Do we see reality as it is? A story of my sister’s computer

In conversation with an older sister who is in her mid 70’s, she mentioned that her go-to technical help for her computer (aka: her son-in-law) is recommending that she replace her Windows laptop with an Apple laptop.

There are many rationalizations for this changeover that are perfectly sensible, I’m sure, but, honestly, this is a big cultural shift. I made that switch 2 years ago, and I remember hearing clearly “Mom, it’s so intuitive!” at the very same moment I was staring at an incomprehensible icon that only made sense in retrospect.  Didn’t feel intuitive to me.

That’s the cultural shift I’m talking about. When you have a different iconic language and different logic, it’s a different culture. Why ask a little old lady who types up the minutes for floor meetings to switch operating systems?   No matter how simple it is to learn, switching cultures is not a stumble-free transition.

Then, this morning I watched a TED Talk by Donald Hoffman about how our brains construct reality (I posted the link on The Unmarked Path Facebook page). Stick with me here. He questions what is the connection between your brain and your conscious experiences.

Do we really see reality as it is?

What lens would you use to find out?

Hoffman looked to theories of evolution to see if natural selection favors seeing reality as it is, and discovered that, in fact, an ability see reality as it really is, is not favored by evolution. What is favored is fitness.

“We are inclined to think that perception is like a window on reality as it is,” says Hoffman. “The theory of evolution is telling us that this is an incorrect interpretation of our perceptions.”

“Reality is like a 3-D desktop that’s designed to hide the complexity of the real world and guide adaptive behavior.” He continues, “Space as you perceive it is your desktop and physical objects are just the icons on that desktop.”

I love this metaphor – reality as computer screen. The icons you see on your computer screen are there to hide the reality of bits and bytes and wires and electrical current that comprise your computer.  They represent, but they are not, the task.

The reality of space, time and matter is the real source of cause and effect in our world, not what is represented in our brains. Our brains are only cells and neurons that create a series of mental models to represent reality.

As he says, “We are blind to our own blindnesses. When I have a perceptual experience I am interacting with reality, but that reality is nothing like what I’m experiencing.” Hoffman summarizes, “Once we let go of our massively false assumptions of our reality, it opens up new ways to think about life’s greatest mysteries.”

And for the current mystery, upgrading my sister’s computer, I would only invite those who are assisting her to look closely. Her reality may not be what you think.

8 Replies to "Do we see reality as it is? A story of my sister’s computer"

  • Ginger
    June 21, 2016 (8:18 pm)

    Older Sister speaks: not only have I informed said son-in-law how enormously grateful I am for his advice and his help whenever I need it, but I added the “NO MAC” clause with clarity and determination. As a new widow have too many things new in my life. I don’t have to invite more.

    • Debra
      June 21, 2016 (11:28 pm)

      Proud of you for speaking your truth!

  • Jeanette Kahl
    June 21, 2016 (10:53 pm)

    What do you think about the saying, “There is no reality, only perception?” Seems that is what I hear in the essence laid out here from Hoffman’s talk.

    As for Mac or PC? I am glad for a tip that perhaps going for the Apple may be more challenge than I care to explore. I do have an iPhone and that has been more than enough and still do not use to its potential. Hope this old PC keeps on chugging as not anxious to leave the unknown. Even when my iPhone goes, think I am going Samsung Galaxy or some Android system. Hoping the old phone holds out also – YEP, not liking making decisions when it comes to technology.


    • Debra
      June 21, 2016 (11:32 pm)

      Yes, Jeanette, that is the thesis he presents. It’s challenging for me to stretch my brain around the concept that reality is only what I perceive, yet… how can we know? It’s like asking a fish to describe water. (and good luck with the technology decisions – I feel your pain!)

  • Karen
    June 22, 2016 (4:18 pm)

    I am that little old lady (at least sometimes I feel that way) typing up minutes from the floor meeting and, as it’s for an organization with limited funds, I don’t anticipate having to learn a new OS. But I am encouraged that I still have the will and ability to learn new skills, as I recently had to give myself a crash course in PowerPoint. I think it’s healthy to shake things up occasionally, like using a computer mouse with the non-dominant hand or taking an unknown path just to see where it leads. Uncomfortable, sometimes a bit scarey, but confidence building.
    As to perceived reality, I think of my dear parents. My mother had dementia and her reality was unshakeable, though often inaccurate. It took me a long time to stop trying to correct her; it was her truth. And my father learned in his late 80’s from a friend that we all see things through tinted glasses, the layers having been added through our experiences. She suggested that one can choose to look through different lenses.
    But I am still not buying a Mac.

    • Debra
      June 22, 2016 (5:10 pm)

      Karen, I’ve always loved that you’re willing to keep learning – it shows in your beautiful artwork. I watched it grow from craft baskets to woven sculpture. Keep shakin’ it up girl! For my subscribers, check her artwork here:

      One of my professors said, “You know, my grandmother had it right. She said ‘Inside everyone’s head is their own world!'” And as you so clearly articulated about your mom, “It was her truth.” Yes. What we see is our truth, whether it’s reality or not is another question.

  • Anne Marie
    July 1, 2016 (3:30 pm)

    It sounds like the part where I encouraged you to stick with a Windows OS didn’t make it into the story 😉 I do love Macs, and I think you’re brave for going for it, but I also understand how hard it is to switch things around.

    Tech requires constant learning and adapting, and no one is immune to it. Even the switch from Windows 10 to 13 was massive – it confused the hell out of me at work for a solid week (or three).

    Regarding the icons that represent, but aren’t the task – what a great metaphor! How easy is it to get lost in the surface of things and forget the real work of living.
    I love you! Your writing is amazing, Mom. Keep it up! <3

    • Debra
      July 1, 2016 (11:14 pm)

      Right, the part where I blatantly ignored a wiser voice did seem to end up on the editorial floor How did that happen? Thankfully, all is well on the technology front for both us. I’ve adapted and she, who is clearly much wiser than me, actually listened to advice and took it. (see the first comment) And you’re right, it is an effective metaphor. You should blog about that!

      And thank you for your kind words and encouragement. It means a lot to hear it from someone I respect. <3

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