The Illusion of ‘Default Reality’

“The unexamined life is not worth living” 


We don’t know who we are. Not in an autobiographical sense, but in the sense of fundamental consciousness, somewhere within the human brain…

Socrates implored, “know thyself”. Consciousness is us. Further, consciousness is more vulnerable, manipulable, constrained, flawed, and disorienting that we can grasp, by default. In Alain de Botton’s words, this faultiness is the actual original sin Religion warned of. This could not possibly be more firmly substantiated by science.

“Each of us believes himself to live directly within the world that surrounds him, to sense its objects and events precisely, and to live in real and current time. I assert that these are perceptual illusions … Each of us lives within the universe – the prison of his own brain.”

Vernon B. Mountcastle, 1975

“The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself… to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”

Iris Murdoch

“All you’ve got to go on is streams of electrical impulses which are only indirectly related to things in the world. Perception has to be a process of informed guesswork in which the brain combines these sensory signals with its prior expectations or beliefs about the way the world is to form its best guess of what caused those signals.”

Anil Seth

“The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.”

Daniel Kahneman

“We are touchingly prone to mistaking our models of reality for reality itself, mistaking the strength of our certainty for strength of evidence, thus moving through a dream of our own making that we call life.”

Maria Popova

“We do not see reality as it is. We are shaped with tricks, and hacks, that keep us alive. The theory of evolution presents us with the ultimate dare: Dare to recognize that perception is not about seeing truth, it’s about having kids.”

Donald Hoffman

“What should science of consciousness explain? Experiences of the world – sights, sounds and smells, the multisensory, panoramic, 3D, fully immersive inner movie. The conscious self – the experience of being you or being me. The lead character in this inner movie, and probably the aspect of consciousness we all cling to most tightly.”

Anil Seth

Scientific Evidence

Consider the following scientific evidence, of the brain unconsciously manipulating our experience, in ways we cannot possibly see or control.

  • Confabulation
    • Our brain can subconsciously lie. It can construct plausible-yet-sometimes-bogus stories to explain apparent circumstances. We cannot see this confabulation process or control it. We merely experience the story as a thought. This has been demonstrated most vividly in split-brain patients.
  • Brain Damage and Behavior
    • Brain damage can drastically alter our identity and behavior. In a suicide note, Whitman wrote about the impulsive violence and the mental turmoil he was experiencing prior to killing 14 people. His note also requested research about his behavior. After an autopsy, deep inside his brain was a sizeable tumor in the region of his amygdala.
  • Visual Manipulation
    • Our brain can subconsciously warp colors, based on what it estimates they are as opposed to what they actually are in objective reality.
  • Sugar Cravings
    • Our brain will crave sugar long after eating food – not because of the pleasurable taste we experience and consciously want more of, rather, because neurons in the gut detect the presence of glucose (fast energy) – and urge us toward more.
  • Physical Pain Perception
    • Our brain can subconsciously alter how painful something feels based upon what consciousness is focused on – even when the pain stimulus is constant.
  • Brain Constraint
    • The brain grows more constrained as we age and gain experience. Children are better at solving certain abstract problems than adults, because their minds are more open and flexible.
  • Broad Scientific Evidence of Self Illusion
    • Neuroscientist Bruce Hood explores this comprehensively in – The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. 

Each example reinforces apparent truth: everything we see, feel, think, and understand about self and world – is created and manipulated by the brain in ways that are completely hidden and unintuitive – and therefore – demands investigation.


Buddhism might be seen as a religion, when really it’s a set of questions that anyone can ask themselves, whether or not they follow any sort of practice. Buddhist philosophy is particularly vivid at pointing out the nature of consciousness and reality.

In an short presentation, Michael Taft distills one of Buddhism’s most core insights – one he suggests we can all freely see for ourselves

  • Self and reality can be seen as a construction
  • The construction can be deconstructed

“The picture you have of all the people in the room around you right now is a brain generated construction that’s arriving in perception. It’s not the room, it’s not the people in the room, it’s a movie you’re watching in your mind.”

Michael Taft

In his expansive book – Life Without a Self, and more concisely a conversation with, Buddhist scholar Jay Garfield explores the nature of self. Here, he uses a garden cart as a metaphor to describe our sense of identity.

“Consider a heap of garden cart parts – you don’t have a garden cart. We know when you assemble them, you’ve got one, but if you look at it, it’s not identical to those parts. If there’s a defective wheel and you send it back and get a new one, you’ve still got the same garden cart, just another wheel. Similarly, we are neither identical to our components, nor are we different from them. We’re not something that stands by and owns them. We’re not something that you somehow find in them. Rather, we’re a whole network of social and biological relations that determine and constantly affect those parts and our identity.”

Jay Garfield

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Seeing Fallible Reality

The more we contemplate and meditate on this, the easier and freer life can feel.

Piercing the veil of default reality

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