The Neuroscience of Your Reality

At the most basic level, your reality is constructed by your brain. Making sense of the world and its happenings is nothing more than your individual brain’s interpretation of the signals it receives as you go about your days interacting with your environment.

Much of what you think of as reality is really a construction of your brain.

You Do Not Experience the World Directly

It may feel as though you have direct access to the concrete physical world through your senses, but you don’t. Your senses do not experience the world directly. When you touch something, it feels like the touch is happening in your fingers. However, it’s not. It’s happening in your brain. The same is true for all of your senses. Seeing doesn’t happen in the eyes. Hearing doesn’t take place in your ears. Smelling doesn’t happen in your nose. These are all activities of your brain. In his book,  The Brain: The Story of You, David Eagleman writes:

Here’s the key: the brain has no access to the world outside. Sealed within the dark, silent chamber of your skull, your brain has never directly experienced the external world, and it never will. Instead, there’s only one way that information from out there gets into the brain. … Everything you experience — every sight, sound, smell — rather than being a direct experience, is an electrochemical rendition in a dark theater.”

Your brain has to turn the incoming electrochemical patterns into useful information.

Color Only Exists in Your Head

Color is merely the cone cells in your retina being stimulated by light waves within a certain range of the spectrum. About a third of the human brain is dedicated to turning photons of light into meaning. Because our brains are different, our perceptions of color are different. The sky is blue, right? No question about it. However, your blue is different from my blue. Maybe even very different. Neither is right or wrong. Both are blue. Your blue is just as blue to you as my blue is to me. They both are our individual brains making sense of the same signals.

In fact, Eagleman writes, “We think of color as a fundamental quality of the world around us. But, in the outside world, color doesn’t actually exist.” It exists in your brain. Furthermore, the slice of color that we can see is limited by our biology. Other creatures perceive what they have evolved to see. However, each living being assumes its window of reality is the entire objective world. It’s not. Eagleman writes:

Not only is there no color, there’s also no sound… Reality is also odorless: there’s no such thing as smell outside our brains.  Molecules floating through the air bind to receptors in our nose and are interpreted as different smells by our brain. The real world is not full of rich sensory events; instead, our brains light up the world with their own sensuality.”

Each of us experiences the world uniquely as our brains give meaning to events and stimuli we encounter according to our physical brain function, memories, beliefs, and attitudes about ourselves and others. These influences are generally below conscious awareness and determine how you respond to the world, interact in relationships, and think of and talk to yourself. Therefore, everything in your life — your parents, your seventh-grade teacher, your media consumption — all play a part in shaping your unique reality.The Neuroscience of Your Reality

Your Reality Is Based on Your Senses But Is Not Dependent on Them

While your reality is a construction of your brain based on input from your senses, your reality is not completely dependent on that. When you take away all input from your senses, your brain still creates a reality.

In The Brain: The Story of You, David Eagleman tells of interviewing prisoners who had been locked in “the Hole” in Alcatraz, a prison on an island in the San Francisco Bay. The Hole, a ten-foot by ten-foot cell with no light and no sound, is where prisoners are kept in solitary confinement. While their eyes and ears may be starved of input, they report continuing to see and hear — inside their heads.

Eagleman explains that our brains have an “internal model” of reality.  It’s your brain’s internal model of reality that allows the world to remain stable — even though you are constantly moving. That’s its primary purpose. It allows you to navigate the world. We believe that we are taking in the world around us. When in fact, your brain leaves out much of the fine detail, but this isn’t an error of your brain. More details are added on a need-to-know basis.

He uses the example of vision to illustrate the concept:

In fact, the brain generates its own reality, even before it receives information coming from the eyes and other senses… Detailed expectations about the world — in other words, what the brain  ‘guesses’ will be out there — are being transmitted by the visual cortex to the thalamus. The thalamus then compares what’s coming in from the eyes. If that matches the expectations (‘when I turn my head I should see a chair there’), then very little activity goes back to the visual system. The thalamus simply reports on differences between what the eyes are reporting, and what the brain’s internal model has predicted… So, at any moment, what we experience as seeing relies less on the light streaming into our eyes, and more on what’s already inside our heads.”

Your Internal Model of Reality Is Your Reality

When you go out in the world, you automatically seem to know what is what without having to work out every little detail.  That’s because your brain makes assumptions based on past experiences. It doesn’t constantly rebuild your reality every moment from scratch. That would be an enormous use of energy. Your brain is very efficient.

Instead, you are always comparing incoming sensory information with an internal model your brain has already constructed. Your brain is constantly updating, refining, and correcting it. Because it is so efficient at this task, you are generally unaware of it. However, sometimes you can observe your brain at work doing this.

The video below of the “hollow mask illusion” depicts one such time. When you’re presented with the hollow side of the mask, your brain makes it look like it’s protruding because that’s what it expects faces to look like.

Reality Is Subjective and Objective

Because of our differing brains, each one of us really does live in our own world. Reality depends on what actually happens (objective) and how your brain makes sense of what happens (subjective). Although there are many commonalities across our realities, it cannot be assumed that reality is the same for everyone or even close to it. Some people have very different perceptions of reality.

For example, certain individuals can hear colors or smell sounds. Synesthesia is where one sense is simultaneously perceived by one or more additional senses. Another form of synesthesia joins objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people’s names with a sensory perception such as smell, color, or flavor.

Intentionally Influencing Your Reality

The fact that there is no objective reality can be kind of scary, but it can also be empowering. This fact provides you with the opportunity to influence your life. By purposefully affecting your brain’s interpretation of the world around you, you can change your brain and life for the better.

The key is to become conscious of your brain’s subconscious filter, at times, and positively influence your thoughts and mind in a way that helps you. Remember that your brain factors in subconscious beliefs and attitudes about yourself, others, and the world when assigning meaning to incoming stimuli and in this way, creates your reality. By becoming aware of these influences and consciously choosing which ones you allow to have an impact and intentionally inserting new influences, you can change your past and future.

You can’t literally change the events of your past, of course. However, by modifying your perspective and feelings about past events, you alter their significance in your present life which can, in turn, allow you to modify your feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and future. Because of neuroplasticity, a proven scientific truth that your brain changes based on input, your repeated thoughts, feelings, and behaviors actually alter your physical brain and its functioning. By changing your mindset, you CAN change your brain and reality.

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. Thoreau

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