Karolina Kluza, Poland
What would be your reaction if I told you that the world around you is just a complex, simultaneous, processed hallucination controlled by your brain? At first, you will probably think that it is a jocular deceit or maybe a test of your knowledge. “How could it be possible” you will wonder, “that what I see may not be compatible with what the world can actually be like?”
The “sense- data” theory of perception is the most commonly known, although nowadays it is believed to be rather ‘naive’. It assumes that the way of our observation comes directly from a hierarchical system, similar to one in electronic devices like cameras. Its trail starts when light reaches our eyes, then it is converted into electrical signals, due to the cells of the retina, which encode the image. The image is sent along the optic nerve to the neural cortex which is responsible for reconstruction of visual elements. Parts of the completed image are delivered to the mind as a whole picture. Lastly, the conscious mind tries to interpret the image.
The problem with the ‘naive’ perceptional system is simple to explain. Normally, when you see something, it is already categorized as a ‘ready to see object’ which must have been previously interpreted. So, it means that a ‘normal’ perception is an act of interpretation of our world, an attempt to figure out what the object is or is not by oueselves. The conclusion is that perception is just a process of best-guessing or inference.
Given these facts, the next step to get closer to understanding this problem is to take into consideration the direction of perception. Does it come from inside out or outside in, or maybe both answers are true? Anil Seth and Andy Clark, the authors of the newest perceptional theory, claim that perception happens as much from the “inside out” as the “outside in.” The human brain does not try to neutrally analyze sensory data; it checks if the data matches its expectations in order to develop a picture that slots in its already created world. “Your brain tries to guess what’s out there,” said Clark, and “to the extent that the guess matches or…explains away the evolving sensory data, you get to perceive the world.”
Seth and Clark validate their theory by referring to several experiments and neurological studies. The simplest ones are based on “what we hear, see and feel”. In the link below you can check them yourself:
For example, during his speech, Clark played a short audio file of a woman’s voice, which had been deliberately garbled through sine-wave distortion to make it difficult to understand. Then, the audience heard the original recording and once again the disturbed one, which they perfectly understood this time. That short experiment shows that the process of how the human brain can actively match its expectation with sensory data.
A fresh, modern and changed look at our perception has the potential to bring the world many opportunities for more profound comprehension of problems that are our everyday struggles. Many diseases such as schizophrenia or depression can be better understood and treated when people start to think differently.
Furthermore, if you give this idea a try, you will see yourself not as a single entity of consciousness, but realize that in our world there is much more than only one possible way of being and perceiving.
“We’re all hallucinating all the time; when we agree about our hallucinations, we call it “reality”.”
— Anil Seth