I was sorting through some of my old files and I came across this little essay I wrote back in 2002. It’s a little peak into my mind. Try not to be scared.
Several years ago an ad come on TV for a movie about someone confined to a wheelchair. The voiceover said, “Trapped by his body, forced to live within his mind.” It struck me as odd because (other than Shirley MacLain) aren’t we all trapped by our bodies? Don’t we all live within our minds? I have never been outside my body. And I would prefer that people don’t think of me as being out of my mind. Everything, and I mean absolutely everything I know about, exists for me within my mind.
All of our knowledge comes to us via our senses and travels through an electro‑chemical system to our brains where we assemble it into our reality. We learn by touching, smelling, seeing, tasting, and hearing. If I say “apple” you can visualize one in your mind. You know how smooth its skin is, you know how crisp it feels in your mouth, you know its scent and taste, you can see its bright red color. Or maybe you prefer Granny Smith apples, so you imagined a green skin and a tart taste. The apple in my mind isn’t exactly the same as the apple in your mind. Your version of reality and mine aren’t necessarily the same. We are each living inside our own minds.
Everyone’s senses are a little different. When Richard thinks the temperature is too hot, I think its comfortable; when he’s comfortable, I think it’s too cold. Eric didn’t see and hear like most of us. He was slightly color blind. Pastels all looked pretty much the same to him. No wonder he wore lots of bright clothes. And he heard high pitched tones; not quite up into the dog whistle frequencies, but beyond anything I could hear. He had to sell a computer monitor that had a high‑pitched tone he could hear; and there was something at the entrance to Montgomery Wards that he heard. Some people are tone‑deaf: they don’t hear music the way most of us do. My sense of smell is a little poor: if dinner is burning on the stove, the smoke detector will know before I do. What else am I not smelling?
My grandfather went senile in his old age. Once I walked into the room where he was sitting and he looked out the window and described the Greek islands we were sailing past. I saw only cornfields and farmsteads when I looked out the window. How could he see islands and the blue Aegean Sea and the deck of ship? Another time, as he sat on the couch he asked me what time the next train was due. What was his reality like? Why was he in a train station, while I was in the living room of a house, when we were both in the same place? Did he smell the scent of diesel fuel and oil? Did he hear the hubbub of a crowd? What did he see? I saw the same bookshelves and plants that I saw every day. I smelled dinner cooking in the kitchen. I heard music on the radio. There was nothing wrong with his senses, but his reality was radically different from mine.
Garrison Keillor once said, “Sometimes you have to look reality in the eye and deny it.” The idea of choosing what your reality is appeals to me. Perhaps what we call senility is just opting for a different reality. Why should I be surrounded by cornfields when the Aegean Sea is right outside? All I have to do is see it.