Thursday, June 19, 2008

Thoughts in a Crowd

I've spent the last few days at Orlando Florida's famous recreation parks, including Disney's Animal Kingdom, Universal Studios, Disney's Magic Kingdom, Islands of Adventure.

One of the big trends in amusement parks these days is the virtual multi-dimensional movie experience. These shows are filmed in 3-d technology, which when viewed with red and green colored lenses, give the illusion of objects jumping out of the screen into your lap.

Added to this effect, though, the clever creators of these shows have added kinetic and tactile effects, so that you receive little seat vibrations, puffs of air, droplets of mist, that make the illusion of reality even more convincing. At one point during "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," for example, an-screen character appears to dump a load of mice into the audience, and when little puffs of air at foot-level squirt from the bottoms of the auditorium seats, the audience leaps in delighted fright at the sensation that scurrying rodents are loose among them.

In typical fashion, one of the Disney shows actually squirts tiny amounts of odor into the air, so that you actually smell a cherry pie cooling on a window ledge.

This is all really just a matter of movie makers taking the standard visual illusion and extending it to other senses in order to make the illusion more convincing.

But what startled me most about this was how readily we all succumb to the illusion. No matter how often you see this coming, the instinct of every audience member, myself included, is to recoil in horror when a giant dog sneezes and appears to blow snot onto the audience. We all know what the little puffs of air are, yet for a split second we're quite convinced that its the tongue of a snake loose in the audience, touching the backs of our necks.

I found myself reflecting on how easily our senses mislead us. We generally believe that our senses provide an accurate reflection of something called "reality," but a little investigation shows that those senses are fooled very, very easily.

When you get right down to it, what reason is there to think that our senses depict anything that even approximates reality? Our senses are fooled every day, in every way, so much so that it begins to suggest that life itself is really something of a virtual reality show.

In my tradition, it's believed that experience includes the seven traditional bodily senses, as well as a host of mental constructs, including thoughts and beliefs ad memories and feelings. All these things are considered senses.

None of these things, individually or in total, really, can be called REALITY. It's all just sensory impressions we're reacting to, not the world itself. If you think that somehow our senses record "reality" with some kind of accuracy, try asking five people who recently attended the same buisness meeting to recall what was discussed.

The truth is that there is nothing so subjective and slippery as "reality."

There are two ways to react to such an idea. If we acknowledge some truth there——that human beings don't perceive reality so much as they perceive sensory impressions mistakenly believed to be reality-—one might feel discouraged and even despondent. After all, it means that as human beings we will never, ever perceive anything like reality. All we can experience is the senses. For those of us who like to imagine we're searching for the truth, this could be a bitter pill to swallow.

But pushed a bit further, such a recognition could free us, as well. For if nothing is real in the sense we've always imagined, then there is no reason to despair at all. The very things we have agonized over, perhaps for most of our lives, haven't got the kind of concrete reality we've always believed.


Brian said...

We went to Honey I Shrunk the Kids when our guys were little and when the mice came out they all screamed and burt into tears. We had to leave the theater. Pretty funny looking back on it now.

Your point about reality is much like the one Plato was making in his famous cave analogy. I've never been sure what to make of the argument, except that this version of reality is all that we have to work with, so we might as well accept it as real. After all, if scientific measurements can be confirmed by numerous independent observers then it's a good chance they are based on some level of actuality.

BTW, did you mean five traditional bodily senses?

Mercurious said...


Uh, yeah, five senses.

Must be the Florida heat.

Anonymous said...

"The very things we have agonized over, perhaps for most of our lives, haven't got the kind of concrete reality we've always believed."

Amen, brother.