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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy & Neu­ro­science Cours­es

John Sear­le Makes A Force­ful Case for Study­ing Con­scious­ness, Where Every­thing Else Begins

Robert Sapol­sky Explains the Bio­log­i­cal Basis of Reli­gios­i­ty, and What It Shares in Com­mon with OCD, Schiz­o­phre­nia & Epilep­sy

Stanford’s Robert Sapol­sky Demys­ti­fies Depres­sion, Which, Like Dia­betes, Is Root­ed in Biol­o­gy

Alan Watts On Why Our Minds And Tech­nol­o­gy Can’t Grasp Real­i­ty

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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Comments (13)
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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.

  • Brad says:

    Our expe­ri­ence of the phys­i­cal world is a simulation/ hal­lu­ci­na­tion that mim­ics the true phys­i­cal world. The phys­i­cal world you expe­ri­ence is only a sim­i­lar copy/ rep­re­sen­ta­tion that cor­re­sponds with the actu­al phys­i­cal world which is out­side your mind and your con­scious­ness. All you ever expirence is a copy vir­tu­al real­i­ty that your mind has gen­er­at­ed. The sci­en­tif­ic mate­ri­al­ist view of real­i­ty when you under­stand it prop­er­ly. The major­i­ty of peo­ple in this world includ­ing sci­en­tist don’t realise this.

  • Alan says:

    Most of those reply­ing seem to come at it only from their own, pre­vi­ous­ly for­mu­lat­ed per­spec­tive. Every­thing must fit into their mind in rela­tion to those pre­cepts.
    Open­ing the mind to any pos­si­bil­i­ty might be more enlight­en­ing, with­out hang­ing on to the old.

  • don salmon says:

    If every­thing we per­ceive is a hal­lu­ci­na­tion cre­at­ed by the brain, why isn’t the per­cept “brain” also a hal­lu­ci­na­tion?

  • IdPnSD says:

    I see the prob­lem of cause and effect in every branch of mod­ern sci­ence. Since sci­ence does not know that we are soul and not our body, sci­ence ignores the soul con­cept. But the truth is that the soul is the root cause of all caus­es.

    Thus it is not the brain that caus­es our under­stand­ing of the world. It is not my sen­sors that tell me what I am sens­ing; it is the soul which is extract­ing the sen­sor infor­ma­tion using my own sen­sors, and get­ting the knowl­edge and expe­ri­ences. It must also be under­stood that mind and intel­li­gences are not inside the body; they are out­side, called sub­tle body. Mod­ern sci­ence ignores, or does not care to under­stand the exist­ing lit­er­a­ture, that all objects have three com­po­nents (1) Soul (2) Sub­tle body (3) Gross body. It is the gross body that dies, the sub­tle body rein­car­nates, and the soul always stays with the sub­tle body, but is not a part of it.

    Nobody is hal­lu­ci­nat­ing; it is only the mod­ern sci­ence that is hal­lu­ci­nat­ing. But since every­thing is con­trolled by the glob­al des­tiny of the uni­verse, this hal­lu­ci­na­tion is only a tem­po­rary fea­ture of our des­tiny. There are high lev­el yogis who can see the every mol­e­cule and atom inside our bod­ies and can con­trol them. Take a look at the arti­cle

  • Frustrated Philosopher says:

    This whole claim falls flat on its face when you con­sid­er what a hal­lu­ci­na­tion actu­al­ly is. A hal­lu­ci­na­tion is a per­cep­tion of an event, enti­ty, or phe­nom­e­non that is not actu­al­ly exis­tent. While our minds cer­tain­ly do “fill in the blanks” on the fly and inter­pret things in ways that are not nec­es­sar­i­ly as they actu­al­ly are (for instance, mag­ic tricks or opti­cal illu­sions) that does not make real­i­ty itself a hal­lu­ci­na­tion.

    Let’s refer to Plato’s alle­go­ry of the cave. To say that the shad­ows cast on the cave wall are hal­lu­ci­na­tions would be incor­rect, though it would be cor­rect to say that the indi­vid­u­als observ­ing the shad­ows are not per­ceiv­ing real­i­ty as it actu­al­ly is. The shad­ows are real­i­ty for the peo­ple observ­ing them, as that’s all they know, but they are by no means an illu­sion.

    Instead of using such mis­lead­ing lan­guage, I encour­age peo­ple to use more accu­rate descrip­tions of what they pro­pose. In this case: real­i­ty is sub­jec­tive and dif­fer­ent ele­ments and expe­ri­ences with­in it can be inter­pret­ed dif­fer­ent­ly from per­son to per­son. Say­ing that real­i­ty is an illu­sion is incor­rect at best, and out­right dis­hon­est at the worst.

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