This is a post that I have planned to write for a while. Every time I think of it, something has come up that seemed more pressing at the time, more important. And it kept me from writing what I am about to write, from sharing what I have some to realize as the most important struggle that the world may ever know, because it is the most invisible. I struggled to find the words to explain how I feel this relates to writing, fiction in general, but I think I've finally done it.
Anyone who has dealt with mental illness, true mental illness and not the acute symptoms of depression that plague most everyone from time, have struggled with the difference between perception and reality. If someone has in their chosen to "refuse your reality and substitute their own", either via a mental illness such as schizophrenia or simply an overpowering need to distance themselves from traumatic events, there is little you can do to convince them otherwise.
Entire careers have been made around minor breakthroughs in this field. If a psychologist develops a "breakthrough" that seems to work, seems to help, the medical industry jumps in with both feet. Back before medical ethics were what they are now, treatments such as electroshock therapy, sensory deprivation chambers, and lobotomies were employed. Why were such brutal and inhumane treatments allowed, and in many cases embraced so wholeheartedly by the medical community of the time?
Because whether they worked or not for the patient, they served the underlying need of society, which is to bring these patients more in line with what most of us generally accept as reality. "Insane Asylums", as they were called, were not about helping people get better, though that is certainly what people told each other to assuage their guilt. It was about removing the dissenting and sometimes violently dissenting among us to a place where we will be safe from them. The attempt is made to help them reconnect, but any psychologist will tell you that for the majority of these people, it quickly becomes a task of managing and lessening of symptoms than a search for a cure.
This is the worst case scenario of what I am going to talk to you about. I start there, because I want to cover more subtle forms, and it will hep to know where I'm coming from. It's a foundation, so to speak. A foundation built on people whose minds have so betrayed them, that they cannot accept a reality that is physically evident as well as persistent.
I find it kind of ironic that for most of society, losing ones mind is equated to losing ones grip on reality, when most of our entertainment comes from willfully doing just the same for a period of time. The only thing that allows us to let go and enjoy our little escapes of the mind is that we willfully choose when these mental departures begin and end. We maintain control. If that control is threatened, which is a tactic that the best horror films and stories invoke, we become unsettled quickly.
No doubt many of you have had the pleasure of arguing with someone who's memories seem particularly skewed when recalling how certain events happened. Generally, they remember themselves in a better light. If they were in an accident, their memories are selectively edited to remove the most traumatic parts. In essence, our brains are constantly undertaking mild revisions of the truth in order to make ourselves look better, to make our own history more palatable. When you argue with a person that is particularly good at this, particularly committed, they can make you question the way you remember those events.
I had an argument like this recently, and it took a great deal of positive reinforcement to remind myself how things went down. I suppose it is hard to accept that during a vulnerable time in your life, you acted in a manner that was distasteful to you on recall. If two people remember a conversation differently, its usually the content of the words that is lost, and their reaction to them that is retained. If you hear something incorrectly at the time, even if corrected at a later date your mind has already committed that emotional response to memory, and removing it or reconciling it after the fact becomes extremely difficult.
If anyone tries to correct your recollection, people can become angry, even if the person is right, because that other person is trying to question your perception of reality. Some people handle that well, and are willing to consider the fact that they "just remembered it differently". Some people become incredibly irritated, even violent, because to question their perception of the past is to suggest that they have a problem dealing with the present. These people are also the ones that are most petrified of developing mental illness, in my experience. The possible connections are obvious. They have spent a great deal of time worrying that they may at some point lose their grip on reality, that any possible evidence that questions their perceptions are hit with all of their hatred and fear, making their reactions seem out of line with the norm.
We all have to deal with someone questioning our memories at some point, and I'm convinced that the constant fight going forward is not necessarily going to be against others, it will be against ourselves, or the version of ourselves that we are willing to accept. Humans fuck up occasionally always have and always will, it's part of our nature. With the advent of the machine age, we have become accustomed to a level of precision that has surpassed our own in many ways. Machines are purpose built for a job, and can be made to do it better than any human, given enough time and revision.
I have written about it before (if anyone can find the post, I'll send you a prize), and I honestly believe that in the near future, technology will continue to exacerbate this problem. Our elective alternate realities, such as films, video games, and other assorted digital simulations, are becoming more immersible, more realistic. Brain to computer interfaces are being developed that allow direct connections between the human brain and a computer, which will one day become a commercial endeavor. I truly believe that, because it is the next evolutionary step in our pursuit of a reality that we can control completely.
Lying to someone until you yourself believe something was the first stage. Once we as a species became intellectually capable of deceit, the first person that we generally choose to deceive is ourselves. Once art became prevalent, another layer of fiction was applied, as our interpretations of reality had to fight through layers of perception such as recollection, interpretation, and duplication. The image or story that appears is generally different than the original memory or inspiration that fostered it. The next person takes in that vision, and if the medium changes, such as a verbal summarization fo a written story, attempting to duplicate a scene from a painting from memory, etc, additional distance is added between origin to present.
This is a well known fact of perception, that everything we perceive is changed as it is passed on. It is why some people are so petrified of the increasingly realistic forms of entertainment that are out there. Religious Groups and some Parents feel that video games cause violence, because they often depict violence. Before video games it was comic books, before comic books, it was art, before art, it was literature. There has been a near constant battle to restrict peoples access to these little "mental vacations" we now take for granted.
These people feel that empowering others through fiction isn't always a good thing. They worry that ideas will be introduced that might not otherwise be there, such as committing killing sprees or other crimes. Yeah, I seriously doubt they wouldn't get those ideas from the news, or newspapers, or by word of mouth. Let's just blame books, movies, games, etc.
As I said earlier, our reality is constantly being encroached on by the fiction that we choose. That comment of "I reject your reality and substitute my own", is going to be a possibility in the future. I hope I get to see it, but the groundwork is already laid. People spend more and more of their time online, facebook, twitter, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, etc, are taking up more and more of the worlds attention. We used to be limited to local interaction, being tethered to a desktop computer. That was changed slightly with the laptop, but in order to communicate we still needed an internet connection, which meant either a long cord or a wireless signal with a finite range. Now we are even more mobile, through the use of cell phones and mobile devices and a nearly ubiquitous cellular network.
So we are no longer tethered to our desks, but we are still stuck at dealing with our virtual worlds through screens and headphones. I like to call this phase two, or the "Simulated Interaction" Phase. We now view these worlds through a small window, like we are peeking in on an alternate reality, which we can imperfectly influence by commands that are interpreted by the parsing software that runs the simulation. If that sounds like alot of work, you can begin to understand why this stage feels a bit like dry humping. You're close enough to get a tease of what the real deal might be like, but it's still ultimately unsatisfying.
Devices such as the Oculus Rift (Click for reference) are going to take things even further. I see that these products, including haptic gloves and things of that nature, as being merely a stepping stone until we are able to directly connect our brains to computers and in essence, put ourselves into a simulation in an even more immersive nature than what our dreams do for us now.
The pace of the required medical advances will be slowed by the expected red tape and safety regulations, but eventually we will get there. Once we do, we will enter phase three, which I like to call the "Total Reality Substitution" phase, or TRS for short. Our bills will still need to be paid, our lawns mowed, showers taken, etc, so I'm not insinuating that we will completely replace our reality with a simulated one. The two realities will always remain independent (short of Augmented Reality, which will become commonplace around the end of Phase two.
In our inexorable march toward total reality substitution, there are alot of things that need to happen, and one of those is the topic central to this post. Our perception of reality needs to be better understood before we get there, and I fear that if it isn't we are going to have many avoidable social problems during the transition. Films such as Surrogates, The 13th Floor, Existenz and Sucker Punch all explore the harmful effects if the line between fiction and reality doesn't have a touchstone, a way to let the user know which reality is real.
The Matrix films did this through color grading, although that was admittedly just to benefit moviegoers. The Matrix had a green tinge to it, the real world a blue tinge. Of course, in practice this would only work until someone began trolling people by changing the simulations color grading to blue in certain areas to mimic reality. Then all bets are off.
My ultimate point is this-we need to work on our ability to process reality as a species. There is an upcoming merging of simulation and reality, and if we aren't prepared for it, we're all going to be considered out of touch, or if you prefer the classical definition, crazy. If we can't get a handle on dissociative disorders, schizophrenia, and the like, we won't know what we need to in order to save the rest of the population from truly shooting people in reality because they didn't know they were no longer in the game. If people want to complain that video games and comic books cause violence and sociopathic behavior, they really aren't prepared for the potential of what is to come.
I personally cannot wait for this to come, not because I'm a sadist that wants to see us fail as a culture, but because I see all of the good that could come of this technology. People with severe mental illness could have custom realities tailored to help them get real therapy, and possibly help them bridge the gap between their reality and ours. At the very least, we will discover if such therapy is even a viable path towards helping those with these disorders.
If these fake realities can be sped up, prison sentences could be handled in virtual, with their pennance carefully structured by psychologists in order to give them a reality that rehabilitates them in a much shorter period of time. Ever wonder how a convicts life could have been different if someone had just cared for them, or shown them that they didn't have tol live like that? That will be an option. The convict can be released into a simulated reality that they believe to be real, to guage whether they are ready to re enter society.
These things will all become possible, and the only way we can use the possible good in them is to deal with the bad in us now.