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:

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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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