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Does the Brain Lie About Everything it Shows Us?

In short: yes

Photo by Tobias Bjerknes on Unsplash

At the risk of dramatising too much, have you ever watched the movie The Matrix? If you haven’t, then please do take out some time for it.

In the movie, machines have taken over the entire human race. A guy named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) discovers that he has been living inside a dream world. He and most of humankind are kept as a prisoner completely unaware inside small tiny capsules all the while their brains are manifesting an everyday artificial reality shown by the machines.

While he was dreaming, his body energy was being used by machines to power themselves (crazy, right?). Neo is then rescued and given two options in the form of two pills- blue and red. Taking the Blue pill would mean he chooses to continue living in this dream prison called the Matrix and on the other hand taking the Red pill would mean breaking through this hallucination and seeing reality the way it is.

Needless to say, he chooses the Red pill.

Taking the red pill

Long before The Matrix was released and the subject of Neuroscience came into being, Buddhists became convinced that the world as they see was a kind of illusion. Not the sort of hallucination a drug would give you, but more likely a distorted picture of reality that in turn distorted our lives.

Natural selection has designed us for primarily one objective- to ensure we procreate and ensure the survival of our species. Considerable research is done to study how the human brain is designed by natural selection to mislead and subjugate us. This area of study is known as Evolutionary psychology.

Natural selection has no intention for us to be happy. It only wants us to be useful. Useful, as in, able to procreate more and ensure the spreading of our genes. Don’t take this the wrong way. Natural selection has its benefits. I’d rather be created than not be created at all.

Still, in the end, natural selection only cares about one thing, and that is passing our genes to the next generation.

Now that we have decided to take the red pill, let us delve a little deeper on the delusions, the brain manifests on us.

Thoughts and feelings

Photo by Ed Pylypenko on Unsplash

The primary tools for the brain to make us do something are thoughts and associated feelings. The mind is always working. Even while sitting idly on the couch- thoughts are continually being bombarded at us by our brain. It may be about the looming work deadline or texting your parents or girlfriend for that matter.

Generally, if you pay attention to these thoughts, they have no power over you. They are just thoughts. It is when we associate feelings to them that we give them an essence.

So, what part of ourselves decides which thought is to be given a good or happy feeling and which thought deserves a sad one? These two basic principles govern the algorithm in our brain designed by natural selection which associates various feelings to our thoughts:

  1. Achieving goals led by feelings should primarily bring pleasure or satisfaction since humans and all animals tend to pursue things that bring pleasure.
  2. Pleasure achieved should not be everlasting. If the joy is eternal, there will not be any motivation left to perform the task again.

What kind of thoughts and feelings guide us through every day? Is it the kind of thoughts and feelings that give us an accurate picture of reality? No.

It is- the kinds of thoughts and feelings that helped our ancestors get genes passed into the next generation. Whether they give us the accurate picture of reality is beside the point. Happiness or sense of liberation was never the priority for natural selection.

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The discovery of evolutionary psychology has offered us this knowledge. Knowing the truth about our situation, not necessarily liberates us. We still, most of the time, are a slave to our thoughts. At least I still am. If you keep a bar of chocolate in front of me, I am pretty sure, sooner or later I will have my hands on it. Mindfulness mediation gives us a way out, but that is a story for later.

Conscious reality

We previously talked about how thoughts and feelings give us the motivation for performing tasks and how we are but slaves of this thought-feeling system. Now, digging a little deeper, about the world or reality (as we like to call it) that we see around us.

Imagine being a brain, locked inside a closed skull devoid of any light or sound for that matter. It in itself, knows nothing about what’s happening outside. All it has is a stream of electric impulses that are indirectly related to the outside world.

In an interesting essay written by Anil K Seth, a professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex discusses the mystery of consciousness and how the brain ‘perceives’ reality as its best guess after inferring these electric impulses.

In reality, all such perceptions about reality are acts of interpretation. They are acts of informed guesswork by the brain.

Everything we ‘see’ is the result of electric signals buzzing around in intricate patterns. Out of all this pattern making- the world appears.

For example- it is a well-known fact that colours are not real properties of objects but the property of the light reflected by the object. Our visual system makes a conclusion based on the wavelength of the light reflected.

The above applies to everything that we perceive and not only to objects but also perception about self, our personality and our mental attributes. Everything we see and feel is a form of construction, but not a random one. They are based on sensory data that we get and its reconstruction by the brain’s past learning experience.

The activity of each of the billions of neurons in our brain creates the conscious reality that we see.

This research paper examines how the brain in athletes coordinate with the various physical systems of the body in determining the pace required to reach the finish line in time. The paper discusses that, the brain algorithm takes into account the memory of previous racing experiences along with inputs from the internal body clock to determine the appropriate strategy for winning the race.

Objective reality and beyond

Objective reality is objective only if it’s independent of not just my observations but of your and everyone else’s too. It should be there just the same, independent of if anyone looks at it or not. Reality would be subjective only if it exists in the mind of the observer.

The question is, has humankind evolved into seeing objective reality? Maybe a couple of centuries ago we could have answered this question more definitely but now as science progresses the answer to this question keeps becoming hazier. If we talk about the present 21st century, in the era of quantum mechanics and black holes, the answer seems to have left the ordinary realm altogether. At present, neither classical nor quantum physics can accurately define an object in space-time.

All we can say is that- if we have evolved into seeing reality, we evolved into seeing only a tiny part of it.

There is a different side to this. Changing our perspective in terms of meaning, and meaning in terms of reproductive success (fitness and productivity in evolution terms), the question of seeing the world ‘as it is’ in the sense of independent objectivity begins to evaporate. Of course, the human mind adds something: it adds meaning. Meaning is evolution’s gift. Like all gifts, it has a price: the ability to see the world objectively.

Some meditation teachers convey that mindfulness is a practice that helps bridge the gap between the objective and subjective world. Developing the right balance between the two is an essential step towards getting closer to the truth.

Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

As soon as you finish reading this, once you go on with your daily routine life, it is highly probable that you will fail to observe the world we perceive is just our brain’s best guess of what’s going on around. We will go back to assuming that our senses- smell, sight, touch, and taste are an accurate depiction of reality.

Actual reality may be beyond our reach for now. Have we evolved into seeing ‘objective’ reality? Probably not. All this, in my opinion, is a good thing. We are developed to see what is meaningful for us. But to see it, we have to pay attention to each moment and stay in the present.

For some of us, even understanding the fact that the world around us is not ‘how it is’, can be tad overwhelming. However, let this bring more humility inside of us by liberating us from the chains of ego and self-obsession.

Does the Brain Lie About Everything it Shows Us? was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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