What is Reality? (Jeff Hawkins with Sandra Blakeslee)

What is Reality? (adapted from Consciousness and Creativity, in On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins with Sandra Blakeslee, New York 2004)

People are real, trees are real, my cat is real, the social situations you find yourself in are real. But your understanding of the world and your responses to it are based on predictions coming from your internal model. At any moment in time, you can directly sense only a tiny part of your world. That tiny part dictates what memories will be invoked, but it isn’t sufficient on its own to build the whole of your current perception. … Most of what you perceive is not coming through your senses; it is generated by your internal memory model. So the question ‘What is reality?’ is largely a matter of how accurately our cortical model reflects the true nature of the world.

Many aspects of the world around us are so consistent that nearly every human has the same internal model of them. … The simple physical properties of the world are learned by all people. But much of our world model is based on custom, culture, and what our parents teach us. These parts of our model are less consistent and might be totally different for different people. … Much of psychology is based on the consequences of early life experience, attachment, and nurturance because that is when the brain first lays down its model of the world.

Your culture thoroughly shapes your world model. For example, studies show that Asians and Westerners perceive space and objects differently. Asians attend more to the space between objects, whereas Westerners mostly attend to objects – a difference that translates into separate aesthetics and ways of solving problems. … Different religious beliefs learned in early life can lead to completely different models of morality, how men and women are to be treated, and even the value of life itself. Clearly these differing models of the world can’t all be correct in some absolute, universal way, even though they may seem correct to an individual. Moral reasoning, both the good and the bad, is learned.

Your culture (and family experience) teaches you stereotypes, which are unfortunately an unavoidable part of life. Throughout this book, you could substitute the word stereotype for invariant memory (or invariant representation) without substantially altering the meaning. Prediction by analogy is pretty much the same as judgment by stereotype. Negative stereotyping has terrible social consequences. If my theory of intelligence is right, we cannot rid people of their propensity to think in stereotypes, because stereotypes are how the cortex works. Stereotyping is an inherent feature of the brain.

The way to eliminate the harm caused by stereotypes is to teach our children to recognize false stereotypes, to be empathetic, and to be skeptical. We need to promote these critical-thinking skills in addition to instilling the best values we know. Skepticism, the heart of the scientific method, is the only way we know how to ferret out fact from fiction.