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A visitor looks at the "Brain of Van Gogh" by Belgian artist Jan Fabre on October 19, 2011 at the Grand Palais in Paris. (AFP/Getty Images)

Can Our Brains Tell Us What Is Real?

by Marcelo Gleiser
Nov 9, 2011

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Marcelo Gleiser

As I write these lines, an unknown choreography organizes the firing of millions of neurons in my brain; thoughts emerge and are expressed as words, typed on my laptop by a detailed coordination of eye and hand muscles. Something is in charge, an entity we loosely call our "mind."

My perception of the world around me, as modern cognitive neuroscience teaches us, is synthesized within different regions of my brain. What I call reality results from the integrated sum of countless stimuli collected through my five senses, brought from the outside into my head via my nervous system. Cognition, the awareness of being here now, is a fabrication of countless chemical reactions flowing through myriad synaptic connections between my neurons.

I am, and you are, a self-sustaining electrochemical network enacted across a web of biological cells. And yet, we are much more.

I am me and you are you and we are different, even if made of the same stuff. Modern science has removed the age-old Cartesian dualism of matter and soul in favor of a strict materialism: the theater of the self happens in the brain and the brain is an assembly of interacting neurons firing nonstop like a Christmas tree.

Of course, we still have no clue as to how exactly this neuronal choreography engenders us with a sense of being. We go on with our everyday activities convinced that we can separate ourselves from our surroundings and construct an objective view of reality.

I know that I am not you and I know that I am not the chair that I am sitting on. I can walk away from you and the chair but I can't walk away from my own body. However, our perception of reality, upon which we base our sense of self, is severely incomplete.

Our senses only capture a sliver of what truly goes on around us. Trillions of neutrinos racing all the way from the heart of the Sun zip across our bodies each second; electromagnetic waves of all sorts, microwaves, radio waves, infrared, carry information we don't capture with our eyes; sounds beyond the range of our ears go unheard; dust and bacteria go unseen. Our instruments and tools greatly extend our view, whether of the very small or of the very large.

Still, any technology has limits, even if these limits change in time. As a consequence, large portions of the world will always remain unseen. What we know depends on what we can measure and detect. Who, then, can legitimately claim to have a true sense of reality? The individual who perceives reality only through his/her senses? Or the one who amplifies his/her perception through the use of instrumentation? Clearly, they "see" different things and will conclude that the world is very different. Who is right? I propose that none is. But we will have to wait until next week to find out why.


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