Noema and You

Dael Akkerman once told a friend that she didn’t understand the English expression “It’s all in the mind”. As she pointed out, since we perceive everything through our minds, nothing can ever be anywhere else.

She thought this meant that everyone’s idea of what is real is therefore as unique to that person as their own mind. All each of us can ever know of reality is limited to ourselves, so that no one person can ever tell another what is real for them.

She also thought that we tend to overlook this because many of the experiences that make up our idea of reality are shared with other people who apparently find them just as real as we do: family members enjoying the same meal, a group of friends watching the same TV show together, other commuters on the subway being held up when the train’s late, and so on. But the fact that no two minds are the same must mean that even experiences like this can’t be real to the other people in exactly the same way as they seem real to us. The way a pizza smells and tastes to one person will never be the exactly the same as it does to another, a popular TV show will never be as quite as funny for one person as seems to be for another, and so on.

Yet it occurred to Dael that this must also be true of experiences which, unlike shared experiences like eating a meal with family or travelling on a train, are unique to the person undergoing it. We assume that the fact that such experiences have not been shared, or in some cases cannot be shared, somehow makes them less “real”. Yet still they seem real to us. Dreaming is the most obvious example. Everyone knows how it feels to wake up after a vivid dream. After a few moments, you realise that you’ve been dreaming, that as you’ve slept, your mind has been filled with images, sometimes quite normal, sometimes utterly fantastic, that haven’t just entered your brain through your eyes but have been produced from somewhere else. You also know that your dream isn’t real in the way that what happened at work yesterday was real, or the fact that it’s 7am and you have to get up is real. But why, if that’s the case, does your dream seem so real?

Dael thought that there was a simple answer to this. Your dream seemed real because to you, it was. You experienced it in your mind, where you experience everything else. It will therefore seem just as real to you as anything else. The fact that no-one else could ever experience your dream in the same way you did doesn’t change that.

So she wondered what it might be like to live in a society where people don’t limit reality to what everyone can see, feel and hear, and where they accept that what seems real to another person is as real as anything else. They wouldn’t have labels like fantasy, imaginary, spiritual or even supernatural, because they woudn’t need them. She even wondered if this explained why ancient cultures in which religion was so fundamental had no word equivalent to our word “religion”. 

Many people have experiences which don’t seem real as reality is normally understood, but which feel very real to them at the time. Some are reluctant to talk about these for fear of being thought odd or even delusional, others get frustrated at having their experiences dismissed as mere fantasy or an over-active imagination, others still believe that they have experienced a life-changing event and that people who won’t accept this are simply wrong. In all cases, the result is conflict of one kind or another.

As her trustees, the Friends of Dael Akkerman hope to explore some of her ideas further. To do that, we need your help. We need to know what you think, whether you have ever had an experience you couldn’t immediately explain but which seemed real to you, what your reality is. If you would like to post something, please do, because the more people that share their experiences, the better informed the discussion will be. The writing style really doesn’t matter – bullet points will do. All posts are completely anonymous, we will not share your details with anyone and any names of individuals or organisations involved will be removed.

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