Is Reality a Hallucination?

As artificial intelligence grows more and more advanced, a very big question arises: Could machines ever become conscious? Is it possible to build a brain capable of executing the same functions as that of a human brain? At every moment that we are conscious, the brain receives many signals, which it puts together into one unified experience, which is called awareness. This happens because the billions of neurons in our brains form intricate loops that allow a signal coming into the brain to travel through various parts of it. Some theories suggest that the more interconnected a brain is, the more consciousness it has. So, could we potentially build a machine with interconnected neurons that could be as conscious, or even more conscious than, a human? Personally, I never thought that was possible, which is why I was very happy to find a TED talk, conducted by neuroscientist Anil Seth, where he claimed that our conscious experience stems as much from the fact that we are living, breathing organisms as from our perception of the physical world, which is all just a hallucination anyway.

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Think about the brain for a second. The brain is locked up in our skull and the only information about the outside world that is receives is through electrical impulses traveling through neurons. Our eyes do not actually “see” anything, nor do our ears actually “hear” anything. The model of the world is actually created by the brain’s best prediction about the causes of these neural signals. How can we tell if this informed guesswork is even correct? These expectations stem from prior knowledge about how the world should behave, created over millions of years of evolution and imprinted into our brains so much so that we cannot see the world any differently. This means that our lives are based off of a series of controlled hallucinations, which we all agree on calling reality: “We don’t passively perceive the world, we actively generate it.” But this kind of guesswork also occurs in the consciousness of our inner self: the control and regulation of our inner organs, The brain does not see the organs, but its ability to make a prediction about their states is a subset of the same consciousness that makes guesses about the outside world. And just like our brain’s ability to regulate organs stems from the basic human need of survival, our hallucinations of the world come from our need to live in the most comfortable way we possibly can within it.

This got me thinking about other types of hallucinations: the types generated by mind-altering drugs that make our life in this world a little less than complacent, since we are not used to it. When someone takes such a drug, the sensory input from the outside world stays the same, but something in the way that the brain processes this information changes. But what is it that changes? Earlier in the year, I read a collection of interviews between Timothy Leary, the leading force behind the popularization of LSD in 1960s America, and some of the other important players during the era, such as Ram Dass and Ralph Meltzer. They all seemed to describe the psychedelic experience as an expanded state of consciousness with a heightened perception of the world. It was described as an out-of-body experience in regards to the freedom from, but also a large awareness of the hypocrisies of, the rules created by society and its institutions. Leary stated that it was a realization of the “mechanical puppetry of everything” and the realization that the normal conceptual models that humans carry are “reducing valves imposed by finite consciousness upon an infinite,” which turns reality into a manageable ordeal. The reality presented by drugs went beyond self-awareness; it was a widened scope of the world.

But, if the impulses are all the same, how is all this even possible? Apparently, our brains not only evolved to have controlled hallucinations, but it also evolved to filter out “unnecessary” information to take out in order to make our lives even more easier. Psychedelic drugs reroute the brain so that more impulses can go through. This makes me wonder whether hallucination is really about not seeing things that are there as opposed to seeing that are not there. How does the real world really look like? And is it so scary and horrible that some people, after an acid trip, are never really the same again?  


The TED Talk: Your Brain Hallucinates your conscious reality 

28 thoughts on “Is Reality a Hallucination?

  1. Another favorite subject of mine, Kat. We are currently expanding the way digital memory works because we recently discovered how neural networks in the brain really work. By completely redesigning computer memory storage, inputs, and outputs we can mimic the human brain. In ten years we will have an intelligent AI with awareness able to learn any subject without the frailties of the human experience. The only question is, do we really want to go down this road? Another subject worthy of ethical debate. Humans will decide out of fear because we don’t trust other humans to pull this off in a noble and altruistic way. Nope, somebody will hack the AI and set up a lottery winning scam. 😉

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    1. Honestly, it scares me how close we really are to being able to create conscious robots. But besides the fact that it would look good in the name of science, why? Why do we need conscious robots? This can all get out of control very quickly. And what happens if they become more conscious than us? But really, I don’t think robots will ever be able to perfectly mimic humans. I think there’s something beyond the neurons in the brain that make us the way we are… I don’t know. Technology as a whole always scared me. We’re becoming so dependent on it that it is especially controlling us. It’s really kind of scary to look at the future through the lens of technology

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      1. I agree. My real life is research and development in the measurement sciences which is the base science of all science and technology. We are enablers. The difference I see is not in the manipulation of knowledge, especially logic. It’s our flaws and individuality that offset perfection and ultimate balance. It’s our ability to create chaos and thrive in it that makes us different. Precision, accuracy, and repeatability are machines. There is a difference. I oversimplify terribly but life as we know it can’t be replicated exactly but it can be mimicked inexactly. When you see an AI fall into a water fountain from being to absorbed in a smart phone, we should get worried then.

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      2. This reminds me of a conversation I had with recently; we talked about how human curiosity and wonder of the unknown, as well as our drive to reach it is probably the most important evolutionary trait that has made humans attain such great heights. But of course it has its downsides, since humans are not perfect. Sometimes our greed for knowledge takes away from more important stuff we should be focusing on: like poverty and global warming for example. But like you said, we’re still somehow managing to thrive in the chaotic world we created. I still think that conscious-like robots are an unnecessary, but maybe an inevitable, goal for humanity. There are obvious benefits to this, but I’d rather hold a conversation with a human, not a robot, it’s intelligence would intimidate me anyway.

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      3. Yes, I think the things that make us human should stay human. Technology should begin to serve in better capability with costs affordable to the world population. I do think we should focus on medical applications, food production without the fear of radiation and genetic uncertainties. Housing availability, transportation, and life support logistics. Of course, the challenge is costs to implement but with integrated AI design, prototyping, modeling, test and evaluation that evolves solid material solutions without so much risk of failure can go a long way in bringing the cost of technology advancement down. We don’t need fake Einsteins yakking it up with us, we need a quality of life available to the masses that is safe and affordable. What a dream, but maybe we can hope. Truly enjoy your mind and conversation, Kat.

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      4. That seems like a pretty hefty agenda, but I do believe that one day it will be achieved. The further our planet falls into disrepair the more urgent these solutions will be. I can’t really seem to wrap my head around what the future would look like if all this happens, it just seems so utopian right now.

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      5. Yes, its definitely utopian, but totally possible. The only thing in the way is our collective frame of reference to benevolence or altruistic humanity. Those remain a lofty dream but do exist in small pockets. Generally, the greater the challenge to human life, the more we work together. My military service took me through three wars and I was deployed to many distressed places and what I found was in the times of the greatest suffering of the population, came the greatest acts of kindness and support. While many died, more were saved, not by armies and agencies, but by friends and neighbors. When we are fat and happy, we tend to live a more individualistic life. Individualism and pursuit of self gratification has dulled that sense of need for common unity. Whatever the future, if we don’t want to be the reason for our demise, we need to think about how we can preserve our world and basic human needs. I think most people intrinsically know this but feel unable to make a difference. As individuals, we are less capable of any significant acts, but the world is saved by small acts of kindness, not grand sweeping messianic leadership and acts. Just my over caffienated opinion 😁☕️

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      6. Thank you for sharing your insight, it really means a lot to me.

        I’m relatively young and still stuck in the education system, as I like to say, so I really don’t know much about the world. As many young people, I’ve always thought that my view of the world was way too hopeful, and that when it’s time for me actually get out there and live in the “real world” my opinion of it will become much more cynical and selfish. I just shrugged my shoulders and passively accepted that my world will change , but now I see a reason why it should not. Also, over caffeinated opinions are the best kind of opinions, I think.

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      7. I thank you for tolerating me. Your topics are of keen interest and I just cant help myself when it comes to lighting up my Head Elves with such meaningful discussion. I do believe it is the innocent and energetic drive of properly educated youth that fuels the ideas to look at the old stale ways and bring a new approach to longstanding problems. While I’m at the doctors office whining about my aching knees, you’ll bring to fruition those dreams of a cure and I’ll be eternally grateful. 😉

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  2. One thing that popped up in my mind reading this, “if you prick me do I not bleed” kinda thoughts, its ok for Descartes to say I’m pink therefore I’m spam, (or whatever) but really! Another thought that came up, (and this is a little off topic) what about people who talk of near death experience, they all seem to hallucinate similar stories of tunnels and lights – I wonder why? I knew someone who talked of the same experience, and said he no longer feared death, he was a heroin addict, and this particular addiction seems to routinely trump fear of death, which is interesting and worthy of study in itself, tho I suspect the whole thing is to do with physical dependency, maybe a flaw in evolution? I’m not too worried about robots AI and all that, as its been covered by the character Data, in Star Trek – I did see a film titled “Her” with Joaquin Phoenix, where he falls in love with a computer operating system! That was quite odd!! Men!!! 😀

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    1. “I’m pink therefore I’m spam” hahaha I never really understood what Descartes meant by that. A very mysterious man, isn’t he?

      The thing about seeing a tunnel and a light during near death experience is very interesting, My thinking is that the brain becomes to overwhelmed with fear to process sensory signals, so it just reverts to the standard image that society leads us to believe that dying (and going to heaven?) looks like: shining light in the darkness. I have no idea, but it is interesting to think about.

      I don’t really know that much about drugs, but being dependent on them definitely does something to the brain: It just becomes incapable of thinking normally, and maybe not being afraid of death is one of those effects. I don’t know about heroin, but I read an account about how someone, after taking LSD, was so disillusioned with the normal world, that they did not even care whether they were alive within it or not.

      I try not to worry about AI robots, but I do sometimes. Even the robots that are not yet conscious creep me out a bit. I’ve watched many movies that had near-human robots in them, and it is just very unsettling to see something so human yet knowing that it is not.

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      1. I read a bit of Descartes, its some kind of reductionist sort of thinking, where by a process of elimination one comes to realise the only way to know we are here is because I’m thinking I am – also, its about spam!! 😀 I think it was Monty Python who said “I think therefore I am – I’m pink therefore I’m spam!”

        I wonder if the tunnel with light thing is anything to do with buried memories of childbirth? It would be fantastic if they are! But more likely its conditioning – someone said its being re-born – groovy! 🙂

        Yeah, a lot of people doing drugs are already past the point of caring about mainstream constructs or whatever. I used to mess about with drugs, this guy I knew who had a degree in philosophy took a ton of hallucinogens then in the morning I saw he had drawn out a pie chart to do with the primitive mind – I’m sure he was trying to explore some deep stuff he’d learned about – he was the one that told me about the unified field – back then I thought he was nuts, I still think he was unhinged, but he was interesting! He told me I was listening too much to rhetoric, well I guess we all are pretty much! But I think he was right to point it out at the time – I really needed to broaden my mind at that point, even with the open to drugs attitude I had, I was still stuck in a box created by others. I like to think I got out eventually! 🙂

        That film “Her” was uncanny, it was like he’d fallen in love with “siri” or “ask Google” or whatever it is, I think the film came out only a yr or 2 before the technology arrived, (tho in the film it was a bit more advanced) Quite a few people in the film had fallen in love with their operating systems! Quite feasible really, and scary to think the system might wind up playing us humans for fools! 😮

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      2. I also recently read about Descartes. He was the first to bring up the question of a consciousness, and the first to suggest that the mind and body are separate entities: that one is not a result of, or created by, the other. The “think therefore I am” means that you can doubt the certainty of everything in existence, even the fact that you have a body, except you can always be certain that you have thoughts. And if you have thoughts, that means you exist.

        The light in the tunnel being the memory of childbirth is cool. It’s like the universe is trying to re-birth you, but at the lest second you manage to evade that rebirth. Wow, that is pretty cool.
        I think mind- altering drugs are very interesting. I believe that what someone sees under the influence of these drugs is something closer to the real reality than the one humans normally reside in. Many talk about seeing pulsating waves of energy, I wonder if that is the electromagnetic waves that we normally see as light? I’m probably thinking to literally, but I’ve always wondered what one actually sees that makes them rebuke society so much afterwards.

        Technology scares me a lot, in general. I heard about a conspiracy theory that claimed that society is subliminally conditioning us to comply to certain rules through TV, movies, adverts, etc, and one of the things that society is trying to condition us to do is to become more and more dependent on technology. The next big thing might be us having computer chips in our heads. I wonder if that film has anything to do with that 🤔

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      3. Its a long time since I read any philosophy, but I think I understood Descartes point, philosophical thought is so unique and distinct from religion, sometimes I find it cold and scientific, yet its so endearing that these people try / tried so hard to provide concrete theories.

        I think a lot of people taking drugs have had it with society already – people see what they want to see mostly, or what they most don’t want to see if they aren’t in the “right” frame of mind! Also because of the illegality, and the shared experience thing of it makes groups of partakers feel alike and all tuned in and all that – its a cultural phenomena really – people seeking like minded unity, just like religious people do. People who see pulsating electromagnetic waves are just looneys IMO! LOL

        Oh yeah, that film, it was just an operating system on a computer, but it was so lifelike, “Artificial Intelligence” it learns what you like, and tries to provide the right kind of service, you can see the trailer here, you’ll see what I mean, the voice from the computer is so “human” 🙂 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzV6mXIOVl4

        Its not what that particular film is about, but yes, a lot of tech is designed to make us comply, its a consequence of mass production, the influence of the majority and all that, its time to organise and fight back!!

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      4. I’ve never heard philosophy being described as cold and scientific. Usually, the comparison runs between philosophy and science, with science being described as cold and linear, and philosophy being the crazy and unorganized collection of thoughts and ideas.

        I watched the trailer for the film and wow, the voice is so real that it’s hard to imagine that it’s coming from a robot. If you think about, our technology is coming closer and closer to this. We now have the Google Home and Ask Alexa devices in many homes: just give them a human voice and bit more freedom to speak with us and there you go. Soon that film will become reality. That’s so scary 😳

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      5. Ah well you may see it that way – I wouldn’t compare Philosophy with science, because both are factual – no, I’m comparing philosophy against religion, one offers redemption, falsehoods and shortcuts to blue-sky thinking, the other offers nothing but study, misery and blackness! LOL Ok, I’m exaggerating, philosophy has many branches, but it never asks you to have faith and submit to something crazy like miracles, even the most far out philosophy is based on reason.

        Ha, yes, its a scary thought, but its not really a scary film, its quite sweet, I think he overcomes his addiction in the end, not sure tho, cos I forget the ending, but it is sad to think how lonely people might gravitate to a machine for company!

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      6. I don’t think that philosophy is factual. How could it be when it is exploring questions that don’t really have an answer? I guess learning the history of philosophy might be a bit factual: like learning all the names of philosophers and their ideas. But modern philosophy is the interesting part! 😀 I really don’t know much about religion.

        I plan on watching the film soon, but I couldn’t help myself and read the synopsis on Wikipedia. Even though he does fall in love with the AI, eventually the AI are all shut down, or something like that, and he manages to overcome his love that way. Really, the plot seems a bit confusing.

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      7. Yes, the film is a little flawed, but fun and worth watching all the same!

        I have to differ with you on the idea that philosophy is factual, all questions have answers, we’re born, we live, we die, those are facts, how we do it is a matter of choice, we chose a philosophical path or paths, with I think therefore I am at the base of it all. Its not like in religion, where its all Gods plan for us, and the wicked Devil trying to trick us, philosophy is factual because it tells us there is no God or Devil, if there’s no evidence for something, then it can’t be factored into a philosophy, because its philosophy, not religion!

        philosophy
        fɪˈlɒsəfi/
        noun
        noun: philosophy
        1 1. 
the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.

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      8. I really don’t think that there is an answer for everything. You say that philosophy says that God is not real, but there is an entire branch of philosophy that explores this question. Just like Descartes says, one has to question everything. Truth must come from observation and exploration, and since we cannot really know if God is real, we cannot accept his existence or his nonexistence as a truth. Another philosopher, David Humes I think his name is, says that philosophy is a battle against the axioms, or the unprovable opinions that many hold about our lives and existence; it’s a very uncertain battle, and the juxtaposition stands that any kind of answer that philosophy attempts to answer could stem from a personal axiom. So concrete answers are best avoided, but even if an answer exists, it is always open to debate.

        And I think that philosophy is greatly dependent on scientific advancement, but as physicist Earnest Rutherford said, the only interesting science is the one that does not have an answer yet. Even as science advances, new questions will arise. What philosophy does is takes these unknown questions and analyzes and explores them, while science attempts to put it into an easily digestible equation.

        I actually think that religion is much more factual, really. For everything that happens, God is always the answer. Your existence and your path after life is determined, and if it goes wrong, the Devil is the answer. How is that not factual?

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      9. All I’m saying really is if you go back in history, the dominant ideology was dictated and enforced by religion – on pain of death, but reason has eventually won the day, where in the past practically everyone believed in the dominant religion or had to swear allegiance to it, finally enlightened thought began to win the day, till eventually religion is now hardly credible, practically irrelevant in our daily activities.

        When I say philosophy is cold, its because for the most part it works towards the greater good, which is kind of dull compared to religion, which suggests crusades and jihads, heroic deeds and suicide missions, dire punishments, both real and spiritual, hmm, exciting! Not factual tho, just simplistic outdated irresponsible and altogether daft! 😉

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      10. Ok, I think I know what you mean. I recently read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the book really showed how much an effect religion could have on a person, especially during colonial times when the hope of God and the fear of the devil were the only factors that kept a colonial village from tearing itself apart. It’s actually very impressive how much pain and torture religion could cause, but I also think it’s admirable how devoted religious followers are. So I guess if you compare philosophy with that, it might make philosophy seem very passionless and boring, but since I do not have very much experience with religion, the comparison doesn’t make that much sense to me.

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      11. Its surprising how little philosophy is taught in schools, philosophy is not mainstream here in the UK, yet religious studies is compulsory. !t’s influence is still strong. They now have to teach all religions rather than just Christianity, in the interests of fairness, but really, why teach it at all? And don’t forget in the past you could be burned at the stake for saying the earth was round! 😮

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      12. Philosophy isn’t too popular in the US either, but I did take an introductory course in high school. But really, I’d rather learn philosophy by myself and formulate my own opinion on such matters. Religion is only taught in parochial schools, but I’ve been going to public school and the only religion I learned was during World History class, so really not much at all.

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  3. Fascinating post, thank you! It comes to mind that there’s got to be such a thing as objective reality, hasn’t there? I mean the chair I am sitting on is a real physical object, not a hallucination, otherwise I’d fall on the floor… Or maybe if I stopped believing in it, then I would fall! Also, there are plenty of people who question the nature of reality and ‘the norm’ without the benefit of mind altering drugs.

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    1. Thank you so much! There definitely is an objective reality, and by that I mean a world made up of mass and matter existing outside of our body and consciousness. Except the way your chair may actually look might not be the same way that the human brain perceives it. Just think about how if a chair is green (like mine) in reality it is every single color but green, but the human eye sees green because of how human anatomy works, but also think about how much easier it is for our lives if we just see one color instead of an infinite about of colors!

      And you are right about the fact that mind altering drugs are not needed to question reality. After all, here I am, exploring these kinds of questions, having never taken these kind of drugs ever in my life. I just think that exploring what mind altering drugs can do to a brain and what it says about reality is pretty interesting.

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  4. What a great essay! Deeply fascinating. If I recall, Kat, from the time light strikes the light sensitive cells at the back of the eye to the time the information reaches the brain, the information is reduced five or seven times. So if you began with seven bits of information, you might end up with zero — even before the brain itself got involved.

    I think you are most likely right about at least some “hallucinations”: They might easily be caused by a failure of the brain or senses to reduce information in such a manner that something gets overwhelmed.

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    1. Yes, I think you’re right. There is only a finite amount of neurons in our bodies and they cannot process all the information. I read somewhere that the information that is left out depends on our genetics, our opinions about the world, and our current mood. I guess that means we all see the world in a slightly different way.

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