Believing in mirages: The convincing illusion of reality

Last week I wrote about my spaniel, Moose, and how he’s dependent on a ‘blankie’ to help him regulate his emotions (here), mostly because he’s lacking development in the part of the brain that we use to focus our attention. Because of this limitation, his attentional focus is extremely limited and it’s very hard for him to attend to anything for a reasonable amount of time, without getting distracted by either the environment or his emotions.

Writing that post got me thinking a lot more about our notions of self, and how we construct ourselves from our interpretation of the world around us. Today, I’d like to write a little more about that…

Let’s start with the thought experiment you probably got excited about sometime during your teens: how do you know that the world is real? Are you just a brain in a tank, or a simulation? How would you ever know? I’m certainly not the first person to go there – people have speculated about the notion for a long time, and it’s formed the basis for any number of novels and movies (including the Matrix – one of my favourite films of all time).

We don’t actually need to go down that road to get a clean answer. Whilst we’ll probably never know whether we’re running on someone else’s computer simulation, it’s pretty clear that we’re actually running on our own simulation of the world, and a relatively poor one at that. Let me explain…

We are removed from the real world (whatever that might be) by an abstraction layer. All of the information we receive about it comes to us from our rather limited senses, and that information is processed in order to construct a representation of the world around us. I say representation because what we interpret is a very narrow slice of what’s actually going on around us. Our senses can only access a very narrow portion of the various spectrums around us – we hear from around 20 to 20,000 Hz, we see only in the visible light spectrum of electromagnetic energy (remembering that it extends out in both directions), we smell and taste a fraction of the molecules entering our body. Moreover, we only pay attention to a very small proportion of the limited information coming in, we simply filter out the rest. We can’t even be sure of the information that we take in. As you’re reading this, your eyes are tracking across the screen, but you’re completely unaware of the two blind spots in the outer portion of your visual field, or the fact that your brain is editing out the 50 Hz flicker of your computer monitor.

To make matters worse, this abstracted information is compared against a predeveloped model of the world and, where there’s a lack of fit, we often refuse to acknowledge the information, even if it’s obvious to others. We create our own reality by attending to a very small portion of it, and then editing out the bits we don’t believe in*.

But here’s the thing that amazes me. Despite both the extremely limited amount of information we receive about the world, and the fact that even that gets processed through a set of filters, all of us swear blind that our take on reality is the correct one. We put huge amounts of faith in our ability to accurately gauge reality – and we use this information to construct ourselves. This is a bit of a problem…

Let’s take a brief moment out to discuss the self. Most of us have a pretty strong level of self-belief. We trust that we are able to perceive the world accurately, and in our ability to remain consistent across different situations. The problem is that recent work in neuroscience has demonstrated, rather conclusively, that what you and I hold to be a consistent self is instead a convincing illusion. We believe that we are consistent and stable, because we’re a part of the illusion. In reality, people are extremely inconsistent, but very good at confabulation, the ability to make up stories bout the world to justify our behaviour and to construct a narrative of the consistent self.

In other words, we make things up as we go along to fit our internal view, and shape our model of the world around us to fit this narrative. It tends to get us in a lot of trouble.

As human beings, we possess language, and we use language as a metaphor to represent the objects around us. Language allows us to construct rules about the world, and our place within it. These rules can be relatively simple. For instance, if I were to ask you to think of a chair, you’d imagine whatever your notion of a typical chair was. But even these simple rules can be broken, resulting in mental stress. For example, if you walked into a room and saw a chair upside-down, chances are that would violate the rules you hold for chairs. Chairs are for sitting on, so you’d probably feel the urge to create a reality that matched up with your rules about chairs – you’d turn the chair over. But language is a lot more complex. It allows us to describe a lot more than chairs and their rules. In fact, it allows us to create abstraction layers without any sensory input. We can construct complex worlds in our heads without having seen them, and develop notional representations of the world that don’t even rely on objects (with concepts like love and faith). This ability comes at a price: we construct ever increasingly complex rule systems to describe our internal reality. If you get upset when a chair violates its rules, what happens when you describe yourself (using language) as, for instance, an angry person, a depressed person, or an anxious person? What rules have you developed in your head about being angry, depressed, or anxious? The answer is that we construct ourselves based on our uses of language to represent the world. We create ourselves by the things we pay attention to and those selves, in turn, determine what we attend to – often in self-contained loops. We end up with multiple selves, most of which are simply clusters of behaviours in response to various contexts. In fact, it turns out that, even though we believe in a stable personality, we have many – activated in different environments#.

Here’s the deal. Our ‘realities’ are nothing of the sort. Trusting in them, and in ourselves, is trusting in a poorly created fiction. And because we very seldom question our view of reality, we also believe the things we tell ourselves. We construct stories about ourselves, and then attend only to the parts of our limited input that verify those stories. No wonder we often become so fucked up.

There is something we can do, however. Unlike Moose (from last week), we can do two things. First, we can be aware of the fact that the information coming to us is both limited and biased. We can stop trusting that our view of the world is correct. Second, once we’ve stopped trusting in our various selves (and recognising that our various thoughts and feelings and urges aren’t reality at all, just fluctuations based on how our complex rule sets interact with the information that we receive through our senses) we can start being more deliberate in what we attend to. Rather than just attending to the things that reinforce our world view, and filtering the rest, we can choose what we pay attention to. We can become aware of the illusion and choose our actions.

At least it’ll feel like that but, actually, because your sense of self is just an illusion, the belief that you made a choice is also illusory.

Welcome to the Matrix…


* Note, this is all happening well below conscious awareness.

# It’s true. If you take a personality test after being primed for a different environmental context (e.g., home, work, study, social, etc.) you’ll get different results. But you’ll make up a great story to explain the inconsistencies and convince yourself of a stable self.

2 Replies to “Believing in mirages: The convincing illusion of reality”

  1. If we stop trusting that our world view is correct, does that also mean that we no longer engage with its associated set of (self imposed) rules and regulations? What we might choose to attend too might (in this case) be something, which is entirely dysfunctional (to ourselves and others). I’m wondering how this idea fits into the concept of ‘consensus reality’ in which our collective construct of reality at least serves the purpose of making sure we’re not running around raping and killing each other. Obviously our ‘various selves’ have to conform to some set of principals, which govern what is beneficial to our survival and wellbeing.

    1. Agreed – one thing I left out of the post was the fact that a lot of our self constructs are the consequence of social influence – in fact, without social reinforcement and interaction, there’s not much of a self (at least in terms of its formation and expression) – so we do conform to the social norm and some of these are extremely useful for keeping a society functioning!

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