I’ve always been curious about reality. I can accept that I am sitting in my office chair, my own hands stretched in front of me, touching hard plastic keys on a bluetooth keyboard, each touch producing a change that adds or removes squiggly marks on the screen in front of me, carefully engineered to look like a sheet of white paper suspended in portrait view. Because I’m not using full-screen mode, I can see my background wallpaper on what is called my ”desktop”. Of course, I know it’s not an actual desktop because my keyboard and my coffee cup are sitting on my ”real” desktop. If I tried to place them on the one in front of me, they’d slide off in a crash because the one with the squiggles is 90° perpendicular to my actual desktop, the wooden one that is parallel to the floor. The flat one in front of me, in 5K-retina-display-glass-and-electricity, also has some fancy hard drive icons on it. These represent physical hard drives, but they are not the ”real” hard drives, just graphical user interface (GUI – pronounced ”gooey”) representations of the ”real things.
I’m beginning to think that the ”real world” is probably a bunch of gooey icons too. See if you catch my drift.
The virtual desktop has a ”wallpaper” of nice colors on it, except I know for a fact those colors don’t really exist anywhere except in my own brain. Light is getting in through the specialized openings in my head called ”eyes”, and that light has a variety of wavelengths (all part of a spectrum called ”white light” that is human friendly) that gets interpreted in some fancy way by another part of my brain that is doing the actual ”seeing” (Eyes don’t really ”see” anything at all). Anyway, the seeing part of my brain allows me to perceive the variety of colors, and it fools me into believing the colors are happening on the screen and not in my head. This same deception also happens when I look out the window and see ”blackness”. (It will happen when the sky changes into vanilla cotton candy in about an hour too, unless it’s foggy, then I’ll get deceived into believing there is such a thing as ”gray” out there.)
I had to take a break and walk to the master bathroom for a moment to say good morning to my girlfriend. The tile was very cool on my feet. I remained upright without tilting or leaning. On the way back to my office chair, I felt the brush of my cotton pajama pants against my thigh. Sitting here now, I can’t feel these pants at all. (I am still wearing them) I can’t feel the waistband of my boxer shorts. With a little focused attention, I just made myself become aware of the soft collar of my Life Is Good long-sleeved tee shirt. I can feel the luxuriously soft cotton lying soft as a feather against my shoulders, and the barely noticeable cuffs tickling the hair on my arms at my wrists while I type. As soon as I stop trying to notice it, those sensations will go away.
I just became vaguely aware of some yellow-white and red lights moving slowly from left to right outside the window in front of me, accompanied by a vague whoosh of sound and a slight low ”grrrr”. ”Car,” says my brain. And, I’m just now noticing the muffled white noise of what has to be the shower running in the bathroom, which is on the other side of the foyer wall to my right. In another minute, I’ll be oblivious to it again.
Reality is different than my perception of it, or your perception of it. It’s probably as different as your computer file icons are from the gibberish of ones and zeroes that make up the actual files. Philosophers debate this stuff. There is a school of them that suggests there is no matter at all, only ideas presented to our brains giving us the illusion of matter. I dunno, that’s a bit of a stretch, but I digress.
You know the way you cannot ignore the sound of waves rhythmically crashing when you first climb out of your car at the beach, only to be completely deaf to the sound within minutes? The waves don’t disappear. The sound is still being generated because the force of water is vibrating air at a specific frequency that is still vibrating the cilia inside your ear canal, which tickles your ear drums to begin the transmission of signals along dendrites and neurons to reach the sound processing part of your brain for some info on what those vibrations mean.
”Ahhh,” says your sound engineer., ”That’s waves…we can safely ignore that. Unless you just want to pay attention, then I can also flip a switch to let you hear those gulls that have been circling overhead the last five minutes you’ve also been deaf to. And for good measure, here’s the sounds of some children laughing.”
(Sidenote: It is said that people living in proximity to Niagara Falls do not hear it.)
That’s the way our brain handles everything, all the time. We may think our conscious selves are being presented with all the information that’s available in our sphere of awareness, but in truth, the normally functioning human brain is a gigantic stimulus gatekeeper. It filters out way, way more than it allows to knock on the door of awareness. It only lets through what it determines is really essential for whatever it guesses you’re most likely to need to navigate the next microsecond successfully. It does this so quickly, that many neurophysiologists believe that most of what we perceive as ”real” is actually the brain’s moment-by-moment predictions of what is ”real”.
Like your computer icons, the predictions represent reality sufficiently for you to interact without having to sort through the messiness of what’s being kept from you in DOS or UNIX world. Meaning, the perceptions we have of reality are our brain’s predictions (icons) about what the next moment holds in store, which means we are all caught in a milli-second lag and never quite able to…catch…the…present…moment.
Sidenote2: (This is what makes improvisational Jazz, or the creativity of a Grateful Dead jam so much fun…they are sonic efforts to catch up to the elusive NOW of things. And the effort is happening between the band members, and between the band and the audience.)
The brain captures and catalogues all incoming stimuli, maps it, creates a baseline, stamps ”reality” on it, feeds it to the interpreter part of us that needs to know where the edge of the bed is in a dark room, and then starts filtering out extraneous info while feeding the predicted-hallucination-labeled-as-reality back to the interpreter part. The brain is very, very good at picking up on subtle shifts in the catalogued stimuli, but it acts with equal speed to quickly put new information into the existing ”reality hallucination” unless the new stimuli is so disruptive that it requires the generation and presentation of a new hallucination, such as the refrigerator suddenly making ice and the brain has to feed you a reality that tells you:
- the fridge is making ice, or
- Someone is breaking into the kitchen through the door leading to the garage.
OK. Enough of that. You get the general picture, right?
The gist is, there’s just too much information to pay attention to all of it at the same time. Our brains, somewhere along the line, determined that all the sensory info doesn’t have the same level of importance, so it creates a hierarchy to give the part of us that pays attention a break, since it’s a known fact that dude in charge of paying attention cannot focus on one thing for very long.
This is a GOOD THING, because we cannot give equal attention to all things simultaneously for very long and remain what is commonly referred to as ”sane”.
So…the brain filters. It predicts. It predicts based on what I guess is a learned history (possibly an innate pre-wired assumption) of the spectrum of ”normal”. From this baseline, it follows that the picture of reality shown to the owner should not be changed very often, and should not be changed very abruptly, or dramatically, unless such measures are unquestionably called for.
The other day, I was on a walk. I wasn’t consciously paying attention to the landscape I’ve walked through a hundred times, caught up instead in listening to an audiobook, when I glanced into the empty field with the dead tree beside the sidewalk I was casually descending, and for a hair-raising moment I saw a knee-high tall coyote standing about 20 yards away. Its tail was up, its head was swung in my direction, eyeing me. I had that brief explosion of of WTF adrenaline…you know that explosion? Then, in the next instant, the coyote vanished and became a perfectly aligned clump of dried brown grasses and a scraggly shrub that had been the coyote’s bushy tail only a second before.
This was funny. And it was revealing. I’m willing to bet you’ve had the same thing happen before. Maybe you walked into a room and there were some clothes thrown over a chair in a way that for an instant startles you into believing a person is sitting there, and you have that momentary panic. The brain filters out most data that reaches our conscious ”pay attention to this” ops center, but it has no qualms throwing out a hallucination of a coyote (or an unexpected person sitting in a chair) to protect you if needed. And every time your head shifts, whatever new information comes into your visual field has to be scanned, categorized, assessed for threats, assembled into a new hallucinatory reality puzzle, labeled ”real” and ”ok” and fed to the ops center.
I’ve jacked with this whole system and this whole process quite a few times in my life. Not too recently, but I can remember. Oh boy, can I remember…
But think with me, even if you’ve never done acid, or mushrooms, I bet you’ve been sitting in your car stopped at a traffic signal when all of a sudden you have the distinct feeling of moving when the tractor trailer beside you rolls forward. Right? You haven’t budged, but your brain interpreted the new stimulus of the moving trailer as YOU moving, and gave you all the accompanying physical sensations just to complete the hallucination for you. It’s so ”real” you press hard on the brake to stop your unmoving car from ”moving”. Tell me that’s never happened to you.
That same brain that can make you feel like you’re moving, is making you feel like you’re sitting still, or standing, or whatever right now. And that’s cool. It’s ok, but it is very, very subjective.
Your filter, is not my filter. I cannot feel your clothes. I do not see the same sky you’re seeing. I do not hear the same sounds. Studies have shown that even people who look at say the color ”blue” will perceive variations in hue, tone, intensity, depth when asked about ”blueness” on a more granular level. So…the conclusion is we don’t all see the same blue. That’s because there is no blue OUT THERE…your blue lives in your head and my blue lives in mine.
I know, weird stuff, right? But, I’ve always grokked out on this kinda stuff. And let me tell you…it has IMPLICATIONS. But…that’s probably enough for today.