iAge

Changing how we see aging

Our Own Virtual Reality Box: The Brain

Thinking is the Process of Making this Model Work

We live in our very complex mind. Our brain works by modeling the external world in order to be able to organize and predict behavior. This is how we survive. Our brain is designed as a virtual reality box—VRbox—where we can test it by interacting with reality. Our VRbox is a powerful tool that allows us to behave within an external environment that is otherwise utterly incomprehensibly in its complexity. And we interact by taking shortcuts based on this simplified model of reality.

Even though our brain is a most complex structure, reality is infinitely more complex. Each one of us having a slightly different model to play with and with over 7,251,078,000 such unique VRboxes there are bound to be some that have an aberrant representation of the world.

National Institute of Mental Health
Our model of reality is necessarily distorted—since it is a representation, a model. We have common shared moral principals. But in some people their VRbox allows them to rationalize heinous crimes. This is the case of Jimmy Saville and his predatory sexual crimes against over 450 mainly children victims. What he was doing was right by himself. We all do the right thing, we just need to understand what “right” means in our VRbox.

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In one interview in The Guardian, Wednesday 9 July 2014,  David Hare characterized Saville as “in a lurid and sweaty argument with his maker, trying to pile up credit points to balance the final ledger against what he knows full well to be his sins.” Saville’s VRbox allowed him to rationalize his behavior on a simple scale balancing his impressive philanthropic work with his heinous crimes.

There is not one representation, one individual VRbox that represent reality. Similar to language, although we might speak with different accents and have a different vocabulary, we all hold certain common rules. Our VRbox loves rules which is why we are so good at developing rules in science, philosophy and behavior—this is known as nomothetic. But we are also aware that we need to test our VRbox against reality to identify our uniqueness—this is known as idiographic. Our VRbox performs both these activities at the same time and there is no distinction. The dichotomy is false.

We start developing these rules very early on in life at the same time that we start defining our uniqueness. Piaget and Kohlberg showed how the brain needs to develop before we can form moral principles. In older age our cognitive capacity s fully formed and our testing of reality is at an apex. Hume’s “is” vs. “ought” dichotomy are tools we use to gauge how accurate our representation is.  By adulthood the rules inside our VRBox become stronger then reality. We become more reliant on our VRBox “ought” rather than the “is”. This is our model of the world and our sense of self. We get so good at this that we do this automatically all the time. The brain models, thinking is a process of getting there. 

© USA Copyrighted 2014 Mario D. Garrett

Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor at the school of social work, San Diego State University.

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