Savage Thoughts -- The Mind, The Eye, and the Mind's Eye

By Leo Savage

We don't see as well as we think we do. Bear with me -- this is going somewhere. Really, the only sharp focus in your entire field of view is a spot about the size of your thumbnail held at arm's length. It doesn't normally seem like that, unless we conciously pay attention. Why not?

Worse than that -- we don't hear as well as we think either. Or feel, or smell, or anything. Why not?

The answer is that we aren't really experiencing the world around us. Our minds run a simulator, updating it (from time to time, here and there) with input from our senses, and that is what we're really experiencing. Here are some examples to prove it to you:

This even explains dreams. When you go into the dream state, you are experiencing your simulator running with no external input at all, or perhaps random input, which makes it go off in all directions. In addition, you have a mental censor that keeps check on your simulator to make sure that it stays within reasonable bounds, but the censor is disengaged during dreams, so you will accept whatever your simulator shows. This is why "dream logic" is so strange. The oddest things can happen in dreams, but during the dream you will accept it. Peripherally, this also explains how you can "not believe your eyes", because your eyes reported something that your mental censor is rejecting.

So far, this isn't all that revolutionary. Lots of people have theorized that what we see isn't really the world around us. I am, perhaps, going a bit farther than most, since I am presuming that our senses are very much poorer than we normally think. The world does not appear to us to be a big fuzzy blur with one sharply focused spot, because that is not how our simulator presents it to us. But that is how our eyes present it to us. Similar things happen with all of our senses, but it's harder to explain or demonstrate because we are so strongly visually oriented.

But now I will take a bit of a departure. I don't think our memories are all that good either. Just as we see the real world as a simulator updated by little bits of real-world input, I think we experience memories as simulations based on little bits of remembered input. It is well understood by police and criminal investigators that the worst sort of evidence is eye-witness accounts. This is because five spectators to the same sequence of events will give five totally different accounts of what happened. All will give quite detailed reports, and all the reports will differ markedly as to the details, and usually as to the gross facts as well. Your quite vivid recollection of an event will differ markedly from that of others, who have just as vivid a recollection as you -- just different. Anyone who is married, or who has had a "significant other" for any length of time, will have ample proof of this.

All of this is well established. Where I am adding to what I have heard or read before is in explaining the "why" of it. Just as your eyes do not report the entirety of what you see, serving only to enable your internal simulator to recreate the world around you, so also your memory does not report the entirety of what you remember, serving only to enable your internal simulator to reconstruct the memory you think you have.

I'm not sure quite where this insight gets us, but at least it's worth knowing.

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