We Are All Actually in the Matrix
“The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth…you are a slave. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.”
What if I told you that everything you see around you is a lie?
That you are imprisoned, not by robots, not by computer programs, but by another matrix.
…and you can tell because there are glitches.
I’m not kidding: you, me, and everyone else are actually in the matrix. But it’s not quite the same matrix as in the movie “The Matrix.” We are (probably) not being grown and harvested by robots who (somewhat inexplicably) have chosen to use us as a power source.
No, I’m talking about your brain. Your brain is your own personal matrix. It enables your consciousness, your sensations, your positive and negative feelings.
It lies to you. All the time.
Let me show you.
“What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
First of all, we only detect a small fraction of the properties of the physical world. We know that there are certain wavelengths of light, frequencies of sound, and tastes and odors that we are unable to perceive. Ultimately it comes down to the fact that we can only detect the things that we have sensors for (check out my previous post on these sensors for more details).
Ok, but within these ranges our sensors enable us to perceive an accurate representation of the world, right? Well, not quite… All of our sensors are imperfect and have glitches.
Here’s one example of a glitch. In “reality,” the picture below consists of a circle of pink dots, one dot disappearing at a time. But that’s not what your brain sees. Keep your eyes fixed at the center cross and observe how your brain lies to you.
If you kept your eyes very still you should have seen a green dot start to appear in the blank spot, and travel around in a circle indefinitely. Eventually the pink dots begin to disappear. What’s going on here?
It’s a glitch in the light sensors in your eye. Cone photoreceptors – neurons in your retina that respond to light – are sensitive to different colors. Your brain computes the color of objects by comparing the activity of the three different types of color photoreceptors: red, green and blue (there are also non-color-sensitive receptors called rods – for an exceptional amount of additional detail go here!). In fact, the very computer screen you are using to read this article exploits this mechanism! Pink light is not actually emanating from the screen; each pixel displays different intensities of red, green, and blue light, which activate your photoreceptors in the same way actual pink light does. Your brain can’t tell the difference.
But why do you see green? It’s all about relativity! The grey background activates your red, green and blue photoreceptors all at a similar level. Since there is no relative difference in activation between the different types, you see no color. When you are constantly exposed to a high-intensity color, pink, the photoreceptors that respond most to that color, in this case the red ones, will essentially get “tired” and temporarily become less sensitive to that color. This causes the relative activation to shift, and when each pink dot is briefly replaced by grey, green receptors are more activated than the now-tired red receptors. Your brain does not expect your photoreceptors to be tired, and thus interprets the information as if everything is working normally, creating the perception of a green dot. Why do the pink dots disappear? Over time, the pink-activated sensors become so desensitized that the pink dots completely disappear. But you still see that pesky green dot traveling in a circle because the green sensors aren’t being abnormally activated, and therefore never get too tired. The brain can get away with these bugs because the vast majority of the time we don’t stare at bright pink dots.
You may be thinking that imperfections in microscopic light sensors in your eye probably seem like a minor problem. And you’d be right, especially compared to the benefits of being able to see your world. But this glitch is merely the first piece of evidence that the reality we experience often has less to do with what’s outside of our head, and more to do with what’s inside.
“Do not try to bend the spoon — that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: there is no spoon.”
So if you accept your fate of being occasionally fooled by your imperfect reality sensors, you can at least rest assured that when you see something it is actually there!
Just kidding. Your brain expects to encounter objects that could exist in the real world. Sure, this isn’t exactly a problem, since we live in a world where only certain objects and occurrences that conform to the laws of physics are possible. Still, it can sometimes rely too much on these expectations, and present another series of pesky glitches.
In the image above, there appears to be a white triangle on top of three black circles and an outlined triangle. But there is no triangle: it’s a lack of black pixels on your screen. You see a white triangle because your brain is accustomed to using incomplete information to piece together objects in your environment. It must do this since most of the sensory information we encounter in the world is incomplete. Say you’re in the forest and much of your vision is obscured by trees and ferns and other foresty things. You must be able to detect a bear, and it’s better to have a false bear alarm (i.e. think you see one when it’s not there) than completely miss one and get mauled.
Take a look at this next image and try to answer the question: are there two prongs or three?
In case you’re wondering, the correct answer is “yes.” This image takes the glitch one step further – it is an impossible object. If you cover one side or the other your brain will attempt to complete the object based on its expectations from the physical world. On the other hand, if you try to look at the whole thing simultaneously it just doesn’t work. Your brain is trying to “snap” your perception into a coherent object, but it can’t.
Glitches can tell us a lot about how our brains construct a personal matrix for each of us. We can learn even more when we push the limits of perception.
Neo: I thought it wasn’t real.
Morpheus: Your mind makes it real.
The perception that you can simultaneously see your whole visual field is another blatant lie your brain tells you. A large amount of the world at is indeed visible at once, but you can only see a very tiny spot in detail – the point you are looking at right now. If you don’t believe me, try reading the next sentence while keeping your eyes fixed on the period at the end of this sentence. You may have been able to read the words adjacent to the period, but not much else. The image below illustrates this:
Your fovea is responsible for this phenomenon. Located at the center of the retina, the fovea has a much higher density of photoreceptors than the rest of the retina. A higher density of sensors translates to a higher resolution. But outside of the fovea, the density is much lower. Why does it often feel like you can simultaneously see the whole world in detail? Your brain actively maintains a high-resolution perceptual model of the world, even though some of the details might not quite be up-to-date. I will demonstrate this to you with another glitch.
The image below will flash between two pictures. Try and see if you can spot the difference.
People generally have to adopt a strategy of either randomly or systematically shifting their gaze throughout the changing picture in order to finally find the difference. Note this wouldn’t be as hard if there was no blank in between the changing images, because then the change would immediately be detected. The blank forces you to use your working memory to store a snapshot of what you just saw to compare it to the next image, and that snapshot can only be the resolution of your retinas, i.e. only high enough resolution at your foveas to notice a difference. If the picture was smaller, and more of it could be “snapchatted” by your fovea at once, it may be easier to spot the difference.
(Need a hint? The man just to the right of the big white beam completely disappears)
Go ahead and look back at the image if you haven’t already. Did you notice something different about your second time? Once you see the change you can’t un-see it — your brain knows it is there and pushes it into your awareness.
“The body cannot live without the mind.”
Are you convinced? Perhaps we are all in a computer-generated world being fed directly into our brains. A scientific argument actually exists in favor of this scenario! The premise is that simulated universes are much cheaper to make than real ones (i.e. with a computer versus with a big bang), so if such simulations are possible they would likely outnumber the real universes, and therefore it may be more likely we are all living in a “fake” universe. It might be impossible to ever know for sure… Even the philosopher Descartes imagined a similar concept – which he ominously and appropriately named “Evil Demon” – long before computers existed. In either case, each of our brains creates our own personal realities based upon a series of best guesses.
Your perceptions and sensations are all generated in your head! And the craziest part is: that’s a good thing! The alternative is, well, no perceptions or sensations. Sounds boring.
Under most real-life conditions and situations, all of these processes work perfectly fine, easily well enough to enable us to survive in the world effectively. How can we know whether it’s real? Well, we can’t really, not for sure. But we can be sure of one thing: if we didn’t have the matrix, we wouldn’t have anything.