Digging Tunnels

Philosopher, writer, humorist, scholar and mystic Robert Anton Wilson used to say that we all see reality through our own “neurological reality tunnels.” What he meant was that we don’t see reality itself. All our perceptions are filtered through a very personal channel of assumptions, beliefs, and mental models. Compounding this problem is the fact that it’s so easy to mistake the model for the thing it represents. This, he claims, is the reason we misunderstand each other so profoundly.

Pay attention to the world and you’ll see people misunderstanding each other. Even when they understand each other, people have a hard time coming together to make decisions. Communicating with language (conversing or writing) seems like the most straightforward method of communication, but in many ways it’s an inferior mode of expression.

The medium of language is full of assumptions and abstractions that are easily confused. Language uses only one input—auditory for speech or visual for the written word—and it leaves many of our senses un-stimulated. Even when watching someone speak, the visual input may or may not be a part of the message.

This is why art will always win. Film, for example, uses light, colour, sound, music, action, and so forth and is a much more full-brained form of communication. If you disagree, try to describe a David Lynch film to someone and see if your words do the movie justice. Meanwhile, language is perfectly at home inside of film.

But sometimes a writer gets it so right, it’s like he or she comes and joins you in your own neurological reality tunnel. I had this experience recently while re-reading “Sonny’s Blues”, a short story by James Baldwin.

The main character, a Harlem schoolteacher, spends much of the story trying to understand his heroin-using, jazz-piano-playing brother. He simply cannot understand why anyone would throw his life away with heroin, and he just doesn’t “get” jazz. He and his brother are stuck, not quite connecting through their reality tunnels, until the story’s climax where he sees Sonny play.

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

For me this is a great encapsulation of what makes music (or any art form) magical. When art connects, it connects more deeply than language alone. It can open the audience to unmapped territories, force them out of their preconceived notions and comfort zones. This form of communication cannot be translated into language; it has to be experienced. That terrible act of creativity might reshape your own reality tunnel. Then, maybe, you get a sense of someone else’s reality and approach understanding.