A friend recently shared a TED talk called “What reality are you creating for yourself? By Isaac Lidsky. Isaac starts his TED talk with an interesting story about a girl Dorothy whose father described to her how fish swim by wagging their tails. Dorothy responded that fish swim backward by wagging their heads. Dorothy firmly believed in this.
Her harmless childhood belief serves as a metaphor for the self-created “truths” that we harbour inside us. Isaac refers to this a few times in his talk. He says that these false truths, are like the fish in our minds swimming in reverse, unnoticed and undisturbed. However, if we were to pay attention to them and think critically, their falseness becomes glaring.
Isaac shares some insight on how our brains work to process the immense data generated by our eyes. Sight claims 2/3 of our brains’ processing resources. However, the information the brain processes is tainted with our past experiences, biases, and emotions.
Hence the reality we see at best is an “illusion”. Isaac talks about how to confront paralyzing fears, challenge our own assumptions and faulty leaps of logic, silence our inner critic, harness our strength, and live with open hearts and minds.
Please see Isaac Lidsky’s Ted talk link below:
After listening to the talk I went back to look at the notes of a recent museum* visit that I had done in London (yes I keep notes). The visit had given me some sleepless nights as my mind had constantly pondered over what I had seen.
In the exhibition titled ‘States of Mindʼ I was intrigued by the exhibits on consciousness and how the mind processes information.
Consciousness is an everyday fact yet still so mysterious. Questions about consciousness have been asked for centuries by philosophers, poets and artists. Science still struggles to explain how the subjective experience of consciousness arises out of the objective tissue of the human brain. When we are conscious, we are conscious of something. What in the brain determines the contents of consciousness?
The concept of a “Soul” adds a further dimension to consciousness. Religion, philosophy, science and psychology have all weighed in on the topic, offering viewpoints into whether the soul exists as a separate entity from our physical body, or not, and from where does consciousness originate. With a large number of contradictory theories, the “mind-body” problem is yet to be solved. To sum it all up the most popular theory is the idea that the body and the soul exist as separate entities, and this theory is embraced by many religions.
There was a very interesting quote in an exhibit from the “father of modern western philosophy”, René Descartesʼ Meditations on First Philosophy:
“…on the one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in as far as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and as, on the other hand, I possess a distinct idea of body, in as far as it is only an extended and unthinking thing, it is certain that I, [that is, my mind, by which I am what I am] am entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it.”
Moving on to how the mind makes sense of our sensory information. I’m sharing one interesting research here. Scientist have found that people consciously see what they expect, rather than what violates their expectations. In the 19th century, the German polymath Hermann von Helmholtz proposed that the brain is a ‘prediction machine’, and that what we see, hear and feel are nothing more than the brainʼs best guesses based on its sensory inputs. Think of it like this. The brain is locked inside a bony skull. All it receives are ambiguous and noisy sensory signals that are only indirectly related to objects in the world.
Perception must therefore be a process of inference, in which indeterminate sensory signals are combined with prior expectations or ‘beliefsʼ about the way the world is, to form the brainʼs optimal hypotheses of the causes of these sensory signals. What we see is the brainʼs ‘best guessʼ of whatʼs out there.
The Helmholtzian view further proposes that signals flowing into the brain from the outside world convey only prediction errors – the differences between what the brain expects and what it receives. Perceptual content is carried by perceptual predictions flowing from deep inside the brain out towards the sensory surfaces.
This theory contradicted what I knew as a layman that sensory data went to the brain and brain made a picture of my reality with it.
Therefore, perception involves the minimisation of prediction error simultaneously across many levels of processing within the brainʼs sensory systems, by continuously updating the brainʼs predictions. In this view, which is often called ‘predictive codingʼ, perception is a controlled hallucination, in which the brainʼs hypotheses are continually reined in by sensory signals arriving from the world and the body.
‘A fantasy that coincides with reality,ʼ as the psychologist Chris Frith eloquently put it in Making Up the Mind (2007).
In a nut shell we already have a plot in our mind, our sensory data is used to fill the gaps in this plot. So as Isaac sums it up we create our own “unique personal virtual reality”. Hence its imperative that we take out time to look into our biases, our negative thoughts, fears spot our backward swimming fish. Once we do that we will be able to live our lives to fullest.
Exhibits on what happens when our typical conscious experience is interrupted, damaged or undermined (with disease and disorders of memory and consciousness or for no apparent reason at all) were quite mentally engaging and perturbing. People in “vegetative stage”, walking in sleep or being awake but the body being inactive. So many diverse, even conflicting, perspectives explored made me ask myself what is meant to be alive, aware and human.
*Isaac graduated from Harvard at the young age of 19 years with a degree in mathematics, studied law from Harvard Law School and worked as a U.S. Justice Department lawyer. He co-founded an internet startup and is currently the CEO of a construction company. However what is even more remarkable about his achievements is that he is blind. He lost his eye sight to a rare genetic disease by the age of 25 years. In his talk he shares that blindness gave him vision.
*Wellcome Collection, a museum for the incurably curious, was founded by Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853–1936), a pioneering 19th-century pharmacist. He amassed a huge collection of books, paintings and objects, on the theme of historical development of medicine worldwide. In addition to permanent exhibits, there were two exhibitions on display that caught my interest “Bedlam – The Asylum and beyond” and “States of Mind”.