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Remix Metaphors to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats

Keats explains how marriage can be treated as a metaphor by explaining the process by which two people can become married not by government definition, but by a law of nature, thanks to advances in quantum physics.

Jonathon Keats: Marriage is always seemed a little bit problematic to me.  The idea that a government gets to decide whether or not you are married according to a given set of laws.  Or a religious authority gets to do so.  I was thinking about this as I was in the process of getting married.  And thinking about the fact that honestly as much as that paperwork would matter to the government it wouldn't really matter much to me or to my future wife.  So I wanted to find a way to get married that was deeper, that was more universal than whatever sort of legal framework could be thrown my way by the United States government.  I wanted to instead be married by a law of nature.  That is possible today, perhaps for the first time because of advances in quantum physics.  You wouldn't think it, quantum physics tends to be either highly theoretical or a system that is used for instance in cryptography.  However quantum entanglement, one of the essentials systems that comes out of quantum mechanics, is one that has the potential I believe to serve as a way in which marriage can be based on a truly universal foundation.  

Quantum entanglement involves two more particles becoming effectively one in the same even if they are separated across the universe from each other.  When they are entangled anything that happens to one instantaneously happens to the other as if it had been done to the second particle.  That quality seems an awful lot like what marriage is about, this way in which you can lead separate lives and yet you still are somehow bound and whatever comes the way of one person in a relationship also applies to the other.  So I set about building an apparatus that would allow my wife and I and others as well to become think entangled, to become married in a way that no governmental authority, no religious authority could say that it was not allowed that it was inappropriate.  That gay marriage for instance would not be an issue that a government could regulate.  That any sort of relationship at all, if it was meaningful to you, could become fully manifest as an entangled relationship as a marriage at the basis of all reality. The apparatus was very simple.  I used a special sort of crystal which was able to take sunlight, photons, and to bombard two people standing below the apparatus with those photos in a way that they themselves became entangled by the entanglement of the photons.  So that while it would not necessarily be all of them, while it would not necessarily withstand all time and space, they could partake in this process of entanglement.  

And they could then take away from it what they wanted to take away.  That is to say that any quantum system is extremely delicate.  Entitled is no exception.  Any management that you make has the effect of collapsing the system.  In other words two particles that are entangled, if you check to see if they are entangled will become disentangled.  And so likewise two people who are married by the process of quantum entanglement should they question that bond and start to interrogate it will become disentangled as well.  So in a sense the entanglement operates both literally and metaphorically.  Literally because I'm using real equipment that is used for entitlement for purposes of encryption for instance, to entangle people and people are becoming genuinely entangled by the process but it is also I think more importantly the knowledge that that process has taken place.  And the way in which that makes those people behave that is what makes for an entitlement so special as a form of marriage; the fact that it really has to be taken on faith ultimately because the quantum mechanics demands it and relationships are that way too.  Relationships are delicate in the sense that quantum systems are.  So I think that we can actually learn from subatomic particles how to behave toward each other in a caring long-term relationship.  I think that the metaphor that is inherent in language and in the common understanding of a quantum process can be something that we can apply quite literally and highly productively in our everyday lives.

You might say that metaphors are just metaphors like a poem how important can it be?  How seriously can you take something that was meant for the enjoyment that you might get reading a book?  To what extent can you really make use of it?  I think that metaphor actually is something that can be used incredibly productively by taking it literally.  Not by taking it literally and leaving it at that but recognizing the metaphor for what it is and finding what happens if you apply it literally in your life.  So that in the case of quantum physics, because quantum physics is so weird, because quantum particles behave in ways that are so totally foreign to the way in which we live, to our experience of the world, much of the discussion of quantum physics happens metaphorically.  And the metaphors can be mined I think and can be applied I believe in ways that lead through their literal application to different ways in which we can relate to each other in the world. That is to say that quantum particles relate to each other in ways that are entirely different from those with which we are familiar, from those which we relate with each other on an everyday basis.  And the way in which we relate to each other on an everyday basis doesn't always work so well.  

We fight, we have problems communicating, we go to war.  So might it be possible taking the quantum realm, the metaphors that are used to explain how quantum particles interact and applying those metaphors literally in our lives that we may realign the way in which we live that makes us somehow unlike how we were before.  And that repositioning, while it need not be absolutely or permanent, at least can be something that we can try out, can be another way in which we can consider our relationship with others and through that process give us more perspective on the myriad possibilities as far as society where there are seven billion of us for how that society can interact and interrelate.

When Jonathon Keats got married, he wanted to find a way to do it that was deeper than whatever sort of legal framework could be thrown his way by the United States government. He wanted to instead be married by a law of nature which, as he explains, is possible today thanks to advances in quantum physics.


As Keats explores this thought experiment, he explains the value of interpreting metaphors literally. Doing this, he says, will open up your mind to the workings of thought and language while shifting your perspective on myriad social normalities.

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    Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

    The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

    An odd find

    Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

    Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

    "Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

    Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

    The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

    Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

    "We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

    Why understanding memory matters

    person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

    Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

    "Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

    If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

    Party chat

    Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

    Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

    Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

    spinning 3D model of a brain

    Temporal lobes

    Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

    At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

    Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

    In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

    Seek, find

    Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

    He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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