Galileo once wondered if we misinterpreted our lives. “I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on reside in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be annihilated.” Could Galileo be right—Do our lives happen entirely in our heads?
Centuries later, that answer is yes. We understand physically how the brain creates the subjective world around us. And thanks to neuroscience we have learned to measure sensations, emotions, and even dreams. Yet some people perceive circles visually while others understand them through both the eyes and mouth. If we cannot agree on what a circle is, then what can we say about larger reality?
Reality encompasses far more than we can perceive. Long ago, our ancestors lived and died by their ability to understand the world around them. Those who survived could distinguish a pear, say, from the poisonous jartopha fruit. A pear experience—sweet juice, gritty meat, smooth skin, green color, twiggy stem—differs from that of a jartopha. Perception matches the reality of each to the degree necessary to understand that one is safe and the other harmful. But would the defining features of pear and jartopha exist depending on whether we are there to sense them or not?
The questions is not for us to decide. The pear isn’t concerned with what we think. Instead of constructing reality from scratch, modern neuroscience argues that we re–construct reality, meaning that we structure and perceive the world as it relates to ourselves.
We navigate so as to avoid dangerous misinterpretations, but subjective reality is a flawed measure of what’s really out there. We once believed that the earth was flat because we perceived its flatness. We thought the sun and stars circled the earth because it looked that way. But given how often we have wrongly interpreted our perceptions, who is to say how things really are?
Put on infrared goggles, and the world looks strange. A warm stove coil glows bright neon. A person behind a screen is prominent whereas the screen itself is invisible. If our eyes could see infrared naturally we would have different priorities as to what mattered and what didn’t. If we could see heat rising from a landfill or a power plant, perhaps global warming would not seem like a myth to some.
What we see, smell, hear, taste, and feel are merely the gatekeepers to the mind’s reconstruction of reality. How we interpret them contributes another layer of meaning. Blue eyes may be not just blue but also attractive to you, while I might prefer green ones. A ripe pear might make my stomach growl, while you turn your nose up at it. To a synesthete the presence of either might trigger sounds that only she can hear. Perception is subjective.
We have only begun to ponder how individual minds reconstruct subjectively different worlds, to say nothing of the universe that lies beyond human reconstructions. Framed this way, reality is far more interesting than we can imagine.
Click here to leave a comment, or to email Dr. Cytowic and receive his low-frequency newsletter and a copy of Digital Distractions: Your Brain on Screens. Follow him @Cytowic, check him out at LinkedIn, or at his website, Cytowic.net.
Do you have a few minutes? This Ted talk on the subject by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman is well worth your time: