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Shaping Objective Reality Based on Expectations: Why We See What We Believe

Our perceptions of the real world rely on various factors such as the sensory data and stimuli we pick up from our interactions with the world, our brains' processing of that data, and the interpretation we have based on previous experience and knowledge.

Some neuroscientists say that the way we see the world is not as simple of a mechanism or system as we might think because there are too many steps and variables involved from the moment our senses perceive what goes on around us until they have been processed by the brain. There are also obstacles in that process which might affect our perception of objective reality.

So in order for our brains to make sense of the world, they suggest that we actually base our perceptions on expectations or predictive mechanisms with which our brain gives form to what we experience.

One challenge that our brains face in monitoring our actions is the inherently ambiguous information they receive. We experience the world outside our heads through the veil of our sensory systems: the peripheral organs and nervous tissues that pick up and process different physical signals, such as light that hits the eyes or pressure on the skin.

One can even think of the challenges that the brain possesses in the same manner with which Plato posed the dilemma of trying to know what is objective truth in the Allegory of the Cave.

Even if these circuits transmitted with perfect fidelity, our perceptual experience would still be incomplete. This is because the veil of our sensory apparatus picks up only the ‘shadows’ of objects in the outside world.

So how does the brain get around these issues?

Psychologists and neuroscientists have long wondered what strategies our brains might use to overcome the problems of ambiguity and pace. There is a growing appreciation that both challenges could be overcome using prediction. The key idea here is that observers do not simply rely on the current input coming in to their sensory systems, but combine it with ‘top-down’ expectations about what the world contains.

Do we see what we believe because that's how our brain processes the information it receives from different sensory signals? And if so, how can we determine objective reality based on the experiences we have had?

More on Aeon.

(Image credit: James Kemp/Unsplash)

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