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Neuroscience

Why Your Brain is Always Improvising Reality

4 ways your brain recreate the reality you think consistent and coherent

Have you ever noticed how inconsistent your mental objects are?

If not, I advise you to try this experiment: imagine in your head a cube and try to measure the size of its different sides.

You will see how quickly you will come to contradictory conclusions. As if every time you rotated your inner image you created another cube instead.

Actually, your mental objects don’t have constant consistency. They represent quite inaccurately the coherence of “real” objects.

Similarly, according to Nick Chater in The Mind Is Flat, all areas of your mind- emotions, memory, perception, and consciousness, are the result of a permanent re-creation of your brain.

Your mind is a continual improviser, maintaining your illusion of the real by connecting disparate moments at all times.

Here are four experiments showing how it proceeds, and what it can say about your inner creativity.

Crafting one perception at a time

Consider this image for a moment.

Image for post

Have you noticed it?

Every time your eye fixes on a white spot, the others disappear from your field of vision. As if they had been turned off. Or rather, as if our eyes recreated the dots through their movements.

We believe that our perception of objects is fixed, that our vision is continuous. But our eye keeps blinking and recreating the images we think are from the same world.

This is what British psychologists have discovered even more acutely through some specific experiments.

To study perception, they installed a small lens in the participant’s eye that projected images. This inner light moved as the eye moved to keep the same vision from the retina. Yet, when the researchers blocked the retina, preventing the eye from making its normal movement, the patient saw only a partial image that disappeared and reappeared.

How is it so? Apparently, the light from the lens was not enough for vision. The eye also had to move to recreate the light it perceived.

What it means is that your brain constitutes moment by moment the continuity of a world which, in normal times, would only appear fragmented and incoherent. Your mind creates the objectivity that you believe belongs naturally to the world.

Building interpretations from our feelings

This also concerns your inner and emotional life.

When scientists at the University of Minnesota had the idea of injecting adrenaline into patients, they discovered the deep ambivalence of our emotions. After making them wait in a room with the company of fake actors, they confronted them in two situations.

In one, the actors complained rather loudly about the difficulty of filling out a paper and expressing their anger openly. On the other, they showed enthusiasm and excitement by making paper airplanes and playing with them.

Quite strangely, in the first case, participants affected by adrenaline also experienced significant anger, with no other connection. Meanwhile, in the second case, they showed euphoria in sync with the scene they had experienced.

What the researchers then realized is that our emotions are not self-generated but are largely defined by context. The situation in which we may both feel joy or anger for the same internal stimulus (be it adrenaline, dopamine, or any other physiological reaction).

As a result, our body or mind defines less what we feel than the interpretation we make of what we feel. In this precise situation, participants inferred from cues in the situation that their beating heart was the result of anger or joy, and thus experienced that sentiment.

What you may understand is that your feelings are recreated by the story your brain tells itself in every situation. If you formulate it differently, your feeling will be different.

Making up our choices afterward

Another idea is that we make our mind with reasons before our choices. An experiment by Swedish psychologists has shown, on the contrary, the inconsistency of our decision-making motivations.

They asked participants in the Swedish general election of 2010 about their political inclinations and then asked them to fill out a questionnaire on various subjects.

After that, they applied a little trick. To see the reaction, they modified their answers, gave them back, and asked them to justify them. Surprisingly, without even noticing anything most of the time, the participants had little difficulty in defending their ideas changed by the experimenters.

In a way, the participants managed to improvise an explanation for their ideas, whereas only a short while ago they thought the opposite was true.

What this shows is that our brain’s ability to justify beliefs almost on the spot. We can defend any choices we make, even when they are not ours.

What it eventually means is that our choices are not the result of an initial preference but permanent psychological improvisation.

Creating our sense of consciousness

We may also believe that we are conscious in the moment of everything that happens to us.

Actually, neurobiologists at University College London have shown that we are only aware of what we are paying attention to. Anything we don’t pay attention to, we are not aware of.

They measured brain activity in participants as they looked at drawings of common objects. The specificity of these drawings was that they also contained letters that sometimes formed words that participants could understand.

When participants were trying to make sense of what they saw, scientists could tell when they had understood by noting a source of activity in the language-related part of their brain. Thus, scientists asked them to pay attention to either words or drawings.

Participants did understand either the words or the drawings, but could not make sense of the other when they also had it in front of their eyes. The brain was focused on one category of objects, and could not make sense of the other in front of them.

What these results show is the brain’s inability to make sense of more than one kind of object at a time. The brain gathers all related neural networks to make sense of one object, but cannot use it for another.

Even if the presence of the object was obvious, the brain does not process it, and therefore was not aware of it. Therefore, we cannot be aware of the thought process itself but only of its result.

We are always aware of objects afterward, when the brain has crafted our sensation of being aware. Our brain improvises our thoughts on the spot, without us being aware of it first.

The conclusion drawn from these experiments is that our brain sustains our constant delusion around our perception, emotion, choice, and consciousness. It makes us believe that we are dealing with a world that we intuitively understand, whereas it is the brain that makes it up for us.

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