beyond our ken

Here’s story about archeological discovery of buildings purportedly used for divination:

The researchers here focus on several buildings from 3300 years ago at Gegharot in Armenia. Inside were objects thought to be used for divination: bowls for drinking wine (of course), incense burners, bones with magical markings, round multi-colored stones in their own bowl, a small mill for grinding wheat but no oven, stamps to imprint shapes in the dough or whatever and more. All these things are known to have been used by the ancients to understand and foretell events. The archeologists think this site was used for about a century by some newly organized polity; these were rising and falling with frequency in the area at that time. For another reference, this is around the time Julian Jaynes said the gods from our right hemisphere stopped talking and human consciousness took form. But, such methods of divination most certainly had been used for a long time and continue to be used today either as superstitious actions or by true believers (think astrology, Tarot, and myriad other practices in cultures not fully informed by scientific attitudes. Not a bad thing, just saying).

Humanity seems to include a proclivity for sensing that there is more out there than the apparent universe. The Tao lies behind the 10,000 things of our cluttered reality. My Celtic ancestors looked to what lay behind the north wind as an unseen power shaping events, the corona borealis (Northern Crown) its landmark, the wheel of fate manifested in the moon and the castle of the white goddess, Arianrhod. Ancient peoples buried their dead with supplies for travel, the Norse even put the elite in boats to help speed them on their journey. As Scully and Mulder found in the X-files, ‘the truth is out there’. From this spiritual sense or impulse or seed grows religious culture and organization but also a quest for truth. This seems a basic facet of humanity no matter what is out there.

I have finally finished Joseph’s Neuroscience text, a long compendium of clinical and research findings. He stayed pretty close to reporting data and only occasionally veered into more speculative thoughts about mentality. Consciousness figured in not so much but he did talk about structures serving awake, dream, sentience, etc. Still somehow our biological roots have produced as a part of our consciousness the sense of something beyond our ken.

Joseph does tell a story I have never heard before about H.M. (Henry Molaison who died in 2008) the famous patient who had both hippocampi removed to control otherwise intractable seizures. He was studied for years by Brenda Milner and colleagues because of the effect on his memory and consciousness.


As I have noted before, the hippocampus receives multi-modal information and through its detection of old and new information, constructs situational gestalts for guidance. Its removal left H.M. with severe anterograde amnesia, i.e., he could remember nothing of new experience, only what had happened long ago.   He retained some cognitive abilities and could still remember spatial locations, even new ones, and learn new motor skills, but he had difficulty remembering who Brenda Milner was even though he saw her many times over the years. If you met him, walked out of the room and returned, he would not remember he had just talked with you. In the inverse of the saying, “He never met a stranger,” H.M. always met a stranger.

Joseph relates a story showing that H.M. did realize that things were happening outside of his ken on a very practical basis. He was aware of his disability and apologized for it. He said one time, “Right now, I’m wondering—have I done or said anything amiss? You see, at this moment everything looks clear to me, but what happened just before? That’s what worries me. It’s like waking from a dream. I just don’t remember . . . every day is alone in itself, whatever enjoyment I’ve had, and whatever sorrow I’ve had . . . I just don’t remember.” (Joseph, p. 406) H.M. had no new autobiographical memories after surgery; he was lost in some ablated existential moment. He did still worry, experience sadness and happiness, but no continuity of his life. I take this as a metaphor of sorts for the human condition. We do not consciously experience what goes on before birth or after death (the great discontinuities), we do not know what will happen except under scientifically engineered circumstances, and so we wonder and try to discern what is out there beyond our ken, and then another proclivity often comes in, our talent for making it up (and some saying they divined it). Travel on.