Things are not as they seem.

Things are not as they seem.

Take a look around you. Everything you see, hear and touch is only an illusion constructed in your head.
Don’t believe me? Read on….

“Take a simple object; something right at hand: a pen.
Hold it in your hand; look at it; tap it on the desktop, and listen to the sound. Now, consider your experience of this ‘sound’. What do scientists tell us about it?

By coming into contact with the desk, the pen causes a series of acoustic vibrations in the atmosphere, in the space between the desk and your ear. This process, i.e., the compression and rarefaction of air (basically, contraction and expansion), continues at a certain frequency, and these waves of compressed and expanded air eventually reach your ear. (Edgard Varese, a modern French composer, when asked what he did for a living, once replied, “I am a disturber of the atmosphere”.)

Do you hear a sound when these movements of air reach your ear? No, not yet. First, the atmospheric movements have to set in motion an immensely complex set of other vibrations. The vibrations go from the eardrum to the hammer and anvil, then to the cochlea where the cilia start vibrating (like the strings of a ‘kindred harp’). Then the vibration of these cilia gets converted into tiny electrical currents which race along corresponding auditory nerve fibers to the brain. You still haven’t heard a thing!

These electrical vibrations are sent to the temporal lobe of the cortex, and are then processed in several other centers of the brain. And not a single neurophysiologist has yet been able to tell us how, but somewhere, someway, unbeknownst to anybody, all of this physiological activity is converted to the experience we call ‘sound’. So, where does this ‘sound’ exist?

Until it reaches your brain and is converted into an experience, there is no ‘sound’. There are vibrations of the atmosphere, pressure waves in a gas, but no sound; the word ‘sound’ has no meaning apart from the experiencer. Now, look at the pen: look carefully; pick it up in your hand, roll it around, observing the color, the shape, the subtle shading, the play of light against the pen. Let us again hear what the scientists have to say. You don’t actually ‘see’ the pen, not directly anyway. Light is reflected off the pen, and you only see that reflected light.

It may be interesting to pause for a moment and ponder the fact that according to science, you never see, in a direct way, the physical world at all. Your entire visual experience is of reflected light. It is an interesting exercise in itself to take some time for a leisurely walk, holding in mind the fact that all that you see is nothing but reflected light of the objects, not the objects in themselves. Now, you don’t actually see the light either. The light is reflected off the pen, and it reaches your eyes. You haven’t seen anything yet!

As with the vibrations of the atmosphere with regard to sound, the light has to enter the eyes, and through an even more complex process than with hearing, it is converted to electrochemical energy and travels along the optic nerve back to the occipital lobe of the cortex. And you still haven’t seen anything!

Once again, there has never yet been a neurophysiologist who can tell us how, after this extraordinarily complex analysis of this electrical energy by the brain, it suddenly becomes a visual experience. But they tell us it is only after this cortical analysis that you have a visual experience. Without going into the other senses, suffice it to say that regarding the ordinary experience of the ‘external’ world, what you experience is not direct physical contact but the reaction of your nervous system to stimuli impinging on your body. What those stimuli are in themselves are not what you are experiencing: In other words, you don’t directly experience light, atmospheric movements, or the variations in heat, mass, etc., which scientists say make up the physical world. Rather, you experience the reaction of your nervous system to these stimuli, which your brain analyzes and then projects out into space.

These are not metaphysical or philosophical speculations; they are the commonly accepted findings of physiological and perceptual psychology. When presenting these findings to audiences, experimental psychologist Charles Tart, compares our situation to the experience of a pilot training in a flight simulator. The flight simulator is designed so well that the novice pilot is unable to experience the difference between flying a real plane and working with the flight simulator.

Similarly, you are living inside what he calls a ‘world simulator’, experiencing only the reactions of your nervous system to something whose actual nature you do not have direct access to in your present state of consciousness.

Now, take some time for another leisurely walk. Really take some time to feel this—it’s much more effective if you don’t think it out; rather, try in your bones to get a feel for this—that what you are experiencing is a construction of your brain, it is not at all a direct contact with an external independently existing physical world. To get a feel for this, as you are walking, it may help to switch your attention between visual, auditory, and tactile sensations. Focus on one kind of sensation at a time, and consider that your experience is of the brain’s transcription of external stimuli, not of direct contact with these stimuli.”

–Don Salmon.

Don Salmon is a clinical psychologist with an interest in mindfulness based practices and neuroscience.

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