My life has never been the same.
In 1999, I traveled with my Grade 9 class to Ottawa, Canada’s capital. It was my first time in Ottawa, but it’s not the Parliament building or any of the many museums we visited that I remember most distinctly.
When we had some free time, a group of us decided to head to the mall to watch a movie. It looked like a typical action flick, but with a twist.
When it was over, our imaginations were running wild. As we walked back to our hotel from the movie theatre, we excitedly talked about what we had just seen.
That was sooo good!
What do you think happens next?
How do we know we’re not in it right now?!
That last question struck me. It knocked on a door in my mind that I hadn’t known was there. And as it slowly opened over the next decade, I came to realize a profound and shocking truth that changed how I viewed everything.
That movie was The Matrix.
The shocking truth
In The Matrix, the main characters learned that they (and all of humanity) were being deceived. What they thought was the “real” world was a computer simulation created by sentient robots. Each person’s brain was connected directly to a massive computer, which interacted with each brain to make everyone think they were living real lives. Most of the people living inside “the matrix” had no idea.
Of course, the protagonists realized the ruse.
What struck me about The Matrix is how eerily similar it is to our lives. The senses, like sight and hearing, feed the brain data about its environment, which the brain must interpret in light of all of its experience to date. Consciousness then directly experiences that interpretation.
What grated on my mind for years is the gap between our senses and our experience of them. Since the brain must interpret the signals sent through the nervous system, I eventually realized that my conscious experience is only an “essence” of the real world, not the real world itself.
Anil Seth, a neuroscientist and director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex, agrees and describes our conscious experience of the world as a hallucination — something the brain generates rather than passively perceives.
This means, for example, that even though we feel like we’re gazing out of our eyes, we’re not. The signal sent from the eyes to the brain is electrical, and that electrical signal must be interpreted by the brain before we can make any sense out of it. As a result, our conscious experience of seeing is one step removed from the physical process of seeing. The brain is using the senses to re-create the physical environment for consciousness.
So, what’s the shocking truth?
Our direct, conscious experience is of a simulation, not of reality.
So what if we live in a simulation of our minds?
It doesn’t feel like we’re trapped in a simulation, does it?
Each time I look through my eyes, I feel like the world is “out there” and I’m “in here”. I feel this way even though I know intellectually that everything I’m seeing, touching, smelling, hearing, and tasting is happening “in here” — in my mind.
The disconnect between what you feel is a fact and what is truly a fact should raise an eyebrow or two. In a sense, you’ve been hoodwinked by your brain. And this matters.
What other truths is the brain hiding from us? How much “creative license” does the brain take when it interprets reality for us? What assumptions is it making that we are completely unaware of?
While the brain’s deception isn’t malevolent, unlike the deception in The Matrix, it does impact how we view the world. After all, what are the chances that our brains aren’t also deceiving us in other ways?
A quick Google search will tell you that the answer is “zero.” Humans have literally hundreds of known cognitive biases, which are ways in which our minds distort reality. We are largely unaware of these biases unless we look very closely for them in our behavior. Some of these biases, like confirmation bias and attribution bias, cause us to make very bad decisions and judgments.
What should you take away from this?
Your conscious experience is not as it seems. So, investigate the ramifications of this conclusion. If you don’t, it’s inevitable that you’ll be negatively impacted, and you’ll never realize that you are the cause.
Meditation is a good way to train your mind to notice the biases that are constantly affecting you. Developing your mindfulness through meditation will not only help you to make fewer bad decisions but will also help you to make more good decisions. Why? Because mindfulness shines a light on your bad assumptions and bad judgements, and merely seeing these errors takes away some of their power to compel you to move in the wrong direction.
Also, remind yourself to have some humility and skepticism toward your beliefs. You’re probably wrong about much more than you’d like to admit — especially about those things you’re so sure of.
Finally, remember that your mind is what you make of it. You aren’t stuck with a bad operating system in your brain. You can change it. It just takes some effort.
Thanks for reading!