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Reality. Really? A Mental Health Perspective – Really Rough Draft

There’s an old saying that ‘Perception is Reality’.  It’s used in various ways such as explaining differences of opinion between people viewing the same facts.

Perception is also something that is dealt with in any basic psychology text.  It’s the part of the process of creating consciousness where physical reality interfaces with these senses.

The human brain is the most complex structure in the known Universe.  Recently, researchers found a way to accurately count the number of neurons in the brain.  Not really surprisingly, it’s not the even number of 100 billion that’s been tossed around for decades.  That was pretty much a guess.  It’s actually about 86 billion.  And 16 billion or those are in the cerebral cortex – the rumply part that is largely responsible for making us human.  By comparison, Penelope the cat, who is curled up on my desk next me, has about 1 billion neurons in her cortex.

I’ll take the ‘Perception is Reality’ now and play with it a little.

Do you think there’s a physical reality beyond yourself that is ‘real’?  I do.

Does it depend on or change based on your perception?  I don’t think so.

We all have this complex experience we call ‘consciousness’.  Is it reality?  Yes and no.

What do I mean by that?

Let’s frame the ‘Perception is Reality’ statement differently.  Let’s use some modern technological concepts.  How about Virtual Reality?  That’s what we, or at least our kids, experience when they are playing video games or when pilots are training in simulators or when Neo is in the Matrix.  The intension is for them to be ‘immersive’.  They should provide input to your senses that is sufficiently convincing that you can at least suspend disbelief and think that those worlds are real.

I’m going to suggest that our ‘consciousness’ is a Virtual Reality that our brain creates based on the ‘real’ physical world around us.

Another of my favorite quotes is ‘Reality is an illusion created by a conspiracy of the sense’.  This comes from physicist Roger Penrose.

The fact is that we really only know about the external world through our senses.  But have you thought about this:

As we navigate through our environment, light reaches our eyes a short time after it reflects off of the object we are looking at.  If we were sitting across the table from each other, that’s just a couple of nanoseconds.  But if you’re looking at the moon, it’s more like a second and a half.  So, you’re already only getting the ‘raw data’ about the outside world with a delay.  It’s already in the past.

Then that raw data has to be processed by the brain.  That takes time in the tens of milliseconds range before you experience it consciously.  So, you are still further in the past.

Next, the eyes aren’t just cameras that project images into your consciousness.  Vision is an amazingly complex with layers of different kinds of processing for color, shape, detecting edges, recognizing motion and more.

One aspect of it that fascinates me is that color isn’t real.  It’s just electromagnetic waves with different frequencies.  In fact our eyes can only detect a tiny range of the electromagnetic spectrum.  This corresponds roughly to the colors in the rainbow.  But what I find most interesting is that only the ‘colors’ of the rainbow are ‘real’.  The rainbow doesn’t really have colors.  The brain assigns those colors to the frequencies in the rainbow and that’s what we ‘see’ in our minds.  But what that means is that all other colors, shades and hues are produced entirely by the brain from combinations of the colors in the rainbow.  They are the products of additional levels of processing and interpretation made by our brains after the raw frequencies strike the retina.  Objects in nature do not have instrinsic color at all.

The same applies to all the senses.  What we see, hear, taste, feel … all of it is not reality.  It’s all a Virtual Reality created by our brain.  Our consciousness is a time-delayed Virtual Reality drawn from the external physical reality that we live in.

So, how does this apply to mental health issues?

The average, health well-adjust person probably never thinks much about the above.  Roses are red and cold is cold and they don’t think anything of it.  Their brains interact with the environment to deliver a conscious Virtual Reality to them that is mapped to physical reality in a reliable way that allows them to navigate through physical reality, adapt to it, make decisions based on it, etc.  This mapping is stable and reliable.  There’s rarely a need to question whether this mapping of the conscious Virtual Reality is an accurate, reliable, predictable and useful representation of the outside world.

But where there are mental health problems this is not the case.  In my view, the essence of mental health problems is that the conscious Virtual Reality is distorted.  It’s not a reliable, accurate or predictable and therefore it’s not as useful to the sufferer as that of a healthy person is to them.

There is a disconnect between the outside world and the Virtual Reality within.

Depending on the nature of the disconnect, the degree of distortion and the nature of the distortion, this disturbance in the sufferers Virtual Reality can make one’s conscious experience very difficult to live in and make it very hard to function in the external world.

In severe cases, this distorted Virtual Reality can be so distorted that it creates the worst kind of human suffering and can render a person unable to function normally at all.

To some people with this kind of distortion, the mapping to the external reality breaks entirely and their Virtual Reality becomestheir reality.

For others, they are aware that their Virtual Reality is distorted but they have insight into how it is distorted so that they can find ways of compensating for it.  But this creates extra overhead for them that healthy people don’t have.  This can very stressful, difficult and draining.

For others, like myself, most of my life, the distortion is sufficient that, although I have had insight into how it is distorted, it has not been clear enough to fully compensate for it.  The extra overhead was so great that to maintain any kind of normal level of functioning was too draining to be sustainable.

I have often thought, especially through the worst periods, that it would might be easier to just surrender to the distorted Virtual Reality and not try to compensate and just try to find a way to live within it.  But, for mutliple reasons, I just couldn’t do that, among them, that it would have meant not being able to take care of myself or my loved ones, being dependent on the kindness of others and society and finally, I felt that if I let go, it would be a one-way trip with no hope for return.  Finally, for me, it would still not have been sustainable and I would have ultimately lost the battle and ended my life.  I couldn’t accept that.

But, it’s been very hard.  The worst periods have been when I’ve known that a physical reality exists beyond myself, I’ve had some insight into what a healthy Virtual Reality is like, I’ve known what mine is like, I can see the difference and I can’t do anything about it.

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