“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” Unlike Freddy Mercury, most of us do not actually question whether we are perceiving the real world. And it’s not because most of us can easily tell the difference – those of us that don’t question it are often wrong.

The reason I find this so interesting is that, for a question as fundamental as ‘do we question reality?’, the answer is not ‘everyone does’, or ‘it is impossible’, or ‘only the enlightened do’. The answer is that most of us don’t, but around a quarter of people do, and the subset is pretty random. As you’re waiting in line at the store, the couple in front of you might be convinced they are awake while the person behind you is actively questioning reality.

As far as I can tell, there’s only one way to know whether you’re a questioner or a nonquestioner: you question the reality of your surroundings if and only if you lucid dream. The fraction of your dreams that are lucid tell you how often you question reality. I’m a nonquestioner, even though I used to think I had reasons for knowing I was awake. For example, I could demonstrate that I’m awake because clocks increment at steady intervals, but then in the invented reality in my dream, clocks don’t have to work that way. Indeed, that’s what people do in nonlucid dreams. If they check at all, their reality tests always come up positive by changing the tests, so they aren’t really tests.

Strategies for approaching reality

You can be in four states based on whether you’re asleep or awake and whether you think you’re asleep or awake:

2 by 2 diagram of being awake/asleep vs. think you're

If your belief is independent of your true state, as depicted above, the only safe strategy is to always assume you are awake:

Modified diagram where you always think you're

To have lucid dreams without acting dangerously while awake, you’d have to make your belief dependent on your state:

Modified diagram where you know if you're

Becoming a questioner

Lucid dreaming is an odd skill to train because not only do you have to practice doing reality checks enough that you do them while dreaming as well, but you have to truly check. That’s hard to do if, like most people, you already ‘know’ with absolute certainly that you’re awake (even when you’re not). The key is to maintain the same criteria in the waking and dream state.

Of course, all this pertains mainly to waking life and dreams. Other questions, like whether we’re in a constructed reality nested inside another one, are not so easy to test, and people could have very different thoughts about that regardless of whether they regularly question the reality of their environment.

But maybe it’s wise for us to master our reality judgment however we can. As technology advances, our senses will be more easily fooled by malicious actors, so the skill of identifying reality may become truly vital.