I have recently found a model for understanding the relationships between reality, perception and consciousness, which I will try to describe in this article. It is basically a collection of thoughts and ideas, shaped into a picture that I find coherent and plausible. As far as I am aware, neither ‘my’ model nor the thoughts and ideas are new; they stem from various sources, as well as my own experience and intuition. Parts of this is based on serious research and established scientific ‘truth’, while other parts are purely speculative. Constructive criticism and discussion is very welcome!
Let’s begin with reality. The idea that we do not perceive objective ‘truth’, but a subjective reality that is extremely dependent on the perceiving individual, is trivial, and hardly anyone would disagree with it. It is generally accepted that our perceived reality is constructed from sensory input which is processed in the brain, and there are many ways in which this process can be altered and disturbed, leading to different individual perceptions of reality.
We connect to the physical world using our senses. This sensory input is processed in the brain in a complex fashion that is only partly understood. We know that this processing can be affected by various means, such as damage to nervous tissue, or the effects of psychoactive drugs. A significant part of this processing appears to be filtering; that is, the brain acts as a ‘reducing valve’ for the raw stream of ‘data’ coming from the senses.
Another part of the processing comprises interpolation of missing data. Most senses cannot under all circumstances supply a complete representation of their environment, so the sensory input will often have ‘gaps’. However, we rarely perceive those gaps. The brain’s processing fills in the missing data. A trivial example of this is that your eyes have blind spots on the retina, and there is usually a region of frontal sight that is blocked out by your nose. Still, we see a complete image without gaps.
But the processing is more complex than that. The brain appears to fuse this filtered sensory input with ‘data’ that is already stored, namely our memories — that is, past events that we have experienced. This happens in particular if the brain ‘determines’ that its sensory input is still inconclusive, even with interpolation of gaps, when it will insert previously memorised patterns or information from past experiences into this sensory ‘image’ to make up for what it asserts to be missing. This can be experienced, for example, in sensory deprivation experiments such as floatation tanks.
Psychedelic drugs can make some of these processes more obvious, as they interfere with various stages of the brain’s mechanism for synthesising the individually perceived reality. Some of their effects can be understood as a modulation of the filtering stage, where raw sensory input is reduced before it is used as a ‘data source’ for this ‘reality synthesis’. Typically for all psychedelics, the environment is perceived more intensely (with more details, brighter colours, etc.).
Psychedelics may also create hallucinations, which can be understood to result from a disturbance of later synthesis stages, where pre-filtered sensory input is compiled to assemble the experience of reality. Serotonergic, classical hallucinogens such as LSD, Psilocybin and DMT tend to create transcendent, ‘otherworldly’ appearances that are markedly different from regular reality and are usually perceived as such.
Deliriants (not usually considered psychedelics) such as the anticholinergic drugs Atropine and BZ seem to affect ‘reality synthesis’ in the brain still differently, as they tend to leave regular perception mostly intact, but create very tangible illusions that are basically indistinguishable from regular reality, such as the presence of imaginary persons, while the user of the deliriant is mostly unaware that he or she is hallucinating.
(Different effects of different psychoactive drugs are quite well understood on a neuromolecular level, as different systems of neurotransmitters and their receptors are affected, so, for example, the very different quality of hallucinations produced by serotonergics and anticholinergics is not surprising.)
From all of this, we must deduce that the reality we perceive is basically synthetic. It is a made-up ‘picture’ based on various sources of data, our senses being the predominant source. So, even on this level (of sensory input and brain processing), what we are perceiving is not fully ‘real’, or at least not objective or truthful in the sense of it being unaltered ‘data’.
So far, I have talked only about reality and perception, and so far, as far as I am aware, none of this is seriously disputed; it’s in-line with the predominant scientific materialist world-view.
This leads me to the question of consciousness. What actually is perceiving this synthetic reality provided by the brain’s processing? Is it the brain itself? Am I my brain?
No, it is consciousness that is perceiving this reality, and which gives us a sense of self. But what is consciousness?
The mainstream scientific view appears to be that consciousness is simply a product or artefact of the brain’s activity (or at least, of some party of the nervous system). That is, when that part of our body ceases to function, consciousness disappears. A crude metaphor would be to view the brain as a computer (as is often done) and consciousness as the highest-level software application that is running on it.
Many people are at odds with this materialist hypothesis, and so am I. (I want to stress that we have to call any model to explain consciousness hypothetical, because nobody has really figured it out yet!)
It seems much more plausible to me that consciousness exists on a ‘level’ (not in the spacial sense) independent not only of our brain (or nervous system) but of our entire physical body, and even possibly of the physically examinable world altogether, as we have yet to find an empirical proof of consciousness in the physical world, even though we are all aware that consciousness exists.
I don’t know what this ‘level’ is, where it is, what it is made of, or any such categories, (and my assumption is that these categories don’t even apply). I just assume that it exists, and due to its unknown nature it does not (yet?) lend itself to empirical examination using the scientific method. Some will argue that whatever cannot be examined or found proof for in this way is purely speculative and must be ruled out from a scientific standpoint. I agree with this standpoint, but I also agree with the notion that our scientific world-view is incomplete, and that there are phenomena for which a speculative understanding is an acceptable basis to work on, until we find a way to examine and fully understand them.
So, consciousness is what perceives reality around us. Without consciousness, there is nothing to perceive it, and you could even argue that physical reality has no meaning without consciousness, or even, that it does not exist in the absence of consciousness. Of course, it can be proven by any number of scientific experiments that objective reality exists, but these experiments are in turn performed (and their results recorded and interpreted) by conscious beings, so the question becomes philosophical and it’s not one that I want to discuss in this article.
Obviously there is a kind of consensus-reality that is independent of individual perceptions and stable, i.e. it does not suddenly and completely change from whoever observes it. (Things become interesting if we look at quantum effects which seem to contradict this, but that’s a question for another article again.) We can agree that this consensus-reality is ‘defined’ in the sense that the laws that we have established to describe it are stable (unless they are challenged and falsified) and can be used to correctly predict its behaviour within certain bounds. For all practical purposes, this known physical world is the objective reality that surrounds us.
If the brain is not where consciousness is located, then how are the two connected? A common idea is that the brain is some kind of transponder (transmitter/receiver) that establishes a connection between the physical world and the ‘consciousness-world’ (again, not implying that the two are actually separate spacially, but hinting at that such categories may not apply here).
One way to look at it would be to posit that this connection to the consciousness-level is in principle just another sensory interface, albeit not a bodily one. That would make the brain basically a kind of system controller that has various adapters for collecting sensory data from the body, processing them, and exchanging the processed construct with consciousness. All of the connections exchange signals in both ways, so as we consciously perceive the synthetic reality provided by the brain (compiled mostly from sensory input and in some parts from memory), we can consciously send ‘control signals’ to the brain that allow us to be not only simple biological energy-conversion machines reacting to ‘low-level’ stimuli, but the complex beings that we are.
Why would consciousness need to be on a level independent of the physical world? Because it would allow us to explain a whole array of phenomena for which there is an abundance of evidence — unfortunately always anecdotal evidence, as what happens does so on the level of consciousness which we know is at odds with objective scientific proof. I posit that to say that these phenomena do not exist as there is no objective proof would lead by analogy to the deduction that consciousness does not exist, as there is no objective proof of it either!
What phenomena am I talking about? Well, a whole lot of what is lazily classified as parapsychology or esoterics. Out-of-body-experiences. Telepathy. Precognition. Clairvoyance. Re-incarnation, as exemplified by children who remember details of past lives (until they are about 5 years old, when those memories gradually fade). A whole class of spiritual experiences such as feelings of one-ness.
There is an ancient idea (or belief) across cultures all over the world that all beings are connected. This can be easily understood if you assume that all beings are in fact connected on the level of consciousness. Another way to look at it is that we are actually consciousness-beings, ‘using’ our bodies as ‘interfaces’ (or avatars) in the physical world.
If you accept this possibility, then a large number of ‘spooky’ phenomena such as those listed above become quite straightforward. For instance, if I (as a consciousness-being) become dissociated from my body during an out-of-body-experience (my body being clinically dead), I remain connected to the consciousness-level, where I am in turn connected with every other conscious being present not only in the room, but everywhere. If we assume that information can be passed freely around in this consciousness-level, I may know and perceive things that I would be unable to using only my bodily ‘vehicle’. This would be a very simple explanation for telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance. A connected all-consciousness would be all-knowing, all the time, because it would consist of countless interconnected consciousness-beings with or without an active connection to the physical world by way of their physical bodies.
Death would simply mean the functional collapse of the physical bodily ‘vehicle’, while the connected consciousness is dissociated, but remains present. Birth would require re-association of a consciousness with a new physical body (re-incarnation).
This is where psychedelic drugs become important, as they are tools for consciousness research. Strong doses of psychedelics not only interfere with sensory filtering and processing in the brain, causing alterations of reality perception such as hallucinations, they may also disturb the functioning of the brain in such a way that regular perception is subdued entirely, replacing physical reality with a meta-reality that is constructed from an intensified level of exchange with the consciousness-level. In other words, they cause a fading-out of regular reality in favor of a strongly amplified connection with all-consciousness, while the brain keeps trying to ‘make sense’ of this unusual shift, synthesising an ad-hoc reality from it (usually combining it with memories of previous personal experiences). In this state, users of psychedelic drugs typically report complete loss of touch with ordinary reality, a feeling of one-ness or interconnectedness, and even the presence of ghostly or otherworldly beings, with which they can communicate. Many people have had such experiences; they are even the whole point of certain shamanic rituals such as Ayahuasca.
An intense connection with the consciousness-world has been an integral ritual in most cultures of the world, and still is, in some. Some people even hypothesize that psychedelic experiences such as these may have allowed humans to evolve to our ‘anomalous’ level of sophistication in the first place, for instance, via the development of language.
I believe that this idea of the consciousness-world, and our assocation with it, is real. I believe that all conscious beings are in fact permanently connected with the consciousness-world, but that we are not aware of this connection, or have been de-conditioned to use it, causing us to ‘overhear’ or deny its ‘messages’. Western civilization in particular has made us ‘forget’ this very powerful capability, since the rituals that allow us to experience this connection are usually outlawed.
When we lose our connection to the all-consciousness, we degenerate into ‘ego-beings’, as we are no longer aware how our actions will serve common well-being and retain an equilibrium that is sustainable for long periods of time (thousands of years). We are like drones who lost touch to the command-and-control-mothership. The result is the ego-society-world we live in today. Technologically advanced, but full of misery, and with very disastrous consequences for the planet’s resources.
Sound like crazy hippy bullshit?
That’s okay. To the me of 10 years ago, it would have, too, but I have slowly begun to open my mind, to challenge my thinking, too look around me, and here I am today.