Perceptions & hallucinations

perceptionIn philosophy, perception is the process of attaining awareness or understanding from sensory information. However, the interesting thing about perceptions is that they can vary from person to person, such that different people may actual believe they are seeing different things when looking at the same object and, in this context, it might have some relevance to our general discussion as to why we have so many different unsubstantiated worldviews.

So what do you 'see' in the picture right?

Some people see a young woman looking away, while others see an old lady looking down. Of course, once you are aware that you may have a different perception dependent on how you look at the picture you may then be able to see both points of view. For example, what some see as the young woman's nose and eyelash, others see as a wart on the old woman's nose. What might be the young woman's ear can also be the old woman's eye and so on. As such, we might use this to illustrate that while 'seeing is believing', it isn't necessarily any guarantee of the truth. Of course, you might rightly point out that this particular example is really just an optical illusion designed to trick the eye. However, almost everything we see and hear is only a construct within our minds:

Most of us believe that the world is full of light, colours, sounds, sweet tastes, noxious smells, ugliness, and beauty, but this is undoubtedly a grand illusion. Certainly the world is full of electromagnetic radiation, air pressure waves, and chemicals dissolved in air or water, but that non-biological world is pitch dark, silent, tasteless, and odourless. All conscious experiences are emergent properties of biological brains, and they do not exist outside of those brains.

However, if our senses can be so easily fooled with such a simple illusion, what might be possible under more extreme circumstances? For example, there are numerous medical and psychiatric causes which result in hallucinations. Some common causes are indicated below:

 drugs, stress, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, meditation, sensory deprivation, electrical or neurochemical activity in the brain, mental illness, brain damage and/or disease.

Possibly, in this respect, we might better understand why the truth of any statement or observation has to be verified as a principle of scientific methodology.  This said, let us now consider some of the wider implications that an imperfect perception or even a hallucination might have on our collective worldview by reflecting on the experiments and writings of Aldous Huxley. Huxley (1894–1963) was an English writer, who lived the latter part of his life in America from 1937 until his death in 1963. Possibly the novel 'Brave New World (1932)' is the best known of Huxley's writings. However, in 1953, Huxley took four-tenths of a gramme of mescalin, then sat down and waited to see what would happen. Subsequently, Huxley described his experience in 'The Doors of Perception (1954)' and 'Heaven and Hell (1956)'. It is these latter works that are the focus of the present discussion because Huxley was, in many ways, putting some of our fundamental perceptions under the microscope.

The first extract is from the 'The Doors of Perception' and is often quoted in terms of the general fragility and isolation of the human condition:

We live together, we act on,  and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude.  Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies - all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.

The second extract is from 'Heaven and Hell' and has been selected because it highlights the possibility that many of the spiritual visions  attributed to and claimed by prophets may also be explained as the direct result of induced chemical changes within the body, then triggering out-of-body perceptions:

A similar conclusion will be reached by those whose philosophy is unduly "spiritual." God, they will insist, is a spirit and is to be worshiped in spirit. Therefore an experience which is chemically conditioned cannot be an experience of the divine. But, one way or another, all our experiences are chemically conditioned, and if we imagine that some of them are purely "spiritual," purely "intellectual," purely "aesthetic," it is merely because we have never troubled to investigate the internal chemical environment at the moment of their occurrence. Furthermore, it is a matter of historical record that most contemplatives worked systematically to modify their body chemistry, with a view to creating the internal conditions favourable to spiritual insight. When they were not starving themselves into low blood sugar and a vitamin deficiency, or beating themselves into intoxication by histamine, adrenalin and decomposed protein, they were cultivating insomnia and praying for long periods in uncomfortable position in order to create the psycho-physical symptoms of stress. In the intervals they sang interminable psalms, thus increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the lungs and blood stream, or, if they were Orientals, they did breathing exercises to accomplish the same purpose. Today we know how to lower the efficiency of the cerebral reducing valve by direct chemical action, and without the risk of inflicting serious damage on the psychophysical organism. ... Knowing as he does (or at least as he can know, if he so desires) what are the chemical conditions of transcendental experience, the aspiring mystic should turn for technical help to the specialists-in pharmacology, in biochemistry, in physiology and neurology. And on their part, of course, the specialists (if any of them aspire to be genuine men of science and complete human beings) should turn, out of their respective pigeonholes, to the artist, the sibyl, the visionary, the mystic-all those, in a word who have had experience of the Other World and who know ... what to do with the experience.