11 Feb The True Nature of Reality: More Than A Feeling – 18
In our last two journaling exercises, we explored the limits of sensory perception and contemplated how the human brain constructs the reality we see and hear. Next, we will take a look at the sense of touch and feeling. Like most senses, our ability to use our sense of touch can be improved with training. Can you distinguish each key on your keychain in the dark? How about people who learn to read braille? My office has all the suites labeled with numbers that include braille, and I always brush my fingers across the raised dots, trying to fathom how people learn to distinguish the patterns as quickly and accurately as I can read a book using sight.
The main purpose for this session, however, is to examine how our brain uses the sense of touch to manufacture the reality inside our heads. This is, after all, a conundrum, that sensory perception feels so real and can still be wrong. If we cannot trust what we can see, hear, and feel, then really, what can we trust?
Let us take a look at some of the ways we know our brain constructs the reality we feel. There is a part of the brain that creates a feeling of separateness from others and the world around us. This part of the brain serves to perceive ourselves as a separate entity, and must be actively engaged in order to do so. From what studies show, infants have no realization that they are separate from the people and things around them. In fact, a large part of child psychology centers around the process of an infant learning that it is a separate entity from its mother, and then gaining trust to have their personal needs met once they perceive dependence from that entity.
There is another part of the brain that must actively work to make us feel as though we are inside our body. Many people do not realize that the brain has to work to create this feeling. We tend to think of out-of-body experiences as something paranormal, and that being inside our body is a natural state, but a part of our brain has to function everyday to make us feel we are inside of ourselves. This region of the brain can be inhibited by drugs, trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, or oxygen deprivation to temporarily disable this part of the brain, causing a person to feel as though they are floating outside of their bodies.
There has been a great deal of neurological research done on people who have suffered severe strokes that debilitated certain regions of the brain. Some of these involve the brain’s manufacturing process for determining appendage ownership, that is, the feeling that a limb is part of our body because we can see it, give it commands, and sense our muscles moving through space (visual proprioception) .
There is something called Phantom Limb Syndrome that some people with a paralyzed or amputated limb experience. Even though the limb is no longer functional (or present), the ownership module of the brain continues functioning and an amputee may feel a missing limb is still present, that they can move it, or even feel it itch.
The opposite condition is known as Alien Hand Syndrome. This occurs when there is a working limb present, but a person has suffered damage to the ownership module of the brain. In this syndrome, the person feels as if someone or something else is controlling the limb, and oftentimes they are completely unaware of what it is doing.
A more rare condition, called Supernumerary Phantom Limb Syndrome, occurs when a person who suffers spinal cord lesions maintains their limbs and the ownership module circuitry of the brain. In this rare condition, a person may see and feel a third arm or extra leg coming out of their body. Even though the limb does not exist, the person will be able to see, move, and control it, perhaps even scratching it when it seems itch. The only function the limb will not be able to do for the person is to interact with physical reality. There is one report of a person suffering this condition in which they perceived six limbs protruding from their bodies. Due to the plasticity of the brain, these conditions are often temporary and subside with time as the brain recalculates the reality it is creating.
Describe what it feels like to touch something smooth, like a piece of polished marble, a mirror, or the glass on your touchscreen device.
Describe what it feels like to touch something rough, like a piece of sandpaper, a rough rock, or perhaps running your nails down a chalkboard.
What would the process of realizing you are a separate entity from other people and the world around you feel like?
Contemplate and write about the fact that your brain must actively work to make you feel like you exist inside your body.
Write about the fact that your brain must actively work to produce a sensation that your limbs belong to you.
If the brain manufactures feelings of a limb that is not present, or feels that a present limb is being controlled by someone else, what does that mean for the things your feel your body is doing?
Write about what it would be like to see and feel a third arm on your body that you could fully feel and control. How would the be different from the limbs you have now?
Is the ability to interact with reality the test that makes experience real?
If we are so limited in our perception of reality, and tend to make so many mistakes in that perception, then how can we know if we are really interacting with reality?
Human beings tend to favor personal experience as the strongest type of evidence for knowing something is true. If we are able to disprove the validity of personal experience as evidence, then what can we prove is real?
How does our tendency to over-trust personal experience affect our beliefs about life?