We all live in virtual reality. This is how to change it.
Anyone who has been paying attention to tech news will know that next year Apple is bringing out a very exciting new product for a few thousand dollars that will enable us to experience virtual and augmented reality unlike ever before. Of course, there have been virtual reality headsets for quite a while now. The experience of wearing them is crazy. But this new product seems like we are going to a whole new level of experience. With AI and VR, our world is looking more and more different every day. What most people don’t realize, however, is that we have been living in a virtual reality since we arrived on this planet millions of years ago.
One of the most important insights from the field of neuroscience is the idea of ‘Affective reality’. In a nutshell, it means that our experience of the world is different depending on what we are feeling at the time. This explains why you can make decisions and look back and ask ‘What got into me?’ It explains why we can fall in and out of love with someone. It explains when someone can seem so happy and then can self-destruct or take their own life.
I believe this idea is vastly underrated. The way we think the world works is that we experience everything as it is and then we make decisions depending on what is going on. We believe we live in a world where things go well and things go badly. We fail to account for the fact that our own emotions can dictate if things go well or badly. I’m not just talking about the impact of how we feel on what we do. I’m talking about the impact of how we feel on how we experience the world.
If we look at what we know about emotions and how they work, we have a brain that is cooped up in our heads. It has one core function: to keep us alive. It needs to do so by two actions: a) regulating our body, making sure our body does what it needs to do to function properly, and b) taking action that keeps us safe and alive.
In order to accomplish this goal, the brain faces a tough challenge: the world along with its many threats to us. Of these threats, human beings are top of the list. This is not just because we are most likely to be killed by one another but the relationships we form keep us safe and the many problems inherent in relationships can make us feel unsafe. As the brilliant neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett suggests “The best thing for your nervous system is another human. The worst thing for your nervous system is also another human”.
To handle such threats, our brain has a specific approach. It tries to anticipate what is going to happen so it can act accordingly. It, therefore, functions as a prediction machine. It gathers information from three sources. The first source is our bodies through a process known as interoception. The second source is the outside world through our five senses. The third source is our memories and concepts that we have formed in terms of the meaning of those memories. Here’s the issue though. Our experience of the world is based on the COMBINATION of these three input signals. In other words, we don’t see the world as it is. We see the world filtered through how our bodies are at that moment AND how our memories and concepts direct us to experience it.
Much of what we actually experience is a simulation as opposed to what is actually out there in the world. This is hard to comprehend as intuitively it feels as though we are seeing what is out there and hearing what we are hearing. What we know from research, however, is that we are actively constructing the world while our brains search the three input sources for information. This is known as top-down processing. Our brains interact with the world and show us a curated image of what is going on and what it means. So what we experience is not reality but it is just like it. It is our own, every day, virtual reality.
The stakes are higher than ever with this everyday virtual reality. These two realities are fundamentally different. Virtual reality is defined as a computer-generated environment. EVR (everyday ‘virtual’ reality) as I describe it, is our brain’s-generated environment. I deliberately use the word virtual because it is ‘almost’ reality but not quite.
With the headsets, we know we are wearing them and we can take them off. We understand, at least somewhere, that what we are experiencing is different from what’s happening. Our everyday virtual reality is part of how we function. We cannot separate ourselves from it. More than anything, we must learn how to use it.
The secret to changing EVR is to change it at one of the three input levels. We can change where we place our attention in the world. We can change how our body feels. We can change the way we think and remember our experiences. These three worlds are the outer world, somatic world, and inner world. When we change what is in the world around us and we change what we pay attention to, that will help. Where do you go? Who do you surround yourself with? What kind of life do you have? That is where many people stop though. We assume that the problem we have is with our world. That may be correct, but our world isn’t just the world outside of us… it’s how we take it in.
For that, we need to look at what is going on inside of us. How do we feel in our bodies? Our brain searches through every part of us and figures out what our bodies need. The better we take care of our bodies, the better we are able to experience the world in a helpful way. Our bodies influence our brains and vice versa.
We also need to work on the concepts and memories that we have. This final piece to the puzzle is where we can do a massive amount of work. When therapy is done well, this is where the power lies. NLP, CBT, and Mindfulness are all wonderful approaches that provide us with the means to work on these elements.
Most of the work I do in the field I built called ‘Belief Leadership’ is focused on changing these concepts and memories. Belief Leadership is a structured approach to help people cultivate belief in an idea, person, or thing. A memory, after all, is simply your belief about what happened. An expectation is your belief about what will happen. When you work on remembering better and expecting better, this will change how you experience whatever is going on. Ultimately, it is about believing better.
Understanding that we all live in EVR can be hard to grasp as it makes us feel like we are all in the matrix. While that’s a stretch, there is no doubt that we live in our own worlds and the secret to living well is to understand how your world works. We are not at the mercy of nefarious forces that are hiding our reality. We are actively participating in a game where we build what we experience. To win, we first have to know how to play the game.
P.S. Hope you are enjoying the Changing Minds Podcast – you can always check out the latest episodes here. Enjoy!