Is reality truly as we perceive it? Or is our perceived world nothing but a vision of reality skewed by evolution to optimize our survival – even at the detriment of the truth? Are we looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, or, more extremely, through a filter that morphs our senses so greatly that the world we interpret seems like a drug-fueled fantasia compared to how reality actually is? Has evolution taught us to distort reality for our own good?
I recently read a great interview in the Atlantic with Donald D. Hoffman, Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine. In it, he flips a great deal of classic cognitive science and evolution theory on its head. Traditionally, theorists have argued that ancestors who perceived reality more accurately (that is, the closest to true reality) had a competitive advantage and were thus more likely to survive and pass on their genetic code. However, Hoffman disagrees with this wholesale and actually theorizes the opposite to be true. Since it is in fact fitness and survival that evolution optimizes for – not truth or accuracy of reality – Hoffman argues that distorting reality and seeing it inaccurately may actually give us a competitive advantage by optimizing our perceived reality for fitness and survival.
To explain the point, he draws on the metaphor of graphical user interfaces (GUIs). GUIs are a great example of a skewed perception of reality that helps us optimize our ability to interact with the computer. However, they are not the “true” form of reality for a computer. An icon on a computer has color, shape, and a position that represents a certain program or file, however, none of those things are “true” representations of that program or file; they are convenient cues for us to interpret in order to leverage the computer. GUIs are simplifications of the complex reality that is a computer, allowing us to interface with it without perceiving the true, complex reality of what we’re doing.
In the same way that Hoffman used this metaphor to explain how our minds perceive reality, I asked whether we could extend the metaphor to explore the idea of reprogramming reality. While millennia of evolution have endowed humans with a certain sort of cognitive operating system, what does it look like for us to reprogram this? At first blush, one could argue that we do this every time we put on tinted sunglasses, wear earplugs, or throw on a layer of clothing. However, I would argue that all of these things play into this metaphor more as peripherals to our OS.
Historically, approaching such a daunting-so-as-to-be-ridiculous task would have been laughable. The idea of trying to reprogram our subconscious to perceive reality differently sounds like something out of a Bond flick. However, with more and more technology going in, on, and around us, we are suddenly enabling a very real possibility of using technology to constantly shift or augment our perceptions of reality without our minds necessarily seeing or understanding why.
Take, for example, the experience of pain. While I have no way of being certain, pain could be theorized as an unnatural human perception of reality that we have developed as a way of increasing our survival instincts in situations that have historically caused humans harm. However, let’s imagine a future in which situations that typically cause us pain – fire, blunt trauma, or piercing – no longer harm us. Wouldn’t it be advantageous to change our reality to no longer perceive pain? And what if we developed technologies that artificially engage our sense of touch or tap into our releases of dopamine and serotonin to augment or change the way we perceive these types of experiences? Could we reprogram our reality to something else entirely?
Vision is another interesting subject. Human beings actually really suck at seeing things. A great deal of how scientists theorize that we view the world is through a quick visual snapshot and a great deal of interpolation. What if we could hack the retina or even the occipital lobe to transmit more frequent or modified views of the world around us (like Magic Leap is currently trying and apparently failing to do)? Could we adjust our cognitive perception of the world such that, even if we took the technology away, our perception of reality would be different?
I’ll make a bold claim to say that modern society and the organization of people has all but destroyed Darwinian evolution within human beings. We don’t need to worry about prey hunting us anymore. Those of us privileged enough to live in a developed nation and be born into a stable enough family don’t typically have to worry about food or shelter. Survival of the fittest for many human beings is a thing of the past.
Therefore, if we’ve shed the natural course of evolution, why can we not also shed our historical perception of the world around us? Far from a puritan’s claim of trying to revert to seeing the raw world as it was meant to be perceived, I ask you this: What does it look like for us to continue to push and evolve reality? Much like evolution has distorted our own cognitive operating systems in terms of how we perceive reality, how can we reprogram reality around us to view the world in brave, unique, and creative new ways?
Shane Saunderson is the VP of IC/things at Idea Couture.