Is Reality Really Real?

Athena ScalziI watched The Matrix last night for technically the first time, but between the internet and being in the room when my parents have had it on, I’ve seen a lot of it in bits and pieces, and certainly seen all the action scenes, anyways. I’m not here to review it, interestingly enough. I’m here to talk about a central concept, if not the most central concept in the movie.

What even is real? What does “reality” truly mean? This stuck out to me because it’s something I’ve been thinking about for years, and have tried to explain to many different people. It’s a concept that I personally struggle with, because I have a lot of moments that are part of my reality that aren’t real. Real to others, that is.

What the heck does that mean? I’m glad you asked.

I am someone who experiences sleep paralysis. This means that sometimes when I wake up, I can’t move my body, and I am stuck between dreaming and being awake, so I hallucinate things in the real world. You’ve probably heard of sleep paralysis demons, the scary monsters that stand in the corner of your room and stare at you as you’re stuck, paralyzed. That’s what I have! It’s interesting, to say the least.

For me, I not only see these monsters, but hear them sometimes, as well. They’re very realistic, but they aren’t real, of course. But, as mentioned earlier, what is real? Things that are real are things that you can see and hear, right? So, if I can see and hear these monsters, doesn’t that make them real? At least in some capacity?

I also have this neat thing where I can feel physical sensations in my dreams, like pain! Both of these sleep related oddities have been happening to me for around a decade. I have a lot of dreams where I get hurt, or even die. And while I’m sure I don’t feel the pain to the extent that I would in real life, somehow my brain still makes me feel hurt. And it is genuinely painful, sometimes even after I wake up.

Whenever I would try to describe this to people, I would compare it to what I imagine a phantom pain is like for someone who has lost a limb. There is nothing that is actually hurting, no damage, but somehow your brain convinces you that it does hurt, and just because it isn’t real doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

If I’m experiencing these things, and they affect me in some way, that makes them part of my reality, right? My day to day reality. They’re real to me, the monsters, the pain, it’s real in some form, but only to me. It makes you question what reality even means. What does being real truly mean?

If someone is colorblind and can’t see blue, that doesn’t mean blue isn’t real, it just means that blue is not a part of their reality. Are there colors that are real that non-colorblind people can’t see? If we can’t see them, does that make them not real, even if they are?

Okay, maybe I’m going a little too far, but you get what I’m saying. Bottom line is, everyone experiences reality differently. There is no true real, because real means something different for everyone.

Doesn’t that just trip you out?! I don’t want to say I’m having an existential crisis here or anything, but it really makes you think (plus I have existential crises everyday, so, nothing too unusual). Brains are weird, and that’s really all I came here to say.

Do you experience sleep paralysis? What’s the scariest monster you’ve seen (and have you ever seen any iconic horror characters, like Pennywise or Jason)? Let me know in the comments, and have a great, reality-filled day!


48 Comments on “Is Reality Really Real?”

  1. The REM/sleep paralysis for me disappeared sometime after thirty as a semi-regular occurrence. It happens very rarely now.

    The “monsters” for me tended to be vague, shadowy figures, though on one occasion they were realistic, sinister versions of cartoon characters. Picture, say, Goofy or Mickey Mouse as real-world creatures and you get the general idea.

  2. I experience the opposite sometimes – lucid dreaming.

    Your questions about objective reality are good. There is no such thing as truly objective reality. We only have our brains’ reconstruction of our limited perceptions. We can seek to clarify by sharing and determining how widely shared our perceptions are, and that is how we construct out “objective” reality.

    Even then, we do not know for sure if the way we are or understand that shared reality is truly the same as someone else’s experience.

  3. My sleep paralysis stopped in my 30s. The most vivid hallucinations were being at the bottom of the ocean with very colorful fish but looming sharks. Glad to be done with it.

  4. If it is real to you, its real to me. Lucid dreaming has happened to me and I have died many times in my dreams, feeling pain not so much but the reality of fear and exhilaration happen all the time. The mind is an amazing organ and the reality of being is a necessary hurdle in life to figure out your own treasure, meaning and the monsters and the words they speak might be the key to unlocking that meaning.

  5. Intersting, Athena! I think there is a true reality, but I cannot prove it. I used to get a brief form of sleep paralysis when I was younger, but I don’t remember any monsters. I do get dreams and nightmares, but no Pennywise or Jason, at least not YET!

  6. It’s interesting how nearly all of us nearly all of the time BEHAVE as if there is a single true reality, regardless of how much we deny its very existence.

  7. I get sleep paralysis, too. I’ve had it all my life, but it actually gets scarier as I get older, because now when it happens I wonder if it’s mere sleep paralysis and nothing to worry about, or if it’s a stroke and I should call out for help. Yeesh.

    It’s always been mere sleep paralysis. So far. But now with an extra helping of scary.

  8. I sometimes feel a level of real trauma/ptsd after some nightmares that are far too life-like. I often wonder how much our dream memories are linked with our real memories and if this affects our fight/flight/freeze responses to threats or distrust with certain people/behaviors.

  9. Maybe this is too personal a question, but did your sleep paralysis have anything to do with your father’s writing in Lock In?

    As for real? Well there’s the false memory concept – people misremembered a movie called “Kazam” as “Shazam” and misremembered the lead actor as well.

    If something is misremembered and can be proved to you as never having happened, what sort of reality did it have?

  10. Huh, now that I think on it, it’s been about 6 years since I last remember having had sleep paralysis. Maybe I grew out of it!

    re: what is reality:

    One neat thing from high school science was the idea that we’re mostly just outlines of space at every level from universe to quark (and below!).

    From double-majoring at college and having friends with different majors: Being trained to think like a X major shapes our realities and how we perceive and interact with the world. We’re always trying to make sense of the universe and to tell stories that make sense and help us remember. But the way an econ major perceives and approaches things is different than how a math major does or how an anthropology major etc. does. We’re all putting our own outlines on over metaphorical spaces. (And that’s one reason that college graduates are valuable– they have been trained to think and process the world in a specific way.)

  11. As a partially color blind person, color has always fascinated me. There actually are colors that normal people can’t see. Google “Madam Tetrachromat” and you’ll fall down a wonderfully interesting rabbit hole.

  12. These questions about the nature and existence of objective reality, and how (or to what extent) we can know it, are the daily bread of philosophers. I used to teach philosophy, and there are very in-depth and often differing or downright contradictory perspectives on it. They cannot all be right, but practically all can all shed some light on some aspect of our experience and/or on the nature of reality itself.

    You’d probably enjoy taking some philosophy courses, although beware that as in any other field, your experience may vary according to the quality of your professors. Philosophy can be very exciting or as boring as hell depending on how it’s presented.

    My personal take (very, very in brief) is that objective reality does indeed exist, inasmuch as there are things with real characteristics, things that exist and change and interact, and that reality is independent of any particular observer. However, our subjective experience and perception of that reality is limited and conditioned by a wide variety of factors. Logic, philosophy (properly understood as a pursuit of fundamental truths through reason and empirical data), math, and empirical science are tools that can help us overcome some of those limitations.

    Regarding your experiences of pain in dreams, hallucinations, etc., the experiences as such are certainly real; the key is recognizing that the origin of those experiences is in your brain, not in monsters existing in your room or in the direct stimulus of your pain-sensing nerves by an external, damaging force.

    Anyway, this post could be the starting point for an entire course of epistemology and ontology… I hope at least this comment piques your interest to sign up for philosophy courses!

  13. John, When I read Josh Jasper’s comment, I immediately wondered the alternate question. Was your (presumed) awareness of Athena’s occasional sleep paralysis in any way perhaps an inspiration for Lock In ?

    Athena, in my limited knowledge about sleep paralysis, I get the impression that it is not well understood or studied. I wonder if you might find it interesting to participate in any research programs in your area. Perhaps even a way to justify a few Chicago trips.

  14. Colours, eh? Asimov did a short story where a Martian helped a human to see other colours, but only temporarily.

    I was in Wolf Cubs when we had pirate day. Our pack met in my elementary school gymnasium. That night I wore an eye patch.

    I was sad to learn the gymnasium floor could look gorgeous or dull depending on whether my patch was flipped down or not. My two eyes saw two different hues.

    With both eyes? The dull colours. I didn’t tell anyone, just felt sad that I was normally in a different world.

  15. I’ve never had sleep paralysis, but I lucid dream (not the sort where I can control it, but the sort where I realize I’m dreaming and the dream just keeps going) a lot. On one occasion that was awesome as I was dreaming about work – in a really twisted way, but I was taking a customer phone call – and realized hey, this isn’t real! And this person is awful! I can tell her off! So I did. I woke up too quickly from that one. (Most of the people I deal with are fine or awesome. But anybody who has worked with the public knows that there are some who…well…aren’t.)

    What usually alerts me that I’m dreaming is that I can’t read something. And then if I look away and back at whatever it is it’s changed. I guess whatever part of the brain is involved in reading isn’t active during sleep. This also explains why I can never use a phone in dreams.

  16. Last year was the culmination of four years of having my head fucked with. Duhshit hit the fan and my sleep suffered, badly.

    I tried over the counter crap, homeopathic stuff, and some herbals. One Valerian root didn’t work, so I tried two.

    That gave me the whole schmear of goodies that made me want to sleep even less.

    The sleep paralysis was a real Hey, Mr. Spacemanhey, Mr. Spaceman moment. It was like someone turned on the bright lights and I was in a big white room with shadows flitting around.

    The lucid dreams reminded me too much of high school.

    It’s all real, but reality is personal.

  17. Following up on @Matthew’s recommendation of taking a philosophy class, in addition to “what is real” there’s another fun question you can encounter which is “what evidence do I have that any of you are distinct beings?” Is it that life is like a video game, where you are the player character and everyone else is a mindless NPC, no matter how advanced the simulation?

  18. Philip K. Dick, who I’ve never heard had sleep paralysis but did a lot of drugs, once defined reality as “that which when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

  19. Reality is really real. We use instruments to overcome the unreliability and limitations of unaided senses in order to determine the nature of that reality.

  20. The scariest nightmare I’ve ever had was the darkness from The Tombs of Atuan, when I was about 12. I was deeply frozen in silent fear for what felt like a long while when I woke that time, and couldn’t sleep without light for years.
    That very strong sense of nebulous dread and threat, and being frozen in fear, was a regular part of my nightmares after that, far more consistently than any traditional horror monsters.

    I have arachnophobia, and when I was younger my scariest dreams tended in the end to go for large monster spiders creeping up on me to scare me awake – I’d wake in a small panic when they touched me. I finally figured out that my brain was doing that on purpose to wake me up, when I needed to go to the bathroom but was too tired & sleepy to wake up just from my full bladder. That helped to feel less panicked from waking that way.

    Horror imagery did tend to show up in my dreams to scare me, even once from a short glance at a movie poster in passing, so I’ve trained myself to not look at anything like that, nor watch too scary/adrenaline-pumping movies, or read any horror or things that have a strong negative emotional impact, especially in the evening. Over the years, that has helped, giving my dreaming mind no new ammunition to scare me with.

    Or maybe growing older has blunted the edges; as others have said the bad nightmares mostly occurred in my teens and twenties; by the end of my thirties the ones I still had were at lot less strongly felt. Hormones stabilising reducing emotional volatility? I’ve still had some bad dreams in the last years, usually triggered by being over-tired and/or something stressful happening, but not the very visceral panic-producing nightmares of my younger years.
    I hope yours will smooth out with time, too.

    As for reality, I know people’s minds and memories can play tricks, so I tend to look for consequences in the external world. If there aren’t any, talking about it with someone you trust and who was there (or near) can help figure out if it’s a true memory, or a memory of a dream or a story that you really emotionally connected with.

  21. My late wife and I used to talk about this occasionally. Usually, the conversation would start when we realized that we were seeing the color of something slightly differently. I would see something as, say, green with a bit of blue while she would see something as blue with some green. This would eventually get into a discussion about the idea that we can never truly know that anyone perceives anything the same way anyone else does. After all, “orange” is just a label that we’ve all agreed is a certain spectrum that is reflected by light to us – we don’t actually know that what you see as orange is even vaguely like what I see when I look at something that’s orange. For a long time, we thought we were a little strange for thinking about this. Then, I stumbled across Trichromatic Theory and Opponent Process Theory (theories about how we process color, both biologically and psychologically) on the internet and realized that there’s a lot of people out there that think about this type of thing.

    All this has lead me, over the years, to conclude that “reality” is a variable based simply on individual perception and that no two people have the same reality – it’s all filtered through our biology and psychology in a way that makes our reality completely unique to each person. I guess you could say we all have reality Gantt charts that overlap enough for us to put labels on things and cooperate but I suspect that for everyone, there’s parts of their Gantt chart that don’t overlap with anyone else that creates a private reality that helps make each of us a unique individual.

    And that’s the reality of it. For me. Today.

  22. Jay, I really enjoyed how you wrote this piece. Trichromatic theory is something look at furthee.

  23. There are definitely colors that are real that non-colorblind people can’t see? We have pretty good evidence that honey bees see some of them in patterns on some flowers that look plain white to us. No idea what the colors actually look like, of course.

    It may be true that what you see or hear or feel is real to YOU, it’s also true that humans have a history of labelling anyone as crazy if they don’t agree with the majority about what they see or hear or feel.

  24. When I was pre-pubescent, I had a nightmare that I was stuck walking along the electric wires by the road. I went to move from one to another and a crow yelled to not do that. I panicked and fell, and fell and fell and fell, until Grandma woke me up the next morning. Until around when I finished high school I was able to induce the feeling of falling in my dreams, and it was awesome.

    It’s been years since I was able to induce that euphoria of falling, but I am sometimes able to participate a little in my dreams.

  25. Society/culture has determined what matters and what doesn’t, therefore, defined reality. We are conditioned to attend to certain things and ignore other things, like auras. Some people see them, most people don’t. But they can be photographed, so they’re really there, right? After all, as physicists tell us, all bodies emit radiation. I have a bunch of odd experiences for which I’ve sought independent verification over the years. Barbara Brennan, an aura-energy-healer, had a book that included a grid or blueprint level of the aura that matched one of my experiences. A book about Shakers (an early American religious sect) had something about souls being tiny balls of light, which matched another of mine. I wonder if alien abduction stories reflect something like your sleep paralysis visions? We do often try very hard to explain things, and often get pretty creative in the process. On the other hand, who knows what those UFOs or UAPs are really up to? Alien teenagers showing off, buzzing the hicks? I think it’s important for us to keep asking the deep questions, and not be satisfied with superficial denials of anything other that the superficial reality we’re supposed to experience. Holding on to those I don’t know questions and gathering information is important for our adult development, the formation of our own philosophy. I have to trust myself and keep on adapting what I find out.

  26. I had sleep paralysis as a kid, but I didn’t know it was a thing until last year, so I had a lot less understanding of what was happening than you do. It exhibited as an inability to open my eyes so I’d be stuck in darkness unable to move. I would concentrate really hard to try to open my eyes again and it seemed like I did but things were still black. This led to developing a terrible fear of going blind (which I still have, though the paralysis has mostly stopped). Afterwards, it seemed like a nightmare in retrospect. Only when I read of other people’s experiences with paralysis have I thought that maybe it actually was “real”.

  27. The podcast ‘Imaginary Worlds’ just did a target fascinating episode on just this idea.

    I heard many many years ago that the proof we’re in a “real” universe is that computers can’t calculate a truly infinite irrational number. I don’t see how that’s proof enough, it’s not like we’d ever live long enough to read the numbers to see if it were done right. But that’s my 2¢ worth.

  28. I did not have sleep paralysis, but there have been many times when I have been sleep deprived to the point I started dreaming without actually falling asleep, dream images looking like an overlay on reality. Luckily, they were automatically marked by my brain as such…
    The trippiest part of the dreaming for me is when I dream that I am somebody else… Different gender, different age, different memories, completely different personality… And then, once I wake up, I can feel one personality dissolve and “real?” memories replace the dream ones over the course of a few seconds, often leaving me rather sad… I miss some of those personas.

  29. I had sleep paralysis a long time ago. It was mostly when coming out of naps. I was awake, but could not move. I didn’t see anything as my eyes were usually closed. It went away once I discovered I was breathing, so I held my breath until my body forced me to inhale or exhale, then everything started moving. It went away soon after that. Hopefully talking about it won’t bring it back.

  30. I’ve never had sleep paralysis but a former girlfriend got it occasionally. Some of her hallucinations: a camera tripod walking down the stairs towards her; the wall suddenly becoming hands/arms reaching out towards her…

    As far as reality goes… “It’s all in your head… you just have no idea how big your head is” (to quote Lon Milo DuQuette).

  31. I’ve had sleep paralysis for several decades, but I don’t see the typical monsters I’ve heard described. Instead I feel like I’m suffocating and I hallucinate elaborate scenarios of trying to get my husband’s attention so he can physically shake me out of it.

    The one thing I have any hope of controlling during an episode is my breathing. If I can manage not to panic, I have trained myself to breathe as noisily as possible. Sometimes it alerts him that I’m in distress. (He’s partially deaf, so if he’s sleeping on his not-so-bad ear, it’s a futile effort.)

  32. You might want to read The Holographic Universe, by Michael Talbot. I admit, I had to read the beginning chapters in bits and pieces because I suddenly worried about the walls in my house disappearing! But it’s a pretty cool book.

  33. I have had some terrifying experiences similar to yours.

    I’ve had Candyman whisper to me that it was “time to go,” “a bloody Mary-type creature cut me up from behind as I fought and failed to move, had things jump into bed with me and attack me “Entity” style and have woken from nightmares to find things standing over me.

    The worst is when you think you’re awake but really aren’t.

    I have this happen a lot. I will feel a nightmare coming and try like mad to jerk myself awake.

    I can feel my brain fighting to keep me asleep and so I try relaxing for a few seconds before trying again. I do this, all the while hoping that I can wake up before the horror starts.

    My ultimate fear is being “awake” for hours and not being able to move, speak or otherwise let anyone know that I want to wake up.

    This happened to my mother on a road trip, and I have been terrified of the same ever since.

  34. Not much of a philosopher, but I took some cognitive science courses back back in college. As I remember it, colour is how our brains interpret electromagnetic energy within a given stretch of wavelengths. Some animals see colours well into the infrared and/or ultraviolet ranges, and may also have varying numbers of sets of cones in their retinas (as noted above, even the occasional human with more than one X chromosome has four of these rather than three, which effectively means the rest of humanity is colourblind relative to them). And I recall V. S. Ramachandran and a colleague reporting on a case study of a guy who had synesthesia and colourblindness, who said that his brain generated internal synesthetic colours that matched nothing his eyes had ever seen. Describing a subjective experience like colour is a challenge (the qualia problem), but he called these “Martian colours.” How cool is that?

  35. One of the ways that the unreliability of identification evidence in a criminal case has been explained practically in lectures, is to have person run through the classroom at some point and then, at the end of the class, get those present to describe what they saw. It really shows just how much we all see the same thing differently!

  36. I had the sleep paralysis when I was younger. There was a giant – like 4-5 feet across – spider that would come down from my ceiling. The funny thing is I’m not afraid of spiders. I still have lucid dreams. Some of the characters and settings are the same. Sometimes what’s going on is a continuation of the previous lucid dream. I know that because I have memories of it all within that world. I can’t tell you about it or them now, though. I have vivid dreams. When I was in my twenties I used to have such vivid dreams that I thought parts of them had really happened. It took quite a while before I realized that none of it had. The dream events so imprinted into my consciousness that to this day I have a hard time believing that certain things didn’t happen, even though I know they didn’t. It is hard to explain.

  37. I’ve had sleep paralysis, but no monsters yet. I should add I’m 62 if it’s something that comes or goes with age.

    I’ve dealt with questioning reality for years like you. I’ll learn something new in science and then I wonder, “hey, doesn’t this break a static reality?” Combined with the question of if we have free will and my head spins.

    Even assuming the world is real, with the spectrum we see in, what is the world really like? Is it anything? As you point out, we see color, colorblind folks don’t, what if we saw in ultraviolet, infrared, etc… All that stimuli creates a reality. So objects really don’t have a color, it’s just what your sense organs (eyes) tell you and that’s artificial.
    My brother knew a guy in college that had a motorcycle accident leading to head trauma. He came back healed, but his personality changed! He liked different things, hobbies changed, behavior changed, … So we aren’t truly who we are? Knock on the head to alter connections, chemicals and you are a different person? I’m not religious, but I guess we don’t have then a constant defined soul as being “who you are, likes and dislikes and so on…”
    They’ve done experiments where they monitor folks brains and can detect when people make a decision. It seems it occurs before a person realizes it. In others they were able to nudge folks to make a choice. But in asking them why they did that, they “create” an explanation that makes sense to them. They don’t realize they were pushed in that direction. I wonder? Does this happen naturally? Does our subconscious feed a steady stream of input up to us and we come away believing that we came up with that? Are we just glorified animals that believe we have free will?

    I’ll stop here. But in combining these two, I wonder, what space do we really inhabit in the universe? Is it what we think it is? Am I actually creating original thoughts or just running through some very complex programming and while it got us to the moon, maybe we are just like super ants?

    It’s a great topic to ponder. Keep with it. :-)

  38. There are much better movies that pose that question. For instance: David Cronenberg’s Existenz, or the Spanish film Open Your Eyes (remade in English as Vanilla Sky, although the original is better).

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  40. From Blockbuster Video I once rented an anime movie called Android Dreams. I wouldn’t see it again, but it was educational to me because it showed that others, at least in Japan, dream like I do.

  41. Athena, you might enjoy this book on the topic, “How Real Is Real?” by Paul Watzlawick. It was published in 1977 and is considered a classic of communications theory.

  42. Some more thoughts that came to me. In considering reality, colors is a classic. But think of the limitation of our senses and how it shapes our perception of reality.

    Our pupils dilate according to the light and what we can handle. So standing outside “seeing” the light level is actually all artificial. It’s actually much brighter, our eyes just adjust to not overwhelm us. Same with a darkened room. What would it be like to have the eyes of a cat.

    Thinking of animals senses always makes me think a lot on how I would relate to the world if I could see like an owl, smell like a dog, hear like… whatever animal has great hearing. ;-) My senses would be overwhelmed by how much is present around me.

    Lastly, even our size shapes how we take in the world. I’m 6′, but what if I was a little person, let’s say 3′. Dogs would be larger to me. Horses would be like elephants. I would sense the reality of the animal kingdom completely different. And there is no right or wrong size or sensitivity of senses. But they do feed into our understanding of reality.

    Can you tell I love this subject? ;-)

  43. I believe in objective reality, but since all my perceptions come through my very subjective brain, I’ll never get to experience it. Sometimes this worries me, but I’m not sure why.

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