As an undergraduate, I helped run a psychology lab for a professor where we did cognitive experiments on Psychology 101 students. My major was Cognitive Science and I spent most of my free time reading anything I could get my hand on the subject. I would read an author’s paper in a journal and flip to their references and then read those papers and flip to those references until I found what seemed to be primary sources – though largely unattributed – it was the philosophers, of course. Carl Jung was among those whose contribution to the field of cognitive science was conveniently buried under tons of footnotes and references.
I would spend hours a day at our university library, browsing the stacks and reading … and reading. After thinking about the problem of visual image/symbol representation, I asked my professor to indulge me and let me devise an experiment to test television cognition. My hypothesis was that humans are not equipped cognitively separate virtual reality from real reality. For example, a murder on the 11 o’clock news is handled by the mind in a radically new way. We know from studies of predation that internal, virtual visual models are essential for predators to catch their prey. Of course, this works both ways. To be able to think like the hunter is a distinct advantage, too.
This is also the origin of empathy and compassion – this internalization, or virtual reality of the other. The mechanisms in the brain that handle this sort of virtual experience must also be the same that handle virtual realities like television and movies. Further, when abstracted from reality, these images have no correlates, i.e. they do not correspond to anything else in our experience. Therefore, these memories are stored and retrieved differently than ‘real’ memories. Since the area of the brain that handles these functions is necessarily ambivalent about the messages it receives or the realities it virtualizes, our understanding and cognition of these events are not interpreted the same way that real events are. The bottom line is that this part of the brain was setup for a totally different function than ordinary day to day experience and we don’t know what the brain is doing with this radically new type of input that is now coming in from all angles. At the very least, our mind is now utterly confused as to what is real and what is virtual, or merely illusion.
Well, as you can imagine, my professor looked at me like I had three heads. I think he appreciated my enthusiasm though and decided to let me help author an upcoming journal article for him. That was very cool – one of the highlights of my undergrad life.
Anyway, back to my original point. In Jean Baudrillard’s book Simulacra and Simulations (the one The Matrix was based) he argues that we have lost touch with reality and have only the simulation or the virtual left. According to Baudrillard, post-modern society is so deep into this mode of being that copies of reality are more real than the reality to which they refer. As a result, we worship the simulation, or the mere symbol of reality, rather than reality itself. Baudrillard is a social philosopher and doesn’t spend much time trying to understand the cause but is merely the messenger. I do agree with most of what Baudrillard has to say, but I think the cause is more interesting than the result. I think back to my undergrad experiment and my simple hypothesis that our mind lacks the cognitive apparatus to deal with this radically new type of input. In a matter of 50 years our primary mode of cognition was turned on it’s head and was no longer reliable as a means of assessing reality. Could it be that some process deep in the mind has assigned to it some evolutionary fitness factor that virtual shall always trump real? Perhaps that was an advantage millions of years ago, but now it’s just causing chaos.
“You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.” – Cypher