Are you hallucinating right now?

In Dr. Anil Seth’s TED Talk on consciousness, the renowned scientist questions the very nature of your existence. Your brain, he reveals, hallucinates your reality.

The way things seem is just your mind’s best guess at what is going on – a best guess influenced both by evolution and by your own personal history. These factors are deeply embedded in the functioning of the visual system to shape your perception.

Is that as unsettling a thought as it seems to be? To find out, we caught up with Anil, a professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex.

What do you think we can do with the knowledge that what we see isn’t the only way to see it?

If we understand that our experiences of the world around us, and of ourselves within it, are kinds of ‘controlled hallucinations’, it opens up a little bit of flexibility in how we respond to situations. We can realise that what we’re thinking – what we’re perceiving – might not actually be the way things are.

There is a quote from Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. I think that goes too far but I do think there’s value for people in understanding how emotions and emotional states play into our perception of the world and underpin our judgements and decisions. And emotions themselves are also perceptions – but of the self rather than of the world.

How can people understand their – and others’ – biases? Is it possible?

Having scientific knowledge of how the brain works doesn’t mean it’s easy to change how we experience and do things. Even though I know something about how the visual system works, I don’t experience things differently when I open my eyes.

There are some areas where knowing about our brain’s assumptions can have a great impact. Decision-making is one of those areas where we have started to understand the various cognitive biases that affect, for instance, how people estimate the value of something, decide between two options or estimate things in the far future compared to now.

How often do people jump to assumptions?

Constantly! But often it’s not a bad thing and we don’t always need to escape it. In fact, we need assumptions and biases in order to react at all. If you’re making a choice, instead of thinking of the pros and cons, don’t ignore your gut feelings. These are based on a host of signals and experiences you could never write into a comprehensive list. Your gut feelings could be much more accurate than you realise.

How much should we be thinking about this? What proportion of our reality would you say is affected by our brain’s assumptions?

It goes very deep and that’s exactly what we’re researching – how pervasive is this process? But I do think it can be over-interpreted: don’t worry, not everything we perceive is arbitrary and I’m not saying there’s no ‘real world’ out there.

Anil Seth is a professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex. Read about his work on his website, or watch his acclaimed TED Talk which has been watched by more than 5 million people so far.

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