Reality Is Nothing But a Hallucination: A Mind-Bending Crash Course on the Neuroscience of Consciousness

If you've been accused of living in "a world of your own," get ready for some validation. As cognitive scientist Anil Seth argues in "Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality," the TED Talk above, everyone lives in a world of their own — at least if by "everyone" you mean "every brain," by "world" you mean "entire reality," and by "of their own" you mean "that it has created for itself." With all the signals it receives from our senses and all the prior experiences it has organized into expectations, each of our brains constructs a coherent image of reality — a "multisensory, panoramic 3D, fully, immersive inner movie" — for us to perceive.

"Perception has to be a process of 'informed guesswork,'" says the TED Blog's accompanying notes, "in which sensory signals are combined with prior expectations about the way the world is, to form the brain’s best guess of the causes of these signals."




Seth uses optical illusions and classic experiments to underscore the point that “we don’t just passively perceive the world; we actively generate it. The world we experience comes as much from the inside-out as the outside-in," in a process hardly different from that which we casually call hallucination. Indeed, in a way, we're always hallucinating. “It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, that’s what we call ‘reality.’” And as for what, exactly, constitutes the "we," our brains do a good deal of work to construct that too.

Seventeen minutes only allows Dash to go so far down the rabbit hole of the neuroscience of consciousness, but he'll galvanize the curiosity of anyone with even a mild interest in this mind-mending subject. He leaves us with a few implications of his and others' research to consider: first, "just as we can misperceive the world, we can misperceive ourselves"; second, "what it means to be me cannot be reduced to — or uploaded to — a software program running on an advanced robot, however sophisticated"; third, "our individual inner universe is just one way of being conscious, and even human consciousness generally is a tiny region in a vast space of possible consciousnesses." As we've learned, in a sense, from every TED Talk, no matter how busy a brain may be constructing both reality and the self, it can always come up with a few big takeaways for the audience.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • Bradford Hatcher says:

    The headline’s use of the word “reality” is known as a straw man fallacy.

  • Tom Kirvin says:

    This is an interesting explanation of the mechanics of perception. But it does not necessarily negate the existence of a life force residing in or around that mechanical system, much as explaining how a radio receives radio waves and translates them into sound does not negate or even address the existence of electricity and the radio waves.

  • Socrates says:

    Instead the headline could have read “our internal representation of reality is a representation”. A tautology, but more accurate. Even better, a better headline would be “the brain builds a representation of the outside world” (aka, representative realism).

  • Socratess says:

    The neuroscientists are catching up with 1990s Philosophy of Mind. And the general idea is a lot older. Kant (18th century) made a distinction between the world of our perception and the world outside, which he argued is forever unknowable to us. Regardless, it is good to see these ideas entering the popular sphere.

  • Matter says:

    Return of the Humunculus.

  • Vincenzo Sabatini says:

    I didn’t have the time to watch the video yet, but i’d want to contest the assertion: “It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, that’s what we call ‘reality.”
    There are another important aspect of those “hallucinations”: the capability of predicting future perceptions and the outcomes of our actions. It’s the “hallucinations” that best serve this purpose we call reality.

  • gilliamwibson says:

    Completely agree. Also Baudrillard would be on point here. wrt Simulacra.

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