Personal Reality
Up Extraordinary Reality

My God! Dead people do bleed!

A psychiatrist treating the son of Old Wu settled on a course of therapy for the poor unhappy fellow who for some strange reason had decided he was dead.  "Do dead people bleed?" asked the doctor?

"Of course not." replied the patient. 

"Good. Then this is how we will proceed. Every day for the next month I want you to chant 'dead people don't bleed.' ten times during each visit to the toilet. Send someone to me each Friday to let me know how you are doing and I'll see you here in the office exactly four weeks from today. Will you do that?"

"Well. I can do that, but I don't see how that is going to change anything. I'm really dead you know and saying something obvious about dead people over and over is not going to change that fact.  I already know dead people don't bleed. Still, if you think it might help, I'll do what you say." The patient went home and religiously carried out the doctor's instructions, sending a message on each of three Fridays to report his progress. 

On the fourth Friday he returns to the doctor's office. Seated comfortably across from the doctor at his desk, he extends his hand when asked to do so. Where upon the doctor produces a sharp knife and before the patient can move stabs him in the hand. Blood spurts from the wound soaking a ready gauze pad. Old Wu's son jumps to his feet staring at all the blood and shouts "My God! Dead people do bleed!" 

What is "obviously" true for Old Wu's son,  appears delusional to most of us. But, given the myriad ways people differ from one another, is it any wonder we each experience the world and our relationship to it in unique ways? 

How could it be otherwise? As I look around me, I see my desk cluttered with papers, computer components, a half full cup of cold coffee. In the room I see Teak furniture and outside I see Palm trees screening the view of boats in the harbor. I hear the hum of the washing machine down the hall. In other words, I am experiencing a lot of the ordinary stuff that makes up my ordinary reality. I presume that if you were here, you also would see and hear the same things. It is such a natural assumption, such an obvious assumption. How could it be otherwise?
We do that, don't we... In addition to the information streaming in from my five senses I am also aware of various sensations originating from within my body which cannot exactly be attributed to taste, smell, touch, hearing, or sight.  There is this mildly tingling sensation throughout my body which wanders in and out of awareness. There is a constant cacophony of random thoughts cursing through my mind, many unrelated to anything obviously relevant at the moment. Occasionally I am aware of minor sharp pains here and there which quickly pass or longer periods of uncomfortable sensations in various parts of my body... all unrelated as far as I can tell to anything in the environment around me or my immediate interaction with it. While you may also experience similar sensations from time to time, you certainly don't experience mine, though you may well assume that yours must be a lot like mine. We do that, don't we... project our own experience of reality on one another.

Many of us have had dreams so real we were surprised to discover we had been dreaming. A few of us have had spontaneous hallucinations indistinguishable from the real thing at the time, even some of us who are more or less "normal." At other times most of us have found ourselves totally disoriented in some unfamiliar circumstance. While the "out there" had not changed, our perception of it deviated from what we had come to accept as normal.

Buddhist philosophy teaches that all personal reality is an illusion and that we are all born into an environment that perpetuates the illusions of our parents and their parents, etc. Siddhartha Gautama recognized that the illusions lead to suffering and that understanding the illusory nature of our interactions with the environment can lead to a cessation of suffering. This recognition is likened to awakening from a congenital dream. Abundant evidence suggests that all sentient beings experience pain, apparently a survival mechanism selected by evolution. Human beings suffer, a psychological reaction to the pain. While we cannot avoid all pain, most of us have control over our psychological reaction to it. The Buddha taught that this awakening is the secret to eliminating suffering from our lives.

Everyone has been fooled by an optical illusion: the silhouette of a vase that suddenly becomes two faces, the random patterns of the stereograms out of which pop three dimensional patterns, the deliberately confusing wire frame image where the front and back change places in our perception , the camouflaged animal invisible until it moves. So, most of us have had experiences where our processing of ordinary reality has been dramatically affected by the ways we have been conditioned to think, by our point of view, by our past experience, by our education, by our culture.  

You're a rose.
I'm a brook?







John Gray proclaims that "Men Are From Mars. Women Are From Venus." His books sell by the millions and his popular lectures are punctuated by sounds of agreement from the audiences. Few would disagree with research findings that there are also some pretty obvious genetically mediated attitude and physique differences between the genders. But, Gray and others focusing on gender differences have only exposed the "tip of the iceberg." Closer to the truth might be: You are a fragrance; I am a melody. 

Ongoing research in behavioral genetics has clearly established the fact that each of us experiences life and our environment in dramatically unique ways. We have all learned to discuss our experience of "red" as if it is the same experience that everyone else has upon seeing the color we call red. Only when our experience is clearly different from a majority of those around us (as in color blindness or synesthesia), do we acknowledge the fact that we can have no way of knowing for sure what other people "see" when they are looking at "our red," what they smell when sniffing our rose, or what they taste when biting into the hot Chile pepper burning our mouth.

Study after study have identified hundreds of genes that determine our individual psychological, intellectual, spiritual, and physiological responses to environmental stimuli. All of these genes have two or more common variations which express themselves as tendencies to experience the same stimuli in different ways. For example, behavioral geneticists know the D4 dopamine receptor gene originally referred to as the "novelty gene" and by others as the "thrill seeking gene," comes in a small range of common versions, identified by the number of times a peculiar nucleotide sequence is repeated in the gene. If you happen to be a person who inherited a dominant seven repeat version, new experiences are likely to leave you with a pleasant feeling. But, if you get the zero repeat version, those same experiences might leave you with an uncomfortable or anxious feeling. You don't need a Ph.D. in psychology to see the powerful effect this can have on the way you learn to make choices when encountering something new. And, that is but one of a hundred  genetically determined ways we differ in our natural responses to life's turbulence. 

Measuring any of the characteristics which define a human being reveals variations, a frequency distribution of values. With most of these variables, the measured values cluster about an average with increasingly fewer values the farther away from the average we go. So, with gross intelligence for example, about 68% of us have IQ values within about 15 points of the average (nominally 100). About 16% of us fall below and another 16% above that middle range. As we examine the numbers farther out on the tails of the "Bell Curve" we find diminishing numbers of the cognitive elite and mentally challenged people. Only a little over 2 out of a hundred have IQ values above 130 and less than one out of 700 over 145 IQ and so on. I use this familiar example of the normal distribution of intelligence to illustrate the variability characteristics of most things we can measure about the human being: height, weight, endurance, fine subdivisions of general intelligence, pain threshold, etc. These all cluster around an average. Extreme values on every scale show up in a small percentage of us, even though most of us are average on most measures. 

Arthur Jensen in his highly provocative 1998 work with "The G-factor" has shown that some of the variables are correlated. That is, someone smart in mathematics is more likely to be smart with language, for example. Exceptions abound as the example of the Idiot Savant dramatically demonstrates. Many other traits like taste, smell, body part colors also are under the control of our genetics so that predictable percentages of us fall into distinguishable groupings. For example, about a quarter of us are super tasters and another quarter of us are "taste blind." Perhaps one in ten thousand of us have perfect pitch while about one in twenty of us are "tone deaf." Even more astounding is recent Pharmacogenetics research which explains why some of us respond favorably to a specific medical treatment while others do not. Because there are so many ways we differ from one another, the chances of anyone being perfectly normal is just about zero. Everyone is bound to be "off the curve" in some characteristic for which most people are more or less average.

Add to that the also powerful influences of a lifetime of unique learning experiences and it is easy to see why some of us hear the trumpets of a bullfight while others smell the fragrance of a rose when thinking of red! The perfectly average person is an exceedingly rare phenomenon, even though most of us appear to others to be quite average in most ways.
Different perspectives?
Seven infinities. 


In his powerful essay, SEVEN PERSPECTIVES , C. George Boeree notes: "Although my intuition leads me to believe that there is, ultimately, only one reality -- infinite and eternal -- experience leads me to believe that there are as many views or perspectives of that reality as there are conscious creatures." Given the differences in our genetic heritage, education, cultural backgrounds, environmental influences and other unknown variables, I'm surprised we can agree on anything about reality! 

The wisest, most observant person on earth cannot know the world in which I live, but plenty of "wise" men share their wisdom implicitly implying that their understanding is valid for everyone, if only we lesser mortals could but open our minds to the "universal truths" they have discovered. More than once I have been in a lecture where the majority of the audience clearly agreed with the speaker, while I found big chunks of the material at variance with my own visions of reality. For example, Marshall Rosenberg teaches a method of conflict resolution which he suggests is appropriate for all people in every kind of disagreement. I have watched this gentle, thoughtful man use his methods widely in seemingly intractable conflict situations, invariably with success. 

"What's the big fuss?
There are so many people."
-Jeffrey Dahmer 



When ordinary looking psychopath Jeffrey Dahmer was captured, he is reported to have said to the arresting officers: "What's the big fuss? There are so many people." In the extreme case of a deranged necrophiliac cannibalistic serial killer, it is not difficult to see that Rosenberg's methods of persuasion, which commonly work with "normal" people, would be completely meaningless. While the majority of us are not psychopathic, we all differ from one another in hundreds of ways, mostly unseen by others. What is obvious and sensible to many might be repulsive, illogical or dangerous to us, even though we might choose to politely "go along with the majority" or simply keep our mouths shut (...unlike the six blind men and the elephant!).
We are each born into a unique set of reality views We are each born into a unique set of reality views, complete with answers to most of life's great mysteries. Those who must pass this heritage on to us generally are poorly equipped to personally guarantee the validity of everything they give us. Much of what we get is based on hearsay, blindly accepted tradition, or dogmatic religious beliefs. In our trusting infancy we accept everything we are given as reliable fact. Fortunately, most of what we get is pretty good or harmless at worst. 

In his book, Climbing Mount Improbable, Richard

 proposed a new way of looking at how we all acquire our beliefs. He coined the term: meme , that elemental piece of human thought that passes ideas from one host to another, much as the gene passes elements of our genetic heritage. The new academic discipline of Memetics is beginning to apply hard mathematical procedures to what has always before been a very difficult problem: understanding how we acquire the belief systems that govern our lives. The transfer of simple ideas, both true and false among hosts (brains) is a bewilderingly complex process. Better understanding of the process will go a long way toward revealing how human civilization has evolved, and why some ideas which we consider repulsive are so appealing to others.

"All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and  then success is sure." -
Mark Twain
It is puzzling that the cognitive apparatus inherited by the human race, so often suffers from a startling degree of gullibility: a readiness to accept as "fact" almost anything said with authority and conviction about any of life's mysteries by a charismatic member of our specie. It seems almost ridiculously easy for a Jesus Christ or Jim Jones , Adolf Hitler or Mahatma Gandhi , Galileo or Aristotle, or any of a thousand other wise or saintly, delusional or demented individuals to convince large numbers of people to follow their vision of reality: good or bad, right or wrong. Like the Pine Processionary Caterpillar, large numbers of us seem to be irresistibly drawn to follow almost anyone who seems to know where they are going.  
The Mysterious Evolving

While I have long been pretty skeptical myself, even I have succumbed to the glib investment broker, to the "herb of the month" hucksters, and earlier in life to the fire and salvation preachers. No doubt this peculiar behavioral trait must have served important survival functions in early humankind's march to civilization. Eventually I imagine researchers will find clear genetic evidence for this predisposition. In addition to the likely genetic basis, there also is strong compelling evidence for a memetic component, where cultural pressures conspire with susceptible brains, predisposing them to act in specific ways. I can't help speculating that evolution favored those human brains which unceasingly demanded an explanation for every mystery encountered, preferring flimsy answers to none at all. Contemporary research places the blame squarely on our lazy reliance on "authorities" and our inclination to go along with social consensus (whether it is right or wrong!). An even bigger mystery in my mind is why some unique people develop the kind of rapturous convictions the rest of us find so irresistibly beguiling in the first place! 

It is reasonable to ask why so many of us are not moved to more careful, critical thinking in vast areas of our lives. Is there something in the way our brain evolved that leads us to try and fit in, to get along, to follow the herd? Or, is this something societies impose on their members, severely punishing any deviation?

The "Nature Vs. Nurture" debate is moving from the arena of wild passionate opinions to one of hard data and solid conclusions. Convincing research results make it apparent that our genetic heritage plays a dominant role in our tendency to react to environmental stimuli in preordained ways; each one of us in our own way. How each of us ends up actually acting on these strong inborn tendencies is molded to a large measure by the influences of the environment itself. Evolution seems to have programmed us both with specific responses to the environment as well as a predisposition to have our habitual behavior molded by environmental influences.  That doesn't leave a whole lot of room for "free will!" Some neuroscientists , behavioral geneticists and evolutionary psychologists believe that room might be as small as a pantry in a mansion.  Our richly divergent personal experiences of Ordinary Reality barely prepare us for the truly mind bending world of Extraordinary Reality revealed by science in the next section.


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Reference photo: author
 August 2002

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