We Are All Hallucinating. All the Time.

Our Simulating Brains

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Our Brains Construct Reality

In How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett asks us to imagine taking part in an art gallery tour. Our tour guide leads us to a large white canvas splotched with random blobs of black paint:

What do we see? Well, nothing, really. Black blobs on white space. We are in a state neuroscientists label experiential blindness. We’ve never seen anything like this before. Our brains have no memories to compare the image to, so we honestly don’t know what to make of it.

Then our guide shows us a photograph of a bee perched on a flower, and explains it was the artist’s inspiration for the painting. We all study the photo. When we look again at the painting, sure enough, we can see the bee. It’s right there! How could we have missed it?

Left via PXHere.com. Same image on the right and above, manipulated in PowerPoint.

Actually, the bee is not there in the painting. Our eyes are still seeing the very same black splotches on a white canvas. Only our perception has changed. Here’s Lisa Feldman Barrett:

What just happened in your brain to change your perception of these blobs? Your brain added stuff from the full photograph into its vast array of prior experience and constructed the familiar object you now see in the blobs. Neurons in your visual cortex changed their firing to create lines that aren’t present, linking the blobs into a shape that isn’t physically there. You are, in a manner of speaking, hallucinating.

She labels this phenomenon Simulation. Our brains, wholly outside our conscious intention or awareness, change the firing of their sensory neurons to construct a simulation of reality that makes sense to us — a facsimile that may differ markedly from reality as-it-is.

We do not experience the real world. We experience our brain’s best guess of what’s happening in the world. Each of our “realities” is a unique simulation woven by our brains from what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch, but also from our remembered past experiences — plus our interpretation of those experiences.

If we imagine a bee drifting from flower to flower, the bee each of us envisions will be different, based on real bees we’ve seen. But our bee will also be colored by our concept of what a bee is, what our personal experience has told us about “bee-ness.” Yours may be a harmless fairy innocently pollinating your garden. Mine may be a winged devil scheming to sink its stinger and send me to the emergency room… Based on our differing concepts of “bee-ness,” should a real bee zip through the air between us, you will likely smile in placid wonder while I dive for cover. Neither of our reactions has anything to do with the actual physical bee flying by, and everything to do with our concepts.

Again, Lisa Feldman Barrett:

Using your concepts, your brain groups some things together and separates others. You can look at three mounds of dirt and perceive two of them as “Hills” and one as a “Mountain,” based on your concepts. Construction [your brain “filling in the blanks” with your stored concepts in order to build a meaningful simulation of reality] treats the world like a sheet of pastry, and your concepts are cookie cutters that carve boundaries, not because the boundaries are natural, but because they’re useful or desirable.

Uncommon Sense

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Common sense tells us there is a “Truth” about the world that we discover through observation and reasoning. We find meaning in the world by absorbing and thinking about sensory information, by measuring and reasoning over what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch.

Lisa Feldman Barrett says that’s an illusion. In fact, the exact opposite is what happens — our brains impose meaning on the world by reshaping sensory data in conformity with our cookie cutter concepts.

And they do this entirely on their own. Beyond the level of conscious awareness or control.


The implications of this “uncommon sense” reversal are huge:

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Religion/Spirituality: Is God analogous to the splotched canvas, not comparable to any human experience, and all religions therefore “bees” — best guesses constructed by our brains to impose, rather than discover, meaning? Do religions reveal God? Or impose human concepts on God?

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Love: Relationships are founded on the assumption that it’s possible to know and be known by another. But if we’re actually constructing and interacting with simulations of one another, psychic blends of what our lovers reveal about themselves and our pre-existing concepts (what love is, how men are, what women want, what commitment means… and many others), is “knowability” an illusion? Are we incomparable canvases who can’t help but turn each other into bees?

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Science: The cornerstone of Science is objective observation. But if our brains fill in blanks, connect dots, and insert preconceived concepts beyond the level of our conscious awareness or control, and we “… are, in a manner of speaking, hallucinating,” is objectivity even possible?

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Politics: We think Fake News is a problem. But if “political reality” is a bee constructed by each of our brains from the limited reporting we’re aware of, plus our preconceived bias (concepts), by what standard would we define “Real News?”


Reality As-It-Isn’t

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Our brains construct simulations of the world around us by combining incoming sensory data with existing, mostly unconscious stored memories and concepts. We are hardwired to experience these blended simulations as “real.”

If Lisa Feldman Barrett is right, and she assures readers that her theories are supported by the latest research in Neuroscience, we never experience reality as-it-is.

We are all hallucinating. All the time.

Does this change your view of religion, love, Science, politics? Should we live differently in light of this “uncommon sense” truth?


Thanks for reading!