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.
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.