How the Mind Constructs Reality


I once made a long trip from a small town in South America back to Europe. The trip took me about 30 hours and in those 30 hours I slept about 1 hour on a plane. So when I got home I was very tired and I immediately crashed on my couch to take a nap. After about half an hour, I awoke from that nap. When I awoke, I could not remember anything. I couldn't remember my name or where I was or what I was doing there. I looked into the room and I didn't remember the room. It was quite a scary experience. It lasted about 10 seconds. After that, all of a sudden all memories came rushing back and I remembered everything again.

This experience was very revealing as far as becoming aware of how much of my reality that I normally take for granted as being ‘The Reality,’ actually is a relative reality which is constructed through putting memories together. For example, the room that I did not remember during those 10 seconds, was my ‘living room.’ But during those 10 seconds it was an incomprehensible space that was unknowable and mysterious. I saw that room from the place of not having (access to) any memory or knowledge. This experience made me realize that when I walk into a room that I’ve never seen before, the first split second that I see the interior of that room for the first time, there actually is that same pure experience of not knowing the room. But immediately after that I start creating memories of that room and connecting those to other memories of other rooms and then I think I really know what I am seeing. This happens so fast that I don’t even notice it. This quick ‘plastering over’ of pure observations with the rapid creation of memories also creates a pleasant feeling of familiarity and securtity, because I then feel I know what’s going on and that I can trust the situation.

But one needs to lose all memories to realize how much of ‘reality’ is only that – memories. Both of my parents have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and so I have also closely witnessed what the process of slowly losing one’s memories did to their experience of reality. Things that one usually assumes to be unquestionable, turn out to be tentative constructions of the mind and its memories. For example not knowing who your husband is, who you have been married to for 60 years. Shocking as that may sound, ultimately one might ask: “Do you ever really know anybody?” Or, for example, having a hard time making distinctions between the past and the present or your current home and your previous home. But then one could again ask: “Do those distinctions really exist in a fundamental sense?” Of course these mental constructions do have value, but only as a practical tool of the mind, not in an absolute sense.

So when the mind and its primary tools like memory, which we are so identified with, are deconstructed by for example amnesia or a brain disease, then as the mind deconstructs, the underlying truth becomes clear. And that underlying truth is beyond words, where there is nothing for the mind to cling to; no concepts that can capture the unknowable mystery.