The Matrix in Your Mind
In the classic 1999 film, The Matrix, Neo, a part-time hacker whose curiosity gets the best of him, meets Morpheus, a mysterious man dressed in a black trenchcoat and sunglasses. Morpheus informs Neo that what Neo believes is the real world, what he sees as his everyday reality, is actually a fabricated simulation that was built to keep him and the rest of humanity blinded by blissful ignorance so that they will never discover the true mechanisms of their enslavement. Morpheus then famously presents Neo with two pills, holding one in each hand, and says:
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more.”
Blown away by this tantalizing offer (who could resist?) Neo takes the Red Pill, and the rest is history. During his descent into actual reality Neo discovers that super-intelligent machines have taken over the world and placed humans in a massive simulation to keep them blind. By waking up to what reality really is, Neo and a band of other rebels are able to see the truth for themselves, thus embarking on their long quest to unplug the human race from its simulated stupor.
This is a perfect metaphor for how the mind works: the truth is out there, but our deceptive brains can twist reality, condemning most of us to spend our time clouded by biases, blind spots and self-delusion. By hacking our brains, through debiasing, reprogramming and training up, we can remove these obstacles and finally see things for what they really are. There’s only one problem with all this: There is no Red Pill.
Survival of the Simulators
Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine, has concluded what many in the field are coming to understand: reality cannot be known, and in fact, it is in our evolutionary best interest that it isn’t. For Hoffman, the most successful organisms are attuned to fitness for survival, not the perception of reality itself. In other words, the human species evolved so successfully not because we shed the burden of fully comprehending reality at each step, but rather, learned to act only on information that increased our survival potential.
Research on the visual cortex, for example, the most widely studied part of the brain, shows that “seeing” is a construct of the mind, not a replica of “what’s out there.” To save on limited bandwidth, the visual cortex pays attention only to those signals in the visual field that do not conform to its expectations and doesn’t bother encoding the rest. This means it is also constantly selecting what information is discarded. For example, 100 million rods and 5 million cones comprise the two photo receptors in the retina that take in visual information. However, there are only 1 million retinal ganglia cells, which transmit visual information from the retina to the rest of the brain. A huge amount of information has already been lost even before the visual signal is sent to the brain. And that’s just the first loss of information to occur in a long process of reduction, modification, organization and interpretation before we get a mental perception that we experience as “seeing.”
This reality-constructing survival strategy becomes even more obvious when we think about the perceptual architecture of other animals. Reindeer, butterflies and sockeye salmon can all see ultraviolet light, which exists beyond our limited range on the visual spectrum. A bee’s vision is much faster than ours, but its color range is shifted so that it also sees higher frequency ultraviolet, but not the lower frequency red color spectrum. They also have five eyes instead of two, allowing them to create complex visual representations of their environment we cannot. Bats use echolocation to “see” their environment, allowing them to navigate without light, but they are still able to generate a “picture” of the world around them, inaccessible to us. We are all cohabiting with vastly different perceptual interfaces, all constructing the reality we need to survive.
More importantly, all of these techniques allow the animals to navigate different ecological demands, but for each of them, representing reality as it is would be a hindrance. To illustrate this point, Hoffman often gives the example of the graphical user interface on your computer. The icons you see on your desktop are symbols that represent a host of complex operations underlying your activities. You open a folder and access a file. The operations you see visually bear almost no relation to the actual operations taking place, and knowing the full workings of the computer would be an enormous burden on successful task performance. The user interface gives you what you need to know in a way that’s easiest to navigate. This allows you to carry out most of the useful tasks of a computer without knowing anything about why or how it happens. In the case of the computer, we are technically able to uncover and perceive those inner workings to some extent (though it is interesting to note that even for the computer, even among top computer scientists, almost no single user understands how it works end to end). This allows us to confront an infinitely complex universe and still thrive. When the process of representing reality is impossible, constructing reality is a sufficient Plan B.
What if you were unable to wake up?
It’s an interesting question to ponder, what we might do if we were actually “offered the truth.” How many of us would take the red pill? Would we spend a lifetime of regret if we didn’t take it? Would we want to retreat back into ignorance again if we did? Fortunately, we never have to worry about these quandaries, because it is fundamental to the nature of our cognition that a real reality cannot exist for us. The proposition of a Red Pill is actually absurd.
So, the bad news is that what we see as reality is already a simulation, and it will never be otherwise. But the good news is, this has been enormously beneficial for us, and is why our species has been so successful. By liberating itself from reality, the brain gives us a far more powerful gift: the capacity for imagination.
Yuval Noah Harrari in his book, Sapiens, argues that the rise of the Anthropocene is not the result of our opposable thumbs, our domestication of wheat, our upright posture or our extended incubation period. In fact, many different human species existed for hundreds of thousands of years as relatively minor players in the food chain, until we developed the capacity for “shared fictions.” Shared fictions allow humans to mobilize in large coordinated groups to service goals that aren’t immediately available, such as protecting a nation-state, trading across large networks, legislating behavior, or devotion to a higher purpose. And yet, countries, currencies, laws and religions are all creative fictions, useful for mass organization, but devoid of any reality beyond common beliefs that endow them with value. The brain’s ability to behave according to these fictions is possible because we can trick ourselves into acting as though the simulation is real.
Nobody Makes it on Their First Jump
The rise of Virtual Reality and immersive virtual environments has brought to light a number of new questions and possibilities around the increasingly blurry line between the real and the virtual. VR has made it possible for us to simulate experiences with greater and greater fidelity to real life, and this has raised numerous questions about how these technologies will change how we understand reality, consciousness, and what it means to be human. Blurring this line opens up a number of new opportunities for how we engage with others, how we build community, how we train our workforce, and how we expand the horizons of the human experience. But many are still left wondering if VR will live up to the hype. Can it ever replace the experience of the physical world? Can we replicate the nuance of human interaction in a virtual space?
VR still lacks many of the somatic cues we use to give meaning to our experience, like the sensations of touch, smell, and the more intangible elements of embodied interaction. Anyone who has spent significant time in virtual environments knows that it cannot stand in for face to face interaction, even if it provides many benefits the physical world doesn’t offer. But new innovations continue to narrow this gap. And, as outlined above, we already live in a world where our behavior is shaped more by how we navigate our shared, fictional, mental models than by how we embody the natural forces that underlie them. We spend more time in the story of what happens in our lives than we do in contact with the true reality of any given situation. Effective virtual experiences exploit our shared mental models of the world, and then help guide, reinforce and transform the way we navigate it. In this way, the transferability of what happens in the virtual world to real life situations isn’t a huge leap. Reality is already largely Virtual. And knowing this is the key to the power of immersive virtual experiences.
So The Matrix, while tantalizing us to seek a deeper source of truth, ultimately reminds us that we’ll never find it. But accepting that we won’t ever know the truth frees us to embrace new opportunities to exploit our shared fictions, harnessing the power of our collective imagination to design simulated worlds that expand the art of the possible. New, immersive technologies allow us to exploit the tricks our mind has played on us for millennia to help us survive. Now those same tricks can help us streamline the way we transform sub-optimal default routines that guide how we live our lives.
After he takes the Red Pill and becomes fully immersed in the Matrix, Neo doesn’t start saving the world right away. First, he fails to make his initial leap into the Matrix. Starting over again in a new world, he needs to learn a new set of rules, harnessing new powers that he can only realize in this upgraded version of reality. Only then, after a series of intensive training sessions, Neo learns to give up the habits of thinking and training he had in his former life, quickly embodying his new skill sets, and ready to take on the larger, more uncertain challenges and opportunities that loom in the near future.