Time is not always what we suppose it to be. Einstein implied it was the fourth dimension of reality. But is it that vital? It can’t be if it can be reversed. With each passing day I’m nearer to my goal of reversing time and reliving my life with Laura. But what happens if I do manage to go back—what then? Is this going to be some form of infinite regress? I mean, there’s got to be a limit to everything. Even Lazarus resurrected, eventually had to die again.
Laura resurrected? The possibility overwhelms me. I find myself struggling with some primal angst, balancing between futility and purpose and leaning more toward the former than the latter. Maybe Heraclitus was right when he said that everything is flux and perhaps that is all we know on Earth, and all we need to know.
I know an autumn day that I’d like to see reversed. I remember my parents’ jet lifting off from Toronto International Airport and soaring into a blue autumn sky. It was 1962 and their plane was heading to Vancouver on the first leg of an Alaskan adventure. Somewhere, west of the Rockies, it disappeared from the radar screen and exploded on a rock-strewn hillside. The smoldering wreckage was served up as the prime feature on the six o’clock news.
Why? — I don’t know, and the question still haunts me like all the other riddles of my life for which I have no explanation. If I could physically transport myself backwards through time I would try to prevent their getting on that plane. But although Einstein figures that the past exists out there, lurking around a bend in the river of time, the chances of building some fantastic machine and voyaging back there are nil. Hence, my present preoccupation with mental time travel and reliving moments from my past that are significant, that make me happy or just make me want to get out of bed each day.
Alex Hemmer put down his journal and glanced at the clock; it was 9:45 am, and his lecture was across campus at ten. With a sigh, he gathered up his books and lecture notes, placed them carefully in his briefcase, and set out on his twice-weekly trek to the Sidney Smith Building where two hundred freshmen were gathering in hopes of earning a credit in Psychology 101. Because of the department’s chronic shortage of funds, Alex was required to teach a course in each term; consequently, his Tuesdays and Thursdays always seemed more hectic than the other days because of his morning lecture and his appointments with students.
It wasn’t that Alex disliked his calling: on the contrary, teaching and his memory research were the twin passions that powered his life. It was just that on this beautiful, crisp fall morning, the memory of the event that divided his life came too close for him to bear. He wanted the whole world to stand at attention in silence, or at least he wanted it to admit that everything was a sham. He never seemed to get past the injustice, but occasionally, he managed momentarily to escape the pain. Teaching freshmen and feeding off their energy was Alex’s chief means of gaining a respite, but, unfortunately, of not quite achieving an escape.
As he walked along the path to class, he passed a row of cedars alive with the quarrels of sparrows, squabbling and chattering. The birds reminded him of his bickering colleagues and the interminable debates at the monthly department meetings he was obliged to attend. Each faculty member preened and puffed up his feathers, vying to capture or defend a position on the tree of knowledge. His attendance at these meetings might be obligatory, but his attitude toward them was perfunctory.
In addition to the department meetings, Alex’s research involved him in the arduous task of trying to secure the necessary funding to drive his project. Funds existed at both the faculty and university levels; however, the faculty funds were insufficient to support a project of the scope and depth of Alex’s research, so reluctantly, he had succumbed to necessity and submitted his proposal to the University Funding Committee. His proposal had been accepted, but Alex was now required to submit quarterly progress reports in order to receive each new installment of funds.
The quarterly meetings with the funding committee were even more boring than his department meetings, since each expense of Alex’s research proposal was placed under the microscope and subjected to the minutest scrutiny. If any aspect of his professional career could be termed drudgery that ought to be well-compensated with pay, it was his command appearance at these gatherings that amounted to nothing less than nebulous forays into the void. Today, however, he was expecting to hear back from the funding committee again and hopefully his financing for the next three months would be extended or possibly even increased.
Alex crossed St. George Street, hurried across the small quadrangle and taking the outside stairs two at a time, arrived at his destination a few minutes past ten. He strode to the front of the amphitheatre-style room and took up his position at the lectern. Although he had brought his notes with him, he would ignore them as always and lecture for the next two hours extemporaneously, except when having to reference a text. He waited patiently as the last few stragglers took their seats.
Gradually, the general buzzing of conversation in the lecture hall trailed off and all eyes became focused on the tall young professor at the front.
“We’re going to continue today with our study of long- and short-term memory. Before we begin though, I’d like to ask a question: Wouldn’t it be great if we could discover a drug that would improve memory?one that could assist people in giving accurate testimony in court, or perhaps even recalling information taught in school?”
This last comment drew chuckles from the class.
A hand went up and a young blonde girl in the front row asked, “Is such a drug available?”
Alex shook his head. “No drug is available at present, Kris, but I have a team in place that’s working on a pharmacological agent that shows promise; the clinical trials are now in progress.”
“What about the use of hypnosis, Professor?” asked Bert Jones, a first year psych major, “Don’t the police sometimes hypnotize people to help them recall details of a crime?”
“Not everyone is a candidate for hypnosis, Bert, and the results are often unreliable. On the other hand, a drug that could target memory and aid people in recalling details more accurately would be a tremendous breakthrough.”
Alex continued, “Bert’s mentioning of hypnosis is interesting since practitioners have often used this technique to regress subjects in an attempt to re-live past events and sometimes even so-called past lives.”
Unable to contain his enthusiasm, Bert excitedly interjected, “I saw a documentary on TV recently about past lives therapy. What do you think, Professor?”
“We all know the media sensationalizes these things, such as the Bridey Murphy case where a U.S. housewife in the 1950s was hypnotically regressed and claimed to have been a 19th century Irishwoman in a previous life. Because of extreme cases such as this, most scientists now regard hypnotic regression as a very unreliable scientific tool. Nevertheless, re-living a past event is possible. Let me give you an example. Several years ago, the eminent Canadian neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield, was operating on a woman’s brain—the patient had to be kept conscious during the procedure. As Penfield probed parts of the brain, the woman let out a gasp. Penfield was shocked; he assumed the woman had experienced pain, which, of course, was impossible, since the brain has no sensory nerve endings. In the recovery room, Penfield interviewed the woman and she told an amazing story. As the doctor stimulated a certain area of her brain, the woman was transported back to her childhood. She was seated on the front steps of her house eating a vanilla ice cream cone and could taste the vivid flavor and feel the melting liquid drip down her hand. She was wearing a white cotton dress and basking in the sun, and then suddenly, she was back in the cold operating room.”
Kris, the young blonde girl at the front, who had been listening intently to Alex’s anecdote, looked puzzled. “So, was this incident with Wilder Penfield just a fluke? I mean, you can’t, on purpose, cause someone to re-live a particular moment from their past, can you?”
“Good question, Kris, but before I answer it, let’s get specific—what if you could re-live a significant moment from your life? Would you want to?”
She brightened, “Sure that would be cool! If I could relive the happiest moment of my life—that would be so awesome.”
“Yes, it would be awesome and I believe it is possible but the secret lies in being able to target the specific brain areas that store those memories and then stimulate them electronically so that the person actually re-lives the event. We know that we retain information about everything we experience; for example, on your way to class today all the details of cars and people and things you saw are all stored inside your brain, even the license numbers of vehicles—the challenge lies in being able to access the information.”
Another student couldn’t resist giving his opinion. “I don’t know Prof; this sounds kind of way out there to me. Maybe the brain does store all that info but retrieving it, like rewinding a tape? It sounds like science fiction.”
Alex recognized the student as Steve Wright, the six foot five, 300-pound linebacker recently drafted by the Toronto Argonauts. The gigantic athlete usually nodded off during lectures, but today Alex noticed that he had become quite engrossed in the topic. Not wanting to discourage such newfound interest, Alex was patient. “I appreciate your opinions about being able to access these memories, Steve, but what I’m describing to you today is not an impossible theory but a real possibility that I hope to demonstrate soon in the lab.”
After pausing for effect and making sure he held Steve’s attention as well as everyone else’s in the room, he continued:
“This incident concerning Dr. Penfield is not merely an isolated occurrence. In the research project I’m currently working on, I’ve observed the reliving of memories. These are random occurrences and it’s not possible just yet to target specific memories, but in the near future volunteers will be able to re-live whatever memories they choose from their past.”
The students were intrigued. Hands went up all over the room, but Alex refused to disclose any more information. He had achieved his purpose, which was to arouse the students’ interest in the possibility of re-living the past. At the end of the lecture, he was surrounded by a crowd of excited students. Despite their protests, however, he refused to comment further on the topic, saying that more information would be given in future sessions. Generating controversy was a skill that Alex had honed to an art and the sense of wonder he created in his lectures ensured that he was one of the most popular professors on campus.
© 2011 – 2014, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.