The simulaton life is a rich life experience provided by training our
minds to consider simulations of natural and human phenomena often
in order to gain depth in understanding, awareness, and compassion.
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we live but a simulation of the physical world around us
The simulaton life is a rich life experience available to us by training our minds to consider simulations of natural and human phenomena often — in order to gain depth in understanding, awareness, and compassion. Given our limited ability to be in more than one place at a time, the simulaton life provides us an opportunity to expand our minds through exposure to our simulated reality through artifacts that exist physically, virtually, and imaginatively — across time and place. As we pursue the simulaton life, we can pursue the artifacts that help us simulate phenomena so we can contemplate those phenomena for insight and understanding. We have been given an abundance of capabilities within our brain-body system in order to facilitate the simulaton life. Some contemplation of those capabilities so we can provide an explicit inventory within our awareness is a useful place to start — and we do here in chapter 1.
The movie The Matrix brought the concept of a simulated reality to the forefront of mass consciousness as the last millennium became a new. In a trilogy of films, the plot grew out of a base condition where most humans experienced their day-to-life through a simulated reality called "the Matrix", created by sentient machines to subdue the human population, while their bodies' heat and electrical activity were used as an energy source. Most people lived out their lives without ever knowing anything beyond what was available within that simulated reality. Others, including some heroes of the films, became aware of the reality of sentient machines and their lives changed dramatically with that awareness. The suggestion that we might never know we live in a simulated reality, despite the existence of another reality, provides great fodder for thinking about reality more broadly in our day-to-day lives. The simulaton life provides us an opportunity to explore what other realities might be — especially if we use the word reality broadly as a starting point and consider our personal empowerment to create our reality to some extent.
The human brain works hard to create a meaningful world for us by coordinating a complex, ongoing process by which each perceivable stimulus in our environment can contribute to build a model for what is happening around us at any point in time. Our brain enacts a complex, yet unique process by which it maintains that model to provide a continuous sense of reality. As humans we have also been given great flexibility in our abilities to create stimuli that can then be perceived by others to have an impact on their state of mind. As a result of our competence at stimuli production, we have a feedback loop available to us for assisting our brain's ability to make sense of the world around us. When we talk to ourselves, audibly or not, we exercise that feedback loop. Effective human communication relies on a coordinated ability of sharing stimuli between people. Our preferences for coordinating stimuli and our brain's adaptation to rely on those preferences evolve human culture. Our culture then becomes a significant driving force in how we pursue meaningful communication and what topics meaningful communication contains.
If we compare an inventory of evolved human preferences and abilities with that of other beings, we realize our process of making sense of the world is potentially quite different than the process of making sense used by other beings. Bats and dolphin echolocate by emitting their own calls out to the environment and listening to the echoes of those calls that return from the objects surrounding them. We can imagine those returning echoes as pictures in the bat or dolphin's mind. Some humans have learned to echolocate to compensate for a lack of sight through eyes.
Compared to our brain's typical preferences and abilities, echolocation provides animals an advantage in the dark conditions of a moonless night or at great ocean depth. Whales generate much longer wavelength utterances in order to communicate over long distances. Their anatomy has adapted to attend to, hear, and process those utterances to take advantage of a long-distance awareness. Because echolocation and long-wave sound are processes we humans have been able to discover and observe to some extent, we know there are differences in how different beings process the world to form their sense of a continuous reality.
Another train of thought gets us thinking about what possible stimuli and brain adaptations other beings may have incorporated that we have yet to discover. Our brain may have a redundant facility to compensate for our lack of attending to some unknown stimuli — so much so that we may even have lost abilities that our ancient ancestors had — in order to keep our brain churning away on a reasonable potential information load given its capacity. Our ability to survive in our environment may not require that we attend to some unknown stimuli so we have not developed the ability to do so. Or perhaps by fate, our brain just didn't evolve in a direction we would have preferred it to evolve should we have a way to know of other possibilities.
As we consider the current theories of how our anatomy converts stimuli in the world into meaningful brain inputs for our mind to access, we can consider the environmental selection processes by which our human abilities came into being. Human senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell have been available to us as they are for generations — even if the culture in which others lived fine-tuned each differently for the life they lived.
The discovery and deepening understanding of the anatomical facilities that provide signals for our brains have been investigated often, and identified well as a result. This chapter provides you a primer on the anatomy involved for stimuli processing so you can marvel at the workings. Scientists who research the processing of those signals once within the brain's anatomy have had a harder time reaching a consensus — yet modern improvements in discovery methods have been helping the consensus process more significantly of late. For some, the details of how brain anatomy does what it does to make use of environmental stimuli are incredibly interesting. I can't write confidently enough to promote one view of brain processes over another but I can suggest that there are days I am enchanted by the latest brain anatomy findings. I find that after contemplating new anatomical hypotheses and testing results, I am quick to return to contemplate the bigger picture.
When I try to spend some time observing what my brain seems to be doing with the stimuli I perceive in my surroundings, I can experience the result of my brain's anatomical process— without knowing or being able to observe where exactly the work is being done, or how the process is taking place. I turn the corner when street-walking a place I have never walked before and I can experience that my brain is helping me anticipate the distance to new visions on the horizon that look interesting. I experience that my sight is most often dominant in helping me make that anticipation, but that my other senses are contributing to some degree.
If I see a beach in the distance, the degree to which other senses contribute to my anticipation seems more significant — as the smell of the salt air, touch of the wind on my skin, and sound of the waves seem to help my brain along in anticipating the beach. Sometimes the smell of salt in the air or sound of the waves might come first. My anticipation is fine-tuned by a higher-level brain process of pattern recognizing current stimuli with other times I have seen a beach in the distance. A thought experiment may come to mind where I imagine myself blind and wonder how well I could predict the distance to the ocean without the sight component. To explore a deeper awareness, I may try to simulate the capabilities of any other being trying to assess any aspect of the environment around me.
Through observation, I can convince myself that I live in a simulation of the world around me — a simulation my brain constantly updates and maintains for my benefit. If I try hard to hone my hearing on sounds my brain doesn't seem to be willing to give me access to unless I attend to them, I realize those sounds are not very important to my current reality compared to the sounds my brain is providing me access to quite readily. Those less valuable sounds are not part of my simulated reality by default. If I start touching objects around me that I would not usually touch, I get some additional information about them but rarely does the information provide me additional value compared to what my brain could have surmised from prior experience (and yet it's enjoyable when new value is provided). I don't go about touching too many things because my brain's simulation of the world seems just fine without me doing so.
As I spend some time focusing on my whole brain-body system, I start to realize that I can make thoughts conscious that I normally don't bother making conscious. I can make myself more touch sensitive by using my touch more often. I can imagine a trajectory whereby should I ever lose my sight, I'd start touching everything much more often. I feel spoiled by living in a big oil era in my ability to have tasted combinations of flavors from cultures all over the world. I can attend to the taste of food in order to imagine what tastes another culture more readily excites in the world compared to my culture.
Through a process of becoming aware of my brain's simulation process and through perturbing the simulation through attention to specific stimuli (those already in the environment or those I create myself that become part of the environment), I begin to experience how tweaking the simulation provides me different experiences of reality — simulations that bring different thoughts to mind for consideration by my consciousness. In observing the potential diversity, I begin to realize there is an opportunity to provide an evaluation of both the range and specifics for that diversity. Some simulations seem more valuable than others — given my current needs, wants, and interests. Some simulations help me understand the world with different nuances compared to others. Some provide me new insights that resonate with thoughts I've had before.
Some nuances evaluate higher than others when I attempt to evaluate them. And the simulations I am comparing are just those simulations that come from attending to the stimuli in my environment — those that come from stored memories of stimuli from my past expand the diversity of what's possible hugely. I can help my brain figure out what is going on by experiencing a huge worldwide collection of stimuli that color my reality due to the specific workings of my brain — just like neurologists theorize what the brain is doing thanks to evidence from brain injury cases.
Playing with our senses and experiencing the effects of making explicit choices, we come to an awareness that we live in a simulation of the world around us and yet are partially responsible for the content of that simulation.
The physical process by which signals in our environment become accessible to our brains has been investigated often enough by scientific observation and experimentation that the theories associated with the processes are highly predictive. After being introduced to those theories in a physiological psychology course in 1982, I have revisited the details of the theories often — to reiterate their significance to human perspective. Each time I do I experience a sense of awe the details provoke in me. As a result, I am eager to share the basics in the following paragraphs.
Sight is the most complicated of our senses — made possible by coordination of physical parts of our eyes. As much as 40% of our energy use when we are at rest takes place by our process of sight. Photons of light arrive at our eyes from sources as a by-product of chemical and physical reactions taking place in our environment. Photons pass through the cornea first — a transparent, convex-shaped surface that covers the front of the eye. As a result of its convex shape, the cornea refracts the incoming light. The iris, the colored part of the eye, regulates the size of the black-colored pupil — the opening at the center of the iris that controls the amount of light that enters the eye. Behind the pupil is the lens, a clear part of the eye that further focuses light, or an image, onto a retina — a thin, delicate, photosensitive tissue that contains various types of photoreceptor cells that convert light into electrical signals. The retina partially processes electrical signals before transmitting the signals on the optic nerve en route to the brain. The optic nerve contains a bundle of nerves on the order of magnitude of one million. On the other end of the optic nerve, our brain provides us the experience of sight. We'll consider the brain's contribution later — it is not as readily understood.
Sound is less complicated but fascinating just the same. Disturbances in the air around us arrive at our ears from physical phenomena that take place in our environment. The resultant physical waves pass through three regions within our ears— conventionally called the outer ear, middle ear and the inner ear. As the waves travel down the ear canal and strike an eardrum, the eardrum responds with vibrating movements. The eardrum connects to the ossicles — three bones in the ear that in succession translate movement in the eardrum to movement in fluid that is contained in a cochlea. The cochlea is lined with tiny hair cells that resonate with different frequencies based on the movement of fluid. The hair cells generate electric signals that travel up the auditory nerve to the brain. We'll consider the brain's contribution later — it is not as readily agreed upon.
Taste is a sense we experience from the contents of food that has been dissolved in saliva — a watery substance located our mouths that is secreted by salivary glands. Saliva washes over our tongue, which contains taste pores that expose taste receptors — the most dominant being the taste buds that are located at the top of cells that detect elements that we perceive as salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami. Taste buds on the tongue sit on raised protrusions of the tongue surface called papillae of which there are four types. The human tongue has 2,000—8,000 taste buds on average. The taste receptor cells send electrical information detected by clusters of various receptors and ion channels to the gustatory areas of the brain. We'll consider the brain's contribution later.
Smell is often our first sensory response to stimuli. Although smell is a basic sense, it continues to be at the forefront of neurological research. Scientists are still exploring how, precisely, we pick up odorants, process them, and interpret them as smells. Smell, like taste, begins in response to a chemical phenomenon in our environment. Chemical structures are brought into our nose through our breath and then into our nasal cavity where chromoreceptor cells detect the chemical constituency. At the rear of the nasal cavity, behind and just above the bridge of the nose, is the olfactory epithelium — skin cells that react to chemicals. When a molecule of a substance excites one of these cells, an electrical nerve impulse is sent to the brain. We'll consider the brain's contribution later.
Touch occurs throughout the body whereas nature evolved specific, precise anatomical features for sight, sound, taste, and smell. The sense of touch originates in the bottom layer of our skin called the dermis. The dermis is filled with many tiny nerve endings that give us information about the physical and chemical stimuli with which our body comes in contact. Nerve endings in our dermis are specialized to respond to heat, cold, pressure, and pain — in approximately twenty varieties. Nerve endings attached to body hair also contribute to our sense of touch. The nerve endings that excite create electrical signals that follow the nerve network to the spinal cord — a long, thin, tubular bundle of nervous tissue and support cells. The spinal cord extends from the brain at the medulla oblongata.
Considering our senses from the brain's point of view, we can ignore the pre-processing details of the previous paragraphs and focus on the rush of electric impulses arriving to be sorted, filtered, correlated, amplified, archived, etc. In fact, we can imagine our brain processing impulses in any manner that a computer processes incoming bits on a telecommunications channel. Although the processes performed by our sense organs are impressive in their own right, the processes performed by the brain are an order of magnitude more magical — and in many cases still mystic to those who research brain function. To set ourselves up for chapter 2, we are going to linger upon the potential of for our brain to make sense of the world for our benefit — as a tightly coupled facility of the body. We'll focus our thoughts by defining the sum result of brain activity as a simulation of the world — acknowledging the brain as a revered resource we rely on to live the simulaton life.
Through theories tied to observation and experiment, we know that our sense of smell is often the forbearer in alerting us to danger. We can smell a fire before we see, hear, or touch it. We can smell rotten food before we taste it. We recognize dangerous smells even if we can't confirm the danger with any other sense. Our sense of sound often precedes our sense of sight — because movement in the air can move through objects that light cannot penetrate. We know our sense of taste is tied to our sense of smell as we lose our ability to taste when our nose is not functioning fully. Our senses have an intimate interrelationship that isn't always apparent. For lack of any other physical conduit for interrelating them, we have developed confidence that the brain does that work on our behalf.
Through theories tied to observation and experiment (often at the expense of other beings), we have gained insights into how our senses are tied to higher-level processes in the brain. The function of the brain that converts sensation into perception is part of the limbic system — a system that includes the amygdala and hippocampus — structures we believe vital to our behavior, mood and memory. Memories can be accessed through any one of our senses — moods are often generated more readily from smells and sounds from our environment.
Perhaps sight lingers behind in generating mood because it requires a very complex higher-order brain function just to make sense of what is in front of us at any point in time — a huge percentage of our brain function is required. Our eyes seem to be wired to see lines and motion and our brains then interpret those features to attempt to recognize what sort of object those lines and motion might represent. Our brain tries to match patterns to ascertain and then cause us to perceive whatever objects might be there. Awareness of those objects then kicks off a flurry of brain activity — much of which is tied to our future actions. The process is messy and hard to pin down as the anatomy and biology involved is complex.
Instead of worrying about precise details of however our brain does what it does, we can appreciate the potential available for brain processing based on the inputs from our sensory systems. All that electrical input can be compared, sorted, filtered, correlated, amplified, archived, etc. in a seemingly endless combination of possibilities. As we develop our skill of mindfulness where we pursue a calm awareness of our body, feelings, and mind, we can make headway into observing the process by which we take external stimuli from our environment and stimulate feelings and thoughts. It's not easy to improve mindfulness without practice and practice comes in my forms — there exists a worldwide community of people pursuing practice approaches for increased mindfulness. Often, a community pursues mindfulness with a purpose in mind — to reduce the suffering of beings, for example. That's interesting to investigate but a significant distraction to the focus of mindfulness here. From the simulaton life perspective, mindfulness is a skill to help with insight and understanding — as we improve that skill, we can use it for any purpose.
Ideally a perfect mindfulness would allow us to choose to attend to any stimulus through our senses, observe how that stimulus participated in brain functioning, and then precisely identify its contribution to our current thoughts and mood. We'd identify which memories became active. We'd take inventory as to that stimulus' contribution to our current level of understanding and insight into the world around us. The perfect mindfulness would also let us perceive the brain function involved in detail.
Given the fact that we rarely consciously attend to individual stimuli in our environment with the intent of learning how stimuli effect the overall simulation of reality we maintain, we can suggest that a goal of perfect mindfulness seems as unlikely of attainment as a goal of curing cancer by ourselves in our lifetime would be. And yet, the embodied mind hypothesis would suggest our hope of improving our day-to-day reality depends somewhat on the extent of which we can attain mindfulness. We might not be able to track the effects of each stimulus, but we can gain a sense of expectation with some probabilistic evaluation whereby the probabilistic certainty advances as we recognize causes and effects. We may never gain any confident perception of our brain function but we can identify the resultant moods and thoughts.
Developing mindfulness goes a long way in facilitating the simulaton life. If we can ascertain what stimuli facilitate our mind towards insight and understanding, we can pursue those stimuli to that end. If we can become aware of what stimuli erode our mind away from insight and understanding, we can avoid those stimuli to pursue insight and understanding. As we are better able to recognize insight and understanding and consciously learn to integrate them into our day-to-day reality, we can use the simulaton life to improve our day-to-day reality — to whatever result we aim to improve it.
There are some classic examples of mindfulness that represent the process well. One of my favorites is that of the bubbling brook. If I sit next to a stream that is making a consistent noise from the physical interaction of the water with rocks over which it flows, I can focus on the sound or the sight of the brook as stimuli to my senses. As I focus, I find the brook helps me become present in time and that a peaceful mood comes over me as noticeable memories enter my consciousness. As I deconstruct the sound and sight, I gain insight into the fact that the sound and sight stay remarkably consistent even though the water's contribution to stimulus generation is ever changing. Each water molecule passes by me just once and yet my mindfulness stays consistent. My mind now has fodder for a tremendous amount of additional insight and understanding about my day-to-day simulated reality. I do not need to attain perfect mindfulness to take advantage of that fodder. The more my experience approaches the ideal, the more command I attain over processing that fodder for personal aims.
Chaos reins in the mindfulness practice when I let myself exist in a chaotic environment when my senses are over stimulated. Just like any scientific experiment with too many variables involved, my mindfulness practice struggles to apply itself to situations of over chaos. As I get better at mindfulness, I experience a sense of awe that my reality stays coherent in those chaotic situations — obviously my brain-body facility is doing a lot of work for me at those times. That sense of awe can even become euphoric as I attend to it. In those cases, I might take inventory of all the stimuli present in the environment. Then, I can work to combine lesser numbers of them in a mindfulness practice that tries to determine cause and effect.
There are built-in redundancy processes in a brain that make certain combinations of stimuli less overwhelming than others. We have a built-in facility for music that lets us cope with the many stimuli of an orchestra playing a concerto. I am fascinated with the effects of those natural redundancy processes when they are turned on. Every time I experience the symphony, I know my mind will go to a unique place it rarely goes. I remember that I enjoy the diversity of thought and mood that place provides. While I am listening, I recognize that effect. My mindfulness is not yet advanced enough to identify the components to that effect reliably. As a result, I haven't found any way to recreate that specific contribution to my reality without the symphony producing it for me. I don't remember the benefits of exposure to the symphony enough to make it a priority in my life. I have a list of potential mindfulness components I should explore to improve my mindfulness. Awareness of those seems significant should I find time to hone my skill.
My mindfulness exploration is made more complicated by the fact the brain handles some combinations of stimuli well and others not so well. It might provide insight into multi-tasking and memory as it does for some researchers who document their findings. Each complication makes mindfulness more messy and thus the path to improving my reality more messy. Just taking inventory of what's involved and how the process might work motivates me to continue to pursue mindfulness as a goal. Incorporating mindfulness into the simulaton life seems both necessary and rewarding. Learning to rely and attempt lessons from the practice until they are proven wrong or useless seems important for continued growth.
Before I let the complexity of mindfulness frustrate me or suggest I should give up on finding insight and understanding through mindfulness practice, I remind myself of what's at stake. My quality of life and ability to contribute meaningfully in the world depend on the reality in which I participate. If my reality is a simulated reality — molded by what I am privy to via my senses and shaped by how I process inputs to thoughts — my acts to proactively search out experiences and surroundings depend on my mindfulness for guidance. There's a satisfying feedback loop involved — no matter the rate of progress I attain.