Virtual Reality is Biologically Inevitable

Musicophilia_front_coverI am reading Oliver Sacks’ Musicopholia. He discusses several patients he has seen who suddenly become obsessed with music, or suddenly start hearing music in their head as a result of a brain injury. These are called “musical hallucinations”. He describes temporal-lobe epilepsy patients who have musical hallucinations just before a seizure. Fascinating stuff.

It reminds me of how our brains are in the habit of “playing” things – not just music, but scenarios, stories, past experiences, and experiences we wish we could have.

virtual_reality_helmetThe term “Virtual Reality” is usually accompanied by high-tech images of people with clunky things stuck on their heads.

But there is another way to understand virtual reality: it is an inevitable fact of biological evolution on Earth.

What? Virtual reality is more than just a technological innovation?  A gimmick? Yes. Absolutely. Virtual reality has its roots in the early formation of life on Planet Earth.

Years ago I read Daniel Dennett’s book Kinds of Minds. I remember looking at diagrams of how animals form internal representations of the external world.


Dennett shows how the evolution of nervous systems gave way to brains and ultimately consciousness. And along the journey, internal representations became increasingly sophisticated and better at predicting the outcomes of potential actions.

Throughout the history of biological evolution, animal brains became increasingly complex and adaptive to the complexity of the environment (which itself became more complex because of the brains of other animals…and so on). From genetic adaptation … to consciousness: all animals build internal representations of the word in order to function within it. This might be considered the very basis – the original impetus – of intelligence.


There was an amazing discovery that I leaned about from reading On Intelligence: The neocortex at the top of the human brain sends information DOWN, as well as information being sent UP from the senses. In other words, while the senses are passing information from the ears, eyes, fingers, etc. up to the higher levels of the brain, the higher levels of the brain are also sending down “expectations” of what might be coming up.

To put it another way. The brain is constantly projecting an internal virtual reality and checking to see if this matches up with the signals coming in.


If everything matches up, and if the colliding signals are in agreement, the brain interprets this to be “business as usual”. But if any differences are detected, then various neural networks kick into action, and attempt to process this difference. This may seem strange if you are used to thinking of the brain as a passive recipient of information from the senses.

But consider this: it would be very inefficient to try to soak up the entire gamut of high-resolution reality as it floods-in through the senses. Who has time for that? It is more efficient to run an internal virtual reality based on expectation in parallel with actual reality and only jump into action with something doesn’t match up. Apparently, the six layers of neocortex described in the book are in the business of doing just that. And the higher the cortical layer, the more abstract the processing.

Think about it: the higher-region of the brain is projecting as much virtual reality down toward the senses as the senses are sending signals up to the higher regions of the brain.

Thus: the brain is a virtual reality engine.

And the collective of all animal brains have a major impact on the environment. It’s a feedback loop. The biosphere is a gigantic feedback loop of internal representations, which constantly change reality and subsequently adapt to it.

This massive cross-projection of multiple virtual realities within the biosphere started even before there were animals with brains. One could say that biological evolution has always been in the business of mapping reality into various internal representations – stored in the genes of organisms – as well as in the extended phenotypes that adorn the environment. Human brains are just the most sophisticated version of the self-reflection that emerges from the fabric of the biosphere.

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.21.09 PMSo, consider the musical hallucinations that Oliver Sacks describes. Consider the unfortunate individuals who fall victim to schizophrenia. Consider the anxiety of playing out the evening’s events before your first date. These are internal virtual realities gone awry.


Sony-virtual-reality-headsetWhen I see images of people with big-ass chunks of technology stuck on their faces, I wonder whats going on in the scope of the big picture – in terms of the evolution of brains. Is our internal virtual reality not sufficient enough? Is technological virtual reality just a continuation of the human instinct to tell stories, paint pictures, make movies, and games?

Perhaps the evolution of virtual reality is just that: a continuation of something that we have been doing since we became human: extending our inner-virtual reality with more and more artificial layers on the outside.

Humans are not content with plain old “natural” virtual reality. We have to take it to extremes. And given that we are not content with reality as it is (both internal and external), I guess it’s inevitable.


4 thoughts on “Virtual Reality is Biologically Inevitable

  1. 不可避免的生物性,大脑是一个虚拟现实引擎 | Yivian

  2. The big ass chunk of technology looks like nothing so much as the Wright’s first airplane, just a little over 110 years ago. Crossing the bio interface will reduce this to…what? Imagine the storage and speed of your smart phone connected directly to your CNS. The next question is: will we be able to biologically adapt to this hyper decision making; will the nerves, flesh and bone of the body be able to exploit this capability or be overwhelmed by it? The biological expectation function will still have to be used and may prove to be the bottleneck that restricts exploitation of the technology.

  3. Thanks! This blew my mind! It clarified a lot of stuff I’ve been dimly aware of and stimulates a whole lot more thoughts…

    The evolution of human language began a new level of comparison between the virtual reality of our cultural stories and our collective exploration of nature (where before this only happened in more isolated brains and bodies). This social “computation” led to our advanced technology, from knapping flint and building wooden tools to smelting metals, this gradually allowing us to construct more and more accurate instruments with which we extracted more reliable information from the environment. The “downward” virtual reality of religious myths met more and more challenging empirical data with the scientific method, resulting in better models to describe reality. These we still “project” onto the world, but now critically assessing that process of comparison with data and respecting the importance of empirical evidence over our working theories.

    On reading the title of this post, I was uncomfortable at first. It seemed to suggest the possibility that what we call physical reality might be the engineered world of some alien or deity. I guess we can’t be sure it’s not, since any tell-tale signs that nature’s organisation is emerging from randomness (as it seems to be) could have been put there by the Creator-Thing(s) to fool us. Maybe it comes down to parsimony. Presumably it’s a lot of trouble to go to. Now if we discovered a message hidden in the digits of pi… ;)

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