Which is More Real, the Illusion or the Mechanism, the Imagined Concept or the Details?

Jim Mason
2 min readFeb 14, 2022

Our minds and our brains involve that same duality

What’s the real story of this two-legged monster? Photo by Azzedine Rouichi on Unsplash

“Real” is a slippery word. Its meaning eludes our grasp. That’s ironic, because it’s supposed to be in contrast with “imaginary” or “illusory”, yet those are just two sides of the same metaphorical coin.

Most of us love a good magic trick. We enjoy being fooled by an illusion when we know that is what’s going on. Yet if we are deceived without our prior awareness, we feel cheated.

Works of fiction activate our imaginations, often with minimal sensory input. Words or simple drawings are often enough. The evocative power of a short poem or a simple cartoon sketch can be surprising. Plays and movies involve more of our senses, but they still require us to use our imaginations.

Our dreams are our ultimate fictions, requiring almost no sensory input at all. And they can have powerful emotional and even practical impact on us and our behavior.

Yet we have all had the experience of meeting people or arriving at places that we have only known about by description or by partial experience such as hearing them on the radio. We may say they are “not how I pictured” them.

The same kind of experience occurs when we see a movie based on a book that we have read. The actors often don’t quite fit the images we had of the characters.

And we have all anticipated events in our lives — partners, careers, celebrations — that don’t turn out quite as we imagined them. Or we have remembered events in our lives that other people remember differently.

The practical decision for us, in each such situation, is: Do we retain the primacy of our belief in our imagined reality, or do we adjust that imagined reality to align it more closely with all of our sensory experiences and observations, and with the imagined realities of other people?

Some of us are more willing than others to adjust our imaginations to “fit the facts”. That can lead us to better, more useful understandings, although it can sometimes be emotionally disappointing or even distressing.

Others try to “adjust the facts” to fit their imaginations. That can sometimes be usefully creative, or it can be stubbornly wasteful of time, energy, and other resources.

I think a balance of both works best. Still, each of us must find our own balances in particular cases. Keep that in mind when you think of such things as diseases and vaccinations, election conspiracies, aliens from space, investment opportunities, personal relationships, events in nature, our minds and brains, and our pasts and futures as human individuals and as a species.


Jim Mason

I study language, cognition, and humans as social animals. You can support me by joining Medium at https://jmason37-80878.medium.com/membership