There is No Spoon—Perception Is Reality
How an Age-Old Management Gem Gets Mind-Bendy When We Apply Science
If you’ve read any self-help material pertaining to communication, you’ve no doubt come across the statement that a person’s perception is their reality. Usually this comes in the conflict resolution or direct leadership section of the book where the author is trying to get you to understand that not everyone sees everything through the same lens. And while most authors use this statement metaphorically to call out a person’s natural tendency to remember certain bits of a conversation and forget others (as they fit or don’t fit within their own mental construct), I’m talking like actual reality! The one that’s right before your eyes! (Or is it?)
Yes, I grew up watching The X-Files. I wanted to be Fox Mulder. But that doesn’t mean I was (or currently am) a crackpot. I believe in science, the scientific method, measurable quantities, facts, and well-supported theories. However, the more I dig into perception, the stranger it gets.
Before you tune me out, let’s get into to some hard, undeniable scientific truths.
Your Mind’s Eye Doesn’t See What’s In Front of You
We perceive the world through our senses. The big 5 are sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Some would argue that there are several other senses that we can layer on but that gets into the realm of pseudoscience and we’re going to steer clear of that for today. The heaviest hitter in the big 5 for most people is sight. Unless your vision is altered in some way, you’re likely relying on your eyes for the vast majority of sensory input. Now, other senses often play a bigger part in memory recall (especially sound) but for this discussion were talking about the immediate construction of our individual reality—perception.
So, we could argue that your eyes don’t lie and everything we see in front of us is real. I’m going to tell you right now that’s wrong.
Perhaps you already know that every person perceives colors differently due to physical differences in the eye. I once had a pair of pants that I absolutely considered to be blue but every time I put them on, my wife called them purple.
But did you know your mind also takes the stimuli your eyes pump into it and messes with that as well?
The Blind Spot!
Each of your retinas—the bit in the back of your eye that’s loaded with photoreceptors—has a considerably large empty spot in which there are no photoreceptors. This, logically, would create a blind spot somewhere near the center of your field of vision. But you don’t see an empty spot, do you? That’s because your mind take clues from the nearby photoreceptors, does a little jiggery-pokery, and fools itself into erasing that blind spot.
This article in Scientific American goes into detail about this phenomenon and even gives you several methods by which you can trick your brain into revealing this blind spot—it’s kinda freaky if you’re up for it.
Victorians (specifically physicist Sir David Brewster) attributed this magical band-aid that covers the gap in your field of view to God, however, modern scientists believe that this “filling in” is a manifestation of what’s called “surface interpolation.”
“. . . an ability that has evolved to compute representations of continuous surfaces and contours that occur in the natural world—even ones that are sometimes partly occluded (for example, a cat seen behind a picket fence looks like one whole cat, not like a cat sliced up).”
Leslie G. Ungerleider of the National Institute of Mental Health, Ricardo Gattass of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Charles D. Gilbert of the Rockefeller University, and other physiologist are currently exploring the mechanism behind this process at the neural level, however, for our purposes, the phenomenon represents just one of the ways your brain alters the real world to create your own personal reality.
Your Brain Treats Imagined Stimuli the Same as Real Ones!
Okay, so your brain is a tricksy thing that plays fast and loose with objective reality. It takes real input, smudges it a bit and makes you think that this altered perception is real. That’s cool (not really).
But what if I were to tell you that your brain also makes imaginary things very real?
I’m not talking about manifesting a rabbit in a hat or wishing for a million dollars only to answer the door for one of those publisher’s sweepstakes guys. I’m talking about the fact that your brain treats imagined stimuli in an almost identical way to real stimuli.
Research published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience measured the mental “effort” musicians expended while playing music, listening to music, and imagining music. They used various measures including pupil dilation and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on trained musicians and non-musical types (like me!) What they found is that regardless of whether the musician was actually playing, listening to, or mentally imagining themselves play a song, the measurable effects on the brain and the body were nearly identical. (As you would expect, the effects were very much muted on those who had no experience actually playing music.)
The effect isn’t limited to musicians though. Research conducted at The University of Colorado at Boulder and published in Science Daily looked at imagination therapy and it’s the very real improvements patients with phobias made using it. For this study, people with certain phobias were asked to imagine their specific phobia—dogs, spiders, heights, etc. Simply doing so created very real physical fear responses in the individual—increased sweating, faster heart rates, more rapid breathing. However, the study went on to prove that repeated imagination sessions in a environment that was proven to be safe—a therapist’s office—actually decreased the physical response to the actual phobia in real life just like traditional exposure therapy!
Want more research into how your brain fools you every day?
- Ventriloquist Illusion twists how your brain remembers sounds when paired with images and visual stimuli.
- Visual illusions demonstrate how our mind alters what we see.
- Eight ways our personal realities are skewed.
- You’re living in the past—your brain makes constant predictions about what becomes your present
There’s even a cognitive scientist named Donald Hoffman who has made a concrete Case Against Reality.
But now that we know this, what can we do with that information?
Your Brain Can Actually Change Reality
This is where it gets even weirder. I’m going to tell you know that your brain can actually change reality. Not in the hippy-dippy sense that positive thoughts lead to positive outcomes (though they actually do) but in the sense that the very act of perceiving something can change measurable reality.
The Studies Back the Statement
Perhaps you’re familiar with The Baxter Effect. Discovered by Cleve Baxter—a former CIA interrogation specialist) this measurable phenomenon became the basis for the wildly popular Secret Life of Plants.
In essence, Baxter was messing around with a potted plant in his office one day when he had a little too much time on his hands and hooked the poor thing up to a polygraph (lie detector) machine. Baxter noticed that when he expressed harmful thoughts toward the plant (specifically, burning it) the plant exhibited measurable electrical responses similar to those humans express when placed under stress. Baxter then recreated the experiment multiple times and found that even if the plant was miles away, it still reacted in a similar fashion at the exact time he thought about harming it.
His thoughts created a response in the plant!
Another lesser known experiment by Helmut Schmidt involved random subjects, random numbers, and some random lightbulbs. In short, Schmidt hooked some lightbulbs to a random number generator. The bulbs should have theoretically lit completely at random—which they did when not being observed by test subjects. However, when Schmidt introduced the experiment participants and told them to “psychically” manipulate which lights came on, he recorded results that were 1%-2% higher than would be expected by chance.
Of course, if you’re looking for a more commonly accepted demonstration of how your perception of reality actually changes reality, look no further than the extremely well documented placebo effect. Multiple studies over generations have shown that when people believe they’ve been given medication, their medical conditions measurably improve—even if the pills they’re given are nothing but sugar tablets!
In fact, scientists like Alia Crum, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of Stanford’s Mind and Body Lab, are still trying to find the limits of the placebo effect. So far they’ve found that:
- People who believe doing physical work in a job counts as exercise actually live longer
- Telling subjects a milkshake is “indulgent” makes the person feel fuller
- Making a subject believe a drink is caffeinated actually increases blood pressure
So what does this all mean for you?
Your Reality is a Creation of your Mind and Your Mind Affects Reality
Combine real results uncovered in those two fields of research we dipped into above and the statement that your reality is a creation of your mind and your mind can actually change reality becomes disturbingly/delightfully true.
I’m not saying that imagining a pile of money at your front door is going to result in you becoming rich. I will tell you that going to work every day with the expectations that you’re going to have a crappy day will—more often than not—result in you having a crappy day.
Does projecting positive thoughts about money and wealth in general directly lead to more wealth landing in your lap as Jen Sincero suggests in her book You are a Badass at Making Money? Maybe not. But I can tell you that positive thoughts about money and wealth will improve your attitude about making that money and actually putting in the work necessary to “make it rain” will be a hell of a lot easier.
Now, you don’t have to take this leap with me, but I personally believe in a higher power at play in the universe—not necessarily a bearded dude on a white cloud (Christianity) or Alanis Morisette who can destroy you just by opening her mouth (Dogma).
My personal higher power is more like that proposed in Unified Field Theory or a Universal “Intelligence” that can influence (and be influenced by) our thoughts. I’ll get into this more in another post because it deals with parapsychology, reincarnation, similar beliefs and iconography in disparate ancient civilizations, and the like.
However, even if I’m wrong about all of that, my practice or projecting positive thoughts into the universe isn’t going to do any more harm than putting a few more people in a better mood for the day. If I’m right. . . well, let’s just say Einstein once called Quantum Entanglement “spooky action at a distance.”