Reality only means what you think it means

Reality or mirage?
Reality or mirage?
Image: Reuters/ Reinhard Krause
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You’re living in a world of your own making. The only question is, to what extent?

Donald Hoffman, cognitive science professor at University of California, argues that evolution favors an organism who sees the environment exclusively in terms of its “fitness function” (how well-suited it is to that organism’s survival), rather than objective reality. As NPR explains, this would mean that our perception has deviated further from a more fact-based reality as we’ve evolved.

In his TED talk last year, Hoffman cited as an example the species of jewel beetle that is glossy, dimpled, and brown. When this beetle comes across beer bottles that are glossy, dimpled, and brown, it attempts to mate with the bottles. The beetle has never truly been able to properly identify female members of the species, Hoffman argues, but instead has a hack for spotting them by identifying glossy, dimpled, and brown things. And so the male beetle cannot recognize that a beer bottle isn’t actually a proper mating partner: It’s just glossy, dimpled, and brown.

Humans have likely adapted similar hacks that present the world in a more palatable way, Hoffman says, though we have no way of seeing through these hacks. “Evolution has given us an interface that hides reality and guides adaptive behavior,” he explained in his talk.

Hoffman’s ideas aren’t proven, but they do make a certain amount of sense, says Axel Cleeremans, a cognitive psychologist from the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. Though he has not analyzed the details of Hoffman’s work, Cleeremans says the general principle rings true. (Of course, for an organism to survive, he notes, it would have to have perception that’s linked to reality in some way.)

“After that, yes of course, evolution would probably favor an adaptation of organism that has high expectations about what’s going to happen, for instance, or has the capacity to quickly identify in reality what’s relevant to them,” says Cleeremans. “That’s informed by their beliefs; at least, beliefs in the sense of expectancy.” So an organism that’s easily able to identify possible threats, regardless of whether those threats really are highly visible in reality, will be more likely to survive.

But even if our perception of what’s going on around us isn’t as radically inaccurate as Hoffman suggests, it’s certainly the case that we’re not wholly correct. “We never have direct access to reality, it’s always mediated by what our senses make available to our brain,” says Cleeremans.

Color perception is one obvious example. We can’t see ultraviolet light, meaning we miss out on colors that insects don’t—including beautiful ultraviolet designs on the leaves of orchids. We’re also unable to see color at the edges of our visual field, though “perceptual filling in” means we’re usually unaware of this visual degradation.

Additionally, the nanoseconds it takes for neurotransmission means we don’t see or hear things as they happen. “In a sense we’re living in the past a little bit,” says Cleeremans. In this case, we compensate with prediction-driven mechanisms in our brains that allow, for example, tennis players to respond to extremely fast serves. A tennis player doesn’t watch the ball, but predicts where it will land based on their experience playing tennis and interpretation of their opponent’s body posture.

Our actual perception, then, is a combination of what we expect to be the case and what’s actually the case. We’re constructing the world around us, just as much as we’re perceiving it.