Neuroscience 202 –
Brains as “Reality” Creators
While this blog is primarily about understanding mental health issues, over the years it (and my studies) has really become more about understanding the human mind and behaviours in general. As I move forward with the blog (and myself) it is also becoming more and more about the world around us and life itself as it is virtually impossible to separate the former from the latter. In many ways I like to think of the physical properties of the brain as “nature” and the world around us and life itself as “nurture”, AKA environmental conditions and influences. I just happen to apply what we learn and understand from those endeavours to understanding what we experience in mental health disorders in ways that will hopefully be of use to you in understanding yourself or a loved one (or, I must confess) even human behaviour in general.
Another primary purpose and goal of this blog is to fill in massive gaps in understanding “us” that exist in all the varying fields of those charged with our mental health and well being; psychiatry, psychology and mainstream medicine.
Too many, you many have observed, are obstinately stuck on single “trees” of understanding what is actually a vast and complex forest, much of which is ignored or overlooked at our peril.
One of those gaps is the subject of this post – how brains our create our individual perceptions of reality.
I'd long been interested in this topic but it's been in the nearly six years that I started the study that would go into this blog (early 2013 – how time flies!) that I have deeply studied this topic. I study the neuroscience of it (along with consciousness, which in my view is more closely related than many in the fields of human study would think) along with following what those in cognitive neuroscience may have to say about it but mostly I enjoy studying “in the field”; observing and talking to people in their daily lives or more specifically talking with and looking into those with mental health issues or reading and examining as many case studies as I can. “Lab studies” can only go so far, my dear academic and professional friends.
It was my very strong believe from the beginning that how our individual brains create reality was a major cornerstone of understanding human behaviour and mental health issues and these past six years of observation and study (now at the end of 2018 as I rewrite this piece) have only strengthened that view.
It's critical for understanding so many of the symptoms of major
psychiatric disorders, from hearing voices and hallucinations to delusions of all kinds and many cognitive distortions to extremes of overly negative or overly positive world views and mental states along with such psychological phenomenon as denial.
In a broader sense it is enormously important to understanding the human mind itself and much of the conflict, discord and disagreement we see in the world around us or even at the dinner table among families or close friends.
As well, and perhaps most importantly for many of you, it is vital to understanding the experiences and causes of what can be agonizing loneliness and isolation, the inability to “connect” to anyone else, the difficulties in being understood by anyone else.
It is my fervent hope – indeed the entire premise of this piece –
that our look today at how our individual brains “create” what we experience as “reality” (which in my view is very close tied to our individual experiences of consciousness) will open up avenues of compassion and understanding of our selves as individual members of the human race or as parts of our racial, gender, cultural and national identities.
Let's get to it then.
Everything we experience when we are in an awake and conscious state and how we experience it is in a sense “created” by those three pound (3.1 lbs on average to be precise) mounds of Jello like substance 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”.
As I have mentioned in numerous pieces, whoever you are, wherever you live, however you came into this world and exist in it, the exact neuroanatomical makeup of your brain is unique to you and you only; even if you are an identical twin (of which I am one; two separate entities growing from a single fertilized egg). There is literally nothing else like it in the world and indeed in the history of the world. If you like to think of yourself as special (and who doesn't on some level, however secret), there you are.
As we'll see, however, is that left completely to its own devices it
will create a “reality” unlike that of anyone else. Like your consciousness itself, it will likely be, for the most part, highly subjective; IE: very individualistic. Very important for understanding the “self” and the “ego”.
We'll set aside those autonomous 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.
As briefly as possible for our purpose here today, 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 (which ).
The opposite of subjective is objective. Objective views are 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 believed was “true” because that's what their observations 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. Hundreds of similar examples drawn from all people from all walks of life could be found on a daily basis. This is a very, very important point to grasp – a great deal of your “reality” is quite likely not be what's actually “real”.
This is very uncomfortable for most people (which is why most will tend to dismiss the concept). As I've said before, the idea of reality has been the subject of no shortage of philosophical and scientific endeavours 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 take a very brief look at some of what the brain processes to create “your world”.
You'll recall from Evolution, Life and How Our Brains Developed that brains were defined 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 little more detail. What I need to get across here could easily fill several large books and we're trying to digest it down to a few paragraphs).
The five sensory organs (six if we include the gut-brain axis) 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.
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 all important individual 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 thirty percent 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).
See more at: http://jonlieffmd.com/blog/self-observation-alters-perception?utm_content=buffer77c66&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer#sthash.IdfoC7xA.dpuf
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 occtipital 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 is 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”.
Anatomically speaking, all the sensory information that is constantly flowing into our brains will at some point or level route through the limbic region and related brain nodules and “<connectome wiring>” that make up the stress response system. Here too we are going to see innumerable anatomical and biological variations and individual differences. As these areas are greatly related to our emotions and indeed play great roles in how we “perceive” everything around us, our emotional experiences will also greatly shape how we see the world or events and thus shape our individual “reality” and conscious experience, filtering and colouring it this way or that. In a more immediate starker way, there are many experiences that will trigger great stress responses releasing jolts of several hormones and neurochemicals which absolutely will alter your perceptions at the time and may very well leave deep long lasting changes in how you perceive the world around you (think traumatic experiences of all kinds and the disorders that can arise from them).
It is the “job” of our vaunted human frontal lobes and prefrontal cortex to “analyze” and “regulate” what goes on in our oft times volatile and impressionable limbic regions but if the anatomical differences there are vast, it pales in comparison to the frontal lobes which can develop or not develop in ways too numerous to even begin to list. The interplay between these to often “warring” brain regions will wax and wane and ebb and flow a tremendous amount on a day to day and even moment to moment basis in many people, all of which will alter and shape our perceptions.
We can go right down to the nano-scale and how all of this “works” or not will depend to a dizzying degree on how individual groups of neurons and the axons between them are performing or not performing which itself depends on even finer details to do with brain energy, neurotransmitter function or malfunction and virtually countless other possibilities.
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 the biggest factor – is what I'll term for now “shared perceptions” of reality which are a part of our shared or cultural 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).
It seems needless to say, but we must anyway, that beliefs of all and any kind will have enormous sway over how our brains create our realities or how our realities create our beliefs. It never fails to astonish me how people of all kinds feel that what they believe is absolutely “real” and that that of others is not “real” (hence all the conflict, disagreement and discord mentioned earlier).
Countless events and experiences and cultural and group input over a lifetime will shape and alter how our brains make sense of the world and those around us and thus shape how they create our individual perceptions of “reality”.
These perceptions easily can and will be manipulated to great effect 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). However we may try to resist, the endless onslaught of it all and how subconsciously it's all taken in and processed makes it extremely difficult to remain outside of it all and thus having our perceptual realities shaped.
In another piece we examined the roles that imagination plays in creating our mental perceptions and it is indeed hard to overstate how much imagination – that which is “not present to our senses” - is intertwined with how our individual brains create each our experiences of “reality”. Again, very uncomfortable territory for many people yet this in fact is what happens.
Now, to restate what we saw in the beginning, no two brains are alike which means no two people's perception of reality can be exactly alike. Yet each of us will firmly “believe” (that word again) that what we perceive as we go about our day to day lives is “real” or the absolute definition of “reality”.
A great deal of it is, of course. The device on which you're reading this is very much real, the car you may be driving (or mass transit vehicle you may be riding) and all the vehicles around you are very much real and if they collide, the resulting damage will very much be real and so on. But this goes back to objective or physical reality – that which exists independent of our own being or perception of it. But our interactions with these aspects of reality tend to lull us into believing that all of what we perceive is “real”. The lines between these, as I hope I am making at least somewhat clear, are very fine, not to mention being in near constant flux. To demonstrate this with someone, take a simple example such as the colour of a car, stand at different angles to the sun and try to agree exactly on what that colour is. Or the precise shape of something or the precise nature of it and so on. It won't take long before very divergent views begin to emerge (the renowned early 20th century philosopher <Bertrand Russel> penned some excellent essays that illustrated this with wonderfully concise clarity).
Let's now then look at this business of “consciousness” and how much of brain function operates below your consciousness awareness and control.
As we saw in a previous piece, the vast, vast majority of what drives “you” and all you do and think – and perceive – takes place in and is performed by autonomously running “brain programs” that hum away 24/7 with varying degrees of fallibility, consistencies and so on which themselves depend on dozens and dozens of internal and environmental factors.
To draw from all of that then, it is impossible to overstate just how much of your – or anyone's – reality will be created by forces well below your conscious awareness and control. Much of course will depend on how much education and/or training one has received or works on with objective and logical reasoning (which ostensibly would be present in all fields of the sciences, mathematics, engineering, and so on).
Now, let's bring this back around to mental health and what we looked at in the beginning.
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 a certain amount, 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
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.