Is Reality a Hallucination?

The neuroscientist Anil Seth thinks so

After decades of research into the mysteries of consciousness, the British academic has reached a radical conclusion – by way of meditation, surfing and a DIY “dream machine”.

If you’ve ever undergone general anaesthetic then you have experienced oblivion, an interruption of consciousness more complete than even the deepest sleep. Whole hours or days can pass in a millisecond; it’s proof – if you need it – that you can cease to be, that the world will go on without you. Some people find this terrifying. The neuroscientist Anil Seth finds it reassuring.

In 2017 Seth gave a Ted talk that has since been viewed more than 12 million times, a mind-blowing, 15-minute distillation of his three decades of research, which ended with Seth paraphrasing Julian Barnes: “When the end of consciousness comes, there’s nothing to be afraid of – nothing at all.” It’s a sentiment he returned to in his bestselling 2021 book, Being You, and when we met recently in Falmer, East Sussex, he told me why: “When you see how fragile and precarious our unified consciousness is, of ourselves and of the world, when you see how many ways it can go wrong or just be abolished completely, you can either take that as a scary thing or a reminder to be very glad to be where you are.” He chooses the latter.

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