Layers of Illusion and Perception
When it comes to reality we are really talking about our perception. I want to dive a little bit deeper at what this means as it is not only relevant for ones own life but many schools of thought, of philosophy and esoteric deal with these or similar insights. It is also relevant in the context of immersive storytelling and virtual reality because perception is a major toolset that we as designer have.
Generally we don’t think about reality and what it really is. It is that what simply is. But whenever you say this, you have to ask yourself if what you perceive as real is it the same that everybody else perceives as real? As humans we apparently have a shared idea about what reality might be, but it becomes really strange if we simply assume this about other animals, other forms of life. We hear about strange phenomena from science like quantum physics and general relativity and all of a sudden we ask, maybe we are limited in what we think about reality and how we even arrived at thinking we knew what reality is. What we as humans perceive as reality is generally what our senses tell us about the outside and what our psyche builds out of this.
Let’s take an animal for example and how they perceive reality differently. A frog can only perceive what moves.* Everything that does not move, that is static does never arrive at the frog visually. His brain filters it away. His filters only let through what moves. Through movement things spring into the frogs existence. Because of this perception, certain reflexes developed into the frog that help him for his survival. If in front of a source of light, like the sun, there is a moving object the frog will react according to the size of the moving object. If the moving object is small the frog will eat it. Simple. Because it has to be an insect. If however the moving object it large the frog will jump away because this might be a potential thread for his survival. Knowing this however about the frog, it becomes for us humans very simple to exploit it. We can very easily catch the frog by shining a lamp directly into its eyes and grabing the frog from behind or the side because nothing is between the light and its retina. And when there is nothing that moves between a source of light and his eyes, the frog will not react and not jump away. Because in the frogs reality nothing does exist. We might think now, how sad it is, how limited the reality of the frog is! Especially as we the homo sapiens really understand what reality is, we perceive the world as it actually is…
Of course not. We primarily live in a human reality defined by human senses not in the actual reality. Everything is measured by our senses. We as humans could however expand our perception through artificial measurements giving us ideas about light frequency ranges outside our perception for example. But really this only demonstrates how little we know. We are limited by our senses and measuring capabilities. Another huge factor is our psyche – the filter through which every perception is processed. This makes us perceive the environment in huge portions through the expectations that we have about reality due to our programs and prior experiences. We perceive the present through the lens of the past. This is something we all know and is very relevant in our daily life. Let’s say you have difficulties with a work colleague of yours. You generally don’t like each other. Imagine one day that person is really nice to you. Automatically you will become suspicious and not belief the person intentions. Because it is not congruent with the past experiences you made. The past defines your reality and how you perceive it. And that is really important, because so can make appropriate decisions. But let’s say you learnt as a child that you are really unlovable, your parents taught you that and that became so ingrained in you that it became your reality. And maybe you do not even know, because this happened so early on that it is an unconscious belief. If years later someone wants to love you, your subconsciousness will become suspicious and try to prevent any harm about the belief that is so firmly set within you. Because it is you reality after all, any other belief cannot be real. You see how harmful this can be. And how limiting. This is not freedom. We are caged into our beliefs, perceptions and models of reality.
Some of these programs are deeply ingrained into our neurobiology. There is a part in our brain that is often called “reptile brain“.** This is the first part of our brain that developed and therefore we share it with all other animals, in particular reptiles which are our oldest ancestors. This part of the brains sole goal is survival. And its only modi are flee, fight or hide. If too much stress hormones are induced in our system, no other brain region will be simulated but the first and most important for the body – the reptile brain. So no area that is used for rational thinking or for empathy. Only the part that has the most important reactions and feelings will work. This means that our brain will always react in the same way when you bring it in a situation of stress. In a stressful situation our perception will be filtered by the urge of survival and will primarily see thread. In a situation at work where you a brought into stress – maybe because you are late, you hurt yourself at the coffee machine, your colleague has stupid requests and you are criticized for your work and all of that happening in a short period of time. You will overreact, according to your character you will maybe start to be really aggressive or start crying. These things will perpetuate and bring you into an even more stressful situation. Your brain cannot function normally and think rationally because these stress hormones completely prevent you from that. This reptile brain and the stress hormones associated with it are like another layer on reality that prevent you from perceiving reality with a clear mind. When you have a conversation in this state of mind, everything will be interpreted negatively. Because the reptile brain searches for thread and it will always find it. And the more you interpret reality with the reptile brain the more screwed it becomes. And more layers in front of reality built up.
Our brain has also the tendencies to fill in the gap. According to what it knows from the past and its expectations it will fill out whatever it thinks reasonable. This is where imagination takes place. And why horror is so impactful. Just hint at something and you brain will come up with the worst if the expectations are set right. Jealousy another way of the imagination at work. Take a negative and fearful precondition and your imagination will come up with a whole story that is just in your mind but feels very true to you.
There are many other aspects about our human perception. Our brain is very flawed. Another example is our capability of memory. We constantly change our memory of events. Our brain cannot help but do this and it changes our memory according to our state of mind. So the more negative you think about the past the more negative it becomes. And so every time we recall a memory it is slightly altert and with this our reality. Because the memory of the past defines our reality. Add to our flawed memory our reptile brain filter and our inherited beliefs and you arrive at a mind that is pray to a very distorted version of reality.
And this is the reality we all think we know. It couldn’t be farther away from the truth. In the end all we believe in are models and perceptions of reality, we do not know the true nature of reality. But it is really important to understand how our perception and mind builds up our perceived reality. Not only learn how to navigate live better by understanding how flawed our thinking is due to the way our human mind works but also for everybody who wants to communicate different models of reality. In VR changing perception is the core of the medium and all those different aspects become important tools for storytelling and increasing immersion.
I want to end with just another little thought. And that is another limiting factor which is time and our perspective of time. We experience everything in a limited time period of about 70 to 100 years. We call this a lifetime. When I once thought about death I thought isn’t it really our perception of time that makes us think about death. When you look at our lifetime from a far higher time period, let’s say in cosmic scales of millions of years. Death is a blink of an eye. Every moment one death after the other happens in extrem speed. But suddenly you see that the species whose individuals die are really just part of the lifetime of a whole species. This one species changes, it undergoes Darwin evolution and is in a state of constant change. You could really say the species has a life of its own that is made up of the lives of many individuals. It is the same when you look at the time scale of a tree for example. There is this one tree and when it blossoms it has so many flowers that are born and have their individual life. But every blossom dies it own death. And every Flower is made up of millions of cells that all have their own life. Their own death. They all make up the life of the tree which is only a tiny part of the larger life of the species of the tree. So even our own lives are more like the life of a blossom on a tree, living as part of a bigger process. Death is relative. Life is relative. We consider our life and death important because our perception limits us to this time scale. Our perception is largely due to the speed of our consciousness which is due to the biological function of our brain which is a product of this always changing life process of life and death and ever lasting change. Change the perspective and those reference frames melt away. Perception defines your reality but it is not the ultimate reality. The moment you start to think in a reference frame, the object of your interest becomes relative to your reference frame and with this limited and not ultimately true. And so we cannot define reality because we do not have an ultimate reference frame, everything is relative. And your perception as humans is for sure limited.
* This description comes from the amazing (german) talk by Vera F. Birkenbihl https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfiOKFSUhHU&t=1164s
**I am refereing to the Triune brain or basal ganglia, this model is however very simplified. There is of course more to this then this very simple idea. It works for my argumentation here however because we can all experience the described effects in our lifes. Just don’t quote me on this.