How to Navigate Multiple Realities

Few people would argue that the world around us exists, that we exist. But certain neuroscientists, scientists, and researchers pose that we might not really see reality. It’s a paradox — your brain is telling you that your perceptions are real, that what you see, hear, feel, taste, smell is real, but your senses separate you from accessing the world directly. For example, in terms of neural connections, only 10% of the information our brains use to see actually comes from our eyes. 

Perception vs. Reality

Have you ever heard of Plato’s Cave? The Greek philosopher Plato presented this allegory about a group of people who were chained to the walls of a cave, watching shadows projected from firelight play out on the back wall. It’s all they know — what they see as reality — but it is not an accurate representation of the world outside the cave. In actuality, the shadows are perceptions. 

Our perception of reality is derived from the incredible network that lives within our brains, and this model, our social structure, has served some of us well at times. After all, as a species, we’ve made inarguable achievements based on our perception of reality. But it’s this very model — “real” and “not real” — that doesn’t serve us as it should. There are many realities, some taught while others are not, and they can all be real at once!

“Right” vs. “Wrong”

The same logic that says all realities are real says all realities are wrong. But is that the right question? Regardless of being right or wrong, some models of perception can be useful. It would behoove us to give real thought to perception (personal) vs. reality (objective). For example, cultural expert Erin Meyers talks about cultural relativism. Different countries and cultures around the world have vastly different views of what is “right” and “wrong” in the business world. In some cases, people have completely opposite perceptions, but both are true, depending on who you ask. Take, for example, Eastern and Western perspectives on collectivism vs individualism. 

Considering things more broadly can be helpful for many reasons. It creates connection through increased understanding. It could actually change your mind (shocker!) and help you see better, more nuanced solutions. 

What to Do With This Knowledge

Life is a journey of discovery and it’s important to be aware that everyone is on their own journey. The nature of my reality isn’t the same as yours, but both are happening. So, what does this mean? What actions can we take with this knowledge?

  1. Be aware that what is respectful for one person may not be for another. This awareness changes how you move through the world, honoring your own reality while being cognizant that others exist.
  1. Listen to others talk about their experiences. That means that when someone tells you why X, Y, or Z offends them, you should listen instead of dismissing them. This “muscle” for listening can be strengthened by reading and listening to podcasts (Hidden Brain and This is Really Happening are a few of my personal favorites).
  1. Curiosity is a kindness. Ask questions and learn more about your peers. This is similar to number two, but requires more action. It’s not just about absorbing information, but about interacting with it. 
  1. Remember that your perception affects how you act. If you have a trigger that makes you angry, sad, or some other uncomfortable emotion, try to delay your response and really think about what’s happening from multiple perspectives. 
  1. Statistician George E.P Box said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” With that wisdom in mind, make an evaluation of each situation and whether the model serves you and those around you. Sometimes, people operate under a certain model blindly because it’s “always been done that way.”
  1. Know that you can change your perception by making different choices. Our brains are constantly evaluating, making judgments that lead to thoughts. Thoughts then lead to emotions, which lead to action. Jerry Sternin, founder of the Positive Deviance approach, said, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.”
  1. Try on a different perspective, just for size. The beautiful thing is that you can “visit” someone else’s reality and still return to your own. For example, if you’ve ever loved someone with dementia or Alzhiemer’s, there are times when it might seem like you’re in two completely different worlds. No one is asking you to reject what’s in front of you, but sometimes, when someone calls you by a different name or asks if you see something that isn’t there, it can be a comfort to them if you just lean in, even if it’s just for an afternoon.

Curiosity is a Kindness

Ultimately, it comes down to number three on my list of actions: curiosity is a kindness. Don’t become so attached to what you feel is real that you forget that there are a billion other people on their own unique journey through life. Maybe they’re all right, maybe they’re all wrong. Regardless, if we want to live and work in a better world, we should exercise curious minds and wonder about realities other than our own. But it doesn’t end with curiosity — be willing to overstretch and even get a little uncomfortable. The path to growth and positive change isn’t always smooth, easy, or obvious.