the illusion of perceptual "reality"

  Illustration by Michael Marsicano for  "How the light gets out"

Illustration by Michael Marsicano for "How the light gets out"

Time and again, I find myself watching Don Hoffman's TED Talk about the inverse problem of vision. His theory about phenomenology and the subjective account of reality is one of the most fascinating ideas I have encountered in cognitive science to date.  The central problem in vision calls to question how our perception of reality is misaligned with the true nature of reality. Contrary to the layman view, Hoffman introduces the notion that our conscious experiences are actually reconstructions of reality. What we perceive as reality is not merely what we see as we interact with the world around us. There is a much deeper, more complex relationship between the physical world and our perception of it. We can (and do) have false interpretations of reality, even knowingly. In some instances, it is impossible to blind ourselves to these false interpretations and perceptions. As Hoffman says, we are blind to our blindnesses. From an evolutionary perspective, we've continued to falsely interpret our reality because it helps us to better survive. But how is it possible that a false perception of reality could be good for our fitness? Hoffman answers this yet leaves us with another question I find to be far more intriguing. While we understand the neurobiological processes of how the visual system accounts for our ability to see, we're left in the dark about how our brains produce conscious experience. Can we quantify subjective experience? Can we reproduce it? Will we ever be able to fully delineate what it is like to have phenomenal qualia? We've learned through research that studying brain activity tells us nothing about our visceral conscious reality. We wait with bated breath for valid scientific research to prove the brain is responsible for our phenomenal consciousness. Solving this would answer the "hard" problem in cognitive science, but can it even be done? Sometimes I fear we are making the wrong assumptions. To that end, Hoffman radically introduces his theory of conscious realism, postulating that perhaps it is our consciousness that creates our brain activity... Even further, it is our collective consciousness that is responsible for the construction of our objective world. We know that our emotions and histories dictate our perceived reality, but how far off is it to ask if our collective phenomenal experiences construct our objective reality? 

Be sure to check out his paper on conscious realism and reach out to deconstruct this perplexingly seductive idea. 

Nooreen Ismail