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In 1930 I knew a fellow by the name of Commander Thompson. I had known him before, actually; he was a friend of the family. He had studied under Freud in Vienna. Old Commander Thompson trained cats. He had a cat named Psycho, a black cat with a crooked tail, and he had Psycho trained to sit up and do other things. He taught me how to train cats—I have never had any luck with it, but he taught me how.
He got me very interested in the subject of the human mind. He taught me why it is that somebody starts to say one thing and says something else—but the something else the person has said is a clue to his character or what he is trying to hide—and other interesting gimmicks like this. That is just a gimmick; it has no vast importance.
I never got inside a high school; I went into engineering school first off. My father had said,“You’re going to engineering school,” and I had said, “Oh, no, I’m not. I’m going to write.” So I went to engineering school! In engineering school they had an interesting little subject called atomic and molecular phenomena, and there were those of us in that class who believed that the mystic and secret forces and powers of the universe were somehow hidden in atomic and molecular phenomena. There were fellows there— wild-haired, wild-eyed radicals, these students—who believed that a few pennyweights of some mysterious element, exploded in a certain fashion, could wipe out an enormous city. Of course, nothing would ever come of this; naturally nothing like that could happen! Not until Hiroshima would anybody really believe it. Up until that time, the atom bomb was a science fictioneer’s dream. Then all of a sudden the bombs were dropped on Japan. That validated the men who had struggled forward from 1930 on the track of atomic and molecular phenomena up to the atom bomb.
I was very radical—even more radical than they were. I said, “Atomic and molecular phenomena is very interesting. It must have something to do with the energy of life. Somewhere in here is life energy. We have described it somehow and the description is here, but we don’t know quite where. Now, it’s possible that with this new branch of nuclear physics we might be able to locate the energy of life.” And people said, “Oh, heavens! Everybody knows everybody is dead. What do you mean, ‘the energy of life’?”
So I went to work in the laboratory, and I found out that there was no way to store memory. Atomic and molecular phenomena did not describe an energy which would store in the neurons and act as memory. The latest theory on this was a Viennese theory which was fantastic. This theory was in a very thick book—all in German, with adverbial and participial clauses appended to the genders!— and it described how the mind thinks up a thought or sees something or feels something or hears something, and then stores it in a hole in a punched protein molecule.
Now, a protein molecule is so small you can’t see it in a microscope, but he figured out that there were ten holes in one of these molecules and that each hole took about what he called a thousand shots. In other words, a thousand memories were stored in each hole in one of these little protein molecules. That would make ten thousand per molecule, and there are ten to the twenty-first power binary digits of neurons. That is a big number: if you started writing that number, it would practically cover a wall, column after column. So there are ten to the twenty-first power binary digits of neurons, and these memories store at the rate of ten thousand specific memories per molecule. This Viennese had done the whole job all the way through except for one thing: he had never looked over into atomic and molecular phenomena and found out what wavelength was. There is no wavelength that small. If it were that minute, it would be so far above the range of ultra light that it would be unimaginable—something like how far away is an island universe? It is so microscopic that it will not register on any known instrument. Therefore the theory is suspicious.
But accepting the theory, believing that this theory works, we figure this thing up and we find out that the human brain does not have enough storage space to store the memories of three months. And those are not the minor observations of three months, but just the major observations of three months. This was a mathematical job. I guess the fellow could speak very beautiful German, but he couldn’t do very good mathematics.
That was the ne plus ultra of all the theories of memory storage and human energy. I took it around and showed it to Dr. William Alanson White. He was head of St. Elizabeth’s, where they sent the naval officers after they had received their fifth contradiction from the Navy Department. And old Dr. White said, “Gosh!”
I said, “Well, what do you think about it?”“Well, naturally, not very much is known about structure.” This understatement practically blew my stack. And I realized suddenly for the first time that I had been looking for something all this time that I thought people knew about! There was a psychology department, there were doctors—all these people certainly must know. They all acted like they did! After Dr. White gave me this blank stare and so forth and sort of a “So what?” and “This is just another puzzle on top of all these other puzzles,” I went over to the psychology department and I said, “What are you guys doing over here?”
“Oh—ha! You see this electric plate? Well, if a rat runs along here and he hasn’t been fed for three days—pop!” I said, “Gee, that’s fascinating. Now, what do you know about memory storage?”“Erk! Well, uh . . . look, this rat . . .” (Very anxiously they went back to the rat.)
I found out in the course of about a week, actually, that I was Alice in Wonderland. I didn’t much like being Alice in Wonderland and I went on trying against all odds to believe that there was some rationale in the field of epistemology, human thought and human behavior. In spite of all contradictions, I clung to this belief.
I went out of school. Nobody was interested in this fact that nobody knew; they accepted the fact that it wasn’t well known. I went into the field of writing. My father had said, “You go to engineering school,” and I had said, “No, I want to write.” So I went to engineering school and professionally I wrote in an effort to support these researches, because I kept right on researching.