The Soul Illusion

I think my quarry is illusion. I war against magic.
I believe that, though illusion often cheers and comforts,
it ultimately and invariably weakens and constricts the spirit.

 —  Irvin Yalom

Some otherwise competent individuals repeatedly and knowingly act counter to their own interests. They are not intending to hurt themselves; they are taken in by an illusion. The Soul Illusion results from the presumed, but bogus, premise of perception, namely that we see the world as it really is. In fact, what we see is a creation of our nervous system.

To appreciate the source of your knowledge about the world outside of you, consider the familiar question: When a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, is there a sound?

When the tree falls, it produces a series of pressure waves in the surrounding air. The ear drum converts these waves into a mechanical signal which is transmitted by 3 small bones to the fluid filled cochlea - the spiral bony canal of the inner ear. Hair cells of the cochlea are the actual receptors. Each is tuned to a particular frequency of the fluid waves. Hair cell vibrations are converted to electrical impulses, and transmitted along the auditory nerve to the auditory cortex where intensity and frequency of the vibrations are mapped. Neither pressure waves, physical movements of body parts [bones, hair], nor electrical signals are sound. Sound is an experience that is created by, and exists only in, the mind of the perceiver.

So, if there is no one around to hear it, a tree falling in the forest produces no sound — only pressure waves in the surrounding air.

Perception differs qualitatively from the physical properties of the stimulus. The nervous system extracts only certain information from the natural world. We perceive fluctuations of air pressure not as pressure waves but as sounds that we hear. We perceive electromagnetic waves of different frequency as colors that we see. We perceive chemical compounds dissolved in air or water as specific smells or tastes.

In the words of neurologist Sir John Eccles: "I want you to realize that there exists no color in the natural world, and no sound - nothing of this kind; no textures, no patterns, no beauty, no scent." Sounds, colors, and patterns appear to have an independent reality, yet are, in fact, constructed by, and only exist within, an individual's nervous system. To make sense of the huge amount of sensory input it receives, the nervous system abstracts from raw sensation to create perceptions.  All of our subjective experience, including our knowledge of the world around us, is the creation of our nervous systems. Our understandings are imperfect.

The Confabulation of Consciousness

Some neurological disorders result in memory impairment so profound that the patient is not able to remember the sequence of events that led to her arrival at the clinician's office. When asked, the patient will often confabulate an explanation. The false explanation is called a confabulation [rather than a lie], because the patient is not intending to mislead the clinician. Her attempt to explain her arrival without an awareness of the actual facts causes her to create a plausible story to account for the current reality. 

The Soul Illusion is the consequence of failing to appreciate the difference between the events that happen and our perception of those events. In eastern philosophy we are viewed as trapped in "Maya.” The entrapment results from the tacit, but false, premise of perception that we perceive the world as it really is. In fact, our perceptions, understandings, and beliefs are constructed by, and only exist, within our nervous system.

Your experiences on the Optical Illusions page demonstrate that the brain creatively interprets visual data rather than rendering a valid and complete depiction of the objective world. Perceptual illusions are not confined to the visual modality. 

All subjective experience is the creative construction of a nervous system with a particular learning history and point of view. Your emotional reactions to something that happens is based upon your appraisal of it.  But your appraisal is not the true appraisal; it is a consequence of early conditioning among other sources of influence. 

To paraphrase Sir Arthur Eddington: The truth is not only different than you think, its different than you can think.  There may be an objective reality out there, but the only source of information you have about it comes through your sense organs. Your nervous system does a great job of depicting the outside world, but the map we create is not the same as the territory it represents. [Click here for a series of slide shows on this topic].



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