Neuroscience of strange and beautiful experiences

Have you experienced the feeling of déjà vu? This strange sense of familiarity that you may have experienced, makes you feel like you’ve been in the same identical situation in the past. A déjà vu has been described as the neurological equivalent to hearing a familiar song being played with a different instrument. By dipping your feet into three thought experiments, we unpack the interactions between the mind, body, past experiences and environment to create strange and beautiful experiences. 

How we construct experiences.

Thought experiment #1 - Imagine that you are touring the Museum of Modern Art. You stop at a painting that looks like black blobs on a large white background. This meaningless state of having no contextual information from your past, to make sense of the present, is called ‘experiential blindness’.

In her book, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett demonstrates that while looking at the image with black blobs, you are sifting through past experiences to determine whether you’ve seen anything like this before. She then invites readers to imagine that a tour guide comes along and shows the photograph below which inspired the artist.

Now, the image above is no longer meaningless to you as you start seeing the honey bee perched on a flower in the artistic rendition. You are thus cured of your experiential blindness (and have entered into a state of hallucination). The thought experiment reveals that past experiences from direct encounters, photographs, films and books give meaning to our present sensations. This process of construction is typically an unconscious behaviour since we almost never get to observe ourselves drawing on past experiences.


The hidden forces behind experiences.

Thought experiment #2 - Allow yourself to shift your attention to the contact of your feet. This could be the weight of your shoes on the floor, the texture of the contact surface or the air passing by if your feet are up. This experience leads us to focus on our deliberate ‘spotlight of attention’.

The brain is trapped in a dark silent box called the skull. It compiles some clues of the outside world from its sensory inputs i.e. sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes. In his new podcast, neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman explains how these sensory receptors are a non negotiable element of our nervous system which filters our lived experience.

On the other side, we have perception, which is our ability to pay attention to specific sensations. This is what is referred to as the spotlight of attention. We have two spotlights of attention, one being reflexive, while the other one is more deliberate. The latter is in our control and this spotlight can be experienced through the simple exercise of focusing on one thing, such as your breadth, or parts of your body like in this thought experiment.

A world of simulating experiences.

Thought experiment #3 - Imagine handing a pink ice cream to a friend, which has a pronounced fish-like taste to it, without giving any warning. The flavour may initially shock your friend who was expecting a strawberry ice cream. A ‘simulation’ of experiencing a strawberry flavour is corrected when they sense something fishy in the ice cream.

On another occasion, if you invite your friend to taste a delightful salmon mousse (and assuming your friend enjoys fish), they may have a pleasant experience instead of a startle. Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett highlights one of neurosciences great discoveries of the past decade is the continuous involuntary activity in the brain. This paves way for interoception; which can be described as the simple pleasant and unpleasant feelings that emerge from inside our bodies.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” — Heraclitus, Greek philosopher

Remember the brain has to make sense of the world, quickly and efficiently, while being trapped in the skull. A single sensory input like a loud “bang” could have many different causes - it could be a door being slammed, a bursting balloon or a gunshot. The brain asks which of your past experience produces the closest match to this sound, given the context with the accompanying sights, smells and other sensory inputs. It runs simulations to prepare your body for the things that you are about to experience even before you actually experience it.


Bottom line - Our strange and beautiful experiences of the world are shaped by things that happen both inside and outside the human brain. Irrespective of what narrative of rationality we tell ourselves; no decision is made without changes in the body, underlying feelings, past experiences and sensory inputs from our social environment.

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