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  • H James

Billions of Tiny Droplets

Have you ever wondered why, when we talk about reality, we rarely mean something good? 'Real life', for example, usually implies something grim. Then we have 'get real!', 'welcome to the real world' and - the slightly more perky - 'shit just got real'. Then we have a whole sub-genre of TV shows, films and music depicting 'real life' in all its squalor and depravity. Reality, our culture seems agreed on, isn't great: all we can do is feel bad and deal with it. Now, of course the world can be a pretty savage place and our media does a sterling job of reminding us every day that we are indeed a greedy, selfish, murderous race hurtling towards a well-deserved annihilation... But how real is any of this? In fact, how 'real' is reality?

The Vedic scriptures were a massive body of sanskrit literature written thousands of years ago. Many were religious texts that governed life in what is now India and other writings were concerned with the idea of 'liberation'. In Vedic philosophy there is an ultimate reality, Brahma, which lies beyond and behind all things. We humans are of course a part of Brahma, but unfortunately are separated from it, and this causes our worldly problems and suffering. We are caught on the wheel of karma and re-incarnation - in life after life we toil away under the delusion that we are individuals, save for those lucky ones who eventually escape this cycle and reach Mokshi - enlightenment - and re-union with the Brahma, the Ultimate Reality.

Where does this delusion, that we are separate from everything else, come from? In the Vedas it is as though there is a screen - the Veil of Maya - that clouds our minds. This veil includes our thoughts, our feelings, our drives and needs; our emotions, our mental concepts, our language, our culture; in short our conditioning. This conditioning, while part of day-to-day life, causes us to be constantly acting in ways that we do not fully understand and leaves us vulnerable to exploitation. These mental concepts also make us see ourselves as separate from everything else, and the world as a jumble of separate, competing entities. Liberation therefore is the ability to see through this delusion, beyond the workings of our own mind and culture, and see the connectivity between all things.

There is a tidy symmetry between this ancient philosophy and newer, scientific theories of how our minds work. We'll start with perception. We tend to assume that the world 'outside' comes to us through our senses. Information about the world goes into our brains which then respond with an action. We might change our position in the environment or change that environment in some way. This rolls into an endless cycle of action, feedback and reaction. Our anatomy reflects this: we have sensory nerves going towards the central nervous system and motor nerves going back to the muscles. In this 'classic' view the brain could be seen as a kind of computer for making action. Information comes in and gets sent to different parts of the brain - say the cerebellum or the prefrontal cortex - where 'decisions' are made and then motor signals are sent back to the body. Some of these decisions are automatic - adjusting balance for example - and some are more deliberate, like writing an email, and some complex, deliberate activity can become automatic with enough practice, such as tying shoelaces or driving. In summary: our senses perceive, our brain receives, and then we act, and so on and on.

This view, perfectly reasonable, seems to make a nonsense of the idea that there is some kind of 'veil' over reality. We are in reality and constantly perceiving it and adjusting to it; any talk of illusion is surely the kind of metaphysical naval-gazing practiced by people with too much time on their hands (like me). Yet we are finding that as much as the brain is a 'perception-action-reaction engine' it is also a 'prediction engine'. (For more on this you might want to look up a TED talk by professor Anil Seth of the University of Sussex). Again this seems pretty common sense. We know that we have to predict things, and it is fair to say that most of our thought processes seem to be taken up with predicting stuff and even when thinking about the past we are still essentially predicting what happened as opposed to laying out - completely objectively - what actually happened at any point.

Yet predicting goes beyond our conscious processes - it even shapes our perception. Take vision: Photons of light hit our retinas and get converted into nerve signals, which travel to the visual cortex tucked back in our brains. The visual cortex acts like a kind of 'screen' making sense of visual information, essentially constructing the technicolor, three-dimensional world we see around us. We might assume this is all made from the information coming into our eyes. Yet around ninety percent of the information processed by our visual cortex - our 3D world - comes from within the brain itself. Our brain, trapped inside the dark box of our skull, essentially predicts the world and our eyes are there more or less to confirm the predictions. Our eyes saccade around, picking spots of information here and there, and our brain basically fills in the rest.

In her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, professor Lisa Feldman Barrett explains that there is a good reason why our world is largely predicted this way. Basically, prediction is far more energy efficient than having to interpret the world afresh each moment. The brain already uses a fair amount of energy and, trapped inside a hard skull, it can't really grow out to use more - so it has evolved to make the most of what it has. Predicting the world - what we're experiencing, what we're likely to see next - is an efficient way of perceiving things. A useful analogy is with a DVD player or online streaming: in each 'frame' a lot of the visual information is essentially the same as the last frame - the background for example - with only things like faces changing as they talk. Therefore it takes a lot less information to change only those small areas that are moving and leave the rest as it was. We don't really need to notice the curtains. And in this way we avoid information overload.

So we don't so much perceive the world directly as perceive little bits of it then simulate the rest. Events in the outside world 'merely tune our predictions'. Prediction allows us to catch a ball - an action which would be too quick for us to execute otherwise. We predict where the ball will be in order to catch it. And when something doesn't fit the prediction - my friend only pretended to throw the ball at me for example - we get a 'prediction error'. In this case the brain usually adapts with a new course of action, a new set of predictions. Feldman Barrett calls this whole process a prediction loop: the brain makes a simulation of the world, compares it with incoming information, resolves whatever errors there may be, then makes another prediction which forms another simulation and so on. In a nice image she compares consciousness to 'billions of tiny droplets' formed of these prediction loops - falling endlessly through our minds, which are able to form them into a seamless reality.

Occasionally our brain deals with the prediction error by simple ignoring it. For a striking example of this check out a video of the 'McGurk Effect' (a clip from BBC Horizon available online is probably the best for this). Even though we know the speaker is saying 'Pah' because of the shape of the lips our brain predicts - and we therefore hear - 'Fah'. This is the case even when we know there is an error!

In short, much of what we perceive to be 'reality' is actually made up by our brains for the sake of efficiency and to make quick, automatic actions doable. Our senses do not so much as take in the world as 'tune' our simulation of it. It may sound outlandish, but then our minds are so good at blending these 'billion of droplets' into a seamless, integrated reality that we don't notice it. After all we've had a lifetime of practice! And then of course we have our thought processes. While we are busy simulating the world we are also thinking about it, and these cognitive processes are themselves mostly - if not entirely - predictions. It seems there is some truth after all in that old cliche: 'we don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are.'

It is worth noting that these predictions - perceptual predictions and thought processes - usually have a goal. The brain makes a prediction with some kind of goal in mind: usually a 'survival' aim - food, attractive person, safety, status, threat, and so on. These are things which draw our attention and which shape what we actually see and hear. If you're afraid of something it can actually seem bigger for example, or somebody mysteriously looks far more attractive when other people also want them! The point here is that we tend to bend reality depending on our - often subconscious - goals.

Our 'prediction engine' brain also explains why it is so difficult to 'be in the moment'. Our predictions are constantly pulling us away from the present - constantly shaping what we see and hear - and what we pay attention to. And it feels 'real' because we practice it all the time. Yet we can also practice the other way. This was something not lost on ancient Eastern or on native American cultures which were, somehow, able to intuit that our reality is made up by our minds rather than passively received, and who developed practices and rituals to lift us out of this reality. They knew that getting beyond this reality could have great therapeutic and creative benefits. That this reality is just as much a dream as any other, a collective dream at that, valuable but not the only one.

In states of meditation, or concentration, or what might be called 'flow states' we can be lifted out of the torrent of our predictions. We can experience a deeper and more vibrant reality. I'm guessing that we have all experienced such a state, and recall how refreshing it can be. Alternatively we can actually shape our predictions through visualization. Not only can these practices make us feel better, but when we are able to be centered in such a way, we are less likely to exploit ourselves or the world around us in order to chase a certain feeling or achieve a certain status. I guess the point of all this is that we make reality in more ways than one. We don't perceive the world, we realize the world. And, as the late Iain Banks once wisely said, we all need to get out of our heads once in a while.

H James, 2018

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