Why There Is No Single Reality or Truth

Behaviourists, psychologists, scientists and everyone else hold wide-ranging ideas about what is real. This is most easily seen in often highly-conflicting belief systems around things like religion, politics and fairness, as well as more theoretical and philosophical questions about, for example, modernism and post-modernism, being opposing views on the nature of reality itself (epistemology). The neuroscience, of course, explains why this is, even to the extent of supporting the truths of all views, including post-modernists who reject the modernism inherent in neuroscience!

The four major brain-building processes described elsewhere (neurogenesis, epigenesis, synaptogenesis and myelinogenesis) inevitably mean that, unless they share identical DNA, life experiences, nutrition, illness, luck, friends, partners and everything else since conception, it is impossible for two humans to have entirely identical brains. And, because our perceptions of truth and reality are stored in unique individually constructed, connected and organised neural memory pathways, they must be different. They may be similar and compatible between close friends or family members with similar experiences and genetics, but they must, inevitably, be different.

The very nature of brain development supports the concept of “constructivism”, where we each create our own interpretations of reality according to our exclusive genes and experiences. Our (soft) perceptions and (hard) realities, some of which are so embedded and reinforced that they are core beliefs, in turn becoming a part of who we are and how we make sense of the world. Letting go of a core belief is like letting go of some of our identity and how we orient ourselves to the world, upsetting, distressing and, literally, turning our world upside down. It is far more appealing, and easy, to ignore upsetting facts and people, and to find other facts, or people (validation through “common knowledge” or “common sense”) than it is to challenge our own beliefs.

Following on from this is the concept of “social constructionism”, where reality is created by groups of people. For example, morals, ethics, rights and fairness are social constructions, inherent in the culture we grew up and live in as social truths. What should the penalty for theft be? Is it OK to eat a live fish? What is a “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay?”. How much power should a leader or an employee hold? What is rude, when, and in the company of who? These things not only change between cultures, but within cultures over time. Yet they are the truth of the time and place they exist within.

There are some highly relevant implications from this:

  • Many truths are subjective (true from our perspective) yet we perceive them as objective (true from every perspective), in turn triggering intolerance, judgement, arguments and conflict.
  • We cannot tell if a truth is objectively true (if such a definition exists).
  • We cannot tell the difference between an assumption (a deduction based on intuition and/or reasoning) and a truth.
  • We are naturally biased in how we process all information, including emotional filtering (for example through ever-present influences of amygdala and insula). We don’t even understand how and when our biases are present.
  • The more we think we know something, the more likely we are to insulate ourselves from information that might challenge that view, and therefore the more likely we are to be wrong.
  • When we find ourselves fixed on a truth or version of a truth, we start to engage the more primal, defensive brain regions and functions, in turn reducing our cognitive capacity, the more likely we are to not taking on any learning opportunities, and the more likely we are to be wrong.

If you’re interested in learning more about this subject, the training modules of conflict resolution and neuromanagement cover deeper understandings and techniques for bridging those gaps as a peer, manager or mentor. In the meantime, simply recognising that everyone has their own experiences and truths, and that there is no disadvantage to being open and non-judgemental about them, is a very help position to take if you’d like to enhance cooperation, collaboration and culture.