Here are two fundamental challenges of being human and relating to others:
1. When we believe that we experience objective reality, we logically assume that people who see things differently are wrong.
2. When we believe that the world around us creates our reality, we logically assume that people and situations are responsible for how we feel.
Let me provide a concrete example to get at the idea of individual reality. The picture above this article is a gift from my optometrist. This is a scan of the retina in my right eye. The dark hazy lines along the bottom of the picture are my eyelashes, the red lines are blood vessels, and the bright area in the lower center is where my optic nerve connects to the back of my eye.
One reason I love this picture is that it reminds me of images of deep space from the Hubble Telescope. The other reason I love this picture is that it is such a great reminder that what I see is completely constructed by my brain. The blood vessels in this image are located in front of the retina, so the brain has to edit them out of my visual field. Where the optic nerve attaches there are no cells to collect light at all, so my brain has to fill in information to make a complete picture. Finally, the light that hits the back of my eye must be converted into electrical signals in order for it to get to the areas of my brain responsible for vision. In other words, no light ever enters my brain.
The information that does enter my brain is an incomplete and heavily synthesized version of what struck my eye. And this information will be translated, edited, and reconstructed several more times before I experience the phenomenon of "seeing." And this is true for every one of my senses. The fact is that I do not experience the world as it is, I experience the world that my brain has created for me.
However, it is my nervous system that creates my experience - based on millions of years of evolution, a lifetime of experience, and a surprisingly small amount of information from the external world. When I am mindful of this, then I can experience disagreements as an inevitable and normal part of being human, and I can accept complete responsibility for how I respond to the reality that my nervous system creates.
Yes, all reality is virtual. Each of us has a nervous system that is creating a highly individualized experience. The goal is not to see things the same way as everyone else, but to work effectively with others who see it differently. We can develop the practice of acknowledging our own subjectivity with a sense of humor and compassion. This practice has an enormously positive impact upon our physical, psychological, and social well-being. The recipe for greater enjoyment, better collaboration, and closer relationships is not that complicated -- a bit of awareness, a dash of curiosity, a smidge of acceptance, and a splash of gratitude is all it takes. What are you practicing right now?
Dave Mochel has been a neuroscience teacher and well-being coach for twenty-five years. He is committed to helping people and organizations be happier, healthier, and more productive. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.appliedattention.com