Experience is a Hallucination

Experience is a Hallucination


For a period of about a year starting 1974-11-30 I experienced just about every flaky impossible thing imaginable.

I finally decided to interpret things this way.

Your mind has access to all sorts of information. That information is in the form of frequencies of various neurons firing -- in other words only extremely loosely mapped onto what is going on in the real world.

The experience of reality is much like a guided dream, where this information warps and guides the dream. What you experience is NOT reality in any direct sense. We presume the connection is much more direct than it is. The consistency fools us into failing to notice what we experience is a constructed illusion.

Therefore, in principle, you can present information to conscious experience in whatever way you like, so long as it is consistent. An aura then is just a dream special effect. It is not really as special as we imagine. In constructing a dream you can for example construct visually an alarm clock based on the sound of an alarm. Waking consciousness is not all that much different. It is more a matter of degree how tightly the dream is coupled with sensory input.

For example blind people navigate by listening to echoes, yet to them is feels as if their faces have a weak sense of vision. Some native Americans track animals by the usual ways, but to them it feels as if the information is coming in via their hair. Dowsers glean information by observing vegetation and geology, but it feels to them as if a stick were pulling them in the direction of the water. Some people find lost objects by using logic and memory, but it feels to them as if something were tugging at them toward the lost object.

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
~ Albert Einstein (born: 1879-03-14 died: 1955-04-18 at age: 76)
Row, row, row your boats
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.
~ round song sung to Canadian babies

Introduction

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world. ~ Gautama Buddha (born: 563 BC died: 483 BC at age: 80)
Buddha Groove logo

Though I came to this conclusion via a bizarre route, it is actually just common sense that ordinary conscious experience has to be a hallucination. Buddha claimed this, and it turns out something as mundane as the study of neurons has shown it to be true.

You don’t experience reality directly. You experience reality via a hallucination, a sort of waking dream. Binary inputs coming into your brain on the nerves are used to modify the hallucination to keep it in sync with the outside world. Much more of it is constructed rather than perceived than you would suppose. Your reality can be thought of as an artistic creation as much as a perception.

This is not a new idea to science. Science long ago discovered that there is a hole in your visual field, that marks the place on the back of the eyeball where nerves exit the eye. Unconscious visual processing fills in the hole, so you don’t normally notice it. Similarly, only the fovea, a tiny part of the eye, can focus sharp images. All the rest is blurry. However, unconscious processing analyses scans over the visual field, and fakes in a sharp image over the whole field. Human vision is a like an elaborate Photoshop trick. What comes to the eye is information in the form of frequencies of various neurons firing. The brain converts that into a subjective image. This is not reality, but a dream-like construction isomorphic to reality.

Scientists discovered that if you set up a Pepsi vs Coke test and don’t tell people what they are drinking, most will prefer Pepsi (it is a stronger taste), but if you tell them, most will prefer Coke. This means you are not directly tasting the soft drink, but rather a blending of sensory data and emotions generated by advertisements working together to construct which feels like a direct taste experience.

People with synesthesia model reality internally differently. For example, they create colours to accompany sounds. We think of this as something very peculiar. I see it as just a variant way of composing an internal model from the available data, not that different from the ordinary way.

Consider a court case. Everyone describes the same event is a somewhat different way. How could this come about?

Plato’s Allegory Of the Cave about the prisoners in a cave confusing the shadows on the wall for reality can be looked on as an ancient attempt to explain the difference between reality and our constructed perception of reality.

My Strange Experiences

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
~ William Shakespear (born: 1564-04-23 died: 1616-04-23 at age: 52) Hamlet in Hamlet Act I Scene v
From the period 1974-11-30 to 1975-09, and later for a week in 1977-06, I experienced the bizarre. I am not claiming these experiences were anything but my overwrought imagination, but I promise you I experienced them as real, usually in utter terror. They may have been triggered by eating a bowl of green Jello possibly spiked with LSD (d-Lysergic Acid Diethylamide) by a Christian religious fanatic. They may have been triggered by mania (I am manic depressive and now on lithium.) In 2007 a found out a friend, David L., who attended that party some years later put LSD in another friend’s coffee, Louis C. At this point I consider David the prime suspect. He is now dead, so I cannot confront him.

I have never consciously taken any drug stronger than marijuana. For purposes of your first reading, please presume that everything I am about to tell you was 100% hallucinatory, and that I am accurately describing the memory of my hallucinationatory experience.

From my perspective, I was feeling and behaving completely normally. I was traveling through strange alternate universes. The structure of reality was unraveling. It was not random. Despite how bizarre the experiences sound, I could discover rules governing them.

For at least a period of a few hours I experienced as real, roughly in chronological order:

Making Sense

What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.
~ Woody Allen (born: 1935-12-01 age: 78)
At the time, I felt I was on the verge of making some huge scientific breakthrough. If I could just hang on long enough, I would learn to steer in these strange realities without scaring myself silly. Was Everett/Walker right with his many worlds hypothesis, that quantum uncertainty takes all possible branches creating an opulent fabulously branching tree of realities for you to choose from? Perhaps Jesus was right that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand, just a matter of steering toward the more heavenly parts of the possibility tree of life. I composed an essay describing my empirical theory of how steering works.

when I had my steering thrusters on, I sometimes got a feeling like I was on a boat gently rocking.

I went to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Eric L, our childhood neighbour. He said You hallucinated everything. I said, But everything looked just as real as you do now. How can I tell hallucinations apart from reality? They were solid, 3D, in full resolution, no details missing. I have witnesses, at least to some of this. I have photographs of the people involved. He said Then you must have hallucinated the witnesses agreeing with you. Without a tool to determine when I was hallucinating, other than weirdness, I felt this view was not going to be much help.

How could hallucinations be so perfect? Where did all the detail come from?

After years of fruitless mulling, and reading about all manner of spirituality, I put the matter on the shelf and only rarely took it out to think about. Geneva H. came to visit me in 2000-05 and she started asking questions about that period of my life. Suddenly, it all came together. In a sense the psychiatrist was right, but what he left out is that ordinary waking consciousness is also a hallucination, a sort of dream. I decided to write this essay.

The Brain

Imagine yourself being a brain trapped in a dark skull. All around you are millions of little neurons bringing information about the outside world. They wink on and off with electro-chemical energy. When one neuron winks on and off very fast it means the tip of your big toe is too hot. When another does the same thing it means green light is landing on a certain spot of your eye.

You, as brain, have to make some sense out of this giant mess of winking neurons and somehow weave it into a seamless whole, that experience we call consciousness. You create a model/idea of reality from this binary information. You don’t experience reality directly. You never experience anything but an idea.

Even you, or more accurately the experience of you, are an idea. And like any other idea, in some sense, you don’t exist unless you are thinking about that idea.

Your conscious experience is necessarily a creation, similar to a work of art, considering the unpromising raw ingredients — neurons twitching.

There are other possible sources of information to create the experience, memory for example. We might see a spider or see a piece of lint depending on which we remembered was more probable to appear on the carpet.

It seems plausible we have some sort of weak psychic link with people we are emotionally involved with. This too may feed information into the soup.

Synthesthesia

The seamless internal experience we create has visual, auditory, emotional, tactile parts. However, there is no hard and fast rule that says only information from the eye neurons is allowed to influence the visual parts of the experience.

Just look into a beloved’s face in flickering candlelight and watch it change, based mainly on your imagination.

Rare people see sound, or hear light. We all do a similar magic, mostly superimposing memories, beliefs and emotions onto what we see and hear.

Auras

Some people routinely see auras (clouds around people’s heads that indicate the emotional and spiritual state of the person). Some would be terrified if they saw auras.

Auras are a way of displaying information. The information can be gleaned in many different ways, not necessarily from photons. Some people display this information to themselves as auras. Others may display it as various feelings of comfort or pain in the gut. Some, such as myself, feel it as a tug.

It is a creative choice. Only when the usual choice is disturbed do we become aware of the process.

My Weird Stuff

I see nearly all the weird things that happened to me as a result of playing around with the way I internally present data to myself. I just used more dramatic cloaking than I am usually comfortable with.

For example, for my out-of-body experience, I did not necessarily float to the ceiling, but I presented the information I had gleaned about the theatre as it would look from the ceiling. That little view transformation was trivial compared with the unconscious effort of gleaning a 3D model of all the parts of the theatre.

This photo taken around that time shows some of the intensity, pain, terror and despair.
photo

Practical Application

Simply being aware that your ordinary reality is also a hallucination, loosely based on information you received about the outside world, might tend to make you less dogmatic.

You have probably seen how witnesses at a criminal trial all present wildly different descriptions of the wrong doer. They are not necessarily lying. The internal experience is nowhere near like camera-like, especially as remembered.

My late mother used to hear mocking intonations in others’ voices that to my ears simply were not there. She had absolutely no doubt about what she was hearing. If she realised that her perception of voices was a hallucination warped by beliefs and past experience, perhaps she could have allowed in a sliver of doubt.

Your mind is so good at filtering out information you don’t want to hear or that overwhelms it. You never have a complete picture. It is good to know your internal map of reality can be inaccurate, and does not necessarily jibe with anyone else’s.

Also steering is useful to know to steer through life’s mundane realities. Focus on the strawberries you like, not the tiger’s you don’t and generally life will give you more strawberries and fewer tigers. You are giving your subconscious instruction on what sort of experiences you want it to create for you. Even if outside reality does not change in the least, in your inner experience there will be more strawberries.

Gay Lib

I knowingly met my first gay people on 1969-08-08. Very rapidly I shed all the negative beliefs I had swallowed about gays. I quickly set about to tell other closeted gays like myself about these lies, and how it was possible to meet fellow gays. At the time I had no support inside or outside the gay community. The gays wanted everything kept secret, even the gays I helped wanted the door slammed shut after them. I believed I had absolutely no chance of success. However, I set out anyway, just because I felt it was the right thing to do. I became chairman of G*A*T*E (Gay Alliance Toward Equality). We did hundreds of lectures and lead demonstrations, most notably during the 1972 provincial elections where we got front page coverage every time we confronted a politician who could be counted on to become addled in his fury and say something newsworthy. The NDP (New Democratic Party) won the election and rewarded us for humiliating the Socreds with the first gay rights legislation. I was dumbfounded. How could the world change from 100% hate toward gays to giving us legal protection is just a few years? Gay rights rolled on without much effort from me and now we can marry. Back then, I never dreamed such a thing could possibly happen in my lifetime. The metamorphosis seems so preposterous, I have at times wondered if the world did not really change, but somehow my action took me to an alternate reality. In hindsight, acceptance of gays seems inevitable, but back then what I was trying to do looked utterly impossible. This lead me to imagine that ending hunger would be a peace of cake in comparison since who wants hunger? It turned out to be much more intractable.

Experiments

My engineer father, who was not given to flaky beliefs, claimed that if he was sitting in a movie theatre, by concentrating on the back of the neck of somebody sitting a few rows down, the person would soon begin to fidget and scratch the back of their neck. It should be fairly simple to see how long it takes for someone to fidget that way with and without the concentration.

When you have an experience of unitively merging with another, you can ask later if the other person experienced the same thing.

I have noticed that being on live TV or radio is highly exciting. It is subjectively different from other forms of excitement, a feeling of being more fully present. I have wondered if there is some feedback. Does the attention of that large audience directly affect you? You could test this by monitoring the heart rates etc. of people in a studio audience and see what happens when:

  1. You put the camera on them, and they notice.
  2. You put the camera on them, but they don’t notice.
  3. You put the camera on them, but don’t put the feed out to the public.

When I went under anaesthesia, I felt my consciousness fade away to nothing. Consciousness then seems to be at least measurable on a scale of 0 to 10 subjectively. What if I rated my consciousness under various conditions, e.g. going under anaesthesia, while on live TV, while meditating, while experiencing cosmic consciousness etc. At the same time you monitor every bodily function you possibly can trying to find something that correlates with my subjective measure of consciousness.

Once you have a way to measure something, you can make strides understanding it. Unfortunately whatever you measure may not correlate in other species or computers. You can’t discover anything this way about the consciousness of anything but humans.

Physicist Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford, UK, and psychologist Stuart Hameroff of the University of Arizona in Tucson have proposed that consciousness might arise from wave-like quantum-mechanical effects involving protein filaments called microtubules in nerve cells. Other physicists pooh-pooh the idea saying the quantum decoherence has nothing whatever to do with human consciousness, that the idea got started when John Von Neumann speculated that the act of taking a measurement which collapsed the Schrödinger wave function, making concrete a nebulous possibility, may have something to do with consciousness. The notion sounds silly if presume only humans are conscious. But then nothing follows common sense at the quantum level.

You might check out correlations in people’s reported experiences in cosmic consciousness. Is there consensus on what it like to be a donkey, computer or turtle?

Books

Sam Harris

On 2011-12-14 I read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. I was surprised to find him expressing on page 41 the fundamental idea of this essay, as if it were the most ordinary thought in the world, something completely mainstream.

book cover recommend book⇒The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reasonto book home
by Sam Harris 978-0-393-32765-6 paperback
birth 1967-01-01 age: 47 978-0-393-03515-5 hardcover
publisher Norton 978-0-393-06672-2 eBook
published 2005-10-10 978-0-7861-5834-8 audio
  B000VUCIZE kindle
Read more about the book at the SamHarris.org website.
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Greyed out stores probably do not have the item in stock. Try looking for it with a bookfinder.
Scientific American Article on Parallel Universes: physicists are taking seriously several types of parallel universes, including quantum many worlds, Level 1 (other universes like ours), Level 2 (universes with different values for universal constants) and Level 4 (universes with different physical laws).

feedback Feedback

I spent thousands of hours trying to make sense of these strange experiences, trying to find some explanation for them. I eventually gave up, deciding they were just sound and fury signifying nothing (Macbeth Act V Scene V).

If you think I am absolutely mad, you probably won’t have read this far. You have probably read of Carl Jung’s notion of synchronicity. I will hazard a guess that for most of your life, as in mine, there was very little synchronicity. Anything weird that happened could easily be attributed to co-incidence. Then there were other much shorter periods, where synchronicity was extremely frequent, absolutely undeniable, and I don’t mean in that goofy Christian sense of considering it a miracle that there are forks in the drawer, just when you needed one. This is a very slippery phenomenon to study. It is a bit like trying to learn about the world using only your peripheral vision. There is a tendency after these periods to discount them in various ways. They are part of your life experience. They deserve to be understood just like the majority of your experiences. If you are deeply ashamed of something, you can never study it. If you pretend it never happened, you can never study it. Those who have never had such experiences or have had them only rarely, harrumph at others who have, claiming the experiences were in some way invalid, that they were made up. They may well be purely mental phenomena, but that is no reason to refuse to study them.

If you have had similar experiences or you have other ways of interpreting them please email me via email. If you have any thoughts on their significance, please share that too. Please let me know if your correspondence is for public posting and commentary, or purely private.

You can read the feedback from others.

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