Anil Seth
Catching Sight Of Your Self.

How much do our senses tell us about the world? Well, we already know that there’s a lot they miss. Infra-red and ultraviolet light, ultrasonic waves, and a host of tastes and smells that our animals friends can detect, are imperceptible to us.

But even the things we can see, hear and feel can’t necessarily be trusted. As much as it may seem like it, our senses don’t give us an objective, unfiltered view of the world. What we perceive is simply our brain’s best guess of what’s going on around us based on past experience, our current emotional state, and plain old fashioned guesswork.

This is beautifully pointed out in this piece by Anil Seth on the nature of the self (emphasis mine).

The story emerging from a rich blend of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience is that the self is not ‘that which does the perceiving’. Instead, the self is a perception too. Or rather, it is a collection of related perceptions. Experiences of the world, and of the self, are created by the brain following a common principle – a principle of ‘best guessing’, or what we might call ‘controlled hallucination’.

The bedrock idea is simple. Raw sensory signals are ambiguous and unlabelled. Although they reflect really-existing properties of the world, they do so only indirectly. The eyes are not transparent windows from a self out onto a world, nor are the ears, nor are any of our senses. The perceptual world we encounter – a world full of well-defined objects with various properties like shape and colour – is created by the brain through a process of inference, of under-the-hood neurally-implemented probabilistic guesswork. When I see a red coffee mug on the table in front of me, this is because ‘red coffee mug’ is the brain’s best guess of the hidden and ultimately unknowable causes of the corresponding sensory signals. When I experience the glow of a sunset, or the sharp taste of an adventurous cheese, that too is a perceptual best-guess. We never experience sensory signals ‘in-the-raw’. Every experience is an interpretation, a construction.

Reality Is Not What It Seems – and Neither Are You.

To say “it’s easy to overlook the fact that our perception isn’t the same as reality,” is perhaps the greatest understatement of all time. It’s almost impossible not to overlook it. Not overlooking it takes dedicated effort which still only allows us to overlook it for brief periods.

Everything we experience, from sounds, to smells, to the words on this screen, even the feeling that we are a single cohesive self, is a construction of the mind. An attempt to make sense of an influx of various vibrations and energy frequencies. This article by Anil Seth captures the idea with an eloquence I’ve not seen before:

…imagine being a brain. There you are, locked inside the bony vault of the skull, trying to figure out what’s out there in the world. There’s no light in the skull; there’s no sound either. It’s completely dark and it’s utterly silent. Your eyes and your ears just deliver streams of electrical signals to the brain.

These signals don’t come with labels attached – “I’m from a cat! I’m from a coffee cup!” – they are just electrical signals, signals which do not themselves have any shape, color, or sound. Therefore, in order to figure out what’s out there in the world, the brain has to combine these ambiguous sensory signals with some prior “expectations” or “predictions” about the way the world is. And that’s what we perceive – the brain’s “best guess” of the causes of its sensory signals.

"You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending."
Why our senses are fine-tuned for utility, not for ‘reality’.

Cognitive neuroscientist Anil Seth on the gap between conscious experience and objective reality:

…I’m also not saying that everything is in the mind. I think this is an important qualification or distinction. ‘There is an objective reality out there, at least as far as I know. But it’s how that reality appears in pour experience which is always a construction.

Watching the conversion of meditative and scientific views of perception is really exciting.