Reality Tunnel

Anaïs Nin

Reality tunnel is a term coined by Timothy Leary and popularized by Robert Anton Wilson, akin to the idea of representative realism (equivalent to the accepted view of ‘perception’ in natural science that states that we do not and cannot perceive the external world as it really is but know only our ideas and interpretations of the way the world is). The theory states that, with a subconscious set of mental ‘filters’ formed from their beliefs and experiences, every individual interprets the same world differently, hence ‘Truth is in the eye of the beholder.’ According to Wilson, ‘Every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles.

We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it, we don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think this is reality.’ The idea does not necessarily imply that there is no objective truth; rather that our access to it is mediated through our senses, experience, conditioning, prior beliefs, and other non-objective factors. The implied individual world each person occupies is said to be their reality tunnel. The term can also apply to groups of people united by beliefs: we can speak of the fundamentalist Christian reality tunnel or the ontological naturalism reality tunnel.

A parallel can be seen in the psychological concept of confirmation bias — the human tendency to notice and assign significance to observations that confirm existing beliefs, while filtering out or rationalizing away observations that do not fit with prior beliefs and expectations. This helps to explain why reality tunnels are usually transparent to their inhabitants. While it seems most people take their beliefs to correspond to the ‘one true objective reality,’ Wilson emphasizes that each person’s reality tunnel is their own artistic creation, whether they realize it or not. Wilson—like John C. Lilly and many others—relates that through various techniques one can break down old reality tunnels and impose new reality tunnels by removing old filters and replacing them with new ones, with new perspectives on reality — at will. This is attempted through various processes of deprogramming using neuro-linguistic programming, cybernetics, hypnosis, biofeedback devices, meditation, controlled use of hallucinogens, and forcibly acting out other reality tunnels. Thus, it is believed one’s reality tunnel can be widened to take full advantage of human potential and experience reality on more positive levels. Wilson’s ‘Prometheus Rising’ is (among other things) a guidebook to the exploration of various reality tunnels.

Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons used the word ‘gloss’ to describe how the mind perceives reality. We are taught, he theorized  how to ‘put the world together’ by others who subscribe to a consensus reality. ‘The curious world of Talcott Parsons was where society was a system, comprised of interactive subsystems adhering to a certain set of unwritten rules.’ The ‘meme’ is another source of gloss; it is ‘transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.’ Because we’re social creatures, there are reasons for us to adopt some social currencies. In line with Kantian thought, as well as the work of Norwood Russell Hanson, studies have indeed shown that our brains ‘filter’ the data coming from our senses. This ‘filtering’ is largely unconscious and may be influenced—more-or-less in many ways, in societies and in individuals—by biology, cultural constructs, including education and language (such as memes), life experiences, preferences and mental state, belief systems (e.g. World view, the Stock Market), momentary needs, pathology, etc. An everyday example of such filtering is our ability to follow a conversation, or read, without being distracted by surrounding conversations, once called the ‘cocktail party effect.’

In his 1986 book ‘Waking Up,’ Charles Tart—an American psychologist and parapsychologist known for his psychological work on the nature of consciousness—introduced the phrase ‘consensus trance’ to the lexicon. Tart likened normal waking consciousness to hypnotic trance. He discussed how each of us is from birth inducted to the trance of the society around us. Tart noted both similarities and differences between hypnotic trance induction and consensus trance induction. Some disciplines—Zen for example, and monastic schools such as Sufism—seek to overcome such conditioned realities by returning to less thoughtful and channeled states of mind. Constructivism is a modern psychological response to reality-tunneling. ‘For Wilson, a fully functioning human ought to be able to be aware of his or her reality tunnel, and able to keep it flexible enough to accommodate, and to some degree empathize with, different reality tunnels, different ‘game rules,’ different cultures…. Constructivist thinking is the exercise of metacognition to become aware of our reality tunnels or labyrinths and the elements that ‘program’ them. Constructivist thinking should, ideally, decrease the chance that we will confuse our map of the world with the actual world…. [This philosophy] is currently expressed in many Eastern consciousness-exploration techniques.’


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