Is the world real, or is it just an illusion or hallucination?

Is this real life? How do we know that we are not hallucinating it all? What if we’re plugged into a Matrix-style virtual reality simulator? Isn’t the universe a giant hologram anyway? Is reality really real? Whatis reality?

We asked renowned neuroscientists, physicists, psychologists, technology theorists and hallucinogen researchers if we can ever tell whether the “reality” we are experiencing is “real” or not. Don’t worry. You’re going to be ok.


Jessica L. Nielson, Ph.D.

Department ofNeurosurgery, Postdoctoral Scholar, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), Brain and Spinal Injury Center (BASIC)

What is our metric for determining what is real?  That is probably different for each person. One could try and find a consensus state that most people would agree is “real” or a “hallucination” but from the recent literature using imaging techniques in people who are having a hallucinatory experience on psychedelics, it seems the brain is hyper-connected and perhaps just letting in more of the perceivable spectrum of reality.

When it comes to psychosis, things like auditory hallucinations can seem very real. Ultimately, our experiences are an interpretation of a set of electrical signals in our brains.  We do the best to condense all those signals into what we perceive to be the world around us (and within us), but who is to say that the auditory hallucinations that schizophrenics experience, or the amazing visual landscapes seen on psychedelics are not some kind of bleed through between different forms of reality? I don’t think there is enough data to either confirm or deny whether what those people are experiencing is “real” or not.

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