I listened to an amazing episode of Radio Lab the other day. It was about this device that is being tested on blind people to help them ‘see’ again. With their tongues.
The device completely avoids the optic nerve; instead a small electronic device is placed over the tongue with an array of electrodes. It emits tiny zaps that correlate to a video feed from a camera attached to a pair of sunglasses.
At first the thing worked about as well as you’d expect. People reported a mild buzzing sensation. They could use this in a very crude sense. Like if it was zapping them particularly hard that meant something was right in front of their faces.
But no one was able to sense the little picture the thing was creating on their tongue. Not fully anyways. The tongue doesn’t generally learn to do such things. But it is particularly sensitive.
After hours of practice something neat happened.
Suddenly, they could see a foggy grey image as if it were being presented to their eyes. It felt to them just like seeing. They weren’t seeing it on their tongue but in front of their eyes.
That means that, somehow, the data from the zaps on their tongues had made its way to the visual cortex (though some theorized it was happening elsewhere) and engaged our intuitive ‘sight’ experience as if it were coming through the normal route behind their eyes.
This was not some trick they had learned. They didn’t focus really hard on different parts of their tongues for minute differences. When one woman first experienced her tongue sight she actually jumped backwards to avoid something that was moving towards her face.
Like nothing for hours and then just boom. A grey blob hurtling towards her face.
The electric info presented to their tongues had completely integrated into the reality that they lived in. The perceived one anyways. And the reason it works is because we’ve all learned to see this way ourselves.
Vision itself is like this. There’s no reason that seeing ought to be any more immersive than smelling a fart. It is just that our brains construct a reality with our visual data much more readily than they do anything else.
And there’s a mountain of evidence that everything we see is actually just a very consistent hallucination rather than a window into reality. The brain processes what we experience adding as much information as it simply passes on.
In a sense, every optical illusion is proof. There are reliable ways to make people see things that aren’t there. Philosophers have been arguing we don’t experience reality for millennia. Some argued reality doesn’t even exist.
But more recently neuroscience has discovered that, what the brain does when it hallucinates and when it sees are pretty similar. The difference is just whether or not visual data is making it into the hallucination.
All of this doesn’t mean that we are living in a simulation. It does not negate science either. But it does mean we need to update the common sense ideas we have about reality and how easily we can judge things about it.
At first it may seem like this is a tiny distinction, and at its core it is. But the tiny gap between us and reality may be enough to let in all sorts of error. Most troublingly when it comes to eye witness testimony.
But memory is a whole different issue, where the gap widens a little farther.
In future installments of this series we’ll cover the issues with memory. And some of the concerns with sensory perception. As well as some concerns with the logic we use to try and make sense of this slightly removed pseudo reality in our brains.
The point, again, is not to discredit science or to invite bizarre new age fantasies. It is to focus in on just how complicated it is to know anything for sure about reality.
These problems may be why it took so long for thinking people all over the world to settle on the ground rules for something like real science. And why those ground rules seem so particular about certain things.
In fact, more than anything all of this suggests that we could stand to be a lot more scientific about many of the everyday things we take for granted.
And at the end of the day it suggest that we never know anything for certain.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t do amazing things with our almost knowledge.
And it definitely doesn’t mean we’re in a simulation.
Stop saying that.