One hallucination away from something better?

Imagine a Google search. The internet is the limitless field of information that is available to us at any one time. Google (the search engine) is like a brain, and the search box on the homepage is the part of the brain in which we have a conscious thought. When you place a thought in the search box and hit enter Google searches for all the related ideas. Your page is instantly filled with concurrent thoughts; hundreds of links, articles, and websites that match your first thought. Notice though, how Google keeps hidden all the things it considers irrelevant to your search and, in effect, creates what you experience based on what you first fed into it.

This is my analogy of how the brain constructs reality and how reality is hallucination. I have known this for some time, yet I am always surprised when I revisit this thought; it blows my mind every single time. I think that this might be the best news I ever hear in terms of my well-being because I am just one hallucination away from something better.

Come with me into some very clumsy science, and I'll explain where I'm coming from. Here are three ways in which the brain is wired for delusion.

Firstly, our brains are sealed inside skulls. Their only connection to the outside world is via the senses. It's sort of like the helm of a submarine; there are no windows or portholes through which to direct the vessel. The steers-people have to navigate the deep ocean using sonar and the digital representation that it presents on a screen. Essentially they are relying on second-hand information to form a picture of the world. It's the same with the brain.

The second explanation for delusion is linked to our bodies' metabolic budget and the brains' motivation to conserve energy. The brain is responsible for between 20-25% of our daily metabolic cost, so it tries to be efficient and conservative. It does this by using only a small amount of information from that is available through the senses. It creates the rest of our experience by mixing memory (data from previous experiences) with predictions based on previous similar outcomes. This is more cost-effective because it doesn't require changes to the brain.

Then there is the concept of constructed emotions. At their core, emotions are a movement cue instructing us to move towards or away from a stimulus. It is in our nature to survive by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, and we are born with the capacity to feel these elementary states. After a time, the brain develops a very complex ability to understand and convey emotion relative to the situations in which it finds itself. For example, it constructs a particular type of fear for roller-coaster rides and different fears for running away from danger.

To summarise, your entire experience of reality, including emotion, is a construct, the best guess of a computer locked inside a dark room.

It took me a long time to stretch my mind into this idea. I didn't want to believe it because it suggests that my long-standing anxieties and panic attacks have been a figment of my imagination. That would be a bitter pill to swallow. My mental health over the years has been as a case of the spirals. Sometimes it descends into depressive states, then other times it goes up and out into chaotic distractions of overworking. It always felt out of my control because I had no idea how my brain went about filling in gaps from memory and imagination. In other words, I was unaware that I was living a hallucinating.

To return to the Google metaphor. Google is stupid. It might have the algorithms to predict behaviour. Still, it is so focused on being efficient that it doesn't have the common sense and empathy to discern what content is appropriate for you to see. More importantly, it doesn't have the curiosity and compassion to say 'Hey Phil, I know you are searching for Foxgloves here, but they're toxic. Have you thought about sweet peas? They smell great, they're colourful, and they yield loads of flowers'.

One negative thought in the search bar results in many pages full of negative thoughts in our experiences. So it would make sense to choose the best thoughts we can. Neurodiversity, anxiety and depression are all part of my story, so I know how difficult it is to let go of disruptive and negative thoughts. The good news is that learning about the brain's anatomy was already a step towards change for me. Since coming to understand these ideas, I can choose to think of my brain as a very hard-working and super obedient employee. As the boss, I am responsible for knowing what the brain is doing. I am responsible for providing proper employee training so that my employee works for me, not against me.

It's not easy work, because change is inefficient and we know that the brain likes efficiency. Change increases the metabolic cost of running the brain, and it's possible to create a deficit, so the brain resists. There are also many other contributing factors such as safety, each case is unique, and change has to be supported. It needs a plan. But with a solid structure, it is possible to be more deliberate in what we construct and to work towards creating healthy change.


Lisa Feldman-Barrett - How Emotions are made.

Dr Douglas Lisle - The Motivational Triad

James A Russel - The circumplex model of affect.

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