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January 11, 2011

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A while back I was reading an online discussion about the supernatural. One woman described an experience she'd had many years ago: She saw a strange figure watching her from close by, and in an instant it changed position and was suddenly some 100 yards away. "I didn't imagine it," she wrote.

This struck me as almost funny. I thought, doesn't she realize that we "imagine" everything? The part of the brain that produced the image of her spectre is the exact same part of the brain that would produce the image of a physical person standing in the same place.

Even when an object is real, "imagining it" is a necessary process in order for the object to enter our stream of consciousness. The real and the non-real all go through the same neural channels; as Robert Lanza likes to say, we can't see through the bone that surrounds our brain. The fact that we need to "imagine" everything is what makes it so difficult for fallible human beings, prone to faith and myth, to tease apart what's real in the world from what isn't.

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