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Is Reality an Illusion and Can You Change It?

“Reality is an illusion” is a statement often made about reality. When you forgot to confirm your boss’s appointment with an important client, crashed your car into a trash can on the way home and then realize there is no ice cream in the refrigerator, that notion might be quite comforting. But why is it that reality is sometimes considered an illusion? And how much truth is there to it? And what is truth, actually? Ok, ok, let’s put aside the truth discussion for some other time and let’s take a closer look at reality.


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Material Reality – The Real Deal?

Physical Reality – The Foundation of the World we Live in

We are born into a world made of matter, composed of elementary particles, and energy. Physicists cannot yet agree on the nature of elementary particles but have proposed different solutions for how they might come into existence. There are theories such as the Holographic Principle, which suggests that our three-dimensional world is encoded on a two-dimensional surface and we live in a holographic projection, so to say. Another prominent approach to explaining the mysteries of our universe are the several flavours of String Theory. They propose that each elementary particle is a tiny string, and depending on how that string vibrates it results in a different type of elementary particle.

Several other theories try to uncover the hidden truth about our physical reality, for example, quantum physics’ many-worlds interpretation. It suggests that an infinite amount of universes exists, and with them, infinite copies of each and every one of us. Some of our copies might lead a life similar to the version in this universe, but others might be totally different. However, no matter what they eventually might or might not find out about the nature of reality, it will probably not change something we can all agree on today: We can see, hear, smell, taste and feel the world around us, and it surely appears very real to us. If you pull the chair away from underneath me, my butt will ungracefully kiss the floor below me with a thud. Physical objects are real to us and so are the laws of physics, and nobody who could see and feel that chair would deny that it exists.

Individual in physical reality

We are born into a physical reality, but this is not the end of the story. | © Julia Haunschild (Gravity)

Human Extension of Physical Reality

Our basic, original physical reality, the physical world that our ancestors in the time before the Stone Age experienced, did not include chairs, though. The mental concept of a chair had not been thought up yet. Their physical reality was nature – trees, rivers, flowers, grass, and the other animals they shared their environment with. They sat on the floor, and at some point, one or more individuals might have discovered that it is more convenient to sit on a rock instead, but this was still a rock, not the invention of the concept of a crafted chair.

Today, our physical world is radically different. Humans have invented and created countless objects besides chairs, and even more than this: We have constructed a whole new reality on top of the physical world – social reality, or rather social realities with purely mental concepts we cannot grasp with our five senses. Physical reality is the same for all of us. It is our lowest common denominator, our foundation. Social reality, on the other hand, is different for every one of us.

Taking it a Step Further

Cultural Reality: Societies Wrapped in a Bubble of Collective Beliefs

When we are born, we are not alone or isolated. We live in families, and no family is by itself either. We are embedded in larger social communities, and a long, long time ago, not in a galaxy far away but all over our planet, these communities have started to develop concepts and rules to make life and living together easier. Kings and queens, governments, law, nationalities, borders, religion, armies, corporations, employment, trade, schools, universities, marriage, restaurants, tv shows and cocktail parties are just a few examples of the invisible social concepts or “illusions” we have created that are independent of physical reality. Another one is the illusion that we have to answer our phone every time it rings and that we have to answer all emails immediately.

These social constructs are only “real” because enough people accept them, believe in them and thus give them validity. “Consensus reality” is a term that refers to this phenomenon. Everyone who agrees and lives within what their community as a whole regards as “real” and “true” is a functioning member of society. If you disregard any of these established concepts you may be seen as “living in a different world” or at least as somewhat unconventional, or, if you violate the laws of the country you live in, you are a criminal and have to face prosecution. Depending on where you live, the individual parameters of these concepts might be different. Not all countries are governed under the same political ideology, some countries have a liberal, other an authoritarian regime, in some areas of the world some religions are predominant and others are hardly found at all and vice versa. The society you grow up in shapes your views and beliefs about what is real, true or false and right or wrong.

Individual in physical and cultural reality

Cultural reality is the collective set of rules and beliefs of a society | © Julia Haunschild (Gravity)

Family: Our Gateway to the Illusion of Reality

This cultural bubble you live in might intersect or overlap with other cultural bubbles in some areas, or some cultures have more similarities than others. The greatest influence on our worldviews, however, probably have our parents and the rest of our family, at least when we are very young. Our parents teach us many helpful things we need to survive in the physical world, such as not to touch a hot stove because it would hurt us, or not drink washing detergents. After all, this might kill us. We also learn other things from our parents, though. We naturally adopt our parents’ language and the way a language works also shapes how we see the world. Different languages treat the concept of time differently, so to speakers of different languages the duration of the same task might feel shorter or longer. Time can be seen as an illusion of its own. Some languages also have more words for certain colours than others whereas other languages lack words for some colours, which also influences our perception of our surroundings. Besides our parents’ language we often “inherit” their religious views, their ideas on how a marriage should work, their beliefs about how important status and financial success are, and maybe their political views, to name a few factors. As children, we usually don’t question these basic concepts that our parents introduce to us. We believe that they are real and that this is how the world works for everyone. Every child, no matter which culture it is born in, is convinced that his or her world is the only real world.

Families can be influenced by more than just one culture. | © Julia Haunschild (Gravity)

Individual in family

Adding More Layers to Reality

Later on, other influences add to those of our families. We form friendships, but here we might already be drawn to individuals whose values, beliefs and preferences are similar to our own. Yet, they might show us a different perspective on some aspects of social reality that we can compare to our own worldview, and sometimes we might adjust our point of view accordingly. Teachers, politicians, celebrities and other authority figures also pour their ideas into our minds, and again we either accept or reject them. Thus, everybody’s worldview evolves at a different rate and is built from different components. There are no two people who experience the exact same reality.

This means our worldview, and with it our reality, is not static. It is dynamic and can change over time. Usually, we do not actively change any of the components of our reality that we have established as true in our own, personal reality. Our worldview changes “by accident”, and we rarely realize when it happens. More often than changing the components that make up our reality, we enforce them and anchor them even more deeply into our minds. “Confirmation bias” means the human tendency to look for and favour opinions, results and events that support what we already think is true. So, to gain a new view on the world, we would have to actively look into alternate ideas and opinions that contradict our own beliefs, and be open enough to think about them before we automatically reject them. Politics is a great example of how different groups of people sometimes close off their minds simply as a matter of principle: The other party must be wrong, simply because they are the other party. There is no need to think more deeply about their point of view, is there?

Of course, it is not only what people tell us that shapes our point of view. Our personal experiences in specific situations contribute immensely to how we perceive reality. A child who is treated as an outcast and bullied a lot in school might be more prone to see people and the world itself as hostile than children who have friends they can count on. The more people you have in your life who stick up for you, the easier it is for you to trust people in general and to see the good in humanity instead of the bad.

Family and the cultural construct of the society we live in are not the only influences on an individual. Politicians, teachers, friends, celebrities, personal experiences and many other factors shape how we see reality. Not even within the same family reality is the same for everyone. | © Julia Haunschild (Gravity)

Socially constructed reality

How Social Reality Can Lead Us Astray

Seeing Through the Illusion of Reality can Change Your Future

Let’s look at an example of how the illusion of reality works: John is a very creative person who loves to paint. In school, he gets his best grades in arts, and he spends most of his free time painting. He is very talented and would probably make a very good professional artist. When you look at it based on this information, the logical thing for John to do after graduating from high school is obvious: Attend art school and develop his talent further. But, this is something that would never occur to John. John grew up in a family of lawyers. His father is a lawyer, his uncle is a lawyer, his grandfather was a lawyer, and his great-grandfather as well. On the day John was born, it was clear to his parents that their son would become a lawyer as well. It is a family tradition after all, and a prestigious one to boot. So, from a very early age, John has been primed by his father to value success and family tradition. For John, it has been a given that he, too, would eventually become a lawyer. That he isn’t passionate about law at all and already dreads the way of life that is lying before him doesn’t count for him. He knows that as a lawyer he will hardly have any time at all for painting anymore, and that does make him very sad. Yet, he does not doubt that becoming a lawyer is the only thing to do and the only choice he has, as this is how things work in his family. He would disappoint his family if he chose a different path, he would embarrass them in their social circle. Now, will John live a happy life as a lawyer? No, probably not. He will wake up every day hating his job, and an unmotivated lawyer isn’t something that will help his clients either. The work we do takes up so much time in our lives, so having a job you aren’t passionate about or even hate means setting yourself up for misery. John is limited by his family’s values and traditions and does not see a way out of it. For him, reality is set in a certain way and he does not realize that he has the power to change his future by standing up for himself and what he wants out of life. For an outside observer, it is obvious though that his future is not set in stone.

Experiences Trigger Associations and Emotions that Shape Reality

Check out the car in the picture that belongs to this section. Everyone familiar with the concept of a car will probably not doubt that there is a car in this photo. Maybe most of us will also agree that this car is red. Now, if you ask different people what kind of red the car is, the answers will vary. You might get basic replies such as “medium red”, others might try to express this shade in technical RGB values, and others again might say it is “cherry red” or “blood red”. The way different people see this variation of red is related to their personal experiences that have shaped their reality. If vision is not someone’s dominant sense, they might use a simple description such as “medium red”. Someone who works with colour in a technical way, such as a screen designer, might, if he is really nerdy, use RGB values. People who pay a lot of attention to their surroundings might come up with more colourful descriptions. Someone who bought cherries the same day might – consciously or subconsciously – think of them and see the car as “cherry red”. A nurse or doctor, a vampire enthusiast or someone who had been involved in an accident recently might see the car’s colour as the same as blood’s. And to take it a step further, cherry eaters and vampire enthusiasts might love this car whereas someone who had a negative experience involving blood might absolutely dislike it, and none of them might actually know why they love or hate this car. If you are deeply caught up inside of the social reality matrix, you might ignore your inner voice (something you really should not do) that tells you that you don’t like this car and go buy it anyway because you believe your status within society goes up when you drive a Porsche (car aficionados, please forgive me if this is not a Porsche in this picture – car brands are only a very peripheral part of my reality – and social status is an illusionary concept we must talk about in another article).

Compley reality layers

The layers of reality are complex. Every individual experiences reality through a different set of countless filters. | © Julia Haunschild (Gravity)

To Be or Not to Be

The Philosophical Implications of Our Perceived Reality

Have I already mentioned that colours are something that exists in our minds only, anyway? Things don’t have colours, they only have surface structures. When light hits a surface, certain wavelengths are absorbed and others reflected, depending on the surface’s structure. The reflected wavelengths hit the receptors in our eyes and they send electrical impulses to our brains and only there colour is created. So, if you have a knack for philosophical questions you can ask yourself: Does this car still have the property “red” in a starless night with no streetlights around? Or does it only have a structure that has the potential to reflect certain wavelengths that could excite our optical receptors so that our brain could create the illusion of colour inside our head? And if there were no living beings in the universe that could see at all, either because life didn’t exist or living beings lacked the sense of vision, would colour even exist? Or is it also just an illusion?

What Does This Mean for Your Reality?

Reality Changes all the Time

Reality is complex, yes. It is also very fluid and flexible. Things we believe to be good or bad might only be so in our mind, put there by the society we live in. But societies change and so does what is seen as desirable and undesirable. Fashions change every year, and physical ideals change over centuries. Today, thin, toned bodies are considered the gold standard everyone aspires to because being fit is equivalent to living a healthy lifestyle, and, at least subconsciously, we link a healthy lifestyle to fertility and that makes someone attractive in the eyes of others. But in the 17th century, women with a few extra pounds were seen as the ideal of a beautiful woman because this was associated with wealth and thus better health because they could afford enough to eat. As you can see, a lot of things depend on where and also when you were born. There is no absolute truth about what beauty is and taking a socially constructed ideal as a guideline doesn’t help anyone. Everybody is beautiful in his or her own way.

Take-Away: Don't Let an Illusion Dictate Your Life but Create Your Own Reality

We all see reality through a different set of filters. Throughout our lives, more and more filters are added. Some of them stay the way they are if we don’t actively change them, and others, like fashions, are changed by society without us thinking too much about it. Once you recognize that reality is not fixed but that you have the power to remove these filters from how you see the world, you realize that you have the power to change your future. You can say goodbye to concepts that hold you back and incorporate others into your life that help you grow and move towards the kind of life that makes you happy – not your parents, not your neighbours, not your boss, but you. Keep your eyes and mind open and try new things and see how they work out for you. Be bold and be brave – there are no limits to who you can be and what you can do as long as you don’t harm anyone else, keep in mind that the laws of the country you live in are real in a way that there are consequences if you don’t abide by them, and, above all, don’t forget that physics is real. Don’t try to fly like superman, seriously.

This post was published on November 1, 2020 and last updated on January 18, 2021.

After a long time of being clueless about what I really want out of life and how to be happy, I finally figured it out. Now I want to share the tools with you that helped me become happy, hoping they will help you as well! Have a wonderful day, filled with joy and laughter, and remember to always follow life's scenic path!


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