WHY “THE APPARENT IS NEVER THE REAL”.
I first jotted down the phrase “The apparent is never the real” in 1973 while studying what some of our early western philosophers had to say about how we perceive reality.
Starting off with our most famous 19th century humorist, Mark Twain, the distinction between perception and reality cannot be more succinctly stated: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble.... It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
The big question has always been, “Is what is real or true, different from what we perceive?” This is such a rich subject… It’s easy to see why so much philosophical thought and time has been spent trying to penetrate it.
Plato opined that the absolute truth existed, but he was certain that humans would never be able to perceive it. He and Socrates were on the right track with their theory of “forms”. They thought the world as we perceive it is basically just objects that we sense in a half-seen manner. In his famous allegory of the cave Plato lamented that “Life is like being chained up in a cave forced to watch shadows flitting across a stone wall.”
In a conversation with a colleague's son, Franz Kafka advised: "Life is as infinitely great and profound as the immensity of the stars above us. One can only look at it through the narrow keyhole of one’s personal existence. But through it one perceives more than one can see."
A skeptic would say people don’t have any dependable way to gain undeniable knowledge of what is real. Emanuel Kant believed that we know nothing of things as they actually are. And finally – leaving us with not a scintilla of hope - the academics of Socrates’ day stated that the wall standing between what we perceive and what is real is insurmountable.
There is now medical and scientific evidence that supports many of these beliefs. The current theory is that what we perceive is largely determined by a process in our brain that we are totally unaware of. What we perceive as “reality” is 90% created by our subconscious.
A good example of how our subconscious fills in the blanks is how it hides that hole in the vision of all vertebrates, which we call the “blind spot”. At that point in the back of our eye, where the optic nerve penetrates the optic disc of the retina, we have zero vision.
You can actually see this blank spot if you perform a simple test. However, the spot is not part of our conscious awareness because our subconscious autonomically simulates and adds the missing information.
This phenomenon includes our other senses as well. Our subconscious is busily creating, sorting out, discarding and retrieving what we see, hear, taste, and smell, all of which we store in our brain and call memories.
Further thought on this topic is carried forward by Leonard Mlodinow in his book “Subliminal”. It was his writing on
this subject that set me off onto a search for further explanation. We’ve all often heard someone gleefully claim… “I remember that, like it was yesterday”!... “I know exactly what I saw!”
However, recent investigation has revealed just how fragile our sense of reality is. A lot of what we perceive during a typical day is just screened out and only a few high priority events remain as part of your conscious memory. We’ve learned that what is recorded in our brain are just the highlights; the details are filled in by our subconscious, using among other influences, our expectations. And, each time we go back and retrieve that memory it is altered and replaced by a new version. So, upon return, it’s the new version that we now remember”.
If you’re somewhat familiar with graphics on your computer, you know the difference between “lossless” (pdf, tiff, psd) and “lossy” (.jpg) file formats. Our memories are “lossy”; small details and broad areas of sameness are eliminated or averaged so the image can be compressed and stored efficiently. And each time the file is retrieved
and saved again, many of the small details are lost and much of the information that makes up the image is averaged to fill in the blanks. That’s why, when you get 6 people’s opinion of what happened at Helene’s 50th birthday party, you’ll get 6 different versions.
So…. how and why does all this happen? Partly, because there’s only a limited amount of recall we really need to
survive. As Mlodinow said in his book, over the millennia our memories have been just “good enough” to keep us
moving forward on our evolutionary path, but they did not overburden us with infinite detail.
We now have a way of tracing how our perceptions travel through the various areas of our brain; this device is the fMRI. Here’s what’s happening in that three pounds of protein that sits on your shoulders.
Neurons are the pathways that transfer information throughout our brain. We can see them with a scanning electron
microscope. A synapse is the gap between two neurons across which this information must pass. So… information passes through neurons and across synapses. The success of our memories and the accuracy of our perceptions is determined by the strength of communication between neurons. This process is fed by proteins and amino acids.
Unfortunately we lose neurons continually as we age, and those synapses often malfunction. But, don’t panic…. we have trillions of synapses and billions of neurons. Mostly these errant neurons and failed synapses result in trivial missteps like remembering that Aunt Carol was at Helene’s birthday party, and then forgetting that Aunt Carol was in Poughkeepsie that day caring for her sick cat.
Unfortunately, your perceptions and memories are not permanently stored on a shelf somewhere in your cranium.
Over time, sometimes years, they are moved to various parts of your brain depending on impinging events, dreams,
future expectations, social interaction, and the good or bad things you experience in daily life… each move results
in minor changes.
But, cheer up we have an infinity of time ahead of us where we will continue to enjoy each step of our evolution, basking in our glory, dedicated to testing our limitations, and refining our understanding.