What you experience may not exist. Inside the strange truth of reality

What our senses allow us to experience may not reflect what actually exists. It may be a creation of our own consciousness, or a computer simulation designed by superintelligent beings

Physics 29 January 2020

image of woman walking in desert

Klaus Vedfelt/Getty

Can we perceive reality?

Alison George

I don’t know about you, but I feel that I have a perfectly good perception of reality. Inside my head is a vivid depiction of the world around me, replete with sounds, smells, colour and objects. So it is rather unsettling to discover this might all be a fabrication. Some researchers even contend that the live-stream movie in my head bears no resemblance whatsoever to reality.

In some senses, it is obvious that subjective experience isn’t the whole story. Humans, unlike bees, don’t normally see ultraviolet light; we can’t sense Earth’s magnetic field, unlike turtles, worms and wolves; are deaf to high and low pitch noises that other animals can hear; and have a relatively weak sense of smell.

“Everybody knows that we don’t see all of reality. I say we see none of it”

On top of this, our brain presents us with only a snapshot. If our senses took in every detail, we would be overwhelmed. Did you notice the last time you blinked, or that fleshy protuberance called your nose that is always in your peripheral vision? No, because your brain edits them out. “A lot of what our senses are doing is something like data compression: simplifying, in order to be able to function,” says Mazviita Chirimuuta at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

In fact, most of what you “see” is an illusion. Our eyes aren’t all-seeing, but capture fleeting glimpses of the outside world between rapid movements called saccades. During these, we are effectively blind because the brain doesn’t process the information that comes in when they happen. If you doubt this, stare into your own eyes …

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