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Sigmund Freud long theorised that our reality is influenced by our subconscious. With modern technology, neuroscientists have taken it further.
Modern advances have afforded neuroscientists a more comprehensive look inside the brains of humans as they interact with the world, and how our cranium translates into a cohesive map of the world around us. It has also shown us how subjective and malleable that map is, too.
Sigmund Freud, long before the inception of modern neuroscience, theorised that what we deem ‘objective reality’ is altered by our subconscious.
Fast forward to now, with the invention of powerful imaging techniques, neuroscientists are now able to peer into the perceptions of people, whether it involves watching events in the environment, thinking about reality or making a decision between several possibilities.
“We’re able to go a lot deeper into understanding this massive machinery under the hood,” says neuroscientist David Eagleman. One particularly interesting facet of our ‘objective reality’ is the way in which we perceive time. People often report that time seems to slow down during a life-threatening situation, a novel event or even when playing sport.
By dropping people from a 150-foot tall tower and measuring their perception of time, he found that people don’t necessarily see time moving slowly during an event like this. Rather, the brain creates supremely dense memories of the moment.
Eagleman decided to put this to the test. By dropping people from a 150-foot tall tower and measuring their perception of time, he found that people don’t necessarily see time moving slowly during an event like this. Rather, the brain creates supremely dense memories of the moment. Upon reflection, when one looks back on a shocking event like this, it appears time moved slower than usual at the moment because of the magnitude of information compressed into such a minuscule amount of time.
“Neuroscience has drifted off a little bit from the directions that Freud was going in terms of the interpretations of whether your unconscious mind is sending you particular hidden signals and so on,” said Eagleman. “But the idea that there’s this massive amount happening under the hood, that part was correct and so Freud really nailed that. And he lived before the blossoming of modern neuroscience, so he was able to do this just by outside observation and looking at how people acted.”
Dr. Robert Lanza also explores the subjective nature of time in his book, Biocentrism. “By penetrating to the bottom of matter, scientists have reduced the universe to its most basic logic, and time is simply not a feature of the external spatial world.” Lanza believes that, to understand the fabric that binds the universe, we must take into account the role of the observer. By bringing to light how the electrical activity that occurs within the human brain somehow creates one’s reality, Eagleman is carrying us one step closer to a biocentric view of reality.
Eagleman’s new television series, The Brain, is almost like a tour of the universe that exists within us all. It wrestles simple yet unanswered questions aimed at helping viewers learn more about what it means to be human: “What is reality?” and “Who is in control?”
“Nowadays, we’re able to peer noninvasively inside people’s heads as they’re doing tasks, as they’re thinking about things and making decisions, perceiving the world. We’re able to go a lot deeper into understanding this massive machinery under the hood.”
The show also provides a greater appreciation for the resiliency and adaptability of the brain. Just as time is altered from observer to observer, our brains don’t stop developing. “We’re not fixed,” said Eagleman. “From cradle to grave, we are works in progress.”