We are shaped by the unseen

You see, the strangeness of my case is that now I no longer fear the invisible, I’m terrified by reality. Jean Lorrain

We assume our reality –

  1. Is reality
  2. Is right.

But we have access to only the tiniest amount of information that’s out there, whether in the electromagnetic spectrum or conscious brain.

This means that our reality –

  1. Is a reality (one of many)
  2. Is shaped by limited information.

Despite this, we are happy to stake a claim to being right and dismiss others’ experiences as inferior or wrong.

It does a lot of damage. People go to war over it.

Instead, being open to different realities enables us to pool information, articulate a view and consider other options without needing to narrow every discussion down to ‘a winner’.

Same system, different signal

The gap between the information that’s out there and what we can access is real.

Take for example a dog whistle, which we cannot hear because it’s in the ultrasonic sound range. Even if we want with all our hearts to hear it, we can’t. There’s a physiological limit to our hearing range. But the sound coming out of that whistle exists and the dog hears and responds to it.

In this simple example we find it easy to accept that something we can’t see, feel, hear or even know directly has a material impact.

We understand that while we share the same ecosystem as the dog, we pick up on very different signals. We experience related but different realities.

I think this is valuable especially if we can extrapolate the principle to how we interact more broadly with others.

The bit we register is called the ‘umwelt’ and I agree with neuroscientist David Eagleman in his essay on Edge that adding this word to our vocabulary would be useful.

Eagleman describes the umwelt as “the small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect.”

It differs depending on what you are.

“In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odor of butyric acid. For the black ghost knifefish, it’s electric fields. For the echolocating bat it’s air-compression waves…

The interesting part is that each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entire objective reality ‘out there’.”

It’s not. Knowing this is very, very important.

We are shaped by the unseen

Consider that –

Consider that even within the limits of the human body –

Even the environment affects our choices –

  • A briefcase in a room alters how we handle money (priming)
  • Our moods are impacted by weather and as Adam Alter discusses in Edge ambient temperature
  • If a deeply ingrained symbol (like a crucifix) is activated it shapes how we feel and act – hence the powerful impact of symbols in art (and lazy use of them to evoke emotion as my painting teacher Rimona Kedem would say).

Think you know a whole bunch of things ‘for certain’ and ‘for sure’? These insights should prompt a healthy degree of self-doubt.

Consider too that in relation to everything discussed above we’re dealing with issues we’re currently aware of.

We are talking about biases we know exist or information we know we can’t access but have been able to detect because someone thought to go looking and there was a way to measure it.

Imagine what we’re not aware of.

  • What other ideas are out there?
  • What experiments are yet to be thought of?
  • What realities already exist that we cannot measure because we do not have either the questions or equipment?

In saying this I’m not advocating open-ended relativism or suggesting we don’t have an enormous amount of fact-based evidence for how the world works. I am saying that despite this, we need to retain an open mind.


There is solid ground.

We know things. We know much more than we did a hundred years ago and with technology as a partner we could know exponentially more in a hundred year’s time.

We rely on this knowledge to educate our children, construct roads, cure illnesses, manufacture cars and aeroplanes and make intellectual and ethical judgements about how to live.

For example, understanding Newton’s laws means we can build bridges that stand up.

Those laws can change and yet hold true at the same time.

We once thought that Newton’s laws were immutable. They were it. To challenge their authority was heretic because in all ways we could think to apply them at that time, they held up.

But now we know they break down at the quantum level. When we start to look at the atoms and smaller particles that materials are made of, it’s a whole different world. It doesn’t stop us building bridges and they don’t fall down because of it.

Knowledge changes.

We should not be afraid of –

  • Challenging what we know
  • Wondering if there’s more
  • Acknowledging the many unknowns
  • Accepting that anything we think we know could change but that doesn’t make what came before less useful.

This not-knowing is exciting. It’s a springboard to discovery and growth.

At its heart is doubt.

Doubt that things are set in stone, the kind of doubt that keeps us questioning and open to changing our minds as new evidence comes to light.

Ironically it’s doubt that provides us with the confidence to accept that things we can’t see, feel or hear can directly impact our lives and that the signals we register aren’t all there is and others are experiencing reality differently.

Dionne Lew

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