Making a Model of Reality

Sometimes it trips me out that I can only interact with my model of reality, rather than reality itself.

The sounds I hear, the feel of my hair, the taste of juice in my mouth, are all just my brain’s construction of its best guess of what’s going on based on the sensory data coming in.

In some ways, it doesn’t make sense to make the distinction. If I can smell, touch, and taste something, why call it a model of reality rather than just reality?

To some extent, it doesn’t matter what I call it. No matter how much I remind myself that the world I live in is just my brain’s construction based on raw data, that world looks real, it feels real; it is as real as anything I can think of, so I will always fall back into the habit of thinking of it as reality, even if I remind myself a lot that it’s just a model.

Here’s what I mean by saying that what I experience is a model of reality, rather than reality itself: there are light waves, sound waves, and particles of matter that interact with my body. That’s what I think of as reality. My brain creates a representation of that reality, and that is the world I live in. The reason I think of it as a model, rather than reality itself, is because other beings can take the same light waves, sound waves, and particles of matter and create a different model. Dogs create a model of reality that includes more smells, fewer colors, and sharper clarity; some birds create a model of reality that can see into the ultraviolet spectrum; bats model their reality based more on sound waves than light waves.

Reality itself has way too much information to practically navigate all of it. So we discard much of the information in order to create our model of reality. We see neither waves that are infrared frequencies or lower, nor ultraviolet frequencies are higher. We discard sound waves that are too long or too short. Human eyes have a certain mix of rods and cones, with a species-specific balance of color and sharpness; different species have a different mix.

A few years back I took Stephen LaBerge’s weeklong lucid dreaming workshop, and we spent a lot of time discussing how we create our model of reality, and comparing our waking model of reality with our dreaming model of reality. The models are created the exact same way; the only difference is that our waking model has more external stimuli, the dreaming model more internal stimuli. Our dream world looks real, feels real, and smells real because it is as real as our waking world; the only difference is the raw material out of which our brain constructs it.

One of my favorite examples of how the brain can sometimes make a mistake in creating its model of reality was a short movie of a man saying a syllable over and over. With my eyes open, I would hear one syllable; with my eyes closed, I would hear a completely different syllable. The sounds were the exact same coming out of the movie, but my model of reality would change based on what sensory input I had. The man was saying “ba,” but they had filmed him saying a different syllable, one in which his two lips didn’t come together (I believe it was “ga”), then put the “ba” soundtrack over it.

My brain, when faced with conflicting information, did its best to guess what was going on, and made its model accordingly. The ears heard “ba,” and my eyes saw that the mouth wasn’t making the “ba” sound, so it guessed that the sound I was hearing was “da”. I heard “da,” clear as a bell, over and over, until I closed my eyes. Then I heard “ba,” over and over, clear as a bell, until I opened my eyes. “Da” or “ba” — my brain first constructed a model of reality with one, then the other, depending on the input I gave it. I could change my model of reality at will, even though reality itself wasn’t changing.

My model of reality is so convincing. It really feels like reality itself to me. It is real, in that it’s based on sensory input, and my brain is really constructing something that allows me to interact with that input. When I remind myself it’s just a model, and other creatures have other models, it’s a knowledge that can only hit the top layer of my mind. I can understand it intellectually, and sometimes I can brush against feeling it, yet it’s not a knowledge that has sunk in deeply, that I can claim to fully grok. Something about it seems important to me, though, helps remind me that I’m living in a human model of reality, with strong Kris flavors, and that other beings are living in different models of reality which are just as valid as mine. Mistaking a model of reality for reality itself is a fundamental error which is incredibly easy to make.

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