Neuroscience and the misperception of reality | Letter

As living creatures, we are exquisitely evolved to interact with the world through perception, says David Hughes

Gaia Vince, reviewing Anil Seth’s Being You: A New Science of Consciousness (The exhilarating new science of consciousness, 25 August), extols the thesis that because our perception of the world is a complex physical process, perception is itself a “hallucination” and “a big lie created by our deceptive brains”. But when we consider that dogs hear sounds we don’t, flies look through compound eyes, birds navigate using inbuilt GPS, it does seem perverse to claim that the very physicality of being alive downgrades perception to spontaneous fakery.

Does, for example, the complex biochemistry of our arm and shoulder muscles make striking a tennis ball a hallucination? Are all our sensations of touch illusory? A Wimbledon winner and someone who has a burn would surely disagree. We are, as living creatures, exquisitely evolved to interact with the world through perception. Our survival depends on it. It is not dying of thirst that is a hallucination, it is the dehydration that accompanies such a death that causes hallucination: the misperception of reality.

All living creatures are perceptually attuned to reality. I once saw a spider attempt, unsuccessfully, to clear seeds blowing on to its web. As it threw them back, the wind blew them on again. After a minute of this fruitless activity the spider was still. It appeared to be thinking. When it moved again, it picked up a seed, carried it to the edge of the web and jettisoned it into the passing current of air, which carried it away. Having discovered this method, the spider then removed all the seeds that had made its web visible to potential prey. Who is to say that the spider or I, closely observing it, were hallucinating?
David Hughes

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