Can’t see the video? Watch this video on self-doubt online.
The statement “truth is stranger than fiction” is more true of current neuroscience than it is of soap operas. Fabulous new books seem to come out on a monthly basis, and more and more things are being discovered about the strange little blob of cells our heads that are capable of changing the world and traveling to the moon. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman is one of those books.
There’s more information in this book than I can summarize briefly, so I’ll just hit a couple of points I found especially intriguing. The most dramatic finding in my mind is the discovery of how little we actually perceive about the events happening around us. We do not take in information the way a camera does. Instead, we select data points of our sense observations from which to quilt together an image of reality that looks to us like “everything.” What we believe to be “reality” is literally a story invented by the brain and supported by bits—and I mean little bits—of real world evidence. The brain works almost identically when we are awake as it does when we are dreaming, with only a touch more evidence from the senses.
This supports the assertion from a long succession of mystics and philosophers who believe that our life is only “the dream of form.” Perhaps you’ve had the experience of waking up from a nightmare and feeling confused for a few minutes as you slowly realized it was only a dream. Dozens of enlightened teachers from many cultural traditions tell us that there is another level to this process. They tell us that we are destined to awaken again from this “reality” into a state of being and perception where this brutal world, dominated by suffering, injustice, and death, will be recognized as just one more nightmare. This is not an area David Eagleman investigates in this wonderful book, but like most of the neuroscience I read, it has enticing thematic connections to the wisdom traditions that emerge not from empirical science, but from the deep self-examination of human consciousness.
A few times in my life, I have experienced moments that felt as if I briefly woke up from “the dream of form” in which suffering is the dominant power. It could be that my clever little brain was producing spasms of euphoria to compensate for some sort of physical trauma.
I know most scientists, including David Eagleman, would probably tell me that the moments I have felt most awake were products of brain anomalies. But once you have experienced such an awakening, to believe that this realm of suffering is more real feels exactly like being told that what you are experiencing today, as you walk around the world, is less real than the dream you had last night. As a result of believing in these moments, I have become happier and healthier in mind, body, career, and relationships. As Shakespeare says, “If this is madness, let me be mad.” But books like Incognito offer tantalizing clues to the mechanisms by which we perceive reality. As you read it, let yourself connect with the moments of dreaming and waking you have experienced yourself. Then let your imagination play: If the brain is as wildly creative as scientists are now discovering, what new wonders might you create?