", (Professor Key again), "that the education processes of the West may be in effect, limiting man's intelligence by forcing him to repress greater and greater amounts of what he actually perceives. The implications to mankind are enormous, if individuals have innate neurological abilities vastly beyond their apparent conscious levels".
All this is of great significance in creating an ideal presentation for fast easy learning. The impression is being clearly formed amongst today's' psychologists that the brain, as Chris Evans put it "has near infinite storage capacity". Nothing is truly forgotten. The problem seems to be not one of creating memory. We all have the basis of photographic memory. The problem is one of recall. The key may be in the cumbersome word Synaesthesia.