4125774951_0f8283a49e_zBlack is black and white is white. In between the two, are all kinds of shades of gray.  Agreed?  Right is right and wrong is wrong. What is in between? Is there even a clear right and wrong in all cases?

I would venture to answer this with a “Not really.” Brain research is proving, without a doubt, more and more that there’s no singular reality. Each of us experiences the world uniquely as our own particular interpretation of the events and stimuli encountered which are influenced by our physical brain function, past memories and experiences, and present conditions. In their book, The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons write:

Again and again, we think we experience and understand the world as it is, but our thoughts are beset by every day illusions. We write traffic laws and build criminal cases on the assumption that people will notice when something unusual happens right in front of them….falsely believing that vivid memories are seared into our minds with perfect fidelity.

They cite several examples in which two people witnessing an identical event didn’t see the same thing at all. Each person’s rendition is very different from that which was recorded, but each of them are telling the “truth” as they know it to be.


There Is No Single Truth

There’s only the truth for an individual as they believe it to be – and that changes. Your memory doesn’t store everything verbatim like a computer and retrieve an exact replica. A recollection is a re-creation. Your brain rebuilds memories from a few key features and fills in the missing details based on associations and knowledge. No one can distinguish between what’s recalled verbatim and what is constructed by your brain.

I would extend this to our present consciousness as well. We all see the world through a lens colored by our unique life experiences, past and present, and conduct ourselves and make decisions accordingly. Hence, there are very few things which are clearly right or wrong.  Sure, there are the definite wrongs against other living things and rights, again, usually having to do with another living thing, but I would propose that the majority of everything else falls somewhere in shades of gray in between.

If reality and the truth are different for every one of us because of our physical brains, how can I even begin to know what is “right” for anyone else? My world and their world are different even if we live in the same city, state, country, or even the same house.  Because a religion, a political affiliation, a view about abortion, a sexual preference or a lifestyle is right for me, doesn’t mean it’s going to be anywhere near right for somebody else.

This makes me have so much more understanding and empathy for others.

The next time you find yourself thinking that you’re right and someone else is wrong or just wondering what in the  heck someone could be thinking, please consider this fact. Imagine what it would feel like to be in their body with their thoughts and feelings based on their unique journey up until that point in their life. You can do this by taking into account what you know about them and by, then, formulating understanding and kind guesses about their inner world and how it is being reflected in their outer world.  If you do not know them at all, acknowledge this difference with compassion and understanding.


If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm any hostility.    

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/don3rdse/

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  1. Ande Waggener Reply

    This is a powerful post, Debbie! So, so true. Not long before his death, my father wrote a manuscript about linguistics called “The Mind Was Meant To Be Boggled.” It was never completed, but his discussion of language began with the premise that none of us every speak exactly the same language because we all attach our own meanings to every single word. So even if we both speak English, we still aren’t totally understanding each other.

    As you point out, this is true of what we experience with our senses as well. We look at the same thing and see something different. And it is, as you so eloquently say, an excellent reminder to practice tolerance or, to put it more casually, to get our noses out of other people’s business.

    I stopped judging others a long time ago. In a world of subjective reality, I have a challenging enough time keep up with my own truth without trying to figure out someone else’s. 😉

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Your Dad’s concept is fascinating and so true also. Never thought about it before, but, just like our opinions and beliefs, even our speech has unique meaning that we attach to it. So, I guess we really are all speaking a different language and living in different realities.

      Even though this points to us all existing very individually, this can make us all more connected through understanding and empathy, if we let it.

  2. medicinemenmex Reply

    if you think that black is black and white is white then you have no concept of grey – black is absence white is the whole spectrum – don’t be closed in your mind grey doesn’t even exist

  3. Debbie Hampton Reply

    This exemplifies perfectly the point of this post and why there is no blanket, universal right or wrong and the truth is different for every one as each person’s perspective is different. Your belief is right for you, and I respect that.

  4. Hello Debbie,

    Great insights! The mind makes an assessment based on information that may be inaccurate, incomplete and fragmented. A lot of times, the conclusion that it draws turns out to be judgmental. When we can understand this, we can learn to be less angry at others and less insistent that we are right. More loving and peaceful relationships can be cultivated 🙂

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Evelyn, I could not agree more. Those people that tend to want to be right also tend to like cold, hard factual information. Here it is telling them that there is no one, right way. This should satisfy their left brain and, hopefully, make them be a little more comfortable with the wisdom of the right to allow more compassion.

  5. Judy M. Hampton Reply

    Interesting! I can remember having the discussion about all the gray between black and white as you and your brothers were growing up. We also discussed that there were two sides to every story and the truth was probably somewhere in between the two. I have had the experience of having the same word mean something different to a another person than to me. As for reality, at least the sun still comes up every morning and most days we even get to experience the warmth it provides.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      So, the roots for this kind of thinking go back to my childhood. Thank you for that! Somewhere along the way, the predominant thinking of society – black or white – won out. Now, I am back to this and it feels so much better. It is kinder to myself and others. You are right. The one thing I think we all can agree on is that the sun will come up, and we can feel its warmth on our faces. I like it!

  6. Hi Debbie, this is awesome, I love it. I finished my daily post on Steven Aitchison’s Mind Alchemy course earlier tonight, then came here. Guess what – today was called “My Reality is not your reality” – spooky. I am absolutely with you on greater empathy, compassion and understanding being the key to increased and improved connectedness. Thank you very, very much for yet another fascinating insight into the brain. Take care, Stephen

  7. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Stephen, must be the message today, eh?! His title says it all. By really taking this into consideration, we can all have more understanding and compassion for each other throughout the world. Even though reality is different for everyone, I think we all have the same experience of just wanting to be loved and find some level of happiness. Hence, we are all the same even with our differences, I believe.

  8. Debbie,

    This is so fascinating! I’m always amazed by what you report here and the eloquence with which you do so. I was stuck on being right for such a big part of my life. Eventually, I came to the same conclusion that you propose in this article. How could I ever know what is right for someone else? I really like the way you interweave you conclusions with a call to stepping into the other person’s shoes, which is the best way to drop our arrogance and find our compassionate heart.

  9. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Sandra, thanks so much for the kind words! Much appreciated. As you point out, this view brings peace to the holder because it encourages one to develop a kind, empathetic heart. It does not propagate the anger or defensiveness that black and white thinking does. The world could use a lot more of the former! To think we are biologically predisposed to it, too.

  10. I’m glad to have found your work, Debbie. I work in medical imaging, have worked with dementia patients and addict populations, and I was a crisis counselor. I’m interested in all kinds of brain stuff, though I admit freely to knowing much more about diagnosis than treatment. I work in the standard medical environment, but I have no biases against alternative and emerging therapies. Whatever works. I agree with 99-point whatevah of concepts in this article. I’m only going to explore a tiny difference of opinion because I’m used to differential diagnosis (ruling things out). I don’t assume you would even disagree, and I understand you were focusing upon the unique experience of how we each understand things. I just feel it’s important to say explicitly.

    There’s a difference between boundaries we place upon what can be known (epistemology) and ways we ought to behave (ethics). Our truths are individual, but there will still be places we should not go and things we should not do, and they will be “wrong”, varying somewhat with the situation. I apologize for using a horrible example, but it’s always wrong to kill a person without sufficient justification (such as to protect others from being killed). It would also always be wrong to intentionally withhold forgiveness, because to do so will harm both unforgiver and unforgiven.

    I try to be accepting. flexible and inclusive about morality, but I still believe behavioral boundaries are necessary – though we certainly can benefit from trying to understand each other’s truths. Thanks for providing this fine workout space.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Invisible Mikey, thanks for stopping by. Luv the profile pic BTW! 🙂 Thank you for your thought provoking comment. You certainly raise some good points. I think we run into a blurry area whenever you say “should.” This is where perception comes in. Your “shoulds” are not my “shoulds” or anyone else’s. Ethics too, I believe, are somewhat subjective and biased by individual perception.

      You say it is always wrong to kill a person without sufficient justification. What is “sufficient justification?” This is an ethical question in addition to the actual situation or as you say epistemology. (New word for me. Sounds like the cut they make when having a baby!) The evidence presented is showing that the actual situation even as experienced in the moment is different for each one of us based on what happened and our brain’s interpretation of it which is very much individually biased by our own beliefs and experiences.

      I guess I am saying is that what “can be known” as you say is subjective. There is no such thing that is hard, definite, concrete and unchanging. I agree, behavioral boundaries are necessary, but we must recognize even these are subjectively interpreted as they are experienced. This will help us understand each others truths as you remark.

  11. Your argument is that because we each interpret objective reality in slightly different ways, that there’s no objective reality?

  12. There is a problem when the conclusion does not match up with reality. The argument follows the same sort logic that because atoms are tiny with great spaces between them, physical objects are composed mainly of nothing, and therefore we should be able to pass right through them. The amount of times someone has to run into a wall to see that this isn’t the case varies individually.

    The fluctuations that occur at a subatomic level are highly interesting, but when they are all taken together on the macroscopic scale, we still get a solid wall.

    Consider the fact that among the vast multitude of incorrect beliefs humans have held throughout history, the universe has not shifted its fundamental, OBJECTIVE nature in order to fit our mindset, ever. Believing the world was flat didn’t make it so, believing that the sun revolved around the earth didn’t make it so, and believing walls don’t exist doesn’t make it so either.

    Yes, we interpret things differently. Yes, all our lives and experiences are slightly different. This doesn’t mean that we all live in our own untouchable, subjective bubbles. Objective reality always comes crashing through when put to the test.

    We all share the same swimming pool, regardless of how anyone feels about swimming.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      There is no problem as far as I am concerned. You are entitled to, and I respect your interpretation of the science. It works for you. There is no one singular correct way to interpret these findings or anything, for that matter, hence…there is no one reality. As this exemplifies, we all live in different worlds created by our own individual perceptions, interpretations and beliefs. Mine is right for me. All I am offering here is my version.

  13. That is what is so tempting about the idea of subjective realities… in theory, they would eliminate the capacity to be wrong about anything, ever, because one can simply claim, “Well in my reality, gravity doesn’t exist, so I’m going to jump off my balcony and fly to work tomorrow, because screw traffic.” As always, reality and it’s annoying objectivity harshly disagrees.

    The ability for an idea to be wrong is what drives all progress, whether it be personal, scientific, social, etc. Science hasn’t progressed as far as it has by claiming that “1+1=2” and “1+1=3” are equally valid statements. It’s only through constantly proving previous models inaccurate that we’ve reached the state to even start testing quantum theory.

    You’re right when you say that the memory is faulty, and often reconstructs a picture that tends to be increasingly inaccurate as time goes on, despite our confidence in its accuracy. You’re also right about two people interpreting the same event differently, focusing on or noticing different aspects that the individual deems important. You’re right about many things in this article. But it is quite simply an illogical leap to claim that because, say, two people viewed a car crash in different ways, that the car crash didn’t happen at all. Or, as you claim, “There is only the truth for an individual as they believe it to be.”

    We can “begin to know what is “right” for anyone else” in the same way we know that bullets kill, and act accordingly. The problem with the social issues you mentioned is not that we all live in our own little detached, subjective realities. The problem is trying to make blanket statements or solutions about an issue which factors vary depending on a person’s objectively real circumstances.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      You make a good point that if we all just arbitrarily live in our subjective realities, it would be delusional, chaotic, and unhealthy. While there are some definite things that are unquestioningly objective…man cannot fly, bullets kill, a car crash is a crash….there are many things which are not objective which are just taken as being “fact” or “truth.” There are some facts and truths which are universally accepted, but far less than most just take for granted. While a car crash is undoubtedly an objective, real event, the specifics of why, how, what happened in the car crash are subjective and open to interpretation. I am not saying that it can or should be denied that it even happened. Yes, it did, but almost everything else about it is subjective.

      What I am saying is that until the world was known to be round, people believed it was flat. That was their truth and reality. It was very real for them. After the finding that the world is indeed round, that became the reality. What changed? The objective Earth did not change. People’s perceptions changed. Objective is only what we perceive it to be with the knowledge we have at that time. Objective changes and is susceptible to perception. One plus one equals two only because we have decided that it equals two and have given “two” that definition. It could have been determined somewhere along the line that one plus one equals “zink” or anything else we want to assign that meaning. Again, it is the meaning we have given to something, the subjective interpretation, that has changed. The objective actuality has not changed.

      I still believe that any individual cannot begin to know what is right for someone else – except, as I say in the blog, for socially accepted wrongs against another life – and that there really is no “right” or “wrong” – only differences for which I am advocating awareness and compassion. There is no “problem,” as you keep saying with anything here or your or my position as far as I am concerned. You are entitled to your beliefs as am I. No one is right or wrong.

  14. There’s nothing subjective about the actual car crash. The actual events that took place are not open to interpretation, only subject to falsehood. If one person reports, “He immediately died from the crash” and another reports, “He look completely unharmed”, then we aren’t left with a Schrodinger’s Cat scenario in which the victim is simultaneously alive and dead at the same time. He’s either alive, or he’s dead. One person is right, and the other person -wrong-. Even when reporting the other events around the car crash, there are aspects that are true and ones that are false. If there are irreconcilably conflicting reports, it doesn’t mean that both reports are valid. It means either one or both people are -wrong- in what they reported.

    What is objective does not change with our perceptions. What is -subjective- changes with our perceptions. The only reason the “flat earth” theory was “true to them” was because it was something that was rarely put to the test. When it came time to study navigation and astronomy, it turned out that the previous theory was undeniably, irreconcilably -wrong-. To get around your next semantic argument, replace 1’s and 2’s with whatever words you’re most comfortable with, and as long as the conclusion is the same as 1+1=2, it doesn’t matter what you call it. If you say it equals 3, or whatever word you replace 3 with that still means 3, then your subjective interpretation of reality is false.

    This is a very large problem. As I previously noted, progress is driven by determining what theories match up with reality, and which ones don’t. Our growing age of “hyper tolerance”, where people such as yourself try to make the claim that blatant falsehoods and tested truths are equally true, “no one is right or wrong”, is cancerous to progress. Holding this view completely eliminates both the drive and the ability to determine truth from falsehood (if everything is “equally true”). This is rank poison to the mind, and it has been my intention to point that out to anyone else who reads this.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Objective does change according to the information. Objective can only be defined in terms of the now as our subjective interpretation of the information of the present dictates. The Earth being flat has been proven otherwise, but at the time, I am pretty sure it was viewed as “objective.”

      I never said everything is equally true objectively, however, something is “true” subjectively for an individual if they believe it to be true- even if objective information conflicts . Their perceptions create their reality. I think the difference here is in the clarification of objective and subjective truth. There is no one, consistent right or wrong for all things because it is always becomes subjective upon interpretation. Even the taking of another human life is subjective. It becomes a gray area depending on the circumstances. If an intruder breaks into your home and is carrying a knife, and you shoot him, is it right or wrong? We have laws that define such issues and impose the general understanding of right and wrong. However, the interpretation of these laws are subjective. That is why there are juries.

      It is your subjective perspective/opinion that this is a problem and that it is “cancerous to progress.” Not mine. You are certainly entitled to your opinion and to point out that you believe this is “rank poison to the mind.” That is not my belief. Everyone is entitled to make up there own minds.

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  16. Hi, I love this discussion and in a certain sense it boils down to a hermeneutical problem: is my truth the same as yours. Am I interpreting the utterences of others without imposing my own categories on them.
    Heidegger wrote an important piece where he had a “conversation” with a Japanese to illustrate the different approaches to our understanding of things and the atmosphere of the conversation is an effort to understand the most difficult and ineffable conceptions–beauty, utterance, language.

    What is in the eye of the beholder; the premise of Ande Waggeners father’s piece he was writing. Would have been a pleasure to read.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Johan, I have never even seen the word hermeneutical before. Had to look that one up. I like it! 🙂 I would say that everything boils down to our brains’ subjective interpretation of the stimuli around us in the world. Each individual could be having a VERY different experience although I do think there are some universal commonalities such as beauty, love, evil.

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