To quote the great Albert Einstein, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” This phrase has become truer over the last 100 years as our technology continues to revolutionize how we see the world around us. After many riveting revelations—mostly relating to particle interactions at a microscale—we have learned that nothing is as it seems.
Einstein’s quote is relevant in many other ways. Not just cosmologically speaking (as most of those things have little effect on our everyday lives), but biologically as well. This indicates that everyone may have his own perception of reality. Sometimes, your reality overlaps those of other people. Other times, your reality is yours alone.
Here are 10 revelations that should make you question everything you think you know about the universe.
10 Nothing Happens In Real Time
One of the biggest constraints experienced by humans is the constant speed at which light travels at any given moment. This prevents us from watching cosmological events unfold before our eyes. But in the same breath, it allows us to study the universe as it appeared long before we came into existence.
The farther away the stars we are observing are located, the farther back in time we are looking. If a star, or a nebula, is 100 light-years from Earth, we are seeing it as it appeared 100 years ago when the light first began its journey to our part of the galaxy.
This is even true for things that are located a little bit closer to home. Assuming it’s daytime wherever you are at this moment, the sunlight streaming through your window left the Sun more than eight minutes ago. If it’s nighttime, you are seeing the Moon as it appeared 1.29 seconds ago.
As you see the Sun dip below the horizon—signaling the arrival of night—just remember, the Sun has already set. We just haven’t observed it yet.
9 Time Is Subjective
Time, like our perception of our experiences, can vary from person to person. Not just from a philosophical standpoint, but from a scientific standpoint as well. One such talking point deals with time dilation, which says that time moves more slowly the faster you are traveling.
For a particle traveling through space at the speed of light, time completely stops. To a lesser extent, the cosmonauts and astronauts performing experiments on the International Space Station experience time differently than people on the ground do. We’ve also witnessed the effects of time dilation on our space-based technology.
On a more relatable scale, 10 seconds feels like 10 minutes when your hand is near an open stove. However, 10 minutes feels like 10 seconds when you are talking to an attractive person. That’s relativity.
8 Most Of Your Memories Are Likely Wrong
The brain is notoriously fickle. In fact, it can change some of our most significant memories, transforming them into things that hardly resemble the truth of the matter. At least, that’s what a paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience revealed.
According to the paper, merely recalling our memories can change them. Each time you access a memory, it goes back into your mind a little different than it came out. The next time you recall it, you are actually remembering the last moment you actively thought about the event in question.
Of course, this effect would almost certainly be most noticeable with the events you think about most frequently. Like your wedding, the birth of your child, or the moment of your greatest accomplishment. This is partly responsible for eyewitness testimony being considered unreliable by experts.
7 Your Brain Puts Sensory Information Together To Paint A Sometimes Dishonest Picture
One interesting experiment dealt with how our brains put together sensory information. During the study, several scientists gathered a group of volunteers. Each participant was asked to push a button. Doing so would cause a light to flash after a short delay. After several rounds of this, the researchers noted that the volunteers were seeing the flash before it occurred!
In this context, the experiment indicates that after a few rounds of pushing the button—after seeing the flash—the brain tricked each volunteer into seeing the flash before it went off because the brain already knew the outcome.
As a result of this experiment and others like it, researchers now know that our brains are remarkably manipulative. Not only do they collect information using our various senses but they also rearrange the data to make better sense of our surroundings.
If this experiment is confusing, here is a more interactive way to look at it. Touch your nose while tapping your feet against the floor. Despite your nose being located much closer to your brain than your feet are, the sensations from both actions felt as if they occurred simultaneously, didn’t they?
This is because your brain was able to put the separate actions together at the same time by reassembling asynchronous signals from both events. In some cases, this can be deviously dishonest as it paints an incorrect picture of our immediate reality.
In fact, it may even mean that, biologically, you live some 80 milliseconds in the past (roughly the same amount of time it takes to blink your eyes). By the same token, your brain lives in the future. Or at least, it derives a lot of its information from things it believes will happen in the immediate future.
6 The Past, Present, And Future Are Happening Simultaneously
When we think about time, it seems linear—as though everything is the result of cause and effect. You were born because your parents met and had sexual intercourse, which resulted in one of your father’s sperm fertilizing one of your mother’s eggs. Roughly nine months later, she gave birth to you. After that, you grew up, maybe got married, and possibly had a few children of your own. Eventually, you die. That’s just the way it is.
However (and here is the trippy part), the universe itself—and the laws of physics—have no preference for the past, present, or future. Once you leave the comfort of Earth, time—like space—becomes indistinguishable in direction. You can’t tell the up from the down or the left from the right.
Our arrow of time is linear, though, as we are biological creatures comprised of biological material and trillions of tiny particles and molecules. We will never die before actually being born because we are a perfect reflection of entropy—a closed system’s penchant for going from order to disorder. Therefore, this rule does not apply to us on a macroscale.
5 ‘You’ Now Is Not ‘You’ Then (At Least In A Physical Sense)
As a rather large collection of water, skin, teeth, bones, fat, blood, tissue, and atoms, most of the material that made up you—even 10 years ago—is not the material you are largely composed of now. For one, almost all the atoms and molecules you were born with no longer course through your body. An estimated 98 percent are renewed each year.
Biologically, you are constantly shedding your skin (it is replaced with new cells every 35 days), your fat cells, your hair, and even your bones. It is said that every 10 years, the adult skeleton is mostly replaced.
Very few things remain with you from cradle to grave. (Adult teeth and neurons are exceptions.) But as Steve Grand poetically said, “Our bodies are in constant flux. We are not the stuff of which we are made; we are a self-maintaining pattern in a constantly changing substrate.”
4 Everything You See Is Mostly Not There
Everything you can see, touch, taste, or feel is made of atoms, infinitesimally small building blocks that comprise the entirety of our physical universe. The chair you are sitting on and the laptop (or phone) you are using to access the worldwide web are a collection of billions, sometimes trillions, of these so-called atoms.
The catch? Each of those atoms is 99 percent empty space.
But we don’t mean “empty” in the conventional sense—as in devoid of anything. Instead, the “empty” space contains an interesting soup of subatomic particles called neutrons and protons. These particles, particularly the neutron, orbit the “meat” of the atom, called the nucleus. It is exceptionally tiny compared to the “emptiness” of the atom.
The nucleus of an atom can be likened to a fly buzzing about a football field, where the football field is the actual atom. If we were to remove the empty space from the atom, the entire mass of the human race (over seven billion of us) could be contained within a sphere approximately the size of a sugar cube.
3 You Aren’t Sitting, You Are Technically Hovering
Naturally, the next question many of you will ask after the atom revelation is: “If atoms are mostly empty, how is it that we don’t fall directly through them?” The answer to this question is a bit complex. But to put it simply, you (and everything around you) are levitating on an electrostatic field that permeates the universe!
As mentioned in the last entry, the nucleus of an atom is surrounded by an electron shell—called an electron cloud. When atoms comprised of the same constituent parts (with a shared charge) come close to one another, they repel each other. As such, this repulsion prevents us from ever really being able to touch anything.
2 Observing Something Can Change The Outcome
One of the hallmarks of quantum physics—a branch of physics dealing with the interactions of particles on a microscale—is known as the observer effect. At this level, particles are known to behave extremely bizarrely.
So, what is the observer effect?
It was initially discovered as scientists were observing a beam of electrons in a quantum system. They found that the mere act of watching the event unfold inherently changed the behavior of the particles in question. Instead of behaving as particles, the electrons broke down and began acting as a wave. Interestingly, they have properties of both.
This does have real-world applications. Noted physicist Lawrence Krauss has speculated that the act of observing dark energy, the mysterious force responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe, could prevent the substance from decaying, causing it to remain unstable. This “quantum Zeno effect” reduces the universe’s life span considerably.
1 Free Will Is Probably An Illusion
All of us have made a questionable choice—or 100 of them—over the course of our lives. Thankfully, most of us are equipped with the ability to learn from our mistakes and to avoid making the same blunders in the future.
One might think this is cause and effect: You get in trouble for making a bad choice, so you don’t make it again. However, as we’ve seen with Hollywood, it is difficult to break free from this cycle.
Most of this comes down to free will. Green or purple? You decide. Hate country music? Don’t listen to it. Want to believe in unfounded conspiracy theories? Get out your tinfoil hat.
Now, what if we told you that the choices you make—the good, bad, ugly, and stupid, no matter how miniscule—aren’t actually choices at all? Instead, they’re merely the result of a series of chemical impulses, environmental factors, or both. Sounds crazy, right?
As it turns out, not so much. A huge debate is brewing on the merits of so-called “free will.” To many noted biologists, the whole concept has been relegated to the realm of religion as the notion does not correspond to our physical world.
They believe that free will is an illusion. When you are faced with a choice between three doors, you think you have a choice when, in fact, your biochemistry chooses for you. Being aware that you have multiple doors to choose from does not mean that you consciously get to make the choice.
With that said, don’t go robbing a lemonade stand thinking that the courts will buy the “free will is an illusion” tactic. That is, unless you are prepared to have said lemons squeezed into your eyeballs.
So, in closing, reality itself is not much more realistic than reality television shows are. Our reality is just as subjective, maybe even more so, as personal tastes in music, food, and entertainment are. That won’t change soon because each individual is equipped with a unique set of variables (with vision and hearing, especially). If that doesn’t make you question everything, we don’t know what could.
About The Author: Jaime devotes every spare moment of her time toward writing for various science organizations online. However, the field of astrophysics is where her heart lies.