Backward Swimming Fish – what is reality? 

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.

The swimming motion of fish is so mesmerising. Photo taken at uShaka Marine World oceanarium Durban, South Africa

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.

My Son looking at the turtle, said “Mama I think he is kissing me”. My son’s innocent reality. At uShaka Marine World.

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:

What reality are you creating for yourself? 

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 exhibit there was this mannequin of a man, there was an eerie feeling about him. Was he sleeping, or in comma? The image is from the Wellcome Collection website.


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?

An unconscious naked man lying on a table being attacked by little demons by R Cooper, 1912. Wellcome Library, London


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.

As more fish came closer to where my Son sat he insisted that they had come over to give him a kiss. So this fierce looking shark was out hunting for a kiss.


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 sting ray also came over for a friendly kiss!


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).

Another Sting Ray coming in to see us. Perhaps another kiss!


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.


Looking out to the sea, I wonder what are my backward swimming fish ?


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”. 



  1. Spot on…not only do our beliefs, fears and biases color our understanding of reality, but they can also cause us to choose paths that are out of sync with what we are truly capable of.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is really an excellent and thought provoking read but my head is wagging could well be because I’m a and hold a different opinion.

    When he says brain processes the data generated by eyes. . . . brain processes is tainted with our past experiences, biases, and emotions. Hence the reality we see at best is an “illusion”.

    As I understand it eyes show us the reality but brain after a process creates an illusion what I’m finding difficult to comprehend, “what we see is an illusion or what we think is an illusion or illusion behind reality or reality behind illusion or its a mixture of all”.

    It really shows the power of TED talk but I can’t help but feel some of the talk is a bit perplexing as Reality by definition fact or truth and Illusions means deception, something not true if that’s the case then reality can’t really be an illusion, surely?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You have asked some very interesting questions, I spent 4 days reading research on the brain after listening to talk as I had many questions. Let me try and answer them with my very limited 4 day knowledge. Research says that brain doesn’t have time to process all the amount of sensory data that is coming in from our eyes, ears, nose, etc. So basically the brain has a template of what is it that we are looking at for example if I see my face in mirror or even if I see a stranger… brain has an already formed image (I’ll explain how) now all it does is plug in the gaps. So it’s not a factual reality so somedays when I look in mirror I see that my face looks young and happy and some days I look old and miserable but in Essence my face looks just same it’s just my happening of the day that make me think that I look the different. So this is not actual reality which the my eyes captured but it’s my brain creating a picture in my head so basically it’s an illusion. So the eyes capture an image but in themselves they don’t process the image brain does the processing so what we see is what the brain lets us see. Thinking actually means that you made some conscious thought about what you were looking at. This illusion is happening without you thinking! I hope it makes some sense. As to TED talk reality becomes an illusion in mind so what we see is not really what is out there so house is not a set of objects it’s is something you are happy to come home there is always some feeling attached to it. To be able to see just physical reality we would need to close out all emotions and force our brain to give us factual data which if it was my face would be my eyes look small I have dark circles my skin Color is sun burnt. That is reality but what I see is a tired maybe unhappy or tired happy face. I hope I made some sense.


  3. You definitely made me think. But I cannot buy what you told above. Brain doesn’t have time to process sensory data? It’s all just an illusion ?? What I believed till now is our brains are faster than anything .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi it did sound strange at first to me also because we all have some ideas of how our brains work, which is why when I saw it in London museum I just didn’t think much of it except marvel at the fact of how fast the brain is that it can actually process huge amount of data that the sensory organs produce. It was TED talk that made me go back and look at the notes I had taken at the museum (which were not very clear and then do research for 4 days before I wrote this piece) I’m not a scientist so it’s not very good piece but I have just tried to summarise what some of latest scientific research is saying about how the brain works. An illusion doesn’t mean everything you see is fake it is used by scientists to say in layman terms that everything we see is not 100% as the actual reality. You may be interested to know that some people can see letters as a color but an A is just A not brown wood color in reality but not for them. Hoping to have made some sense.


  4. This was a fascinating read and raised lots of questions for me to reflect on- thank you for poking my mind!
    Have you heard of Charles Bonnet Symdrome? It came to mind when you discussed sensory perception- I think you will find it very interesting 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for writing to me. I looked up Charles Bonnet Syndrome, it’s very interesting. So amazing the way the human body works or when it doesn’t work how everything changes. Now that I know some of what my brain does I can identify the gaps and it helps me think (see) better.


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