In my undergrad years in biology class I cut up my share ofI planaria, the little worms just big enough to see and slice. They're cross-eyed, evidently, which makes them more interesting. Even almost cute. I did not know that they could not only regrow a head, but without losing their memory which we have assumed were housed in heads! If that memory was in their heads, how can tails which can grow a new head also save their memories.
McConnell, a scientist, became interested in Holgr Hydén’s work and scrambled to test for a speculative molecule that he called “memory RNA” by grafting portions of trained planaria onto the bodies of untrained planaria. His aim was to transfer RNA from one worm to another but, encountering difficulty getting the grafts to stick, he turned to a “more spectacular type of tissue transfer, that of ‘cannibalistic ingestion.’ Acting directly, he ground up trained planaria and fed them to the other untrained worms. It worked on the worms, but we feel sure it won't work on people. What will?
This article link describes the above plus more. The point is that somehow the tissue of cells is the locus of memory, linked to sensory information as a filing system. A taste, a sound, a turn of the ankle, and memory comes flooding.
Experiments on sea slugs seemed to prove that the storage of the memories was not in the cell proper, but in the synapses between cells. If the synapses, the connections, were removed, the memories were also gone. Hmmm.
What other possibilities exist?
"Most of an organism’s adaptability comes from supple epigenetic mechanisms, processes that regulate gene expression in response to environmental cues or pressures, which sometimes involve RNA. If DNA is printed sheet music, RNA-induced epigenetic mechanisms are like improvisational cuts and arrangements that might conduct learning and memory." This is a very nice quote from the linked article.
Scientists had strong evidence that RNA was the memory-transferring agent. Glanzman, another scientist, "now believes that synapses are necessary for the activation of a memory, but that the memory is encoded in the nucleus of the neuron through epigenetic changes. “It’s like a pianist without hands,” Glanzman says. “He may know how to play Chopin, but he’d need hands to exercise the memory.”" This is a slightly more gruesome quote. But "parts is parts" and code is code. If it's molecular, it's only small rather than different.
The next piece of the article is about Douglas Blackiston, an Allen Discovery Center scientist at Tufts University, who is studying the story of butterfly metamorphoais, not in terms of their parts but in sensory info transfer. “The remodeling is catastrophic,” Blackiston says. “After all, we’re moving from a crawling machine to a flying machine. Not only the body but the entire brain has to be rewired.”
"It’s hard to study exactly what goes on during pupation in vivo, but there’s a subset of caterpillar neurons that may persist in what are called “mushroom bodies,” a pair of structures involved in olfaction that many insects have located near their antennae." I'm assuming these either "are" or "are like" the "Imaginal discs" I've been talking about. They are more like body parts, which is a little different from memory.
“It’s not soup,” Blackiston says. “Well, maybe it’s soup, but it’s chunky. There’s near complete pruning of neurons during pupation, and the few neurons that remain become disconnected from other neurons, dissolving the synaptic connections between them in the process, until they reconnect with other neurons during the remodeling into the butterfly brain." . . . Blackiston suspects it was stored in the subset of neurons located in the mushroom bodies, the only known carryover material from the caterpillar to the butterfly.
(Marco Altamirano, the author of this essay is also the author of Time, Technology, and Environment: An Essay on the Philosophy of Nature. Follow him on Twitter @marcosien.)
Now I have my first valuable clue to the origin of what Maslow calls "a peak experience" and theologians call an epiphany or theophany. An experience of sufficient sensory impact will create memory of more than usual vividness. A cathedral or sweat lodge will provide an impressive context. Meeting a tiger or being in a falling elevator will be memorable, viscerally sensory. An awesome scene like a storm traveling a mountain valley or sunset seen from a heaving beach can have the right impact. Life-threatening experiences or sharing skillful performance or even the negatives of slow and gruesome death can mean people will share the moment as holy. Something intimately moving like holding an infant can be intensely memorable.
It is not until afterwards that rational systems are brought into play and interpret what happened. Even handling poisonous snakes or walking on red hot coals can be given defined supernatural significance if the theology is powerful enough. But the experience itself has value. Think of Jane Goodall's example of a chimp bemused by a waterfall, sitting quietly, surrendering to the sight. Chimps just don't claim it's a manifestation of Jesus.
If people are brought together in safety and presented with this sort of experience, it can become "liminal" and allow a freedom in unity that allows people to escape conventionality. It will feel transcendent and empowering. People will feel close to each other. Some will call this sacred. It has nothing to do with what we normally call "religion."
This line of thought also reinforces the contention of myself and many others that science and philosophy thinkers are being so robotically rigorous in their thinking, that they have eliminated much crucial information about the body which is also full of thought. So much energy has gone into the pursuit of mathematical escape from emotion that the real cellular operation of tiny code intelligence has been missed.
This insight lends new principles when designing a worship service that is meant to be memorable. It means understanding the participants and what sensory material -- music, words, imagery, memories, smells, and so on -- are likely to affect the people, using all the rules of art in terms of timing, rhythm, surprise, reassurance, and so on. This is how one calls the holy.