Welcome to Your Very Own Virtual Reality

What is your reality and is it different from another person’s reality? Some may say that two peoples’ realities may differ but one must be more accurate than the other, or closer to the actual reality that exists. What if your idea of reality was really just a construction that favored survival and reproduction? That is the hypothesis of Dr. Donald Hoffman, a cognitive psychologist investigating the problem of consciousness. He says that our perceptions are the product of an evolutionary process that favors a reliance on perceptual “hacks” or tricks for navigating our world that don’t really represent the reality that is there. In his mathematical simulations of various worlds and species, his test of natural selection processes showed that species that had perceptions based on fitness “hacks” outcompeted those species who saw all of reality as it was and those that saw part of reality as it was. This theory argues that all of our perceptions are constructed to guide optimal behavior (favoring survival and reproduction) and in fact don’t represent reality at all.

As far as the physiology of sensation and perception, there are many examples of how we construct reality based on stimulus input. In order to sense anything, we use specialized nerve cells called receptors or we use free nerve endings. Receptors are specific to the stimuli that they are made to detect, but we don’t have receptors for every type of perceptual experience that we encounter. We have receptors that detect pressure, we have receptors for temperature, we have receptors that respond to certain chemicals, and we have receptors that respond to light. However, we know that many of our interpretations of our environment are much more complex than just how hot it is or how much pressure we feel on our arm. For example, the experience of “wetness,” or feeling something that is “wet” is made up of a combination of touch, temperature, and pressure. There are no “wetness” receptors. You can test out your brain’s construction of wetness by putting on a latex glove and submerging it in water. You will feel your hand becoming “wet” when it is actually perfectly dry.

I am wondering if Hoffman’s points can be applied to self-awareness as well. Have you ever had that experience when you are so self-aware of your thinking that you just stop for a moment and realize that your construction of self and your patterns of behaviors are on auto-pilot. There is this moment where you are almost watching yourself. It is a very weird metaphysical sensation and quite uncomfortable. I have had this feeling every once in a while and it really jars me for a moment. Inevitably, I am intrigued by the potential for discovery, but I can’t think about it for too long because it is too creepy. I end up just putting the experience on a shelf in a back room for later contemplation. I also wonder if this experience is like a fractal. My consciousness is illusion and my exploration of my own self-consciousness of being conscious is an illusion too. The illusion is iterative and can leave you in frozen silence.

That is kind of how I feel about Daniel Hoffman’s ideas. If you think about them too hard, they create a kind of paralysis of action. Fascinating, no doubt, but what do I do with this illusion of a world? The best answer I’ve come up with is this: If I really am living in this Matrix world, there might be a reason for the illusion and so for now I’m perfectly content to make the best of my own virtual reality.

If Interested, Donald Hoffman’s TED talk on reality and perception: https://www.ted.com/talks/donald_hoffman_do_we_see_reality_as_it_is?language=en



1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: When You are Sick and Don’t Know It | Farmer Leda

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