Reality… What is it?
We base so many of our arguments; our conflicts with others, around this concept of “reality” yet I think very few of us understand what it really is and how flawed our perception of it can be.
The dictionary defines it as
- the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.
- the state or quality of having existence or substance.
To fully explore this I must also introduce the definition of another word;
- the ability to see, hear or become aware of something through the senses.
- the way in which something is regarded, understood or interpreted.
A giant misconception we all have is that what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell is reality when actually everything we sense is only our unique perception of reality. To give an example, you can have two people in the same room, experiencing the same thing, give two very different stories of what happened.
The first point to make is that our senses, as good as they are, do not detect everything. They’re very picky. There was a study published in 1956 by the cognitive psychologist George A. Miller of Princeton University’s Department of Psychology in Psychological Review called “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”. Although the actual number of things we can be aware of at any one moment can be vastly different from person to person, this gives us a model of how our perception works.
It talks of the capacity and limitations the average brain has for processing information. Basically, it states that the human mind is capable of holding 7 separate bits of information at any one time plus or minus 2 depending on certain factors. So the most information anyone can hold in their working memory at any one moment is 9 bits of information. Meaning information received through stimuli to the various senses.
With that in mind, try a little experiment. Sit down somewhere, calm your thoughts, and open your awareness to your surroundings. Without moving your head, look at all the things that you can see and list them. Now close your eyes and listen to all that you can hear. Now become aware of the smells in the air. and now the tastes that are present. Yes, there is taste even when you’re not eating. Finally become aware of any sense of touch; how your clothes feel, the seat beneath you, your feet on the floor.
I’ll take a wild guess that your list is far greater than 9 things. I’ll also guess that as you allowed you mind to focus on one sense at a time that you became more and more aware of things within your perception. I’ll also guess that while you were focusing all of your attention on what you could see, you had no concept of what your clothes felt like.
The input from our senses are all we have to gain our perception of the outside world and as you can see from this very simple experiment, what we perceive isn’t even close to the full picture of what reality is. However, it doesn’t stop there. Our raw senses are then entered into our brain where they are entangled, twisted, diffused, exaggerated, clouded, deleted entirely, or worse, by the filters of our emotions.
You can experience the same event at two separate times and in different moods and have two wildly different recollections of the experience. Ever see a movie and love it, then see it again when maybe you weren’t in the best mood and this time really dislike it? The movie didn’t change. The emotional filters receiving the perception of the movie in your mind did. Unless you are talking about the “directors” cut of Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, where the movie was changed and it was horrible and whoever did it should never be allowed near a movie again… But that’s a rant for another time.
This phenomena of the mind could also be the basis of the popular conspiracy theory the Mandela Effect. I’ll let you do your own search on that one if you haven’t heard of it… You’re welcome
The Triangle of Reality
I first wrote about this in the early 1990s when I came up with a concept I called ‘The Triangle of Reality’. The concept stated that for any event, there were three versions of reality. Yours, mine, and the actual reality of what happened without the observer’s emotional interference. Of course, there can actually be many many more versions, but the three gets the point across. I used the following example to explain it:
A young child is playing on the footpath with a ball. She drops it and it rolls out into the road. The child chases after it and is struck by a car at high speed killing her instantly. Two people observed what happened. Inside the car was a 30yo mum on her way to pick up her own child from school. She was late and in a rush to get there. On the sidewalk was a 40yo man, walking along minding his own business.
The woman skids the car to a holt and is in total shock. To her, this is the worst possible thing that could have ever happened. She is in a terrible emotional state and will live a life of guilt and regret. This event has changed her at the core of her being. Where once she was a happy soul, she will now spend the rest of her life battling depression as well as substance abuse to try and numb the agony she feels inside.
The man, however, bursts our laughing. To him, this is the funniest thing he has ever seen. You see, he hates children. He was tormented all his life by children because of a speech impediment he has. He grew up resenting them with all his might. He hates them so much that he gets joy out of kidnapping, torturing and killing them. To him, this woman just saved him the effort for the day. He now goes home, makes a cup of tea and falls asleep in front of the TV perfectly content. In a couple of days, this will be a distant memory for him and won’t affect his life at all in the future.
The actual reality of the event is that a child ran in front of a speeding car and was killed. It is neither good nor bad, it simply is. Anything beyond that basic reality is emotion.
The whole truth and nothing but the truth is beyond our ability to perceive
With all of this in mind, suddenly our idea of reality is on very shaky grounds. Yet so many of us insist on holding on to our own perceptions of reality as hard facts. We hold on so tightly that we will argue and fight to push our perception of reality upon others while rejecting all other perceptions entirely. Many of us are so uncomfortable with any other version of reality but our own, especially when the other contradicts ours. Yet it is only when we are open to other versions of reality, that we can learn and grow as individuals.
Every single one of us has a completely unique perception of the world and the events that take place in our lives. If one hundred thousand people watch a football game, there will be one hundred thousand unique views of the game. All told through the filters of emotion. They may be similar but each person will recount the game slightly different.
“What the eye doesn’t see and the mind doesn’t know, doesn’t exist.
As you can see, each of us is only capable of perceiving a very small part of what the whole of reality actually is at any given moment. Although it is a scary thought to know that we don’t know much and there is a grand reality beyond our perception, it is in loosening our grasp on our version being the only version, that allows us to evolve to greater levels of understanding. By listening to other peoples perceptions of reality and knowing that no matter how contradictory they may seem to our own, that they are equally valid. Only then can we begin to experience reality at such a greater level that it allows us to transcend the limitations set by our own senses.
Who’s reality can you learn from today?