02/25/2013 08:49 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

Time to Get Real: The Riddle of Perception

Co-authored with Murali Doraiswamy, M.D.; Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D.; and Menas Kafatos, Ph.D.

When you give a red rose to your beloved on Valentine's Day, you have every right to say, "I made this for you." All the qualities that a rose possesses -- its velvety texture, its lush red color, even its thorns -- are real to us because our perception makes them real. Photons of light have no color, only frequencies and wavelengths. The point of a thorn has no sharpness. The scent of a rose isn't sweet when seen merely as airborne molecules. The reality of these specific qualities is tied to us. The brain processes electrochemical signals sent from photoreceptors in the eye to "create" the color red. Skin-encapsulated mechanosensory receptors send electrochemical signals that reassure us of a solid "material" world, but the prick of a thorn is created by our brain. Indeed we now know that the brain takes into account a number of factors to choose how much pain to create; varying any one of these factors can affect how prickly the same thorn is.

There is no provable link between "this is what I see" and "this is real." With a different brain comes a shift of perception, and everything about a rose would change. Roses exist in the world of snails that chew the leaves, aphids that suck the sap, moths that lay eggs in hidden crevices and cats that lurk underneath to wait for a bird to alight. But what these organisms experience is certainly not the rose for Valentine's Day. As humans we have no conceivable way of entering the perceptual world of those creatures. We can only imagine a link, and then we take our imagined similarities for granted.

Recent research has revealed that birds may migrate by translating the lines of the Earth's magnetic field into visual information. Their retinas possess magnetic-sensitive cells (cryptochromes) that may do the trick. Bird migration has long been a mystery to science, and this theory can now be added to rival theories about navigation through smell, the sighting of landmarks or following food trails or the movement patterns of the stars, the sun and moon. In fact, it can be argued that bird migration is more closely tied to quantum phenomena than to everyday phenomena. All these theories depend on extrapolating from our sensory experience, yet there is no proof that the world that our brains bring us is the norm.

Instead, the evidence leads entirely in the other direction. Humans, in general, have five broadly defined senses that operate within a limited band of reception (e.g., we can't hear frequencies that bats and dogs hear or see ultraviolet light as some spiders do). If that were the only obstacle, there would be no problem deciphering reality. Some creatures would be better at certain things (the way a vulture can smell rotting carrion from miles away) and worse than others (like the blind cave fish that have lost the sense of sight). Even the lowly fruit fly can smell a glass of red wine from over 10 football fields away!

But this misses the crucial point. If we cannot conceive of how other creatures perceive the world, that's the same as saying that their world is inconceivable. A chameleon lizard has two eyes that rotate independently of each other. One can look up while the other looks down. Try using your fingertip to push one of your eyes out of alignment. The result is wiggly confusion, because without two eyeballs held in alignment, we cannot make a coherent picture of the world. So the chameleon is turning the inconceivable into the conceivable, but not in a way that we can grasp. Two swivel eyes are outside our realm of perception.

Most scientists would have no objection going this far, but now the trickiest bit enters. If other creatures are doing something inconceivable when they make their reality picture, so are we. Humans are perceptual agents, like any other creature. Our brains evolved to present reality in one way only, the human way, not the amoeba way, or the frog way, or the bird way, or cat way, and we cannot step out of our brains. Trapped by our perceptual mechanism, we have no measure of reality outside the prison walls, as it were. Why is our perception "realer" than any other creature's?

Again, many scientists would have no problem with this statement. Stephen Hawking belongs to the camp of physicists who believe that reality exists "out there" as a material fact, but he concedes, as did Einstein before him, that science doesn't claim to know what reality is. Believing in reality "out there" is an assumption, the biggest one in science, and Einstein called it "my religion" to denote that this was an article of faith. Many other quantum pioneers, like Bohr and Heisenberg, abandoned this article of faith, declaring that if atoms and molecules had no definite position in time and space and no solidity (i.e., all matter can be reduced to energy clouds), the reality perceived through the five senses has no privileged truth behind it. What you see is what you get, but that doesn't make it real. As such, the world of quanta is made of "haps" (events) rather than "hard" particles that bounce around.

We are all engaged in the process of reality making, but it's a mistake to believe that we do this through the brain. Here is where materialists (the vast majority of scientists) draw a line in the sand. For them, the brain, as the processor of sense information, must be the place where reality is created out of raw data. Such a position is naïve, because it begs the question of how the brain acquired its reality-making ability. Claiming that the brain is the source of everything we perceive (sensations, images, feelings and thoughts) is like claiming that a radio composes music, or that a TV writes the script for a show. A processor looks a lot like a creator. The brain is doing lots and lots of things at the atomic and even quantum level, as is a radio. But none of these activities turns the inconceivable into the conceivable. A rose has no color until the visual cortex processes the information from photons striking the retina. That is indisputable. But nobody can spot how a neuron in the visual cortex suddenly "sees" red. All one can measure is chemical activity and tiny bursts of electricity. There's no seeing in that. Likewise, a neuron can't "feel" the hardness of a desk or "smell" a rose, yet we can.

The transformation of the inconceivable into the conceivable can be mapped; it isn't entirely opaque. There is a chain of events to follow, Sherlock Holmes-like, from the red rose you gave your beloved, beginning with everyday reality and reducing it, step by step, to get to the source:

  1. The sight, smell and texture of a rose (i.e., the experience), reduce to...
  2. The brain assembling the picture of a rose from various regions dedicated to sight, smell and touch. This reduces to...
  3. Neurons in each region specifically processing raw data into the qualities of a rose (known technically as qualia). These reduce to...
  4. The supporting molecular structure that keeps a neuron alive. This reduces to...
  5. The atoms that compose those molecules. These reduce to...
  6. The subatomic particles (quanta) that structure atoms. These reduce to...
  7. The quantum field that gives rise to quanta.

But then... dead end.

Nobody really can object to this cascade of events, which obeys the reductionist method of science, and nobody seriously questions the dead end that we reach when we try to discover where the quantum field comes from. But this dead end, as it turns out, demolishes materialism and its faith in reality "out there." It's bad enough that the quantum field is invisible, without location, and only measured through probabilities. Not knowing where this field comes from is fatal to the rest of the story. In the next post we'll discuss how to get past the dead end so that the story of reality doesn't die just when it's getting interesting.

To be continued...

Deepak Chopra, M.D., is the author of more than 70 books, 21 of which were New York Times bestsellers. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., and a leading physician in the areas of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine. Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D. is the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University and the director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). He is the co-author (with Deepak Chopra) of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony). Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics at Chapman University. He is the co-author (with Deepak Chopra) of the forthcoming book Who Made God (And Other Cosmic Riddles) (Harmony).

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