Culture

The trouble with getting lost in your own world | David Mitchell

Protecting students from ‘distressing’ plays and hi-tech targeted ads further removes us from a shared sense of what is real

Do we really want to know what’s actually going on? In the world and in the past and in plant cells and in space and in the flat upstairs? I get that it’s always going to be impossible to be sure. All any of us has to go on is a load of nerve signals hastily compiled into a vaguely coherent impression by the grey sponge that seems to be the site of the key thing that makes each of us whoever each of us is. It’s an impression that can get skewed by fear, rage, self-interest, hunger, a bad back or by being, to a greater or lesser extent, mad.

Anyone who’s suffered from sciatica will tell you how disconcerting it is to feel a pain you’re convinced is emanating from your leg but which is in fact caused by an injury, located somewhere in the spine, to the nerve responsible for leg news. But it doesn’t feel like a faulty line – the nerve doesn’t crackle. It just feels like a sore leg. It is a totally convincing, rather undramatic, delusion and a salutary reminder that when we think we’re definitely looking at a table, that’s actually just the narrative our brain is imposing upon unsubstantiated data supplied by the ocular nerve.

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