Do We Live in the Matrix?: The Left Brain’s Great Deception

Is it possible that we live in the matrix? Is it possible that what we see and feel around us are computer programs created by an advanced civilization? Is our reality, ultimately, virtual? The eternal battle between our two brain hemispheres reveals the truth.

Living In a Computer Simulation  

There have been increasing voices lately claiming that we might be living within a computer simulation. Famous tech entrepreneurs are quoted as supporting this idea, which is based on the following thought experiment: consider the tech advancements that humanity has created during the last hundreds of years. Focus especially on the digital age, our progress with AI and virtual reality. Now, go hundreds, if not thousands, of years in the future and imagine the tech capabilities of that distant and very advanced civilization. It’s almost a scientific certainty, the argument goes, that our future selves, the more advanced human civilization, will be capable of creating a whole world within computers. Now, come back: you live in it!

The movie Matrix is famous for expanding on this thought experiment but other movies have done this as well, most notably The Thirteenth Floor (1999), Dark City (1998) and Cronenberg’s Existenz (1999). These movies play with the idea that reality might not be actually real, but a software/tech simulation that just “feels” real.


The Thirteenth Floor


Apart from the thought experiment and the movies mentioned here these articles usually cite physics too as a possible scientific proof of “the matrix hypothesis”. The deeper we go into the fabric of reality, the smaller particles we discover. Thus, the fabric of the universe seem to resemble a computer screen that projects pictures looking real but that are actually made from tiny, artificial pixels.

Is this true? Are we living in someone else’s technological dream? Is this world a digital fantasy? Neuroscience can help us understand better those questions and to, maybe, even discover a meaningful answer.

The Two Minds in Us All

It’s now a consensus that most of the attributes that popular culture assigns to our two brain hemispheres, left and right, are false. This brain laterisation is important for reasons not yet fully understood but definitely not because rationality lives in one half and emotions in the other (not true). The fact though that those two hemispheres perceive the world in a different manner is not as widely known as it should be. And this might be down to the dominance of one of those systems over the other, especially in our modern societies. One system has taken control and does not want us to be aware of it! Which one is it?

Our brain has developed two perceptual systems: one driven by our right hemisphere (hereafter, right brain) and the other by the left hemisphere (hereafter, left brain). In a nutshell:

  • The right brain perceptual system is in direct contact with reality (receiving fresh stimuli from the external environment), connects us with the world and other people (empathy lives there), has a more holistic view of a situation (in a classic Gestalt way), is not very fluent with language (understands concepts more than complex sentences) and loves metaphors, and emotionally is more on the mellow end of the spectrum.
  • The left brain perceptual system develops abstract models of reality (it lives in its own world, not in direct relation with the external world), it does not promote/prefer connectivity with people, it uses only sequential logic, it’s very fluent/skillful with language and hates metaphors, its fascinated by novelty, and emotionally is more towards the joyful end of the spectrum.

The most important difference though lies in the fact that the right brain appreciates dynamism, complexity and unpredictability as natural elements of our physical and social environments while the left brain prefers stability, high controllability and predictability. The left brain loves its own safe modeling of reality because it creates comfort. At the same time, it hates the real world since the speed by which changes happen is usually too fast for its taste. How can you make safe predictions when you cannot fully grasp all interrelated factors? And how can you ever be in control if you cannot make safe predictions? The left brain strives for ultimate control through sequential/logical explanations while the right brain strives for connectivity through holistic understanding, which is usually beyond words.

Interestingly enough, the left brain is also more arrogant, thinking that it does not need the right brain. Is it by accident that until few decades ago scientists believed that the left brain is much more superior evolutionary than the right and that the latter is just a leftover of evolution?

If you think that these two systems work, or should work, in harmony think again. Our brain is a competitive jungle and in order to operate effectively it needs one of the two systems to be on top. Currently, the left system looks like the winner.

The consequence of this is our collective preference for the abstract over the real, for novelty over the meaningful, for systems over people, for selfishness over empathy, for the tree over the forest, for technological progress over nature.

For more, the most thorough analysis of the two systems I have found so far is in the – admittedly demanding- book The Master and His Emissary by psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist.

Some Lessons from TED

There are some remarkable TED talks that contribute greatly to this discussion, even if not always in an explicit (left brain) way. Here is a small selection that I hope you will find helpful.

In ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>My Stroke of Insight, neuroscientist Jill Bolt Taylor describes her experience of having a stroke on her left brain. With her right brain running the show her sense of connectivity to everything and everyone just exploded. An amazing and very touching speech!

In ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Consciousness- the Final Frontier, Dada Gunamuktananda uses more spiritual terms to explain the need to connect with the universe and to accept that higher consciousness (or right brain consciousness) will help humanity advance to a better species (in a moral way, not in a cyborg enhanced, left brain way!). A highlight of his speech is when he mentions that yogi philosophy upgrades the old “I think therefore I am” adage to the more right brain friendly: “when I stop thinking, I really am”!

In The Beauty of What We’ll Never Know, the novelist Pico Iyer talks about the amazing feeling of the unknown and the unexplained. He admits that the things in life that he didn’t know were the ones that often lifted him up and pushed him forward…. as well as bringing him closer to those around him!

In Your ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Elusive Creative Genius, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love, tackles creative thinking and writing by introducing insightful ancient Greek and Roman ideas. The fact that creativity feels like it’s not coming from us, but from a distant/uncontrolled/magical place, is because creativity does not reside in logic and sequential thinking. It’s not a product of the left brain. Fittingly, she titled her corresponding book: Big Magic!

In the most popular TED speech, ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Do Schools Kill Creativity?, Sir Ken Robinson discusses the pitfalls of an educational system formed solely on left brain principles.

” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>My own TEDx speech highlighted few practical ways by which we can apply a more holistic, brain-based communication approach to regain our humanity, connect more and achieve more together.

The Real Problem

Isn’t it that the western world’s obsession with individuality, self-interest and technological progress has created the empathy deficit, increased levels of loneliness that “is wrenching society apart”, and that favors psychopaths to run our institutions? Why are we focusing so exclusively on, and hope so obsessively about, scientific/technological developments leading to a better life for all in the planet, when these two are not actually connected? Technological progress and moral progress do not go hand in hand, as the philosopher ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>John Gray frequently highlights, and it might be that the former suppresses the latter. We have let loose the left brain to run the show and humanity suffers from an inhibition of its empathetic right brain!

In the corporate world, the mantra “If it cannot be measured, it cannot be managed” reveals the extent by which we have built organisations based on left brain rules. It is no surprise then that only a fraction of employees globally are really engaged at work. Relentless measurement is a left brain hobby that prioritizes systems, numbers and benchmarks over people, societies and nature. What if what cannot be easily and directly measured actually impacts more on your company’s success in the marketplace than those elements that you measure? It looks like a paradox but it isn’t: what makes you a great leader can be rarely measured with any accuracy. But your positive impact on people’s passion, commitment, connectivity and creativity will be easily observed in their advanced performance!

It needs a conscious and strong effort not to fall into the left brain’s daily traps. And one of the best traps it ever created is the matrix hypothesis, that reality is not really… real! This is the left brain’s great deception: the ultimate realization that everything is artificial, man-made, in order, making sense, and even – in the advanced minds of the future civilization that created all this- predictable.

While writing this post I remembered a conversation I had, almost five years ago, with a well-traveled, well-educated, highly-sought after professional and a good friend of mine. Over dinner, he mentioned the possibility that we live in a computer simulation created by a very advanced humanity it the distant future. He emphasized he was convinced that this was true. When I asked him why he believed that, he replied:

“Nikos, how many plans have you made in your life that didn’t go as expected? How many times you felt completely incapable of predicting and controlling your destiny regardless your education, experience and efforts? This cannot be real life!”

Our left brain’s thirst for control and predictability is evolutionary beneficial. But if allowed to take total control of our perception of reality, belief systems and daily behaviors we risk everything. Our future included.

Dr Nikolaos Dimitriadis (PhD, MBA) is a Certified Neuromarketer and the author of the book “Neuroscience for Leaders: A Brain Adaptive Leadership Approach” (Kogan Page). He works as the Development Director at The University of Sheffield International Faculty. 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: