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Monday, March 31, 2014

Living in Each Other's Dreams

The weather was atrocious today. Nevertheless I dragged Mr. S out to lunch at a fancy Thai restaurant we used to visit a lot but had not been back to for a year. On our way home the wind picked up and the rain turned into little ice pellets bouncing off the car's windows and hood. After some grumbling about the foot-dragging winter, we got into a discussion about an article reporting on research about ... well, the subject is not important, but I began to argue that the abstract representation of something that induces a projected, simulated experience in a person's head is not the same as actually having a real experience.

Then it occurred to me that this is an issue that has plagued my mind recently. When we watch a movie, when we read a book (especially but not limited to fiction), when we watch TV (including reality TV), are we not living in a simulated experience and feel emotions induced by a representation of experience that is NOT REAL to ourselves? Of course one could trace this back to storytelling by the fire pit ("Once upon a time...") and the drawings of hunting scenes on cave walls. When people listen to or watch (or both) an abstract representation of other people's adventure, they feel as if they were going through the same adventure and experience a part of the same feelings, emotions, and thrills (etc., etc.), all in the safety of their own caves or living room.

I'm sure someone --- probably a philosopher or a psychologist --- has described this odd phenomenon. Humans can experience something without actually doing anything for real. The fake experience, induced by abstract representation of others' actions and experiences, can induce a sense of actually being there and doing it. Sometimes it can feel very real.

So the line between reality and induced armchair experience is blurred. An extremely ambiguous example is playing computer/virtual reality games. You are doing something for real, but most of it is fake. The threat is fake, but the adrenaline rush is real. A number of recent experiments show that the brain cannot tell the difference between reality and fake reality, and a clever VR trick can even create an out-of-body experience for real. 

Now that we don't NEED to do much of anything in daily life any more, do we need real experience any more? We don't have to craft our own table and chair from wood, build our huts from clay and straw, cook our meal on fire, and harvest our own grains any more. If we want to know what it feels like to make things, we can watch programs on HGTV or the Food Network. We don't have to actually make things.

I remember the stirring fascination I felt watching the TV program "Alone in the Wilderness", in which a man made a living alone in Alaskan forest, building his own house, carving his own boat, catching his own fish. Also the Swiss novel "Heidi," which describes, in meticulous and credible details, the mountain life ranging from milking the cow to herding goats. Importantly, "Heidi" suggests that doing these things are so easy that even children can handle them. --- And so can you! But you don't need to bother. You can get all your satisfaction from projecting your mind into these people on the pages or on the screen.

Pushing the life a little farther, one could argue that many other experiences can be felt without doing anything. Can we eventually simulate all experiences, including the most instinctive pleasures, such as, uh, the tingling of smelling the woods on a clear autumn morning? All without moving your butt out of the chair!

Living someone else's experience through an abstract representation or a vivid medium is like living in a dream, a dream shared by me and the other person, because there is an eerie sense of both being and being surprised in either case. When I wake up in the morning and read the twitter feed or emails of news of the world I have missed in my sleep, it is not unlike walking straight into another dream. Throughout the day I share my friends' and colleagues' experiences through emails and messages, and the world's collective experiences through news and Web sites. In fact I have not left my chair, and my hands have not created anything tangible besides an electronic copy of some words and numbers that exists inside the machine.

Note that "someone else's experience" could be merely someone else's made-up experience, like fiction. In such cases, the author is dreaming and I enter his or her dream. The difference is the author has more control and spends more effort. I'm just a lazy consumer of the dream created by the author and deservedly have less control.

The question is this: If there is no difference between real and simulated experience, if we get the same emotions and reactions from nonreal representation of life, why live for real? Why do things for real? Why touch and hold real objects? Why eat real food? Why love real people? Why make anything real? How much of my life is real and how much is a dream created by others and shared by me?

Why not stay in the continuous, endless dream? 

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