Ok, this article is a little overdue, because I wanted to finish watching Musaigen no Phantom World before. Even if the execution was bad, I thought that the premise of the anime may turn out to be interesting? It’s about a world where a genetic mutation in everyone’s brain allows them to see youkai. I was of course intrigued by this: how? why? when? tell me more! Obviously everything you see is because of your brain, but how is it that everyone is synchronized?
Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong, and instead of tackling these questions, kyoani chose to focus on senpai fondling her boobs -.-‘. This anime stayed completely tedious until the very last second. What a letdown from an anime centered around the “neural error correction” club.
Fortunately for me, there’s no shortage of works tackling the subjectivity of the experience of the world, especially when it comes to hallucinations or imaginary friends. A fair number even link it back explicitly to an underlying neural cause like brain damage, ranging from Scrubs to Cronenberg’s Videodrome or House MD.
This builds up on a very famous school of philosophy, that probably started with Descartes, which noticed that you will only ever experience the world through processed perceptions in your brain. Good ol’ fellow Berkeley would say that everything is ideas, Derrida would say that there is nothing outside of the text… For all intent and purposes, what’s outside your field of perception could not exist and you wouldn’t even notice (neural Truman show effect).
Meaning that in a way, the world is nothing but a representation inside your brain. Everything you see, feel or experience are simply neural impulses. Nowhere is that as clearly illustrated as in the Matrix where tons of people live in a world accessed by neural transmitters at the back of their heads without noticing anything, because they can’t. For them, it’s not possible to distinguish between that and what you’d call the real world. The simulation is as real as it gets.
As long as we’re on the topic of the subjectiveness perception of reality, my brother, who studies math to what I’d call an unhealthy level, recently quite impressed me by explaining me that the earth was actually flat. Not because it’s a pizza floating into space, but because there is a perfect mapping between a sphere and a plan, so when you walk a straight line on a sphere, you could think of it as walking in circles on a plan, and everything would stay the same. It’s just a matter of how you chose to represent it, and “classical geometry” is not the only way. Isn’t that kinda cool?
In the same vibe, I’d like to recommend you an extract from the amazing Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, where Harry thinks back about the nature of the world to try and understand why partial transfiguration isn’t possible. I think it illustrates quite well the arbitrariness of the choice of the model with which we see the world, as well as the subjectiveness of its perception.
“He wasn’t looking at the eraser.
Harry was inside Harry’s skull.”
Everything that happens happens in your brain. When you think about it, two concept that seem to you close semantically (any association) is simply a manifestation of the corresponding neurons ticking in harmony. Language, being a complex linking between concepts, mirrors the underlying neural linkings. What you like, what you understand in the world, how you view it, are simply affects and interpretation corresponding to your neural structure. It’s like your experienced world is nothing but an inward projection of your brain structure (and that’s kinda cool). The art, music, etc… you respond to are the ones that reflect your brain’s organization.
This means, by the way, that the pop culture music that everyone enjoys is so universal because it speaks to something shared between the brain of most humans. I’ve always been kinda fascinated by that. If so many people respond to it, it’s because there’s something fundamental in human nature, common to all of our brain, that responds to it. Ergo, writing for One Direction is actually reverse-engineering the human brain and human nature.
By the way, did you know that remembering something activates more or less the same neurons in your brain than experiencing the real thing? That means that memories, imagination, or dreams, are real. And I’m not just saying that. Experiencing them is quite literally the same thing as experiencing the outside world (aka neurons firing in your brain). Any arbitrary value attached to the so called ‘realness’ of anything is purely illusory (take that, IRL fanboys). *highlighting in red the scientific proof that I don’t need to go outside, mom*
So in a way, the real world you live in is nothing but a reverse projection inside your brain of this outside world through your perceptions. So is the abstract world of art and language. You know what this means, right? Everything you’ve ever known, learned, seen or experienced is actually inside your brain. You have the potential for everything you have lived and you will live right there. All of it. The world is actually inside of you. How mindblowing is that?
This picture is taken from a new favorite anime of mine I stumbled upon recently: Ghost Hound (by the writer and director of the famously weird Lain). It tackles various subjects that are dear to me, like lucid dreaming, out of body experiences, hallucinations… and does it with an insanely good (yet ambiguous) rationale and scientific (yet poetic) take. In it, the main character experiences out of body experience and roams through the Unseen World on top of the actual world. At some point, he crosses the wall towards his brain, as if the whole world, both Seen and Unseen, were just included within his neurons:
The anime is big on Jung’s concept of synchronicity, of which I am less fond. But on top of this brilliant imagery, it’s a great closing topic, as it offers an embryo of response where Musaigen totally failed to even see the point. It draws an interesting parallel between the global hallucinations and Jung’s collective unconscious that obviously brings to mind Lain’s “world brain wave”. But on that I’ll leave these superb work speak for themselves far better than I could ever do…