Notebook #7: Why Reading Literature is Important (6/6 posts)

6/6 What is ‘Truth’ and ‘Fiction’?

Before we end I remind them of the other term we bookmarked: reality. What is it? I tell them? What is the difference between what nonfiction tries to do and what fiction and poetry attempt to accomplish?

We discuss different definitions or explanations, and then I say, “Reality is shared belief.”

I remind them that we human beings never really encounter “reality” directly. In fact, even our indirect encounters are ‘tainted’ with dreams, memories, emotional associations, and so on. But then I give them a concrete example. We look around the room and start naming and describing what we see. Then I tell them about visual perception, taken from my article “Believing is Seeing.”

  1. Our eyes see upside down.
  2. They see back-to-front.
  3. They are perpetually flickering.
  4. They cannot document movement, so they take rapid screenshots of changes.
  5. There is a hole in the center.
  6. They do not see objects, but the light reflected off them.
  7. The types of lights our eyes can see are limited.
  8. They cannot record 3-dimensional reality, since they see only 2-dimensions the brain adds shading after.
  9. We have two eyes that document reality differently from one another, so the brain draws an average of the two.
  10. Finally, all these data points are then broken apart into features (i.e. luminosity, shapes, colors, and so on) and they are sent to different parts of the brain to be redrawn into as visual perception.

I ask them if that is “real” enough for them? Everything we see is the outcome of how artistic we are (what we pay attention to, how keenly we discriminate between objects and thoughts or emotional association, whether or not we attune ourselves to slight difference, for instance in shades, in angles, and so on and so forth). If your eye, biologically, improves overnight, it’s still no guarantee that your visual perception is going to improve in accuracy. For instance, maybe you see the blue as a bright and a popping color, but that reminds you of a negative conversation you had with an ex-friend in her bright blue car.

Like novels, or plays, or poetry, I tell the students, our five-senses are based on the truth, but aren’t exactly replicas of that truth.

The I remind them that scientists believe it takes two thirds to a half of our brain’s power to recreate (draw, illustrate, Photoshop! etc.) our visual reality. And that this power is required every time the scene we are looking at changes.

I then say, “Imagine you’re looking at the same thing. Even without moving your head left or right, your image changes. That’s because humans blink. Now did you know that the average human blinks 15-20 times a minute? This means we do it 1,200 times an hour, and 28,800 times a day. We are always redrawing reality.”

We spend the last few minutes of the class putting everything we’ve learned thus far together, and we promise to alter our relationship to the books we read or the movies we watch. Instead of considering fiction as mindless entertainment or escapist fantasies, we commit to treating them as valuable tools to enhance our own humanity.  

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