It is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever heard. American neuroscientist David Eagleman says humans typically perceive less than one ten trillionth of what is going on around us. In other words, we are stumbling through life largely unaware of what is happening right next to us. There could be other life forms, spirits, galaxies – in fact everyone who has ever lived – right beside us and we wouldn’t know it, because we have not yet evolved the receptors to read all the vibrations around us.
The other astonishing thing Eagleman says is that there is no ‘real world’ out there. At least not in the way we think of it – as a place full of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations. Here’s Eagleman to explain it: ‘The brain sits in total silence and darkness. It is a sealed chamber… we feel like the sights and sounds [of the outside world] just stream in around us.. but our perception of reality has less to do with the world around us than what’s inside…reality is the brain’s ultimate construction..’. Eagleman goes on to add: ‘The real world has no smell, or taste, or sound, or color..’ Did that just make your brain screech to a halt? Mine did.
To show how the brain’s interpretive function works Eagleman gives the example of a blind skier, who in midlife elected to have an operation to restore his sight. Post operation his eyes worked perfectly. Technically he had 20-20 vision. But he still couldn’t see (at least not like us), because his brain couldn’t interpret the information it was receiving. It turns out our brains are fabulous pattern makers. They weave colorful stories out of the electro-chemical signals they receive, turning them into images, smells, feelings, tastes and sounds.
Post-operation, the formerly blind skier could now see colors and shapes looming towards him when he skied. But he couldn’t tell if the shapes were a shadow, a tree, a person, or a rock. With the result, the world became terrifying to him. The truth about sight, says Eagleman, is that it takes intensive education from infancy on for the brain to learn how to pattern-make ‘sight’ out of the information it receives. We effectively teach each other to see. It is a learned process.
This reminded me of the story of the Native American tribe who couldn’t see a boat coming over the horizon towards them, simply because they had no experience of seeing a boat before. They had no pattern for it, so it didn’t exist. It is an extraordinary thought. How much of what is happening in front of our eyes, do we fail to see because we have little or no experience of it. Is this perhaps why only a minority of people can ‘see’ spirits, or ‘feel’ their presence, or ‘smell’ the scent of departed loved ones and others can’t? According to cutting edge scientists like Eagelman, reality is about what we expect to see, and most of the world still doesn’t expect to see spirits in the living room.