Full text of author Isaac Lidsky’s talk titled “What reality are you creating for yourself?” at TED Conference. In this talk, Isaac challenges us to let go of excuses, assumptions and fears, and accept the awesome responsibility of being the creators of our own reality.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Isaac Lidsky – Author
When Dorothy was a little girl, she was fascinated by her goldfish. Her father explained to her that fish swim by quickly wagging their tails to propel themselves through the water.
Without hesitation, little Dorothy responded, “Yes, Daddy, and fish swim backwards by wagging their heads.”
In her mind, it was a fact as true as any other. Fish swim backwards by wagging their heads. She believed it.
Our lives are full of fish swimming backwards. We make assumptions and faulty leaps of logic. We harbor bias. We know that we are right, and they are wrong. We fear the worst. We strive for unattainable perfection. We tell ourselves what we can and cannot do.
In our minds, fish swim by in reverse frantically wagging their heads and we don’t even notice them.
I’m going to tell you five facts about myself. One fact is not true.
One: I graduated from Harvard at 19 with an honors degree in mathematics.
Two: I currently run a construction company in Orlando.
Three: I starred on a television sitcom.
Four: I lost my sight to a rare genetic eye disease.
Five: I served as a law clerk to two US Supreme Court justices.
Which fact is not true?
Actually, they’re all true. Yeah. They’re all true.
At this point, most people really only care about the television show. I know this from experience. Okay, so the show was NBC’s “Saved by the Bell: The New Class.” And I played Weasel Wyzell, who was the sort of dorky, nerdy character on the show, which made it a very major acting challenge for me as a 13-year-old boy.
Now, did you struggle with number four, my blindness? Why is that? We make assumptions about so-called disabilities. As a blind man, I confront others’ incorrect assumptions about my abilities every day.
My point today is not about my blindness, however. It’s about my vision. Going blind taught me to live my life eyes wide open. It taught me to spot those backwards-swimming fish that our minds create. Going blind cast them into focus.
What does it feel like to see?
It’s immediate and passive. You open your eyes and there’s the world. Seeing is believing. Sight is truth, right? Well, that’s what I thought.
Then, from age 12 to 25, my retinas progressively deteriorated. My sight became an increasingly bizarre carnival funhouse hall of mirrors and illusions. The salesperson I was relieved to spot in a store was really a mannequin. Reaching down to wash my hands, I suddenly saw it was a urinal I was touching, not a sink, when my fingers felt its true shape.
A friend described the photograph in my hand, and only then I could see the image depicted. Objects appeared, morphed and disappeared in my reality. It was difficult and exhausting to see.
I pieced together fragmented, transitory images, consciously analyzed the clues, searched for some logic in my crumbling kaleidoscope, until I saw nothing at all.
I learned that what we see is not universal truth. It is not objective reality. What we see is a unique, personal, virtual reality that is masterfully constructed by our brain.
Let me explain with a bit of amateur neuroscience. Your visual cortex takes up about 30% of your brain. That’s compared to approximately 8% for touch and 2% to 3% for hearing.
Every second, your eyes can send your visual cortex as many as two billion pieces of information. The rest of your body can send your brain only an additional billion. So sight is one-third of your brain by volume and can claim about two-thirds of your brain’s processing resources.
It’s no surprise then that the illusion of sight is so compelling. But make no mistake about it: sight is an illusion.
Here’s where it gets interesting. To create the experience of sight, your brain references your conceptual understanding of the world, other knowledge, your memories, opinions, emotions, mental attention. All of these things and far more are linked in your brain to your sight.
These linkages work both ways, and usually occur subconsciously. So for example, what you see impacts how you feel, and the way you feel can literally change what you see. Numerous studies demonstrate this.
If you are asked to estimate the walking speed of a man in a video, for example, your answer will be different if you’re told to think about cheetahs or turtles. A hill appears steeper if you’ve just exercised, and a landmark appears farther away if you’re wearing a heavy backpack.
We have arrived at a fundamental contradiction. What you see is a complex mental construction of your own making, but you experience it passively as a direct representation of the world around you. You create your own reality, and you believe it.