5 Fascinating Ways Your Brain Hallucinates Reality

Caution: This image might make observers feel sick. The bicycle wheels may appear to rotate counterclockwise, but this is a still image! Photo credit: Akiyoshi Kitaoka
Caution: This illusion might make observers feel sick. The bicycle wheels appear to rotate counterclockwise, but this is a still image! Your brain doesn’t know any better. Sigh. Image credit: Akiyoshi Kitaoka

We think we see reality as it is, but science has revealed multiple ways that the human brain hallucinates reality (as it relates to our personal experiences).

Most of these reality-bending brain happenings involve the way we process information. Like the image above shows us, our perception of how things are is not always accurate, but this isn’t always a problem—you’ll see it can be a benefit too.

1. When you’re fatigued, you might not be.

Fatigue Exercise
“The fatigue is a lie, runner #956! Keep going!” (Image by Lau Casabo)

The reality: You’re running, and you have more energy left.

How your brain hallucinates reality: Your brain tells you that you have no energy left, and suddenly, you make the face of runner #956, who is having a good time problems.

Energy is a finite resource in the body. Your brain knows that, and being the overlord of operations, it will indeed ration energy like an old, bitter sea dog rations rum to the crew. Jerk.

Scientists have found that the feeling of fatigue is fabricated by the brain to signal us to slow down or stop. This isn’t direct muscle fatigue, which is caused by insufficient energy supply; they call it “central fatigue,” a full-body feeling of fatigue. I notice it as an overwhelming desire to stop exercising. They believe central fatigue is caused by serotonin, which is released during exercise and actually helps you to perform; it’s when serotonin reaches higher levels that a central fatigue response is triggered.

“‘We can now see it is actually a surplus of serotonin that triggers a braking mechanism in the brain. In other words, serotonin functions as an accelerator but also as a brake when the strain becomes excessive,’ says Associate Professor Jean-François Perrier from the Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology, who has spearheaded the new research.”

[footnote]”Why Your Brain Tires When Exercising.” A Science Daily article about the University of Copenhagen research found here. (2013)[/footnote]

This part of your brain doesn’t care about your marathon time—its job is to keep you from exhausting your energy supply, and telling you you’re out of energy is an effective way to do that.

Mirrors and Phantom Limbs

One fascinating study on this type of fatigue involved a mirror box. If you don’t know what a mirror box is, join the club one can be seen in the video below. Mirror boxes are often used to treat phantom limb pain, which happens when a missing limb feels like it’s still there, moving normally (and unfortunately, it’s a painful experience). Using the mirror box can supposedly train the brain to reinterpret the missing limb. An early small scale study found that it reduced pain in 100% of six patients, unlike the control group or visualization group, some of whom experienced increased pain.

[footnote]”Mirror Therapy for Phantom Limb Pain.” The New England Journal Of Medicine. (2007)[/footnote]

Back to the study about fatigue.

People were asked to squeeze a hand gripper with their dominant hand every second (which, believe me, causes fatigue pretty quickly!). One of the groups, however, put their non-dominant hand into the visible side of the mirror box, so it would look like the video below. In the hidden section of the box, they would be gripping the device. This made it so their brain was looking at two unfatigued, relaxed hands, instead of seeing the exercising hand.

When people used the mirror box, they did not show signs of central fatigue after the session. Those who could see themselves squeezing the gripper did show signs of fatigue. Results were observed by using the simply-named magnetoencephalographic (MEG) system. 

[footnote]”Central inhibition regulates motor output during physical fatigue.” Tanaka M, Shigihara Y, Watanabe Y. Osaka City University Graduate School of Medicine. (2011) [/footnote]

And there you have it. The brain plays a major role in fatiguing us (again, this is separate from objective energy depletion), and our visual interpretation of what we’re doing is a key factor in the process.

Do You Ever Close Your Eyes During Exercise?

I wonder if this is why I naturally tend to close my eyes during the most grueling parts of an exercise bike session (I do the “mountain routine,” and the peaks are brutal!). I do it because I feel as if I can’t continue my pace if my eyes remain open. It seems when I close my eyes, that I have less of a central fatigue response. It makes sense too. Think about it:

When my eyes are open, I see sweat dripping off of my nose. I see my tensed hands gripping the bars. When I look down, I see my legs pumping to cycle as fast as I can. This is a lot of visual information that repeatedly tells my brain I’m working really hard, but when I close my eyes… darkness; I can just focus on the mechanical action of pedaling, and I do believe this has helped me work harder on the bike. After seeing this research, I plan to experiment with it some more. 

What to do about it: Do NOT run on a treadmill with your eyes closed! Do NOT squat 300 lbs. blindfolded! Do NOT bring a mirror box to the gym. Actually, do bring a mirror box to the gym. That would be funny. The other ones are dangerous though.

The next time you’re at the gym and you feel like you can’t go anymore, you now have the right to doubt that feeling. It will still be difficult to resist it, but knowing this may help. When on the exercise bike, my brain commanded my body to shut down, but I ignored the strong urge to quit, closed my eyes, and was still able to physically pedal! Fascinating. 

Be Careful

Do be careful though: you don’t want to injure yourself by pushing it too hard. Pain—with the exception of phantom limbs—is not “a trick” your brain is playing on you. The key here is to differentiate between “I really want to stop” and “if I don’t stop, I will hurt myself” situations. That may be a fine line, but it can be walked! Personally, I think this is most useful for aerobic exercise, since weight-lifting generally carries a higher risk of injury from overdoing it. Whether you’re in a competition or just working out, let your brain know that it can’t fool you anymore. 

If you are doing something that can be done safely with your eyes closed (exercise bikes are one), try closing them and see what that does to your central fatigue response.

Note: If you’re taking SSRI drugs and often feel tired, this is a possible explanation.

“For selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs which are used as antidepressants, we can possibly help explain why those who take the drugs often feel more tired and also become slightly clumsier than other people. What we now know can help us develop better drugs,” concludes Jean-François Perrier. (quote from Science Daily)

2. If you strike a confident pose for 2 minutes, your brain will make you more confident.

confident boy
This boy’s stance is a quintessential confidence pose. Hands on hips. Taking up space. Upright posture. This kid’s got a bright future. (Image by Photosightfaces)

The reality: you’re extremely nervous.

How your brain hallucinates reality: After you—even nervously—assume a confident pose for a meaningful amount of time (studies tested 2 minutes, which was significant enough as you’ll see), your brain will increase your testosterone levels and decrease your cortisol levels. I call this combination the “confidence cocktail,” as lower cortisol makes you calmer and higher testosterone increases your aggressiveness and willingness to take risks. This information comes from a very popular TED Talk by Amy Cuddy

What to do about it: This is one of the most exciting brain-benders there is. It isn’t your brain hallucinating reality as much as it’s your brain changing your reality by altering your hormones!

A Big Boost!

After standing for two minutes, participants’ testosterone increased by 20% and their cortisol decreased by 25%. Fascinating! It’s just two minutes of easy “work!” You could use this anywhere, as confidence is such an integral part of all aspects of life. You can use it for dates, interviews, speeches, and social gatherings.

Given the results of this study, I don’t believe it’s a crazy idea to suggest confidence pose training for those with low self-esteem. A 2 minute confidence pose mini habit is worth considering, as it’s an easy and effective way to temporarily boost confidence. I suggest making it a daily mini habit because the more you train to be confident (and practice acting confident), the more permanently confident you’ll become. The most valuable change is lasting change. 

It’s easy to practice: just show the world your wingspan! Confident poses take up more space: a wide stance, open chest, and upright posture. Submissive poses—which were found to have the opposite (and negative) effect of increasing cortisol and lowering testosterone—make you smaller: curling up in a ball, crossing your arms or legs, and slouching.

Walking around in public like you’re a bird in flight might not be the answer. Instead, you can do things like holding a confident pose in the bathroom before an interview (Cuddy said they tested this specific example and it worked well).

3. Your brain often treats images as reality.

Gross. But hey, your white cell blood count is up now. You’re welcome! (Nausea courtesy of placbo)

The reality: You’re looking at a picture.

How your brain hallucinates reality: When you look at pictures of obviously sick people, your brain will respond by ordering your body to amp up white blood cell production. It’s likely the same reason why you can genuinely be scared during a horror movie, even though you’re safely cuddled up with that special someone. It’s important to remember that not all parts of your brain are conscious. Yes, you know it’s just an image, but some part of your brain seems to be hardwired to protect itself upon seeing anything related to illness. It’s pretty cool!

[footnote]Source: University of British Columbia. See this article for more information: The Psychological Immune System[/footnote]

What to do about it: I’m not going to look at pictures of sick people, even if it increases my white blood cell count. But I will consider looking at kittens. You know why? Images of kittens were shown in a study to increase fine motor skills and non-motor search tasks. Also, a study I personally conducted found that kittens are cute. The takeaway here is broader than sick people or kittens: simply looking at a picture can create a relatively powerful response in your mind and body.  

Be aware that images you look at will impact your brain in some way:

  • According to Dr. Marc Berman, looking at pictures of nature can boost cognitive performance.

[footnote]”The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature.” Berman, Jonides, and Caplan. (2008) .[/footnote]

  • Looking at pornography was found by a very recent study to potentially (not definitely, as there are other possible explanations) cause brain shrinkage and diminish sexual reactivity.
  • [footnote]JAMA Psychiatry Online Publication. Kühn and Gallinat. (2014)[/footnote]

    4.Your mind can alter what you see and hear in the real world.

    This is a FLAT drawing on the sidewalk. Someone should give this artist a raise.
    This is a FLAT drawing on the sidewalk. Someone should give this artist a raise. (Photo by RedRoseRattus)

    The reality: The physical world is objectively present. Sound waves are measurable and precise. Visual objects have an objective shape and mass in each moment in time.

    How your brain hallucinates reality: if your brain hears a particular sound, it can alter what you think you see, a study of 96 participants found. Participants looked at two objects passing by each other on the screen. When a collision sound was played at the time the objects passed, they experienced the illusion that the objects collided. It worked vice versa too! When people thought they saw something it altered what they heard (and where they thought they heard it from).

    Specifically, we found that what we imagine hearing can change what we actually see, and what we imagine seeing can change what we actually hear.”

    [footnote]Karolinska Institutet. “Imagination can change what we hear and see.” via ScienceDaily. (2013) [/footnote]

    What to do about it: Nothing, explicitly. Scientists say this research could be useful for understanding schizophrenia because it reveals how the brain does (or doesn’t in this case) distinguish between thought and reality. This study and this effect is highly situational, and it’s more interesting than practical. Though personally, I think it speaks to the power of the mind, and that imagination can be a powerful agent for personal growth.

    If the human brain can hallucinate reality with such illusions, then surely it can change how we view ourselves (for the better) if given the right prompts.

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