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Hallucinating Your Inner Trans-Reptile
You’re hallucinating right now
To be honest, I don’t have a good grip on reality… but, then, neither do you. It’s not a bad thing. It's just a people thing. That’s because each of us lives in a one-of-a-kind subjective reality that’s created by our brain... and none of our realities are exact copies of what’s out there in the ‘real’ world. A neuroscientist would say that you’re actually ‘hallucinating’ your conscious reality… that is, your brain is continually constructing its own unique version of reality from an ever-changing influx of sensory information.
Our subjective realities are unique because each is the product of the unique brain anatomy that creates it. Because our brains are a little bit different — just like our fingerprints and faces — our realities are different.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there’s no objective reality out there. There is. We just don’t have direct access to it. The sensations that we experience (sight, sound, pain) are filtered through our sensory systems, and then reconstructed — sometimes in weird ways — by our brain. To the extent that my brain’s subjective reality matches yours (and other people’s), we call it “our shared reality.” However, if there’s a big mismatch, we’d say that someone is “out of touch with reality.” What we actually mean is that their brain is doing something very different than other brains are doing.
Many people find it hard to believe that their thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and experiences are unique physical events in their one-of-a-kind brain. I usually explain it in terms of computers: Apple and Windows computers work differently, and any two computers running different software programs will respond differently to the same keyboard strokes. That’s why our subjective realities can be different even if we’re experiencing the exact same thing.… It’s because each brain is like a unique ‘computer’ running a slightly different ‘software program.’
To top it off, our software programs are continually being updated spontaneously and subconsciously by our brains, and consciously by our experiences. Sometimes the updates are good, sometimes they’re bad.
Lima beans and talking dogs
Every time I go grocery shopping, I’m shocked by all the boxes of lima beans in the frozen food section. I think lima beans taste like damp chalk. I can’t imagine what it’s like having a mouthful of lima beans and thinking, “Wow, these are good eats!” But, they’re in every grocery store, so some people must like them. Go figure.
Why do some people like the beans that I find disgusting? It’s the same bean, right? The reason is that the taste is not in the bean. It’s in our brain. Taste is a product of the way our brains interpret the chemical and physical characteristics of the beans we’re eating. I experience the same information that ‘bean lovers’ experience but my brain creates a completely different subjective experience.
Here’s a more radical example: There’s actually no color in the outside world… Hard to believe, huh?
Color, too, is created by your brain. Wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation (light) vibrating at a particular frequency get reflected off of objects, enter your eyes, and start an electrical current in specialized receptor cells in your retina. That current passes to your brain, and your brain interprets the pattern of electrical activity as color. That’s why the color of things changes when they’re illuminated by different kinds of lights. And, that’s why you can’t see the microwaves coming out of your microwave oven, or the radio waves passing through the walls on their way to your cell phone. Microwaves and radio waves are both electromagnetic energy just like the light you see, but they don’t vibrate at the right frequency to activate the sensory cells in your eyes. So, they’re invisible to you. Sorta’ cool, huh?
It’s pretty easy to demonstrate this by looking at a piece of clothing under different lighting conditions, or remembering that make-up mirrors have different light settings so you know what you're going to look like when you go out. The color isn’t in the makeup. It’s in other people’s brains.
Remember the big YouTube/Twitter controversy about the color of a striped dress? It’s based on the same principle.
It gets even stranger. Not only does your brain hallucinate your reality, it actively massages, or distorts, or interprets the incoming sensory information based on what it anticipates should be happening. In fact, even if I prove that your brain is lying to you, you can’t stop it. (You can see a 2-minute demonstration here.)
The simplest way to recognize that your brain is just making stuff up is to consider the fact that you actually have a blind spot in each eye. That’s because you have a hole in the back of each retina through which long extensions of your retinal (sensory) cells pass on their way to your brain. But you don’t see two black spots in your visual field, do you? Even if you cover one eye, you don’t see the blind spot. That’s because your brain fills in the blind spots with its best guess of what should be there… even though there’s nothing there.
And, all of this making-stuff-up isn’t limited to your visual system. Do you ever hear ‘voices’ in the sounds of rustling leaves? Do you hear human words when your pet dog brays? A lot of YouTubers do. Or, take about a minute and listen to this.
Okay. My reality is created by my unique brain. Your reality is created by your unique brain. Although different, our brains are pretty similar. So, in general, we mostly agree on what the world is like, and we experience a mostly shared reality.
When your brain changes, so does your reality
If your brain creates your reality, it’s obvious that when your brain changes so does your reality. In some cases, your reality can change so much that we no longer share any of it.
If you’ve ever taken a psychology course, you’re familiar with the iconic example of Phineus Gage, the 19th century railroad construction foreman who survived an accident in which an iron rod pierced his head, destroying much of his brain's left frontal lobe. The effects were so dramatic that “…his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage’.” And, of course, any number of other examples of how brain injuries distort reality are just a few mouse clicks away.
However, even subtle changes in your brain’s information processing patterns can warp your reality and change your self-image. This can occur in cases of dementia, and in a variety of other more unusual conditions. For instance, in Cotard's syndrome a person believes that they’ve lost certain body parts or internal organs, or that they’re actually dead. In Capgras syndrome, a person is convinced that a friend, spouse, or family member has been replaced by an identical — sometimes malevolent – impostor.
In Xenomelia, a person believes that one (or more) of their extremities isn’t really theirs. It used to be called, BIID. So, these folks actively seek to have the ‘alien’ body part amputated. This may sound familiar to you. The syndrome is diagnosed in many men who want to become eunuchs, or those seeking the more radical surgical procedure called nullification.
In all of these cases, the subjective reality in which the people live is a product of the unique physical characteristics of their brains. Psychological explanations are just metaphorical descriptions of the underlying biological phenomena.
Indoctrination: It’s all in your head
Everything you know and everything you believe is represented as a pattern of neural activity in your brain. If you learn something new, or your beliefs change, then — by definition — your brain has changed. That’s the insidious side of indoctrination. If a school system, cult leader, or internet influencer harangues you with information that you come to believe, they are not simply implanting ‘thoughts’ in your ‘mind’. They’re actually physically changing the information processing patterns in your brain. That’s why indoctrination of any kind — good or bad — is so difficult to overcome.
At first, when your beliefs are newly formed or loosely held, it’s relatively easy to alter the information processing patterns, i.e., change your mind. However, the more these activity patterns are repeated or reinforced, the more intransigent they become and the more difficult they are to change. That’s basic neurobiology. It’s no different than becoming skilled at a sport. When you start out, it’s easy to alter the way your brain controls your muscles. You can easily adjust your stance, alter your grip, or change your movements. As you become more skilled, however, your behavior patterns become more ingrained, automatic, and fixed. Think about getting a new keyboard with the letters all mixed up. How easy would it be to change the way you type?
That’s why you can’t talk someone out of strongly held beliefs — no matter how ridiculous they are — by using logic or contradictory facts. Changing beliefs requires changing the underlying brain activity patterns, and that takes both effort on the part of the person, and time… sometimes a long time. In addition, as long as a person is holding onto the beliefs, they will filter, shape, interpret, or distort any new information in terms of themselves: If you believe that everybody’s out to get you, everything that people do will seem like a personal attack… whether it is or not.
Trans-reptiles and their ilk
As odd as this might sound, he’s not the only one who thinks he’s a trans-reptile. Others do, too. And, a lot of people, like David Icke and his followers believe that shape-shifting, reptilian lizard-people from another star system are hiding underground, plotting a worldwide conspiracy. However, Durek Verret (with 262K Instagram followers) claims that he’s one of the good reptiles who can cure cancer, see into the future, and liberate humanity.
As a Biological Psychologist, I think there are two ways to think about these trans-animals. The first is to assume that everyone's brain is exactly the same, and these unusual beliefs are like dust on a table top. If we blow hard enough — talk loud enough, get angry enough, use enough logic — they will all go away and everything will be back to ‘normal’ (whatever that means). But, that would be completely inconsistent with everything I know about biological psychology.
The second way is to recognize that all brains are unique, and sometimes radically so. Further, beliefs, created by the brain’s unique neural activity, are as much a physical part of the person as any other body part. That’s why we defend them so vigorously and hold onto them so tenaciously… even when it’s irrational to do so. They are literally a part of us.
What neuroscience taught me about trans-reptiles
Becoming a neuroscientist has made me tolerant of the various ways in which people’s brains construct their unique realities. I’m not bothered by the fact that some people identify as lizards. It all falls under the category of neuro-diversity, as far as I’m concerned. Ad hominem attacks — or worse — on people simply because they live in a different reality is tantamount to denigrating them because of their weight, height, or appearance. That’s unacceptable, in my opinion.
However, that does not mean I’m tolerant of bad behavior.
In fact, becoming a neuroscientist has made me quite intolerant in many respects. First, I’ve become intolerant of those who refuse to recognize or respect the validity of my subjective reality. I don’t tolerate being ridiculed or denigrated just because my brain recognizes a clear difference between reptiles and mammals… and I identify as the latter. The respect-and-acceptance thing is a two-way street.
And, don’t even think about calling me a “LERM” (Lizard Exclusionary Radical Mammal). I agree with Chimamanda Adichie… that kind of personal attack is “unconscionable barbarism.”
I’ve also become absolutely intolerant of those who take advantage of the ways that brains work by manipulating other people’s beliefs to their own selfish ends, without consideration of the long-term harms they’re perpetrating. I find this particularly intolerable when the person being manipulated is young, impressionable, or vulnerable. As a Biological Psychologist, I don’t see a difference between the former and any other sinister attempt to manipulate another person’s body. Both are equally immoral.
Beliefs aren’t easily changed because they’re a physical part of us, and changing biology takes both time and effort. That’s why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is more effective than other psychological therapies. It focuses on gradually and methodically changing the thought patterns, cognitive distortions, and delusions that underlie harmful beliefs and behaviors.
Reason and logic, anger and yelling, or ridicule and derision will not change the mind of someone who truly believes they’re a reptile. We all should recognize that from having endured those heated political debates around the holiday dinner table. Nobody ever changes their mind, do they?
Each person has to decide whether or not the reptile thing is working for them. If it isn’t, the change is going to require a lot of time and compassionate support.
On the other hand, if the reptile thing is working for them, I expect — actually, I insist — that they act like a civilized, thoughtful, respectful reptile… not like one of those nasty, subterranean lizards that nobody likes.