I spoke with a colleague recently over dinner, and we started talking about physics, which is his passionate interest. I’m not a physicist, nor can I play one even in my mind, never mind on the Internet. He, on the other hand, studied physics in college. He continues to read widely on things I consider borderline arcane, including quantum physics and mechanics. The conversation briefly moved onto the nature of reality before diverging and heading into more mundane conversational waters. But it triggered something because I woke up in the middle of the night thinking that the nature of reality is about individual experience.
Neuroscience-based coaching, which I practice, teaches us that every brain is different. We have the same basic structures, but our experiences shape the physical structures of our brains over time. What we focus on shapes our brains. For example, studies on London taxi drivers showed their hippocampus grew substantially due to learning “the knowledge”. Our brains establish and strengthen connections based on what we consciously or unconsciously place a value on.
We all operate, in addition, with a set of filters and biases which help us make sense of the world quickly. Our brains are expensive to run, so we use these forms of biological shorthand to lessen the cost. If we don’t have to engage “system 2” thinking per Daniel Kahneman, we can save resources. Cognitively demanding thinking is more expensive from a glucose and oxygen perspective.
The result is that we often accept the world as it appears to us. We believe that our perception of reality is reality. This is known as “naive realism”. This is an easy mistake to make – we are primarily visual and have learned to accept the evidence of our eyes and other senses. If we take that visual reality to start, mine will always differ from yours. Depending on my age and optical quality, I may see more or less detail in the world than you. Does that make my visual reality different to yours? Absolutely. Throw in something like red/green colour blindness, and suddenly, my perception of reality is very different to someone without that visual challenge.
Perception is the core of our reality. What I perceive and what you do can be entirely different based on our position in a room, our experiences, our height, gender, and attitudes to life. I may witness precisely the same thing you do, but my experience of that event and my memory of it may be totally different. We do not make good crime scene witnesses as a result. The car was blue, or maybe red. The man was tall, fat or perhaps a powerfully built woman.
Why does this all matter? Because when someone has a different viewpoint from us, it is entirely possible that what they perceive or recall is more accurate (or at least just as valid) than our viewpoint. In addition, the introduction of “realistic” AI-generated imagery or textual output can be sufficient to fool our senses. We must question our perceptions of the world and understand that reality is not a fixed concept – it is fluid, contextual and personal. Some things are objectively real, but even determining those can be challenging. Using the philosophical thought experiment that we may exist in a simulation or one universe of a multiverse of parallel universes should be sufficient to raise questions about our macro-reality.
Being willing to question ourselves and to openly question others to determine why they believe certain things can be helpful for us to ground ourselves. It can also help us develop more diverse ways of thinking about our challenges. And it can help us avoid becoming stuck in believing that our ideas are the best ones and allow us to understand that what we “know” is largely illusory.