The brain is a crucible: a melting pot of intersecting ingredients that forges a reality that is deceptively the same, but often vastly different for each individual. That reality is a construct is a fashionable term these days; it means that we tend to see reality from a particular frame of reference. There is always a context, whether it be political, social or cultural. For those who are unable to construct a satisfactory reality, it is then that they are forced to create an alternative reality, perhaps that fulfils their dreams and meets their views and values.
In the words of cognitive neuropsychologist Kaspar Meyer, “what is now clear is that the brain is not a stimulus-driven robot that directly translates the outer world into a conscious experience. What we’re conscious of is what the brain makes us be conscious of, and in the absence of incoming signals, bits of memories tucked away can be enough for a brain to get started with”. Reality for each individual differs according to their past experiences and memories, as well as what they choose to perceive to be true.
Those with weaker frames of minds – such as individuals suffering from mental disorders, or solely living under delusion – tend to create alternative realities in order to escape the harsh truth. Consider the materialism of the post-war United States. Motivated by prosperity and wealth, all Americans were expected to achieve the profound ‘American Dream’, of which Arthur Miller critiques throughout his play ‘Death of a Salesman’. The play’s lead character Willy Loman struggles to face the true reality, but instead, chooses to believe he is leading the life he had always dreamt of. Willy believes himself to be the best salesman of his company, claiming he is “well liked” by all, and “vital in New England”, when in fact, his true reality proves to be quite the opposite.
Willy struggles to pay his mortgage, as well as fails to support and provide for his family. Despite his favourite son Biff finding the words to call him out to be what he truly is – “(a) fake… (a) big phoney fake” and “a dime a dozen”, Willy remains ignorant towards the truth. Willy’s alternative reality provides him with the motivation to continue his life, despite the loss of his job and loss of respect from Biff. Alternative realities provide temporary relief from the harsh truth of reality, which is sometimes necessary for those who are considered mentally weak.
It is often easier to support the alternative realities created by the mentally weak. Due to their mental state, disregarding what they believe to be true can carry several consequences. In ‘Death of a Salesman’, Willy’s wife Linda remains supportive throughout her husband’s delusion. He claims she is his “foundation (and) support”, which is simply conforming to the expected role of a 1950’s housewife. Another example includes the 2010 movie directed by Martin Scrosese titled ‘Shutter Island’, which clearly highlights the importance of accepting the alternative realities created by the mentally weak. The film’s protagonist Teddy Daniels believes himself to be a U.S marshal assigned to investigate the disappearance of a patient from Boston’s Shutter Island mental institution. However, in true fact, Teddy is actually Andrew Laeddis, one of the institution’s most dangerous
patients they have because of his delusions and his violence towards the staff and the other patients. Andrew (or Teddy’s) delusion created an alternative reality in which he was able to escape the truth about his murderous past. In order to support his alternative reality, the staff at the institution developed a scenario in which Andrew was able to live out his delusion, therefore preventing the otherwise dangerous psychological effects of his true nature. If Andrew was in fact exposed to his true reality rather than living as his alter ego, he may have not been able to survive, hence proving the importance of supporting a mentally weak individual’s alternative reality.
Alternative realities may not always be negative. In these cases, the alternative reality protects the individual from harm or negative attention due exposing their true self. Consider the death of Whitney Houston, or the even more recent Robin Williams. Despite their true reality consisting of depression and substance abuse, these two renowned celebrities developed and maintained an alternative reality to allow others to portray them as role models and successful artists. In the case of Robin Williams, his severe depression led to his suicide. As a comedian and successful actor, Williams was perceived by the majority to be a motivated happy man.
In true fact, despite working to ensure other people were laughing, he was diagnosed with severe depression, to the point where he eventually took his own life. Robin William’s alternative reality forced others to see him as he was not, but without the negative attention of showing who he really was. In Whitney Houston’s case, despite her perception as an iconic successful singer, her alternative reality consisted of a cocaine addiction to the point where she drowned in a hotel bathtub. Following their deaths, the public was finally made aware of who they truly were, regardless of what we had previously perceived them to be. Alternative realities such as these can be crucial to ensure happiness and satisfaction for the individual, without highlighting their true selves to the world.
Those who are mentally weak tend to create alternative realities in order to avoid their true selves. Whether they are living within a delusion – such as Willy Loman – or suffering from a mental condition – such as Andrew Laeddis, (otherwise known as Teddy), alternative realities may be beneficial for the individual, however difficult for others to accept. Due to individual differences in realities due to social, emotional, cultural and political factors, each person must construct a reality that is most suitable for their views and values, even if that results in alternative realities being created. In the words of author Mignon McLaughlin, “a critic can only review the book he has read, not the one in which the author wrote”, and therefore we cannot judge an individual’s choice of reality or alternative realities without experiencing it ourselves first hand.