By Deborah Stokes, PhD
Karl Pribram, MD died at age 95 on January 19, 2015. He was an eminent brain scientist, neurosurgeon, psychologist and philosopher and has been referred to as the “Magellan of the Brain” for being an early pioneer in researching and discovering the functions of the limbic system, temporal lobes and frontal lobes.
Dr. Pribram was born in Vienna Austria in 1919. He graduated medical school in 1941 and was one of the first 300 board certified neurosurgeons in the world at the time. He collaborated with Karl Lashley at the Yerkes Primate Center and went on to direct it, was on the faculty at Yale University from 1948 – 58, was at Stanford University for 31 years from 1958 to 1989 and held Distinguished Professorships at Radford University, George Mason University and Georgetown University from 1989 up until his death. He was the author of 700 books and scientific publications which are available on his website www.KarlPribram.com. His most recent book, “The Form Within” (2013) is Karl’s account of the past 200 years of brain science, the final 75 years in which he participated. He was the recipient of more than 60 major international awards and honors. Among them were a lifetime grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, a Lifetime Research Career Award from the NIH and Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Society of Experimental Psychology and the Washington Academy of Sciences. He was the first laureate to receive the Dagmar and Vaclav Havel award for uniting the sciences and the humanities.
Dr. Pribram was deeply interested in the field of neurofeedback and a friend to many of us in ISNR. I met Karl one year many years ago when he showed up at a local biofeedback society meeting in the DC area. I remember how surprised some of us were that someone of Karl’s caliber would be interested in our small meeting but Karl was undeniably interested in the topic of neurofeedback and was very kind and engaging to us all. Karl liked to refer to neurofeedback as “neurofeedforward” since he believed that the brain continued to evolve and changed based on the shaping effects of the feedback projected. Karl had two homes in our area and over the years my husband and I were fortunate to have had many visits with him and his longtime partner, acclaimed author Katherine Neville. Both homes held veritable libraries of his extensive body of work. The walls displayed a vast array of awards and tributes to Karl but he always pointed out to me that the one award that was the most heartwarming to him was his Lifetime Achievement Award from the ISNR in 2006. I asked him why and he said he felt very much at home with our group and that we all spoke and understood the same language. During several of our visits we were joined by another luminary and Distinguished Georgetown Professor, the late Candace Pert, PhD whose discovery of the opiate receptor and her work on the interconnectedness of mind and body via the emotions was very compatible with Karl’s holographic brain theory. Candace’s work has also influenced our field in her views of the mind and body being the same. She coined the term psychoneuroimmunology but often said that this is a limiting term but rather should be called psychoneurogastroendocrinimmunology” to better reflect the interconnectedness of our entire bodyminds. She often stated that she did not know where the brain left off and the body began which reinforced Karl’s holographic point of view. I enjoyed being present during conversations Karl had with Candace. One of my favorite discussions was when Candace asked Karl what the difference was in pain perception between a dreaded spanking and a welcome spanking of a masochist. Karl replied that the masochist perceives this type of pain as a mostly pleasant sensation, similar to a scratched itch, and then a conversation ensued on the complex brain mechanisms and endorphins involved. These mechanisms are described in his latest book, The Form Within in the chapters that discuss what he called the Four F’s: Fighting, Fleeing, Feeding and Sex. Another discussion between them was about the mystery of the brainwaves; how and why they are generated and what they represent. They both agreed that they probably reflect a type of energy field that changes constantly. Karl gave a presentation at one ISNR demonstrating these ever changing energy fields. He shared a colorful quantitative representation of his own brainwaves, which morphed into different colors over time.
Every occasion I had to attend ISNR I would ask Karl if he’d like to travel there with me and he always enthusiastically said yes. He was a great travel companion and I remember how he enjoyed holding forth among his dinner companions with interesting stories about his contemporaries and friends such as Margaret Mead, Alexander Luria, Karl Lashley, David Bohm, Carl Rogers, BF Skinner, Francis Crick, Wilder Penfield, Sir John Eccles, Dennis Gabor, Rudolfo Llinas, Abraham Maslow, Walter Freeman and Rupert Sheldrake. He captivated us one night as he told how he’d lost the middle finger of his right hand.
Karl had helped one of his Stanford graduate students, Penny Patterson, acquire a gorilla named Koko from the San Diego zoo after she’d asked Karl if teaching sign language to apes was possible. Karl advised her to start slowly and Koko became the first ape to acquire sign language. Washoe was a chimpanzee who had later learned to sign and Karl was visiting her one day after she had given birth. Karl was feeding Washoe’s newborn who was cradled in his left arm while he held onto the sharp metal bar of the metal cage with his right hand. Washoe was playing and quickly moving around the cage and accidentally hit Karl’s finger and Karl screamed in pain as blood gushed forth. He said he was in agony but that he could not forget the regret on Washoe’s face as she signed, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over.
It seemed to me that Karl’s work evolved and expanded from exploring brain to mind, then consciousness and then our universe and how it is perceived. To me, his most fascinating contributions involve his findings on the non-local aspects of brain function, perception and consciousness and that our responses are determined via quantum interference patterns in the spectral domain rather than just brain hardware. He did discover the localized tasks assigned to specific brain regions yet he went on to explore that processing, encoding, storage and retrieval can be done via wave interference or the holographic aspects of analyzing frequencies. After his early brain mapping discoveries, he went on to postulate that interfering wave fronts enable the brain to localize some of our experiences beyond the physical boundaries of the body. An example of this would be his explanation of phantom limb pain- the memory of that limb is a holographic memory encoded in the interference patterns in the brain.
Pribram’s holographic brain theory challenges medical orthodoxy which ignores the brain’s complexity and continues to cling to the reductionist view that brain functions are located in specific regions inside the organ itself like cities on a map. His ideas about the holographic brain were established through his research findings in the 1970s and he then began to explore the question of “if what we see isn’t really a picture of reality but a hologram, then what is a hologram?” This gave rise to his questioning the very nature of what we think reality consists of and led him to work with David Bohm, the quantum physicist who postulated that the entire universe is a hologram and who argued that science and society’s current ways of fragmenting the world into parts is not only counterproductive, but that it may lead to our ultimate extinction. Together, Bohm and Pribram’s theories provide a dramatically different way of viewing our world: that our brains mathematically construct or convert objective reality by interpreting frequencies that are ultimately projected from other dimensions; a deeper form of existence that is beyond time and space and that the brain is a hologram enfolded in a holographic universe of which we are a part.
Karl’s research papers and materials will be donated to the Akron Archive for the History of Psychology. Also included will be the first EEG machine and the first 120 electrode net as well as Sherrington’s operating table upon which many scientists and Nobel Laureates did primate surgery.
In closing, I will relate what Jay Gunkleman had to say about Karl:
“I miss him, though the recollections are solid reminders of his impacts on our field that are largely unknown to the field, like his dinner discussions being overheard by Frank Ofner, then an engineering grad student… who invented the first solid state EEGs to deal with the DC stability… the Ofner “T-type” (transistorized) which was bought out by Beckman Instruments, and eventually to the basis of all modern EEG amp designs.
He spun off entire areas of study, like Lucid Dreaming…. Anna Wise’s work on content/state… and the more obvious introduction of quantum physics to neurophysiology with work spun off in this area also by Walter Freeman III here in Berkeley (I saw him last week speaking persuasively on consciousness).
I thought of Karl while doing the brain dissection lab last week. I wished for his smaller (and more experienced) hands… we shared the loss of fingers together, but the rest of mine are messed up and his were steady and strong to the end. He almost beat me arm-wrestling for the dinner bill (pictures enclosed).
I learned much from Karl over the years… a gentle instructor and deeply wise man who I miss dearly as a friend.”
Karl will be greatly missed by all.
From left to right: Katherine Neville, Jim Semivan, Deborah Stokes and Karl Pribram (seated) on Deb’s 60th Birthday November 5, 2014
From left to right: Joel Lubar, Karl Pribram, Jay Gunkelman, Barry Sterman
Jay Gunkelman and Karl Pribram fighting for the check at 2012 APA conference
About the Author: Deborah Stokes is a licensed psychologist, licensed professional counselor and is board certified in neurofeedback by the BCIA. She has been practicing neurotherapy fulltime since 2000 at her clinic The Better Brain Center in Alexandria, VA. She can be reached.