We Are Entangled in an Illusion
Somewhere in prehistory Homo sapiens crossed over into virtual reality, when a mind-made simulation became essential in our evolutionary path. The exact era will never be known, or the reason, if any, why one species should acquire such powers and know that it had them. No other creature consciously shapes its future. No other species tells stories and convinces itself that they are true. There are many mysteries in our past. Somehow, following whatever tortuous path, we managed to make our simulation so convincing that we got lost in it.
Although this simulation is very convincing, on a daily basis it breaks down. There are times when life goes out of kilter and the world doesn’t seem real and substantial anymore. Such experiences occur regularly, either to ourselves or to other people. For example, when there’s a sudden death in the family or a catastrophe like a tornado or the house burning down, we may go into shock. With a blank stare we reveal how dislocated our existence suddenly feels, saying things like “This can’t be happening. It’s unreal” or “Nothing matters anymore.”
Normally, this dissociated state will pass, and in time reality feels real again. But some people never return—after a psychotic break, for example, a percentage of mental patients become chronically schizophrenic and have hallucinations, seeing images or hearing voices for the rest of their lives. But the feeling of “This can’t be happening; it’s like a dream” doesn’t have to be triggered by shock. Countless people engage in personal fantasies of fame, wealth, or some other dream that feels totally real to them and drives them all their lives. When someone is suddenly ecstatically happy, for whatever reason, everything can seem surreal, too.
However, the physical world “out there” feels real and substantial a lot more than 99 percent of the time, which is proof enough, one would think, that we aren’t under some kind of spell. But we are. Ironically, there’s now technology that forces a person to confront what is real and what isn’t. When you don a virtual reality (VR) headset, powered by artificial intelligence, the simulation you are plunged into is like a wraparound, three-dimensional movie of such vividness that it overwhelms the senses and causes a dislocation from what we deem as everyday reality. You might find yourself precariously perched on a steel construction girder in midair with the city street many stories below. Your brain, fooled by the visual image, triggers the stress response just as if you were really teetering on the girder. You will feel yourself going off balance in a panic, even though in the room where you are actually standing, your feet are firmly on the ground and you are in no danger of plunging to your death.
The VR illusion is created by visual images, and the same holds true in everyday life. What you see, you believe in. Such trust is misplaced, as every grade-schooler learns when told that the sun doesn’t actually rise in the east and set in the west. Yet when quantum physics tells us that matter isn’t what it appears to be, we continue to cling to the sensations of weight and solidity of hard physical objects as if they were indisputable. Would a bullet be less dangerous if you saw through the illusion? No. The bullet and the entire physical world become the end point of a process that begins in consciousness.
Once you grasp this and fully absorb it, your personal reality becomes much more malleable, because you can go to the source and be part of the creative process. Getting untangled from the virtual-reality simulation isn’t easy. Our personal experience would have to change drastically, but the beauty of it is that we have the potential for change where before we had none or very little. While you cannot turn bullets into cotton balls, to accept that all of reality “out there” is beyond your ability to change isn’t true.
The ground rules of everyday life are much looser than we imagine. Even when a person feels completely immersed in the simulation, there is an escape route. And not just one, but many. This only makes sense. Metareality is more real than any virtual simulation. We should regard glimpses into it as evidence that we can inhabit the meta state all the time. Instead, the entanglements of virtual reality have turned the picture wrong side up. As you read the meta experiences below, you will be tempted to see them as anomalous, freakish, or untrustworthy. Getting real is a process that begins by confronting your misplaced trust in illusions every day.
Let’s consider one of the most basic aspects of virtual reality. Hardly anyone would question that being inside the body is normal, natural, and a true experience. But this certainty runs counter to the phenomenon of out-of-body experiences (OBEs), which have been documented in every culture for centuries. The most widely publicized out-of-body experience is “going into the light,” as reported by patients who have clinically died during emergency medical procedures, especially from heart attacks.
It turns out that expecting to go into the light when we die is misleading, because what happens in near-death experiences is much more individual than anyone thought. The largest study of near-death experiences, which examined 2,060 patients who died under emergency or intensive care, arrived at the conclusion that death isn’t a single event—it is a process. There isn’t simply one final or definitive event. During this process, there are ways to reverse death. In cases where medical professionals were successful at getting the heart, lungs, and brain to come back to normal functioning, about 40 percent of those who died and came back remember that “something happened” when they were flatlined.
This part of the study, which was titled AWARE and was led by British intensive-care doctor Sam Parnia, seems irrefutable. But very quickly the details of “something happened” become controversial. We have to dive into a few details to see what the issues are. Out of the 2,060 patients who died (the study went from 2008 to 2012 and included 33 researchers in 15 hospitals), 104 were resuscitated. The first point to note is that all had actually died. They were not “near death.” Their hearts and lungs had stopped functioning, and within 20 to 30 seconds their brains showed no activity. The decomposition of cells throughout the body actually takes several hours to commence afterward. During the interval between dying and being brought back is when 39 percent reported the memory of being conscious even though their brains had stopped.
Dr. Parnia believes that this is probably just a fraction of those who had such experiences; the rest had their memories erased either by brain inflammation, which occurs for 72 hours after a person is brought back from death, or because of drugs that are administered as part of resuscitation, which also cause memory loss. Of the 101 patients who completed the questionnaire about their experience during death, only 9 percent had an experience compatible with the typical “going into the light” model. The majority of memories were vague and unfocused, sometimes pleasant but sometimes not.
Only 2 percent of those who came back, which means 2 people out of 101, had the experience of full awareness or out-of-body experiences such as looking down from above their bodies watching and listening to the medical team as it was working to revive them. Only one person could accurately narrate what had been happening in the room in such detail that it corresponded to timed events. So what does this one person tell us about dying?
It depends. Skeptics shrug off all such experiences as purely physical, claiming that if we had finer measurements of brain activity, at a very subtle level we’d discover that the brain hadn’t actually died. Dr. Parnia accepts that this might be true. His main focus is on how to achieve better results at resuscitation that might bring back a normal person with no organ damage, particularly brain damage after clinical death. But Dr. Parnia’s personal conclusion is that a person can be fully conscious without brain function, as this one patient was. He points to the basic disagreement, thousands of years ago, between Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle contended that consciousness was a physical phenomenon, Plato that it was nonphysical, residing in a soul that transcends the body.
The AWARE study didn’t confirm either side. Unsurprisingly, skeptics and believers didn’t change their position, or their prejudices. One can say that it’s a significant step to turn death into a process that can be reversed. It’s also significant that awareness during death covers a wide range of experiences, not a one-size-fits-all of going into the light. What I’d like to underscore is that even when you die, you fashion the experience personally. Dr. Parnia found that people’s spiritual interpretation of their death experience coincided with their own faith. They interpreted the light as being Christ, if they were Christians, which was different for Hindus and totally nonspiritual for atheists.
What happens when we die, then, is open to interpretation. The only consensus among those who came back was that death is a comfortable process, not to be feared. Having directly experienced that their fear of death was groundless, these people discovered a different perspective on life. Many if not most concluded that they should lead more selfless lives in service to others.
I think it is useful that the AWARE study validated that “something happens,” but why are we trying to settle the issue of consciousness at the most extreme moment when life and death hang in the balance? It’s like trying to validate gravity by asking survivors of a plane crash about their experience of falling from the sky.
It is the normal, everyday experience of consciousness that needs to be explained, not the extreme states. I’ve debated or conversed with many neuroscientists, and none has been able to answer the simplest questions about consciousness. These include the following:
What is a thought?
How does the electro-chemical activity in a neuron turn into words, sights, and sounds in our heads?
Why is a person’s next thought totally unpredictable?
If someone has a vocabulary of 30,000 words, does this mean that a clump of brain cells knows 30,000 words? If so, in what way are the words being stored? For the word cat, is there a place inside a brain cell that holds the letters c-a-t?
No one can adequately answer any of these questions.