Is Reality just a controlled hallucination?
The eyes of the Mantis Shrimp (unlike ours) can independently gauge depth and distance. While humans have 3 types of light-detecting cells, the Mantis has 12. This species has a spectacular visual apparatus but how it actually sees is still a mystery.
One night, when sleep evaded me, I thought I could do a trippy thought experiment. I started imagining myself as a frog exploring the world in moonlight (I know I could have been a bit more adventurous while selecting the animal). I soon got tired of imagining the world as a frog. What I did realise however was, there’s no single reality out there waiting to be transcribed faithfully and comprehensively.
But don’t we have science to improve our understanding? Sure, science is the best tool at present to interpret the cosmic broadcast. (even science has limitations which I discuss in this article) But if we have two tools, science, and senses, why not explore both? Moreover, exploring through senses doesn’t require any costly machinery! There’s only one limitation of our biological apparatus. Our sense organs have evolved for a very narrow purpose (to survive and pass on genes).
The human brain functions as a co-conspirator in the understanding of reality. Two processes are occurring simultaneously. One is the bottom-up flow of information from our senses to the brain. The other is a top-down flow of information about our “expectations of the normal world” from our brain to our senses. These expectations are guided by our past experiences. At the intersection of these two processes lies our perception of the world.
The Hollow Mask Illusion test blew my mind when I realised the extent to which my brain is meddling with reality. It simply involves observing a rotating face mask. As the face rotates from the convex side to reveal its concave side (or the backside), something bizarre happens. The hollow mask seems to pop out and we see even the concave side of the mask as convex. Because we have been seeing human faces for so long, we expect all faces to bulge outwards. Your brain thus automatically corrects this apparent error ( get yourself checked if you could see the concave side of the mask!). Schizophrenics, people suffering from psychosis & people high on psychedelics can see the rotating mask correctly.
So, I thought how can I alter my state of awareness without being a schizophrenic or a Schedule 1 drug offender? I came across two broad ways. Dreaming and Meditation.
As per the NEXTUP model, dreaming is a way to allow our brain to simulate unexplored possibilities. However, the brain rarely processes memories and connections that are directly related to your present concerns.
Neural connections which your waking brain might think as irrelevant to your concerns are tested & strengthened during dreaming. This is why most of our dreams seem bizarre to us. We don’t even need to remember those dreams. Novel, innovative & potentially useful possibilities are explored, and those associations are strengthened, filed away for later use.
Geniuses such as Eisenstein, Salvador Dali, Aristotle etc. understood the power of dream states. It is said that Einstein used to take naps on his resting chair with a metal spoon clung in his fingers. On the floor, below the spoon, he used to keep a metal plate. The moment he fell asleep, the spoon would slip from his hands and crash onto the metallic plate, waking him up and he would start working on his ideas.
Researchers studied the brains of long term meditators to understand whether their brains are different. Particular parts of the brain that are part of the Default Mode Network (DMN) seem to quiet down in long term meditators. What is the DMN?
This is simply the brain’s default mode, when you are not doing anything, & and have no particular mental task to perform. These brain regions light up when we are daydreaming, ruminating, overthinking, and worrying. The DMN has a see-saw like relationship with attention specific networks. When one becomes active the other relaxes and vice versa.
The DMN is said to be responsible for high-level constructs such as morality, sense of self (ego), empathy etc. All these functions are exclusive to human beings. The DMN exerts a top-down control on other parts of the brain.
Metaphorically, the DMN can be imagined as an orchestra conductor or a corporate executive. It ensures that the cacophony of sensory information reaching the brain is prioritized and stratified. Without a functioning DMN, the sheer quanta of sensory information hitting you will dazzle you. Like a reducing valve, it filters what measly trickle of information should be allowed from outside.
The DMN activity of long term meditators, people high on psychedelics and children is subdued. A young infant has no expectations from the world. As he/she grows, cultural and parental influences start reinforcing certain neural pathways. The brain increasingly starts relying on past experiences (to make thinking more energy efficient). This is why children are proclaimed to be more creative than adults. They look at everything with awe unlike us. Meditating regularly can allow us to access those inaccessible modes of interacting with the world.
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
Originally published at http://meditationsofavoyager.wordpress.com on July 20, 2021.