The funny thing about reality is that you can only get so close to it. Our senses compose an interface between our brains and the universe, a reality interface.
Everything we experience and everything we are and ever will be are ultimately derived from sensory input. The genetic code that formed when your father’s sperm penetrated your mother’s egg started its random walk through naturally selected mutations a couple of billion years ago. The recipe that made you resulted from the responses of and decisions made by your ancestors—every one of them, from algae to ape—based on their sensory inputs. And now you create everything— the scent of an orchid, the touch of a lover, the sound of music, and the view of the stars—from electrical signals generated by your own sensory acquisition equipment.
I find it strange that there are no nerves in our brains. The thing is packed with neurons, axons, dendrites, myelin—all that stuff that nerves are made of—but we can’t feel anything inside our brains. A surgeon can go in and poke around while you’re wide awake, and you won’t feel a thing.
The inescapably subjective nature of our realities
Here’s a simple definition of reality: stuff interacting in space. That pretty much covers everything that happens, right? Even daydreaming is stuff, since it’s made of neurons exchanging electrical energy stored in sodium, calcium, and potassium ions that move around in your head.
Objective reality would account for everything everywhere, but we don’t have access to that. Even with equipment, we’re not even close.
You only see three colors, two or even one if you’re colorblind, a tiny fraction of the colors that stars radiate. So we build equipment to see light beyond the rainbow’s spectrum, supervisual light like x-rays, and sub-visual light like radio waves.
It’s the same deal with sound: You can hear as low as 20 Hertz (Hz) and feel lower frequencies if they’re loud enough—the steady beating of bass lines blasted from tricked-out cars—and maybe as high as 20,000 Hz, far from what dolphins and bats hear, 150,000 and 200,000 Hz respectively. One Hz is a cycle per second, about the rate of your heartbeat. Envision how a strummed guitar string oscillates back and forth. The number of oscillations per second is the frequency in Hz.
Since the universe doesn’t really exist the way you experience it, there’s a huge gap between absolute reality and your perceived, subjective reality.
What’s more, since our senses are not identical, the raw data we each use to create our realities differ, and we each create different realities. Maybe I’ve been to louder concerts and lost a bit of hearing; perhaps your sense of smell wasn’t trashed by smoking various substances in your well-spent youth; maybe you didn’t suffer from migraine headaches that trained you to avert your eyes from bright lights. The contexts of our perceived realities also differ because our experiences differ.
Chains of perceptions, stimulus, and thoughts
Our realities are continuous chains of perceptions. By perception, I mean the association of stimulus and thought. For reality to make sense, we need context. To create context, we associate our current perceptions with what we’ve experienced in the past and our expectations for the immediate future, and then we squeeze the present right into the gap in a way that makes sense. Since we have different experiences and expectations, what makes sense to you isn’t likely to make sense to me.
Listen carefully the next time you talk to someone. The two of you will talk about the same subjects, but if you listen closely, I bet you’ll notice that you’re not having exactly the same conversation, not quite talking about identical ideas and phenomena.
If you were plopped into whatever situation you now find yourself—at the same age and with the same physical body and brain but with no experience, no previous thoughts whatsoever, no language skills, no learned abilities—nothing would make sense. You’d be worse than lost; you couldn’t even claim to exist! You couldn’t claim anything.
Since our perceived realities are derived from thoroughly processed sensory input, all reality is virtual. Einstein nailed it when he said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
The realities of whales, dogs, and trees
To get an idea of how our differences affect our perceptions of reality, let’s take a look at the perceived reality of an animal whose senses are tuned for a completely different environment.
Sperm whales are the largest predators on earth and have the largest brains of any animal, about six times the size of a human’s. We share the same five senses but use them in different ways.
Whales have huge eyes but don’t use them for the bulk of their visualizing. It’s murky underwater. At the depths where sperm whales like to hunt, almost two miles deep, a mammalian eye isn’t of much use. To see, whales, dolphins, and porpoises emit tightly directed sounds. When these sounds hit something, they echo back. From the timing of all the echoes, whales construct three-dimensional images including shape and location.
We see by looking around and gathering the ambient light reflected from things, but when a whale looks at something, it projects bursts of sound in specific, considered directions and then assembles images from the reflections.
Seeing by directing sound at things is like using a flashlight in the dark. In a well-lit room, you can look at me and I won’t know you’re looking unless I catch you. In a dark room, if you flash a light at me, I know you’re looking. In whale society, everyone knows where everyone is looking all the time. Just as we can recognize each other’s voices in a crowd, whales recognize each other’s gaze. No peeking allowed! Plus, sonar can penetrate skin. If a female whale is pregnant, everyone knows. If someone has a tumor, it’s the talk of the pod.
Adding perception of an object’s distance of separation, speed, resilience, and a bit of ultrasound to the overall “vision” equation, and removing color, alters reality in far-reaching ways.
Can you imagine walking into a bar where the patrons are acutely aware when your gaze sweeps past them? Where everyone can see through clothes and skin? Culture would be drastically altered.
If we had a bit of outer puppy just as we have plenty of inner puppy, that is, if we had tails, society would be quite different. Flirting would take a totally different turn. As it is, if the target of your flirtations has refined social skills, there’s no way to know how receptive they are to your advance until you become increasingly obvious. But what if you could see their tail wag?
At another extreme, consider the reality of General Sherman, a 275-foot-tall (84 meters), 2,500-year-old giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park, California.
Trees don’t have neurons, axons, dendrites, or any obvious processors that we can identify as brain-like, but they do have sensory detectors; they respond to sunlight, wind, and rain. They inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen at a rate so slow that it’s hard for a mammal to think of them as breathing. They reach out for nutrients and then wick them from the ground up to their canopies. They distribute water from the soil and leaves through artery-like channels in both trunk and twig.
A tree experiences a reality that differs from ours in almost every way. To say that a tree experiences anything might seem silly. You and I have very similar senses. Our perceived realities have much in common, but we differ around the edges and don’t agree on everything. The reality of a tree, though, is as far beyond our grasp as absolute reality itself.
Here’s an overused philosophical question: Is the red that you perceive the same as the red that I perceive? I suspect that our reds are nearly identical because the color detectors in our eyes are quite similar, and we process that information in very nearly identical regions of our brains.
I will never know if your red is the same as mine, but I do know that blue is a superior color.
The power of perspective
The realization that we have pretty much the same emotional processing equipment as animals contradicts assumptions people have made for thousands of years. We’re driven by emotions like other animals—not just other primates, but dogs, cats, rats, whales, and birds too. Unlike most of the other animals, and maybe all of them, we have the ability to realize that sometimes our emotions might not be our best guides. Perhaps we could even measure our own enlightenment by how often we practice this ability.
A particularly amusing result of being animals capable of understanding that we’re animals is that we also have the capability of denying that we’re animals. We’re about evenly split on the issue. Now, for me, if something eats like an animal, excretes like an animal, has sex like an animal, suckles from its mother, experiences fear, anger, affection, love, and hate like an animal, well, it just might be an animal.
Every step we take in expanding our worlds is born of simple electrical excitations, networks that reach across the 3-pound (1.5 kg) organs in our heads. The more associations we make, the further our minds can reach. One feedback loop germinates another and another, and so on, a feedback loop of feedback loops, expanding our realities with each increment until we’re wide awake with consciousness.
We create our own realities from the simplest sensory input all the way to the most abstract constructs. From light and dark to danger and security to choosing what color earbuds to get for our smartphones, we create everything, and a big slice of our reality pie is baked so fast that we end up with just a sliver. Animals create their realities too, but people do it to a crazy extreme.
Combining the rational brilliance of our inner Feynmans (Richard Feynman) with the irrational passion of our inner puppies has allowed us to set goals, to plan, to worry, and to evaluate. Our ability to associate ever higher levels of thought, from instinctual comprehension of fanged threats to concepts of the fundamental rules of how stars and atoms form, has led to our greatest achievements in art and science and everything in between.
We have been unleashed by our tacit understanding of our own limitations. Can’t see through someone’s skin to check a broken bone? Use x-rays. Want to transmute lead into gold? Learn chemistry and see why you can’t.
We can use tools to get different perspectives, but the most powerful tool is our brains. Wondering about the ways of things? Tools from poetry to mathematics bring us closer to the answers. Our ever-widening creation of reality, spurred on by tools made of silicon, of horsehair, or by the Fender Corporation, along with tools built from thoughts written on scratch paper, spreads our lives across longer timescales and larger spaces.
The challenges we face demand new perspectives. If we could solve our problems with the same old perspectives, they wouldn’t be challenges. By thinking about how other people, other animals, and other life-forms perceive a challenge, we can see it in a new light.
Copyright 2016 by Ransom Stephens. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Physicist Ransom Stephens explains the interesting and often amusing tale of how the human brain works. Using understandable metaphors and easy to follow language, Stephens gives readers of any scientific level an introduction to neuroscience and shows them how things like creativity, skill, and even perception of self can grow and change by utilizing the body’s most important muscle.
About the Author
RANSOM STEPHENS, PH.D., physicist, science writer, and novelist, has written hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from neuroscience to quantum physics to parenting teenagers. His new book, The Left Brain Speaks The Right Brain Laughs (Viva Editions, 2016), is an accurate irreverent look at neuroscience for a lay-audience with emphasis on innovation in art, science, and life. Stephens has given thousands of speeches across the US, Europe, and Asia and has developed a reputation for making complex topics accessible and funny. For more information, visit www.ransomstephens.com.