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  • Writer's picturePaul Cotter

Alternate Perceptions

abstract macro photograph relating to changed perception from Alzheimer's disease

When my father was in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, something happened that turned my notion of reality upside down.

My Dad was standing in the bathroom, tracing invisible shapes in the air with his fingers – shapes of things that only he could see. “Nothing is looking the way it’s supposed to,” he said tentatively.

At that moment I realized that my father, with his damaged neural pathways, was seeing things in a completely different way than I was. Taking this realization a step further, I wondered: How does a person with schizophrenia see the world? How does a fly with compound eyes see things? How does a bat with night vision and echolocation experience reality? More importantly: Which version of reality is “correct?”

I’ve learned that scientists, philosophers and others have wrestled with this same question. And it seems they reached the same conclusion I did: What we see, smell, taste, touch and hear is a function of our sensory organs, which differ from one individual to the next – and which differ wildly between species.

What this means, very simply, is that there is no absolute, "true" version of reality that we can experience through our senses. What we call reality is a projection of our individual perception.

I’ll always wonder what my Dad was seeing when he traced those shapes in the air. Sadly, I’ll never know. None of us can ever truly know what another is experiencing.

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