Perceived vs. Objective Reality

Perceived vs. objective reality: our senses give us information, but it's not an exact representation

Our minds play all kinds of tricks on us. We’ve got all kinds of cognitive biases that influence what we do with our thoughts, and our brains do interesting things with what they pick up through our senses.

There’s a philosophical argument as to whether or not there is a truly objective reality, but for our purposes, let’s say there is. Information about that objective reality arrives at our senses, but that’s where the objectivity ends.

Our brains and our senses

Sensory organs determine what we’re able to detect from the outside world, but from there, it’s our brain that puts the information together into a neat little package that it thinks will be most useful to us (i.e. our conscious awareness).

The seamless field of vision that we see is a construction of our brains. The brain puts together the offset views from each of our eyes into a continuous whole. I wonder what vision is like for my guinea pigs and other prey animals with eyes on the sides of their head.

My eyes see things quite differently from one another. I had LASIK surgery on both, but 10 years later I needed revision surgery, as my vision had gotten worse. The surgeon wanted to only redo one eye for strategic reasons. Now, that eye sees well at a distance, and my other eye is good for close up. It took about a year for my brain to figure it out, but now it automatically serves up the most in-focus image.

Then there are all kinds of fun visual illusions. The young lady/old lady one below is a classic. I can see both, but I see the young lady first.

old and young lady illusion

The dress

Then there was the white & gold vs. blue & black dress that went viral online a few years ago. The actual photo that was being circulated was the one in the middle. The ones on either side of it are colour-adjusted to give an idea of what different people are seeing. I see white and gold, and no matter how hard I try to see blue and black (which is what the dress actually is), I just can’t.

black and blue or white and gold dress; original photo on

Yanny or Laurel?

Our brains do the same kind of thing with sounds. Yanny vs. Laurel went viral a while back. I hear Yanny, and am not getting Laurel at all. In this video, they adjust the pitch, and only then can I hear Laurel (which was, in fact, the original sound).

Getting theoretical

Philosophy and other fields have assorted ideas about what reality is, but there is no one universally agreed-upon true way. From a sociological standpoint, social constructionists would say that reality as we experience it is socially constructed, and whatever objective element there may be, it’s inexplicably intertwined with our social understanding of it.

Realism is the idea that there is a single, immutable version of reality. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all perceiving it in the same way. For example, my guinea pigs aren’t experiencing sensory inputs in the same way that I am.

Then there’s epistemological dualism, the view that our conscious experience is not, in fact, a direct representation of reality. So, reality is out there, but it’s not the same thing as the reality that we come up with in our heads.

Where mental illness comes in

Hallucinations can involve any of the senses, although auditory hallucinations are the most common. These can occur as a symptom of psychosis, although some hallucinations are considered non-psychotic, like hypnogogic or hypnopompic hallucinations, which occur when falling asleep or waking up.

If what any of us perceives is determined by our brains rather than solely by some form of objective reality, who’s to say that hallucinations are or aren’t “real”?

A key thing that distinguishes hallucinations from “reality” is where the input comes from. When you and I are listening to the Yanny/Laurel recording, we’re interpreting it differently, but for both of us, our ears are receiving sound waves from the same external source. With hallucinations, there’s an internal (i.e. within the brain) rather than an external stimulus.

Regardless of the source of the stimulus, though, the brain is still putting it into a neat little package for you to receive, and what it’s serving up based on internal stimuli isn’t necessarily going to be much different from what the brain puts together based on external stimuli.

So what is reality?

Who knows. But our brains will always stand between our conscious awareness and what’s going on out in the world. So reality may be one way, but what you and I perceive may be very different things.

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25 thoughts on “Perceived vs. Objective Reality”

    1. Yet even with hallucinations, the line isn’t completely clear. Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations that occur when falling asleep and waking up aren’t generally considered to be psychotic in nature.

      1. I studied hypnosis way back when, and I have learned that the moments when you are awake and then later falling asleep, are the moments when your reality is clear and you can be quite suggestive. It’s just a hypersensitive time in those states.

  1. Fascinating! I love to think about those things. Everyone has his own ideas and past but just in the here and now we ‘digest’ things so very differently.
    You explained hallucinations very well.

  2. We think about this sometimes. The relative nature of all reality is one huge limitation of our justice systems and helps justify inequalities of all kinds. Especially when you throw in juries and group think.

    Someone of color in our community was detained by police recently. He was put in a squad car and was going to be taken to jail for check forgery. He was adamant to the cops that he never wrote checks. The police got a photo of the suspect and it was not him. It was another black male so they released him.

    He was traumatized and took to social media to share his fears. The police department got salty and released the dash cam footage to discredit his account of what happened. His fears in his head don’t show in the dash cam and You can’t necessarily depict racial profiling in dash cam footage either (it’s like the other photo/auditory ambiguities), so the whole fiasco gives ammunition to deniers of systemic racism. It can be subtle. So perceptions are powerful.

    1. Yes, they are. And the automatic tendency is to view out-groups as more homogeneous as one’s own in-group, but no dash cam footage in the world is going to be able to actually show that.

  3. ivanabikorovih

    Mine were changing with time passing by. I guess now it is my insight. I am sharp. I need to learn to keep what I see to myself tho. ; ) I do most of the time, but it is frustrating, I need someone to share it with.

      1. It reminds me of those books with the illusions in, where you had to concentrate to see the image behind the pattern. Normally an animal.

        It took me forever to start seeing the hidden image.

  4. I have almost no depth perception so those illusions with 2 different images are lost on me. It wasn’t until I took a perceptual psychology class that I learned about my lack of depth perception – I always had thought I was just clumsy!

  5. I always say I was made with senses set to high, like the vume turned all the way up. I sense it all on a much deeper level which took years to fully accept and process. Being human is so fascinating! What one of us understands, sees, feels or hears doesn’t hold true across the board. Reality based upon one’s own experiences. Yes, hypnosis is fascinating
    I use sleep hypnosis video regularly to raise my vibration. What you think and emit turns up in your life. Law of attraction and all that. Intention is an extremely potent and powerful tool. Great post😊

  6. Today, for the first time, I cannot see that old lady, yet that was the one I always saw first. Aarrgghhh.

    Interesting about hallucinations – cos we always asked patients how they heard their voices i.e. inside or outside their head. Other people without hallucinations thought it was a stupid question and i.e. of course it’s in their head as no one else can hear their voices.

    However, cos I have auditory and visual hallucinations too, I know that the voices are outside my head lol. They’re loud and talking to me, sure as you would if you were sitting opposite me.

    1. In an article I read about genuine psychosis vs. malingering, amount people with auditory hallucinations, 49% hear them as outside their head, 38% hear them as inside their head, and for 12% it’s a mix of both. I haven’t often had auditory hallucinations, but when I have, I’ve heard them as being outside my head.

      1. Oh we had one or two ‘pretenders’ (so they could get disability payments) lol and they were dreadful ‘actors’. We caught them out and sent them packing. Obviously they had mental health problems but psychosis wasn’t one of them,

        Yes, that’s right – about the inside or outside. I ‘ve never had them inside my head – I don’t think – so it would be interesting to know what that’s like 🙂

  7. That makes sense. I think the sticking point for me is that it looks like it’s in low light rather than bright light, and I can’t convince my brain that it’s wrong.

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