The Ability to Tell the Difference

Yuval Noah Harari in conversation with Russell Brand on the Under the Skin podcast: 

"We don't necessarily have to dismantle and challenge every story.

I'm not saying that stories are bad. Stories can be very good. Harry Potter is a very good story. 

If you look at the social level, without believing in some common fictions you cannot have a functioning society. I'm not saying necessarily that we need to challenge all of them, but we do need the ability to tell the difference between fiction and reality.

And as a species, this is a big problem for Homo sapiens. The success of Homo sapiens as a species is built on our inability to tell the difference between a fiction and a reality. 

We rule the world because of our global networks of cooperation and they are all based on our believing in fictional stories. So in a way, we have an evolutionary pressure not to be able to tell the difference between fiction and reality. 

Now if you talk about the dominant fictions of our time, then I would say the two most important ones are capitalism and humanism. Which for the last few generations have been in alliance, but now this alliance is breaking down. And much of what happens in the world can be explained in terms of capitalism and humanism divorcing and going along separate ways...

For me, the crucial thing is to differentiate between the fictional stories and reality which is extremely difficult because all of society is based on being unable to distinguish between the two. 

If you go around all day realizing that the nation–and money and corporations and Coca-Cola and all that–these are just stories created by humans, then it would be very difficult to sustain the economic and political system that we know. 

So my effort is to somehow keep making the effort to differentiate reality from fiction. I do it partly through meditation. I meditate for two hours every day...

The basic instruction is you just try to observe reality as it is in the present moment. You close your eyes. You sit. You do nothing. You don't try to think about anything in particular. You don't try to create anything. You just try to observe, What is really happening right now? 

Leave aside all the stories, all the explanations, all the theories that the mind generates every moment, and let's see what is really happening right now. 

So you start with the simplest realities of breath coming in and out of your nostrils. You just try to observe, When is the breath coming in? And, When is the breath going out? That's it. 

It sounds like the easiest thing in the world, but when I started, I couldn't do it for more than ten seconds. Not just me. Most people I talk to who tried it couldn't do it for more than ten-twenty seconds because your mind immediately runs away to some fantasy, some memory.

If you try to concentrate on some very interesting movie, it's very easy. You can sit glued to the television for two hours and just take it all in without being distracted. 

It's easy to focus on these fantasies and fictions. But you try to focus on reality, it's extremely difficult. Even if it's a very simple reality. If you then try to observe deeper realities like, Where is my anger coming from? Where is my suffering coming from? This is far more difficult than observing just your breath. 

But you start with the breath an–I was amazed when I did this for the first time–just how difficult it is just to observe reality."


Harari, Y. N., Purcell, J., & Watzman, H. (2011). Sapiens: A brief history of mankind. London: Vintage Books. (author, library)

Harari, Y. N. (2017). Homo deus: A brief history of tomorrow. London: Vintage Books.  (author, library)