The Artistic Brain (Book Snippet 11)

The fact that our eyes appear to function like a camera lens and our brain like the hard drive of a camera recording actual events in real time, makes us want to reject the idea that reality is self-deception. But the brain is not a camera, it is a projector. What you are likely seeing in the picture above is not there: a white triangle overlaying some black dots and the outline of another triangle on the right. Uncomfortable with ambiguity and unanswered questions, our artistic brain fills in the blanks in the drawing and gives us an answer based on what it believes should be there. Just because I can see something does not mean it is real.

Perhaps you followed the heated online discussion that erupted about the photo of a dress (you can find an in-depth discussion of the phenomena here). This simple picture divided the world in sections and led to hours of online debate, with perfectly civilized people insulting others who did not see the dress the way they themselves saw it.

Some clearly see a white dress with golden lace. Others see a blue dress with black lace. And a third group sees a mix of the two, like a black dress with silver lace (I even heard of one person claiming to see an orange dress… don’t ask!) The blue dress/white dress debate was a global demonstration of how our brain fills in the blanks and ‘sees’ things that aren’t there. The fact that what I see is not the same as what is out there applies to all of human perception all of the time, not just to these simplified drawings (I could still swear the dress is white, even though the owner claims it is actually blue!).

If you are not yet convinced that what happens inside of you has no connection to what happens outside of you, consider this: if our internal experience were simply a recording of external occurrences, we should experience nothing once we are removed from the sensory stimulation in the outside world. How researchers try to simulate nothing is to contain a person in a sensory-deprivation tank. A person locked into a sensory-deprivation tank floats in salt water at body temperature, shielded from light, sound, smell, and touch. The senses receive virtually no input; therefore the person should experience nothing, right? On the contrary: deprived of sensory stimulation, the process projecting reality is made visible; after a certain amount of time in the sensory deprivation tank (usually anywhere from an hour to two hours) most people will begin to experience things. Some see the most vivid colours and images — even though their eyes are closed. Some notice smells — even though there is nothing to smell. Some might even hear sounds — even though there is nothing to hear. To the person in the tank, these experiences feel as real as anything else they have ever experienced.

All evidence about reality and the human mind points in the same direction: the principles behind the process of reality creation outside of the tank are the same as inside the tank. The neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who experienced, survived, and eventually fully recovered from a massive stroke, summarized her post-stroke understanding like this:

‘And I must say, there was both freedom and challenge for me in recognizing that our perception of the external world, and our relationship to it, is a product of our neurological circuitry. For all those years of my life, I really had been a figment of my own imagination!’.

Our brain is an artist who constantly creates hallucinations for our entertainment: stories (the thoughts in our head), music (what we hear), paintings or movies (what we see), perfumes (what we smell). Now, naturally, no matter how much we understand about this mirage we call reality — there is no way for us to escape it. But to live in the awareness that the reality we know is always an event inside of us opens entirely new ways of interacting with the world: we can experience ourselves as simultaneously being spectator and creator of reality as we know it, and we can stop being victims of things that apparently happen outside of us.

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