Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Neuroscience 202 – Brains as “Reality” Creators

    Neuroscience 202 –
    Brains as “Reality” Creators

Okay, now for one of my two favourite subjects about what our brains do – create “reality” (the other is what the neuroscientist David Eagleman likes to call “zombie programs”, the subconscious autonomously running "programs" that run "us" which I introduce in this post). This is going to be really fun stuff. I've been saying in the first few chapters that what I'm describing about the brain (or teaching, as I prefer to think about it) might be “useful” to you. I'm going to change my position on that because the more I think all this through (as I prepare to write these chapters), the more I remember how important understanding all this on some level is to turning you or anyone else around. I'm going to explain why this is all so important in a later chapter but for now I'm just going to ask that you take my word for it that all this basic brain stuff is going to make a huge difference in understanding who and what you are and why and – ta-da! - most importantly, what to do about it and how. My position is that it's very difficult to fix a problem if we don't understand the roots of problem or even what the roots look like. So again, this all setting the table for those later chapters on what to do and how to do it.

I'm going to ask you to set aside as well any intimidation you may be feeling about the subject. One, I'm quite a good teacher (fifteen years experience of teaching English to hundreds of Asians of all ages from three to seventy-three) and two, learning a new and difficult subject is a great way to give your brain a much needed work out and regular exercise. Yuppers, if you soldier on through this you'll already be on the road to improving your brain and thus “you” and your mental health. So just put yourself in my good hands and trust that it'll all work out. You don't have to get it all at once and you can take your time.

As mentioned, I get to those subconscious programs in that other post so today we're just going to focus on the concept of “reality” and touch on how it's our brains that create the particular reality each of us experience.

So here we go!


Everything we experience when we are in an awake and conscious state and how we experience it is “created” (sort of) by those three pound (3.1 lbs on average to be precise) mounds of Jello (seriously, the matter that makes up our brains is about the consistency of Jello or bean curd) between our ears and the vast majority of that process is performed by a dazzling array of subconscious programs that operate autonomously with generally absolutely no input from “you” (though this is what we're going to learn to work on and change).

We'll set aside the programs for now and focus on what we experience as “reality” and a little bit about how that's created.

Subjective versus Objective “Reality”

What we experience day to day as we go through life – what I also like to call our “conscious experience” - is referred to (in the philosophical sense) as “reality”. Going back to Neuroanatomy 101, you'll recall a paragraph in which I mentioned how all our realities are different. What is meant by that is that we all see, perceive and experience the world around us a little differently from anyone else. Not only that, what we – homo sapiens that is – experience as “reality” is different from any other species. In other words, it's a subjective experience.

Subjectivity is a single minded view or perspective of a given object or concept. A subjective view or opinion could possibly be correct but is more likely to be incorrect because of “built in” biases that most brains produce (something we'll explore more in a future chapter).

The opposite of subjective is objective. Objective views are, to put it as briefly as possible, based on “neutral” or broad based evidence or standards. Objectivity is the ultimate goal of science (1) and why scientific method and instruments were created; when our subjective minds perceive something incorrectly, we need other methods to determine and understand what we're observing.

An old and very classic example of this is the idea that the sun revolved around the earth which ancient peoples “thought” was “true” because that's what their eyes told them and what their simple methods of inference (drawing conclusions from abstract evidence) concluded; the sun appeared to move across the sky east to west, therefore the sun must move around the earth. Then Galileo (though Copernicus first proposed the theory) came along and used some simple instruments and more scientific methods of observation of celestial movements and recordings of what the instruments told him and then drew much different conclusions to determine the true (or objective) reality.

We can laugh about the idea of the sun revolving around the earth now (2) but our minds are still capable of such subjective biases and drawing false conclusions about the “reality” around us. This is a very, very important point to grasp – your “reality” may well not be what's actually “real”.

Gasp! What you're experiencing may not be real?! I know, right! Pretty mind blowing but there it is. As I've said before, this concept of reality has been the subject of no shortage of philosophical and scientific endeavors and navel gazing for centuries but now neuroscience can demonstrate very clearly that what our brains assemble to produce what we experience when we saunter through life may not actually be “real” in the truly objective sense.

Now I don't want you to melt down over that (some people do, you know) but it's very important to understand and critical for understanding many (if not all) mental health disorders (which I'll explain further in moment). In later chapters, when we explore and start working on cognitive distortions this will all become much clearer and you'll  better understand the importance of this then.

Now, to get a better idea of why our experience of “reality” is purely subjective and not exactly the “real” reality lets first look at what the brain processes to create “your world”.

You'll recall from Evolution, Life and How Our Brains Developed that I defined brains as devices for processing information about our environment and we're going to look at that in a little more detail and get a better understanding of that. We have five senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell (I must emphasize that this is merely a little more detail. What I need to get across here could easily fill several large books and I'm trying to digest it down to a few paragraphs).

The five sensory organs operate 24/7 like radar bringing in information – what I like to call “data” - from the world around you. Humans, however, are very human-centric and will believe that we can see all colours, hear all sounds and so on. But in fact our eyes can only pick up a fraction of the colour spectrum, our ears pick up only fraction of the sound waves that are out there, our taste buds do not pick up all available tastes, etc. In other words, all of our senses are too limited to fully take in all the data that's available and for good reason; each species evolved their particular data sensory equipment and relevant brain regions to process that data to best suit their own survival. So all animal species experience a different reality, a different world, than homo sapiens do. What we experience when our worlds flash awake just happens to be our human version of reality.

But not only that, each of our individual human realities differ from that of anyone else. No two of us sees, hears or otherwise experiences the world in quite the same way.

These differences start with our sensory equipment. As mentioned, there's going to be genetic variation (the driving force of evolution is genetic variation) in how we are each developed and thus how our eyes, ears, noses, tongues and tactile sensations pick up sensory information is going to vary. 

As just one of hundreds of possible examples, due to one of those genetic variations, a fraction of women have not three but four colour photo-receptors in their retinas and thus are able see colours, shades and hues that the rest of us cannot differentiate. This seemingly tiny and insignificant difference alone can create a perception of the world that the rest of us cannot even imagine (and lord help the men married to these women as they try to choose colours for their home decor). 

One more very interesting example, recently discovered, is how much our olfactory equipment varies from individual to individual. Noses have 900 genes for receptors with 900,000 variations. Which ends up meaning that any two individuals' scent receptors will be at least 30% different from one another, which means none of us smell exactly the same things in exactly the same way, or in other words, we all experience a different reality about what we are smelling. No one person's sense of smell is exactly "right" or "better", just different (caution to men and husbands: do NOT try to argue this point with your female significant other).

Noses have 400 genes for receptors with 900,000 receptor variations. The smell receptors will be at least 30% different between any two. In fact, with all of these different combinations, no two people actually smell the same way. - See more at:
Noses have 400 genes for receptors with 900,000 receptor variations. The smell receptors will be at least 30% different between any two. In fact, with all of these different combinations, no two people actually smell the same way. - See more at:

And these slight variations can be present in all our sensory equipment; slight variations and defects in the tiny bones and hairs that pick up sound will alter how we each detect sounds and then damage along the way will further alter that. Defects in the lenses of our eyeballs will alter how we each pick up detail in objects (though corrective eye wear somewhat evens this out). Some people have more taste receptors on their tongues and can taste what others cannot. And so on and so on and so on and all of these variations are going to alter what each of us experiences as “reality”.

But that's just the comparatively simple external equipment part of the sensory equation. As we saw in Neuroanatomy 101 and Genetics and Environmental Factors in How Our Brains Develop, the makeup of any one brain is vastly, vastly more complex; there is far more that can go wrong or simply just develop differently in the womb and – most importantly – the brain is far, far more malleable than any other body part or organ (and is constantly rearranging itself). (3)

Let's take sight for example. As mentioned in Neuroanatomy 101, our eyes just collect light, what we “see” - that is, what we experience as sight – is all processed and assembled in the occipital lobe, a large brain region at the back of our heads. Assembling the moving picture show that you “see” in your mind is an enormously involved and complicated process which nonetheless works something similar to the process an artist uses for doing a full colour and detailed sketch. First, basic geometric shapes are arranged, then details added, then colours, then movement accounted for and voila! - you have what you “see” when you open your eyes. And, like all of us, you “assume” that what's taking place on the “screen” of your mind is it; that's what's out there.

What you see, however, is not “it”, is not reality. Various bits of neuronal equipment in our brains are constantly filtering or adding to the "final cut" of what we think we are seeing. In truth, at any given moment we will be missing enormous amount of visual information as our minds "decide" what is important or not important for us to see. Not only that, all kinds of subconscious programs will be picking up visual cues that you have no conscious awareness of and using these cues to guide your short and long term behaviours and decisions this way or that. 

[I outline how two different people may perceive and react to a facial expression in this piece in my neuroscience blog in you are so inclined to read more on how our brains create visuals.]  

Back to brain malleability and brain self-organization, what this means is that what we experience, the experiences themselves and how we experience them, is going to alter and shape brain structures - including the occipital lobe that creates what we "see" when we open our eyes (or even what we imagine we see). Then these altered brain structures – which can be very, very slight but enough to make a difference – will further alter how we “see” the world around us and even ourselves. As just one of many possible examples, people with any one of several forms of body dysphormic disorder (anorexia would be the most well known example) have brain regions and networks that produce a distorted image of their bodies as they see themselves. What they see when they look at themselves is not the same as what others see (which is part of what makes these conditions so hard to treat)

Another very large factor in how our brain is going to assemble our given “reality” is memory and how memories are formed and stored – or not formed and stored!

Many of us assume that our “memories” of ongoing events around us are like perfect recording devices that faithfully and accurately record most of what we see and hear and experience. But research from both over the last several decades and recent cutting edge research shows that our memories are horror shows for recording information. Our brains can easily create false memories which we'll nonetheless swear are “true” or “the facts” (and research into this is opening up a huge Pandora's box about the validity of eye witness or victim testimony). Memory formation and memory retrieval is a far from perfect business (as we find out when cramming for and then taking tests) yet other parts of the brain that form what we'll term for now our “ego” (sense of self) will “decide” what is “fact” and “not fact” in a horribly biased manner. We'll return to this when we examine what Freud termed “ego defenses” and how these distort our perceptions of “reality”.

What all of that means is that our brains constantly filter the data that our senses bring in and this filtering process is going to be a big part of both of what gets stored and retrieved from our memories (which could be two entirely different things depending on circumstances) and this often wildly imperfect recording and playback of our memories is also going to play a part in creating our individual “realities” or perceptions thereof.

Another significant factor in our reality perceptions – perhaps, as I'll demonstrate in later chapters, the biggest factor – is what I'll term for now “shared perceptions” of reality which are a part of our shared belief systems. A group of people – large or small – may perceive an event or share a view that is demonstrably (through independent objective means) false, or distorted or even outright delusional. But if this group all believes the same thing or sees a certain thing the same way, this view will be absolutely “real” to each of them and because the experience is shared, it is re-enforced in each individual as "real" (which could lead to even defending their version of reality to the death). Any anthropologist could give dozens if not hundreds of examples from small tribes or groups of peoples around the world throughout history or certain scholars could give many examples from even much larger groups (which could be categorized along religious, nationalistic or racial lines).

Our perceptions of “reality” can easily be manipulated by powerful emotions – either individually or en mass (a “bug” of our brains used to great effect by leaders of the sorts of groups mentioned at the end of the previous paragraph).

Why am I talking about all this and what does it have to do with mental illnesses?

I believe how our brains create reality and our individual perceptions of reality has a great deal to do with “mental illness”, perhaps even everything to do with various disorders. As I illustrated in my essay piece The Nine Hundred Foot Jesus and the Man on the Street, what is termed an “unhealthy” distorted reality and what is “socially acceptable” distorted reality is very, very arbitrary and the lines far less crystal clear than most people imagine.

The concept of reality is one that neither the best scientists on earth nor the greatest philosophers in history have been able to define with absolute certainty. As of now, we have no scientific or objective method for determining whether a given brain's perception of “reality” is really and truly false or not. We can narrow it down quite a bit, but we're not there yet in any one universal test. What is “false” in one set of minds is completely “real” in another set of minds. Who's really to decide which is “right”?

This is something I'll continue to chip away at – our concepts of “reality” and whether any given one is a sign of “mental illness” or more a matter of simply being different and outside of mainstream or socially accepted “norms”.

When we more closely examine disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar – the diagnosis of both of which in large part hinge on what's “delusional” - we'll see that the concept of “reality” and “delusions” is not what it may appear.

While there are certainly cases that are probably quite clear cut and of concern to the individual's and society's safety, we'll see that many are not so clear cut.

Yet this is what psychiatry does – with very unscientific and non-concrete methods of observation - they will brand a person “mentally ill” based on what are very fuzzy definitions of “objective reality” and “delusions” and how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual itself is a highly flawed document for providing a basis on which to make such distinctions. 

However, it is also completely possible that what we are experiencing in our mind - our perception of what's going on - is not true. In many cases of so called mental illness, we can create very distorted versions of our selves and our lives. We "see" one thing, while others around us see something completely different. There will, of course, be elements of truth in both views but it takes a very open minded approach for ourselves and others to sort through it all, something that I touch on in Mindfulness Meditation Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, in which we begin to learn how to sort through our thoughts and actions in a more non-judgmental objective way.

All of this will be raised and discussed further as we go along. For now though, it is necessary for me to deconstruct the notion that our individual - or even mass - realities are "it"; that is, our realities are seldom objective forms of reality. And understanding this and further exploring how our brains create our individual perceptions of reality and how those realities can be skewed will be a big cornerstone into our look into various mental health disorders. 

(1) We're going to see in later chapters, when we examine the pharmaceutical industry and the science behind their products, that there is a lot of bad science out there; that is, science that is not objective

  1. Well, not all of us are up on this reality. Apparently, according to a poll taken in America in early 2013, some twenty percent of Americans somehow believe the sun revolves around the earth. So despite all modern means of information accessibility and education, there are a good number of people still stuck in pre-dark ages.

(3) We will cover in more detail this brain malleability and ability to reorganize itself in the enormously important chapters on neuroplasticity.

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