Maybe you were late for work this morning, maybe you’ve just broken upwith your long-term partner, maybe you left your phone on the bus. Well, you’ll be pleased to know that none of this matters because nothing is real and the world you live in is just an illusion. So that’s a relief. So, if you fancy adding a bit of existential angst to the bad day that you’re having, then consider the reality that everything from your favourite painting to your childhood memories to the universe itself are just mirages, created by quirks of biology, chemistry and physics. If that’s a bit of a downer for you, then we can always take the perspective that the universe is a weird and wonderful place, and the more you look at it, the weirder it gets. What’s more, your brain has managed to create this weird world for you using just five senses and a healthy amount of imagination. So, let’s delve into the reasons why nothing really matters and reality is an illusion, so you may as well have that extra brownie.
1. Reality Doesn’t Exist Until You Observe It
Don’t worry, it’s not like the universe will disappear if you blink (probably), but there is mounting evidence to suggest that reality might not be as real as we thought. It’s a pretty longstanding idea in quantum physics, that subatomic particles exist in a dual state of both particle and wave until they are observed, at which point they will “decide” which they are. This, in a sense, means that they’re both, neither and for all intents and purposes, theoretical until you observe them. This is actually pretty easy (well, as easy as wrestling with the weirdest things in the universe can be) to demonstrate with subatomic particles because they’re simple and light, but in a recent experiment at the Australian National University, scientists have managed to do it with a more complex helium atom. In the experiment, they used different combinations of filters, randomly applied, to “make” the particle behave like either a wave or a particle. The result was that either the particle really was deciding whether to be a particle or wave when measured, or it was deciding its past state based on a future event. Both are weird, but the first option is more likely, which would mean that the nature of reality is much more “speculative” until you actually observe it. Does science make you tingle in your special place? Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for plenty more.Want to write for WhatCulture Science? Click here to find out how you could get paid to write about what you love.
2. The Universe Is A Computer Simulation
You’ve played The Sims, right? You might think that the idea of the universe as a computer simulation might be reserved for the tinfoil hat brigade, but there are a number of physicists out there who think it might be so. As our ability to develop more and more advanced computers increases, lots of people are wondering whether it would be possible to create one that could simulate a whole universe … and whether this has already happened. The problem is that our universe works perfectly. Like, really perfectly. As far as we know, the laws of nature are universal, but we don’t really know why, but could it be because they were just coded that way? As any programmer will tell you, no computer program is perfect, and that’s how some think we might be able to spot the simulation. By looking for flaws and anomalies in the 3D grid model assumed to be making up our fake universe, we might be able to lift the veil and look into the code beneath. If you think that sounds scary for us, imagine the horror of the being that created it upon discovering that their programme has become self aware and started poking around under the hood.
3. The Universe Is A Hologram
A hologram is essentially a 3D projection of an image on a 2D surface made up of teeny dots. You’ve probably got a hologram in your wallet right now, as they’re often used to prevent people counterfeiting credit cards and banknotes, but there are some out here who think that you, your wallet and the entire universe might also be holographic. Traditional physics describes spacetime as a four-dimensional structure in the form of smooth curves. However, quantum physics says that when you get up close to the fabric of the universe, it’s actually made up of tiny grains that look an awful lot like the dots of a hologram. What’s more, if you try to combine Einstein’s relativistic and the spooky quantum descriptions of spacetime, you always end up a dimension short. Mathematically speaking, the universe is actually a three-dimensional projection existing on a two-dimensional plane. Could the real reason we have so much trouble marrying quantum and Einsteinian physics be that we’re missing a dimension?
4. Colour Doesn’t Exist
Never mind the colour of the dress, all colour is an illusion anyway. When you look at something, you are seeing it because the light in the room is bouncing off it and on to the rods and cones in your eyes. You experience different wavelengths of light as different colours in your brain but, outside of the squishy mass in your head, the object isn’t actually coloured. You could argue that those certain wavelengths are colour, but it’s not even as as simple as that. Due to a little thing called “colour constancy”, your brain is always adjusting and “filling in” the colours you “see” based on environmental factors. This is why an orange will look orange to you whether it is in bright natural light or dim candlelight. What’s more, you can catch your brain in the act. The thing is, that you have very little colour perception in your peripheral vision so it is essentially in black and white, but your brain will fill in the colour for you. Get a friend (or an enemy, I’m not gonna tell you how to live your life) to hold up a brightly coloured mystery item in your periphery and try to guess the colour – it’ll be tricky. Then, look at the object and ask them to move it back to the periphery, you should now be able to perceive the colour because your brain is “filling in the blanks”.
5. Love Is Just Chemicals
It might feel as though you and your soulmate connect on a higher plane, but being all loved up basically your brain’s way of drugging you into passing on your genes. “Endocrinology” is not a word you’d expect to find on a Valentine’s card but, as the study of hormones, it’s pretty instrumental in our understanding of love and relationships. One of the chemicals we’re concerned with when it comes to love is, you’ve probably heard of it, oxytocin. Oxytocin is released during labour, sex, maternal bonding, nipple stimulation and even social bonding. It generates a feeling of trust and contentment and awakens the urge to “mother” in women. It essentially increases your trust levels when you find a person willing to mate with you, and rewards you for it by making you feel all nice, safe and lovey-dovey in the hope that you’ll do it again. There is a lot of chemical trickery that goes on around love and sex. Studies have shown that your disgust response is dampened during sex (because, objectively, it’s pretty gross), as well as some other guest stars: vasopressin, adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine – all there to ensure that you spawn another generation of your genes. Quite the cocktail.
6. You’ve Never Touched Anyone
The warm touch of a hand, the softness of an old t shirt, a gentle summer breeze on your face – touch is pretty powerful, but it’s an illusion. Almost everything in the universe is made up of atoms (apart from the things that aren’t but you can’t touch them either). Atoms, for a start, are mostly empty space, with a nucleus of protons and neutrons and a cloud of electrons orbiting around it. These subatomic particles have a charge and, like magnets, those with the same charge will repel one another. The reason why you don’t go sliding horrifically through your bed when you get in it is due to the electrons in your bed and body repelling one another. The sensation of “touching” something is actually your brain’s interpretation of the electromagnetic repulsion between electrons. Things get even more complicated when you take into account the weird world of the quantum, and the dual wave-particle nature of electrons. Technically, their wave packets can overlap when they’re being, uh, wavy. So, you’ll never be able to gently touch your lover’s face (because they electromagnetically repulse you), but you could always try overlapping your wave packets. Very romantic.
7. Memories Don’t Exist
Memories form a massive part of our identity, you could even go so far as to say we are our memories, which is why it’s kinda disturbing to learn that they don’t really exist. Memories are not stored in the same way as books on a shelf or files on a computer, waiting to be accessed. Memory recall is actually more akin to imagination and your brain “regenerates” memories every time you want to remember them. This is usually fine for doing things like finding your way to the shops and revisiting embarrassing moments in your past whilst you’re trying to fall asleep, but some experiments have shown that it is possible for your brain to completely invent memories. Studies have shown that people can invent memories to go along with doctored images and even completely fabricate events, ironically, during repression therapy.