The Subjective Nature of Reality and its Pervasiveness in the Human Experience: Contributions from Diverse Fields of Thought.
The relationship between the subjective and the objective is something that superimposes on every aspect of life, whether realized or not. No two individuals are identical, and the simple fact that we are isolated non-identical beings implies that we must lead non-identical lives. That may sound like an obvious statement but the pervasiveness of this “different-ness” is not so obvious. It exists on many levels, some more tangible than others. It is one thing to say that person A and person B see different things when looking at a Picasso, it is another to say that reality as person A experiences it, and reality as person B experiences it are fundamentally different things. If this question is to be approached, if we are to attempt to understand the relationship between the subjective and the objective, the relationship between ourselves, others, and the world, it is valuable to look at the various levels at which this relationship is defined.
Research in a wide range of fields has touched upon the nature of subjectivity. Each field has contributed its own insight into the subjective nature of reality and experience. If we compile the ideas gleaned from physics, neuroscience, research on memory, and the human experience we can begin to form a more comprehensive picture of the nature and depth of the subjective experience. The picture shows us that; individuals actually experience physically different realities, their sensory experience is at the neural level processed differently, different mental representations of reality are thus obtained, reality is consciously experienced differently, individuals remember different realities, and that they remember their memories differently.
Everyone has their own experience of reality. Whether there actually is an objective “reality” out there is questionable in and of itself. The study of quantum physics has quantitatively elucidated the inconstant nature of the reality we experience. The movie; "What the #$*! Do We (K)now?!" begins with a discussion of the physical nature of reality. Via quantum theory the speakers convey that there is no "out there" out there (1). Quantum mechanics tell us that atomic particles behave unpredictably. When we close our eyes any number of particles could be in any number of positions. An infinite number of physical arrangements, of realities, are possible (2). The classical Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics says that when we open our eyes the infinite possibilities are collapsed into just one possible reality, the one that we experience at that moment (2). Observation is not a passive action; by observing we define the reality that we observe (1, 2). If person A remarks at a flower and person B looks over at it, the flower that B sees is physically different than it was a moment ago when A was looking at it. But we do not experience the rearrangement of atomic particles, so what insight can we gain from this knowledge? When we discuss subjectivity we are inherently constrained by our own inescapable subjective experience. A says the shirt is blue, B says it is green. In one scenario they could be subjectively experiencing the color quite differently; in a second scenario they could be merely naming the color differently. Comparing stories cannot resolve the difference, if there is one, between subjective experiences. The quantum theory shows that individuals experiences of reality really are (at atomic level at least) inherently different, and it tells us this is a way that is disentangled from our subjective story telling constraints.
One job of the brain is to construct a mental representation of the external world. This representation will be intrinsically different for each person. Out of all the millions of bits of information that enter the sensory organs every second only a small fraction enters into conscious perception. When making the transition from the unconscious to the conscious the brain discards vast quantities of information (3). No two brains are identical, therefore no two brains can execute identical neural mechanisms when they process, analyze, discard, and distill information. Consciousness is presented with a summarized essence of sensory perception. This essence of reality is comprised of the most relevant and salient bits of information and what is relevant to each person is different. If A is hungry their eyes may snap to the cake on the table. If B is tired their eyes may snap to the nearest available chair. The representation of reality that is delivered up to conscious awareness is determined at the neural level, without conscious direction, according to biological and psychological motivations. At the levels of physics, and now at the level of neural processing reality is differentiated according to the observer.
So far we have mentioned how individual’s constructions of reality are different. Knowledge naturally acquired in life about the human experience can be utilized to build upon these concepts with the idea that individuals experience their respective representations of reality in a way that is mutable and subject to personal tendencies, moods, character, and memories. Memories are recordings of events uniquely ones own, as a result of both the physical and neurological differentiation of reality that occurred during the initial experience. In turn these memories govern and influence ones present state. Upbringing, acquired beliefs and dispositions all direct how the present moment is interpreted. A result of this construction of self and perspective on the basis of memories of differentiated realities is that one may interpret any given scene uniquely as compared to another individual, but also uniquely as compared to oneself on another day or in a different mood. If for example, A’s father were a piano teacher A may hear a given piece of music differently than B would. If for example, A pulled an all-nighter and now has a headache they may hear a given piece of music differently than they would if they were well rested.
So far the results of three fields of thought have been synthesized to conclude that our physical, represented, and experienced realities are all subjectively differentiated. Research in the field of memory has provided the insight for an additional, and the last to be discussed, level at which reality is altered to become further subjectively biased. At this level consideration is given to the fact that individuals do not remember, do not reflect on their memories, objectively. The events of ones past dictate ones motivations in the present; and ones motivations in the present influence the way in which one remembers and recalls the past (4, 5). Memories are not static recordings, they are capable of being, and frequently are, revised. One may recall how electric and exciting a first kiss was, but subtly fail to recall how the painful bumping of braces. Every time this is done one version of the memory is reinforce over another (4). How often does it happen that when discussing a past argument with a friend two different stories are told? Each person’s memory of the argument may omit certain self-incriminating details because each party is motivated to insist that their version is the one that truly occurred. This editing allows revision of the past in light of the present. In this way memories are plastic, malleable, they can be bent to do our bidding.
A controversial example of memory augmentation is repressed memories. Laurence, Day, and Caston wrote a chapter for the book “Truth in Memory” in which they discuss the malleability of memory, and the current repressed memory debate (6). Research has shown that some memories, most often traumatic ones, can be repressed so that they are not consciously accessible. When a traumatic event such as sexual assault is repressed it can resurface years later, spontaneously or through talk therapy. The authenticity of these recalled memories have been called into question when their recollection has resulted in the pressing of criminal charges. Therapists may intentionally or unintentionally influence a patient’s recollection of a repressed event. Through suggestive remarks they may influence the patient to recall the event in a certain augmented form. This altered recollection as has been said occurs quite frequently in all persons, but due to the need for reliable testimony in court the degree of alteration of recalled memories is highly scrutinized (6). In trials the recalled memories may contain certain incriminating aspects or details that did not actually occur or could potentially be wholly fabricated, as shown by Porter, Yuille, and Lehman (7). This controversy has brought to public light a more accurate depiction of the workings of memory. It is important to realize that memories are not records written in stone but are in fact intimately involved in the construction of subjective realities. In general, and in judicial cases especially we must remember that memory is malleable, and by itself unreliable. To tease out the truth of a story it must be examined alongside the stories of others.
Regardless of these many interesting levels at which subjective differentiation influences the experience of reality it is clear that peoples versions of reality are on the whole more similar than dissimilar. Almost all Americans will agree that George Bush is president, which side of the road to drive on, and what day of the week it is. We would not be able to function as a society if there were no "common ground" of reality. Those individuals whose realities do not sync up with the rest of ours usually cannot function. It is fascinating that although there are so many levels at which “reality” is uniquely altered in the experience of the individual, as a society we are still able to reach consensus.
1) Arntz, W. Chasse, B. Vicente, M. (Directors). (2004) What the #$*! Do We Know?!
2) "Quantum Reality" by Manjit Kumar
3) Norretranders, Tor. (1991). The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. New York: Penguin Press Science.
4) "Memory System as a Cognitive Construct for Analysis and Synthesis" by M.K. Johnson
5) "Emotional Arousal Can Impair Feature Binding in Working Memory" by M. Mather
6) Truth in Memories, ch 13: "From Memories of Abuse to the Abuse of Memories" by J.R. Laurence, D. Day, L. Caston
7) "The Nature of Real, Implanted, and Fabricated Memories for Emotional Childhood Events: Implications for the Recovered Memory Debate" by S. Porter, J.C. Yuille, D.R. Lehman