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Not Granting the Premise - Introducing Karl H. Pribram

bridges vol. 14, July 2007 / News from the Network: Austrian Researchers Abroad

by Juliet M. Beverly

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Juliet Beverly and Karl Pribram in his D.C. home.
"If you give me the privilege of that one premise, you'll see that everything follows," a Jesuit schoolteacher once said to a young Karl Pribram, who had questioned the laws of religion. "I answered that I had great respect for his intelligence and that of course everything would follow once I had granted the premise. So I didn't grant the premise," Pribram explains during our interview, and adds "and I have since questioned every premise - those of others as well as my own - and it is this that has been the touchstone of my career in science."


Austrian-born neurophysiologist and distinguished research professor in cognitive neuroscience at Georgetown University, Dr. Karl H. Pribram - best known for developing the Holographic Brain Model - is a self-described "man on the edge" in the world of academia. He has dedicated his entire career to the mind, the brain, and their functions. Perhaps even more importantly, Pribram has based his career and his life on one personal model that stands just as strong as the scientific models he has developed - not granting the premise, and testing the waters even if they go against the current.

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The Hutchins Period
Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago from 1929 to1951, is responsible for some of the revolutionary changes in education and academia - therefore this period was named after him. The Hutchins Period was a time in American education when the purpose of the university was transformed from trainer to facilitator of intellectual thinking and character building. The Hutchins period promoted the idea that universities should be creating students who would become valuable and contributing members of society, rather than just members of society's workforce.

Pribram started his academic career in 1938 during the so-called "Hutchins Period" at the University of Chicago, where he received his B.S. in biological science followed by his M.D. in 1941. He later went on to become certified in neurological surgery and behavioral medicine. Private practice in neurological surgery at St. Luke's and St. Vincent's Hospitals in Jacksonville, Florida, and practicing as a neurosurgeon and neurophysiologist at Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Orange Park, Florida, helped give rise to Pribram's work and theories on the brain.

The innovative approach to become grounded in the fundamentals of the sciences and the humanities available in the Hutchins period and the opportunity to interact on matters of science with his father led Pribram to the University of Chicago, and have proven to be very influential in Pribram's career and his later teaching as a professor at Yale, Stanford, and now Georgetown - just to name a few of the stations where he has stopped during his long academic career.


Born February 25, 1919, in Vienna, Pribram's earliest years coincided with an unstable time in European history, between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II. In 1924 Pribram's father, Ernst Pribram, decided to leave his professorship in Vienna and move to the US for good, "For one reason and one reason only: Europe was no place to raise a child," said Pribram, repeating the statement his father had made so long ago and remarking at what incredible foresight his father had.

His father first worked at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois. Later he moved on and became head of bacteriology at Rush University Medical Center, which was affiliated with the University of Chicago from the late 1880s to the early 1940s. Three years later, Pribram and his mother joined his father in Chicago when Karl Pribram was eight years old.

Life in the United States - early lessons learned in Chicago

Living in Chicago was a difficult transition for the eight-year-old Karl. Fortunately, his ability to learn English quickly aided in his


transition. However, as he grew older there were still things in American society that Pribram did not understand.

"It never occurred to me that skin color had anything to do with anything until I got to medical school . . . " Pribram remembers, referring to the racism towards African Americans he encountered for the first time in the US. He recalls a particular situation during his years at the medical school: He had two African American lab partners, and one of them was not allowed to do his externship in the university's hospital because of segregation. He had to do his externship in an African American community hospital, and in doing so, because no professor knew of him in the university hospital due to his non-affiliation, he was going to be denied his M.D. Karl Pribram took umbrage at this, and through a series of negotiations, arranged for his lab partner to get an externship at the university so that he might receive credit to graduate.

On other occasions, while Pribram was an instructor in surgery at the University of Tennessee in Memphis from 1945 to 1946, he often saw the results of violent racism. Often many African Americans would come into the hospital with head traumas, such as skull fractures. "Everything was segregated. I wasn't supposed to call the [African American] nurses Miss, but of course I did, and I desegregated my office . . . I just got in so much trouble . . . I made as much fuss as I could about those things. It was such a surprise to me that people could be that way."

Pribram's scientific magnum opus: "The Theory"

Collaborating with quantum physicist David Bohm from the University of London, Pribram began to develop the Holographic Brain Theory in the late 1960s. His famous model of the brain contrasted with the conventional model of the brain, which suggested that the brain stores memory in one location. With his Holographic model, however, Pribram suggested that memory is distributed throughout the brain. His theory is based on the invention of holography by Dr. Dennis Gabor, a physicist who received the 1971 Nobel Prize in physics for his invention and development of the holographic method. Holography is the science that underlies the production of a hologram: a three-dimensional image that is recorded and stored for retrieval.

Pribram's theory suggests that the memories stored throughout the brain are initially received as holograms and then coded for storage. This means the brain acts much like a camera: Like the lens of your eye, the lens of a camera focuses the light reflected from the object to create an image; later, after you download (or print) your photos, you determine what the object is. Your retina, the neural cells in the back of the eye, performs a Fourier transformation that maps point spread functions. This Fourier transformation taking place in the brain compresses the information the lens transmits, just as a camera compresses a captured image for storage.

Objects are seen because of the light that they reflect. The eye focuses that light from its "blurry" state, into an image that you can recognize and thus give meaning. The brain establishes initial identification based on information gathered from the physical environment. Not unlike the Hollywood Blockbuster "The Matrix " with Keanu Reeves, the world that we recognize is called into question - but Pribram is not the character Morpheus, suggesting that people can dodge bullets or fly if you "free your mind." However, he does pose the idea of two realities - the world of the blur (the images we see without focusing) and the world of the focused images (the world that we perceive).

"What Makes Man Human"
The 39th James Arthur Lecture Series
on the Evolution of the Human Brain, 1970


The input of images into the brain, and their initial identification, creates memories, like photos in an album. Our brain codes these memories for interpretation. Pribram suggests that the brain turns what we experience into signs and symbols, also known as codes. In 1970, in his lecture, "What Makes Man Human," about the evolution of the human brain, Pribram stated that humans code and recode all the time, even for profit - that all our work and artistic endeavors are a product of coding and our perception of the environment around us. For example, artists may see a fruit basket and draw it in a way that fits their interpretation of what is in the fruit basket and what the fruit basket represents to them. A fruit basket may be just a fruit basket, but to you it may mean something more. Or a photo of a woman dressed in red may provide a good memory for some and a bad memory for others.

Critics and acclaim

Throughout his career, Karl Pribram has authored over 200 data and theory papers and books such as Languages of the Brain: Experimental Paradoxes and Principles in Neuropsychology (1971), Brain and Perception: Holonomy and Structure in Figural Processing, and Freud's Project Reassessed: Preface to Contemporary Cognitive Theory and Neuropsychology that he co-authored with Merton M. Gill in 1976. He has also received many awards, such as the Dagmar Vaclav Prize presented by the president of the Czech Republic in 1999, of which he was the first recipient. This award is given to . . . "significant thinkers whose work exceeds the traditional framework of scientific knowledge, contributes to the understanding of science as an integral part of general culture, and is concerned with unconventional ways of asking fundamental questions about cognition, being, and human existence."

However, Pribram has received his share of critical assessment. He recalls that his book Languages of the Brain was one of his most criticized works when it was first published. "Wherever I go now, people say they were raised by that text and that it was very influential to them," said Pribram. "It is now 2007. When the book was published in 1971, reviewers said that 'Pribram must be having trouble in the laboratory to have the need to put out such un-understandable writings.' Actually it was one of the most fertile periods in the laboratory with multiple publications of experimental results pouring forth." Another reviewer of the book bluntly stated that, "we are coming into the 21st century . . . Pribram takes us back to the 19th."

Pribram recalls that another review of a book that he wrote in the 1960s said that he "must have had a stroke," and adds, laughing, "but there was also another review that was much nicer: 'Most people don't get senile until their mid-60s. These guys [Pribram and his co-author] aren't even 40 yet.'" Fortunately, having a good sense of humor, Pribram laughs off these criticisms now, just as he laughs off the trouble he used to get into in grammar school. "I always questioned the nuns at Catholic school, asking them how can God be both good and just . . . I got in trouble constantly, either by questioning the nuns or taking over a class," said Pribram, reminiscing. At Georgetown, Pribram is still the center of the class, teaching with the Hutchins influence running heavily through him, letting his students write freely on any topic that they desire for their final papers.

Currently, Pribram resides in Washington, DC, with his wife, novelist Katherine Neville. At 88, Pribram is by no means retired - especially with his latest project in its developmental stages. Although he will not divulge specifics, a pending new book is in his future. It will be a chronicle of his scientific and theoretical developments during his career. With this scientific "diary," Pribram hopes to capture a broader audience than he has with any of his past publications. Sitting comfortably in his home, filled with walls of bookshelves and items collected from his and his wife's travels around the globe, one may not perceive Pribram as he describes himself: "I see myself as a person who is on the edge of almost getting kicked out of every academic place I have ever been - but not quite."



This article is based on interviews conducted by Juliet M. Beverly with Dr. Karl H. Pribram on March 21 and May 15, 2007.



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