Little pieces of sunrise filter through my window as I lay in bed. It’s a cloudy day and the light is soft and muted. As the edges of my dream fade away, I am sorry to see it go, like crossing paths with an old friend and then having to continue on, not knowing when you will meet again.
I am lost in the moment, considering how quiet of a morning it is, when suddenly I realize that I am surrounded by sound. A low, faint buzzing is all around. And as I tune into the sound, it grows louder, richer, more ubiquitous. And suddenly I am drawn back in time, further back than I’ve traveled in quite a while.
I am a young boy, maybe four or five, lying on the soft carpet of my room. I’m in the little nook by the door, where I can be surrounded by three walls at once. My eyes are closed and I am focusing, listening hard, trying to tune into the ambient sound of space itself.
My first encounter with this space-sound was quite lucky. I noticed, while playing with my toys and books, that it was rather loud in my room, a deep humming filled the air. It wasn’t as if the noise had just started; I just had not been aware of it, too preoccupied by my own thoughts.
So I lay in my nook, trying to hear that sound again, and I listen to all the noises in the air. The clinking of a ceramic mug. A lawnmower in the distance. A dog bark. Even the house itself has a droning murmur. I wonder if perhaps that is all I heard, the mutterings of our house. And then suddenly, like a great animal emerging from the quiet forest, the sound descends upon me. It is loud and full of depth, like a rin gong, and like a “singing bowl” the sound escalates from a low chime to a loud, rich hum. It is wondrous and terrifying.
I rush off to tell my dad about the sound; he must know about it and I hope he can explain it to me. He listens to my story and tells me that sometimes we can hear the blood being pumped through our ear, and that is why when we hold our ear to a seashell, it sounds like the ocean. He calls the phenomenon “ringing of the ears.”
I was satisfied with the explanation, and went on with my childhood discoveries, but I still found it fascinating to be quiet sometimes and allow my ears to ring. It could be so loud at times, and other times I did not even notice it. I began to become aware that the hearing was not an absolute sensory device, and that it could be influenced by the focus of the mind.
I later learned that sight was just as fallible. By focusing my eyes a certain way, I could make a small object in the foreground vanish from an otherwise intact scene. By waving my hand quickly under florescent lights, it looked like there were multiple hands. Lying on the floor looking at a ceiling fan, I realized that I could make the blades move fast, slow, or even backwards.
My uncle, a photographer, told me that the reason that propellers in movies look like they accelerate one direction and then start going backwards is because the camera has a certain frame rate, and the position of a blade relative to its position in the last frame gets to the point where the propeller turns almost a full revolution between frames. He told me that our eyes worked the same way. We sometimes think of our vision as a continuous feed, but the way our brain processes visual information is picture by picture, like a movie camera.
Jump forward through time, and I’m on an airplane, high above the clouds and a world of whitewashed blue and endless horizon. Sleepy, I let my mind drift and listen to the soothing drone of the jet engine. In my mind is an Inuit song that a friend spent an afternoon teaching me, and it is freshly etched into my memory. As I drift off, I realize that the engine pitch starts to change; it goes up and down like a melody. It becomes the song that I had on my mind. I focus my mind and allow the song to continue. I have difficulty controlling the sound at first, but after a while, I can change the tempo, volume, and clarity until it sounds like voices singing. The voices sound like a choir of angels.
I change songs in my head, and the voices fade from my mind. Starting over I work my way into the new song, and I’m much quicker this time. Soon enough, I have the melody down, and shortly after, the choir is back and their voices are loud and strong.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” the angels were singing a hymn.
If I tried to go into a verse that I didn’t know, the voices would mumble, sort-of, or it was more like I didn’t hear them correctly. Eventually, I could just let it go, not give it conscious effort, and the song would continue. I could stop it easily if I wanted by focusing my mind on something other than my hearing, by being drawn back into the world of humans sitting in airplane.
But since that day, flying in an airplane has forever changed. I’ve gotten faster at starting the process, and I can usually get a song going in a matter of minuets. There seems to be some constraints to the limits of what I can hear. The higher voices are much easier to hear than lower voices, though sometimes I can get the lower tones to play a sort of heavenly bass.
It’s beautiful in a way. Not only the music, but the act of creation through deception. It’s wondrous and terrifying.
We come to know this world through our senses. Empiricism is the foundation of our sciences, our epistemology. But when our senses can be so easily manipulated by our mind, and not only our mind manipulated by our senses, we must consider that the only tools we have capable of telling us about the world must be subject to scrutiny.
But for the most part, our senses tend to be reliable. While my self-induced hallucination was an interesting experiment on how the senses could be deceived by the mind, for the most part I trust my senses to inform me of the surrounding world. When I’m talking to someone, I don’t wonder if they are only illusions created by my mind and given the false impression of sight and sound. Slipping into solipsism simply because the senses can be fooled only takes us further from reality.
But I do think that it is important to recognize that our perceptions of reality can be influenced by the processes of the mind and not only by the qualities of reality itself.
In one of my university classes, we read a study about how people viewed the role of scientists around Tahoe in the last three decades. During this time, Tahoe was faced with the difficult task of maintaining the natural environment of the lake and surrounding area and developing in the wake of increased popularity and tourism. The study rated people’s trust in scientists against a number of variables, and found that people who had more to gain from development trusted scientists statistically less than those who had less to gain.
During this time, the arguments for preservation were mainly based on ecological science. And since preservation was opposed to development, those who favored development trusted scientists less. That is to say that people’s perception of environmental science as a valid body of knowledge decreased when it was to their economic benefit not to believe in environmental science.
While this study had somewhat low sample sizes and response rates and is itself subject to scrutiny, the implications are not hard to believe. We very well may tailor our perception of reality to what perception suits our best interest. This is a terrifying prospect indeed.
In my mind, the choir of angels is as “real” as the sounds I would hear by plugging into an MP3 player, although there are a number of clues about the experience, such as my ability to end the sensory experience abruptly by changing the focus of my thoughts, that should alert me to skepticism about the validity of the experience.
If our tenets about other aspects of reality are also subject to manipulation by the mind, it is in our interest, if we seek truth, to have an active mechanism to check our own beliefs about reality and compare them against the body of knowledge available to us. Our understanding of reality should be revisable and constantly held accountable to new information. In this sense, our sense of reality should be an ongoing process. Recognition of our mind’s fallibility is an important step to achieving this process.
There is so much beauty in the world around us and in our dreams. There is beauty in our stories and legends, and there is beauty in our understanding of physics. We should not have to sacrifice one beauty for the other, and I imagine others like myself have been drawn to explore the mind’s ability to create fantasy. I enjoy listening to the choir of angels. I love dreaming. I enjoy exploring the workings of my own mind. The mind’s ability to create its own sensory experiences is at the heart of creativity, and that is something I value deeply.
But understanding reality as it exists outside of my mind is also remarkable in its own way. And it certainly has been useful in advancing our knowledge and technology.
I don’t think we need a dichotomy between the scientist and the artist. Scientists should be able to dream, and artists should be able to appreciate objectivity. Can we really expect an individual to be one or the other? As individuals, we must have some sort of relativism in our understanding of others. We can see the beauty of each other’s fantasies.
But at the same time, to allow our mind’s illusions to dictate the way we make broad decisions about a reality that involves other people requires an unhindered knowledge of that reality. If we can have the mental facilities to recognize which of our perceptions are based on empirical evidence and which are influenced by our subjective mind, we may do better in dealing with the real issues we face.
Far above the clouds, I am happy to listen to my choir of angels. But when it comes to making decisions, I hope to have the mental facilities to allow them to disappear.