What is Reality? The Inaudible Tree

By June 9, 2016 December 9th, 2018 Consciousness

At 9:00 AM, a buzzing sound screeches out of a small plastic box on your night stand. Immediately, you open your eyes, but your brain hasn’t fully kicked in yet. As you drift in and out of consciousness, the snoozing alarm eventually gets the best of you, and you awaken. After having slept through a myriad of nightmares, you slowly begin to sit up on the edge of your bed, your back hunched over–tired. Slowly, you raise your elbows to your knees, and lay your head in the palm of your hand. “So tired…I don’t want to get up.” Dragging yourself to the kitchen, you sift through containers until you finally find your trusty Nescafé ® instant coffee. You put one of your hands on the slightly textured red cap, while the other one tightly grips the smooth glass container. With one swift twist, you turn the cap, opening the jar. A strong, coffee-like scent emanates from the dark brown chips that lay inside. Taking your cozy ceramic coffee mug, you let some of those chips fall loosely to the bottom of the mug, releasing an audible frequency of about 5 kHz. Once your water has reached boiling point, you pour some of it into your mighty cup, take a scorching-hot sip, and taste your first good ol’ morrow blend.

The episode described above is a typical morning for many human beings, and you’ve probably experienced something similar. However, nothing you experience during the thought, preparation or actual tasting of the instant coffee is actually real. You see, reality is an interpretation of information by your brain–this is called perception. Information exists as some sort of stimulus (whether electromagnetic or otherwise) but it doesn’t exist “as is.”

Because I’m getting confused with this explanation myself, let’s take the example of color. Why do we see the Nescafé cap as red when we look at it? Is it because the cap is inherently red? Does the color red, as we see it, exist in the cap? in the world? at all? Visible light ranges from ~ 400nm to 700nm. This is the small lil’ widget of electromagnetic radiation our brain can actually perceive. When electromagnetic radiation (everything from radio waves, IR, UV rays, etc) hits the Nescafé cap, it bounces off in all directions. From the visible light spectrum, the cap absorbs most wavelengths, but reflects wavelengths from around 700-630 nm. Did I say the cap reflects the color red? No. When this electromagnetic radiation hits our retina, nerves in our eyes transmit information to our visual cortex. The neurons in the eye are basically saying “Hey VC! I’m sending you some 700 – 630nm of electromagnetic radiation back there!” They don’t say anything about those wavelengths being red.

What happens next? This is the key step in the definition of reality. Our brain takes that information and interprets it. It decides (for a variety of complex reasons that I will not get into here), that those wavelengths of light = red. You see, the information of the color itself doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist in the cap, nor in the “world”, nor in the wavelength that hits our retina. All that exists is our brain’s perception and interpretation of those wavelengths.

A great example of this perception is synesthesia. People that suffer from synesthesia have brains that incorrectly  process certain types of stimuli. For example, instead of simply hearing a sound, a synesthete might “see” the color green when presented with an auditory signal of 500mHz. Theoretically, this allows us to understand that the stimulus isn’t inherently auditory, but rather that the interpretation of the moving molecules of air is.

This can be applied to anything that stimulates our five senses. Everything that is coming as an input is simply being interpreted by our brain, which produces, or “gives us” an output. The creation of reality exists in the brain, and only in the brain.

I remember when I was applying to colleges, one of the questions for some Ivy League was: “If a tree falls in the middle of the forest, but there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” Or something like that. When I first read this question, I thought it was stupid, pseudo-intellectual, and obnoxious. Now I realize I simply did not understand it. It is a question that sparks a lot of debate on existentialism and reality. The tree fell. The air molecules moved and created what we’ve defined as a sound wave. However, there was no brain or sensory “organ” to interpret that sound wave, and perceive it as a “sound”.

I’m still trying to decide if the tree made a sound…

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