Our Virtual Reality

Live from Mark's (in-game) yard.

Live from Mark's (in-game) yard. Nintendo/Mark Riechers (TTBOOK)

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Original Air Date: 
May 16, 2020

Not everyone has a nice, big yard to stretch out in while sheltering in place from COVID-19. But maybe you don't need one. People are using virtual spaces to live out the real experiences they miss — like coffee shops, road trips, even building your own house on a deserted island, or Walden Pond. In a world where we're mostly confined to our homes and Zoom screens, does the line between virtual and real-life space mean much anymore?

Mark and Anne in front of Mark's home in "Animal Crossing"

Mark just built a new house. In fact, he built a whole town. And it's the one place we can actually visit, because it’s inside a game. He’s been taking refuge from the grim reality of a global pandemic...in Animal Crossing.

Mark on own personal "Walden Pond" in Animal Crossing

Game developer Tracy Fullerton tells us why Henry David Thoreau would play her new game. It’s called “Walden.”

Screenshot from "Desert Bus" playthrough by Phrasz013.
Sonic Sidebar

A simulated eight-hour bus drive earns you one point. Why would anyone want to play a game like that?

Mark playing a game in his basement.

After suffering a terrible concussion, game designer Jane McGonigal created a game to help her feel better. In the years since, it's helped nearly half a million other people overcome depression, anxiety and other mood disorders.

The many realities

How do you know what’s real? Start with your senses — if you can see, touch, hear or taste something, it’s real — right? Not necessarily, according to cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman and neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan.

Show Details 📻
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

I know we're not supposed to go anywhere, but my friend Mark just built a new house. In fact, he built a whole town and this is one place we can visit because it's inside a game.

Mark Riechers (00:18):

I actually like the outside of my house more than the inside. I spend more time out here. Here's my yard. I have a sustainable wind power. Here's my brick oven, peach orchard. This is a little coffee shop I built yesterday. It's a game about making the whole world your own.

Anne Strainchamps (00:43):

Mark Riechers is our digital producer. He's been taking refuge from the grim reality of a global pandemic in Animal Crossing, the game everyone everywhere seems to be playing. I'm Anne Strainchamps, on To The Best Of Our Knowledge, is it a video game or real life? Do you have any neighbors?

Mark Riechers (01:04):

I do actually. It looks like there's a neighbor in my yard here. She is a, I think a goat.

Anne Strainchamps (01:16):

It all looks very cute.

Mark Riechers (01:19):

It's a very cutesy game. Everyone is a cartoon animal of some kind.

Anne Strainchamps (01:25):

There are millions of adults around the world playing what looks and sounds like a children's video game. Why, what is the appeal do you think?

Mark Riechers (01:36):

It's simple. It isn't really complicated. It isn't hard to master. It's just kind of comfortable. It's more about a place that you can kind of be in, and I think maybe we're all lacking that a little bit right now. It's like anything else? I mean how many, really, really long books are you reading right now?

Anne Strainchamps (01:59):


Mark Riechers (02:00):

The last thing I've wanted in the last two months has been something that was really, really challenging. Because, I kind of feel like real life is challenging enough.

Anne Strainchamps (02:13):

On Twitter I've seen people saying things like, the first thing they do in the morning is get dressed in the game, make their bed in the game. People who are having trouble making their beds in real life or getting dressed in real life are able to do it in the game.

Mark Riechers (02:29):

Well, honestly, some days it's probably more likely that somebody would see how I'm dressed in Animal Crossing than in real life. Most of my friends I've seen either in this game or on Zoom calls.

Anne Strainchamps (02:47):

Oh, you have a lot of clothes.

Mark Riechers (02:49):

Let's go with a really unconventional look today.

Anne Strainchamps (02:52):


Mark Riechers (02:53):

Leather jacket. Those are nice.

Anne Strainchamps (02:56):

Stripey bell bottoms, leather jacket, gold medallion. You're rocking.

Mark Riechers (03:01):

Should I keep the face mask? Yeah, that feels responsible.

Anne Strainchamps (03:07):

I read, I think the other day that there are now some clothing designers, big name clothing designers, like Marc Jacobs, are designing clothing for the avatars in Animal Crossing [crosstalk 00:03:20]-

Mark Riechers (03:20):

That doesn't surprise me. The interior designer from Queer Eye is hosting interior design lessons so you can learn more about how to actually decorate your place properly. I could probably use some lessons, honestly. There's a guy hosting a talk show in Animal Crossing right now.

Gary Witter (03:41):

Hello. Hello there. My name is Gary Witter. Everyone's been tweeting at Bree Larson, everyone's been tweeting at Chrissy Tiegen, Danny Trejo, Elijah wood. If you're famous and you play Animal Crossing, people hassling you on Twitter to come on the show.

Anne Strainchamps (03:54):

I mean, I just read the other day that AOC, the Congresswoman is sort of campaigning inside Animal Crossing.

Gary Witter (04:03):

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has recently started playing Animal Crossing. And since then, her communications director has in fact reached out and we are in touch and we're going to figure out if there's a way to get AOC on the show.

Anne Strainchamps (04:18):

I guess what I'm saying is on the one hand, it seems lovely and everybody's just playing together. And on the other hand, don't you feel like there's a little bit of consumer capitalism creeping into your utopian fantasy?

Mark Riechers (04:32):

I don't know that I would even describe it as utopian.

Speaker 4 (04:39):

Live, from the Sunkist Island of Kauai, it's animal talking. Today-

Mark Riechers (04:40):

Within five or 10 minutes of playing every day, I told you, I'm thinking about making money, paying down a mortgage and the kinds of things that can drive you in a normal capitalist society.

Speaker 4 (04:50):

Gary Witter.

Anne Strainchamps (05:04):

What are those round white things on the floor?

Mark Riechers (05:06):

These are turnips.

Anne Strainchamps (05:08):

Do you eat them?

Mark Riechers (05:09):

No. You try to sell them for a profit. They change their price twice a day. And the idea is that you are trying to sell them for significantly more than you bought them for.

Anne Strainchamps (05:24):

So it's basically a stock market.

Mark Riechers (05:25):

They actually call it the stock market. So if I sold my turnips right now, I would actually lose money so I won't be doing that today. But you can sell kind of anything you find. Like I found this wasp nest, I actually got stung from that.

Anne Strainchamps (05:41):

So you just wander around pickup things and then sell them?

Mark Riechers (05:44):

Pretty much. There's not like a salary job you can get anywhere so that's pretty much the main way to make money.

Anne Strainchamps (05:50):

Is that the point of the game?

Mark Riechers (05:53):

Yeah. I exploited whatever natural resources I could find.

Anne Strainchamps (05:56):

Well, you just made a nice profit there, considering you got all that stuff for free.

Mark Riechers (06:01):

Well, you don't think I provided value by finding Anne? Most days though, I'm thinking about trying to pay off my loan balance. And this is the guy who sells you your house. His name is Tom Nook, so I'm just going to give him the rest of my money, and now I have nothing.

Speaker 5 (06:26):

Every time someone mentions Tom Nook, the shop owner/landlord and the Animal Crossing series and argument comes up. Is he a small fuzzy capital's manifestation of pure evil or, not that?

Anne Strainchamps (06:41):

When it first started trending, it seemed like this happy little cult that everybody was joining. But then I started seeing, bigger think pieces showing up.

Speaker 5 (06:53):

Do you have any understanding of capitalism and commerce, this guy's just a predator. In every single game, he has tricked you into contracts without telling you the terms-

Gary Witter (07:03):


Speaker 5 (07:03):

And yes, he gives you-

Gary Witter (07:04):

That is 100% true.

Speaker 5 (07:05):


Mark Riechers (07:09):

There's think pieces and lectures and a lot of academic discussion happening all around it.

Anne Strainchamps (07:17):

There's a political philosophy behind this. I mean, the philosophy of the vision of life is like you're supposed to get stuff, that's the point of life.

Mark Riechers (07:26):

Check in on your ATM, you can check your bank balance. Let's see. I feel like I definitely need a mountain bike. Mesh cap. I think I already have sporty shades. Get some music. I think most people who are playing this are just kind of consumers.

Anne Strainchamps (07:46):


Mark Riechers (07:47):


Anne Strainchamps (07:48):

Don't take this the wrong way, this is kind of boring.

Mark Riechers (07:54):

Yeah. I'm playing this game now. It's fun. There's a cultural significance to playing it, particularly in this moment, but when I'm ready for something challenging again, I don't know that this is the game I would be reaching for.

Anne Strainchamps (08:15):

Mark Riechers is our digital producer. He posted the full versions of all those Animal Crossing videos and one of his own town on our website, ttbook.org.

Anne Strainchamps (08:35):

So sometimes you play a video game because you just want to chill out. But when you're ready for something more challenging than selling turnips and chatting up the neighbors, what do you play? Researchers at the game innovation lab at the University of Southern California wanted to see if they could create a game version of a masterpiece.

Speaker 6 (09:01):

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Anne Strainchamps (09:16):

Walden, a game, gives players the opportunity to learn the same lessons Thoreau did by tilling fields and building a cabin in the woods. Yes, board by board. Game designer, Tracy Fullerton talked to Steve about the deeper connection players can have to Thoreau.

Tracy Fullerton (09:33):

I hope that you actually begin to have an emotional connection to him as a person. A lot of times when we're taught about great writers, we're sort of taught that they were these stodgy people, but Thoreau was a young man when he went out to the woods and he had experienced some very deep tragedies, and those are some things that we let the player explore and come to an understanding that he's a philosopher, he's a naturalist, he's also a person.

Tracy Fullerton (10:03):

So you start down right by the sort of frame of his cabin on July 4th, 1845 when he went down to the woods to begin, and you can get right to work and finish that cabin if you like. You can start hoeing his bean field, or you can take a quieter path maybe, and just go for a walk in the woods.

Tracy Fullerton (10:24):

But as you start to discover the world, what you're really seeking is balance.

Steve (10:28):

And there are things that you have to do. You got to find food, you got to have shelter and you have to pound those nails to build the cabin.

Tracy Fullerton (10:39):

You do, you have to do those things or you'll become very weak, but you never die in the game. The concede is that he lived very close to town, very close to France, and that had he collapsed, they would have found him. And so if you collapsed in the game, you actually wake up by a fire, you hear a friend. Oh, are you okay? We helped you you know.

Steve (10:59):

Ah, you found my home good for you Emily. These are friendly woods that Thoreau-

Tracy Fullerton (11:04):

Friendly woods. Exactly.

Steve (11:07):

So there are trade-offs. You can spend a lot of time out in the woods sustaining yourself, foraging for nuts or food or whatever. You can also go hang out with your intellectual friends like Ralph Waldo, Emerson or Bronson Alcott.

A Bronson Alcott (11:21):

July, 1845, my idea Henry. Mr. Emerson has assisted my family in acquiring a house near Concord and there we are now writing, living like philosophers, which is to say with little, but happily. Yours, truly A Bronson Alcott.

Tracy Fullerton (11:42):

As with all mentor-mentee relationships, eventually there's a tension there between doing as your mentor wants you to do and breaking off on your own, which they had historically and that plays out in the game as well.

Steve (11:58):

Fascinating. Of course there is a huge irony also in all of this. Thoreau valued being close to nature, he famously wrote, "in wildness is the preservation of the world." He believed in self-reliance basically using his own hands to survive. And here you are creating a game where the entire experience of nature and survival all happens in the digital world.

Tracy Fullerton (12:20):

I think that that's true and yet I think you could say the same thing about a book. I mean, a book itself is not nature. It's a piece of media about nature. The interesting thing about Thoreau is that he probably wouldn't been a game player, but he had a very sort of strong engineering mind, and I think he would have been interested in how the game was made and the level of detail that we put into building the simulation, which we built on his own surveys with accurate animal sounds and all of the animals and plants change over the course of the year, all based on his descriptions and a sort of detailed coding of his tasks. So I think he would have been very interested in the underlying architecture of the game, to be honest with you.

Steve (13:14):

It's so interesting because, you could have created a lot of this world. I mean this multimedia world of the journals of Thoreau and audio recordings of letters by Ralph Waldo, Emerson and other people, but you wouldn't necessarily have to turn it into a game. By gamefying it, what changes?

Tracy Fullerton (13:33):

I think that what changes here is the sense that it's your experiment. So we put you down in the woods, in Thoreau's shoes, so to speak, but you make the choices. And a lot of times players want to push against what they perceive as the expectations of a game. So they don't want to just stay down in the woods. They want to go to the town and they start earning money and they want to buy nice clothes. And all those things are possible in this game. You can actually live a life contrary to that that Thoreau would have chosen himself.

Steve (14:10):

How long did it actually take to make this game?

Tracy Fullerton (14:13):

It took 10 years. So-

Steve (14:15):

10 years.

Tracy Fullerton (14:17):

Yeah. You have to that it was a labor of love. It's not that we went to work full time on this for 10 years. We all did it in addition to our other jobs. But 10 years from the day that I went out and bought the team all copies of the book, and we basically sat down and started reading it together to the day that we launched it.

Steve (14:39):

Did anything change in your own life as you immersed yourself in Thoreau's philosophy? Did it make you think about anything differently?

Tracy Fullerton (14:50):

This is perhaps too much information, but as I was developing this game, I actually I had breast cancer, I discovered I had breast cancer and I had to go through a really intensive period of my life. That was followed by some other intensive losses. What happened for me was I was most interested in the philosophy in the beginning. And, as we continued researching and understanding the book, I began to see the threads of how his own losses in his own life were actually there under the surface of what... He is a particular stoic writer, but you can actually see those threads under the writing.

Steve (15:33):

Who do you see playing this game?

Tracy Fullerton (15:36):

Well, that's a great question. Because, the most unusual people write to me and say, "Well, I've never thought of playing a video game, but I want to play this one." And that makes me really happy. I can't predict who those people are going to be, but the letters that we've gotten are from people that they're not gamers, they've never even been attracted to playing a game. And yet they saw this somewhere and they said, that is the game for me. And they're so grateful and interested. And these are people that have been completely ignored by the game industry. I think what I would call them as lifelong learners and this game has found them.

Steve (16:15):

Do you see what you've done here with this game of Walden as a template for how you can create other kinds of spaces like this for other classic works of literature or philosophy?

Tracy Fullerton (16:27):

I don't know if I'd see it as a template because I think each one would have to be addressed on its own, but I'm very interested in possibly taking on new pieces of literature or history. It's a fascination of mine. This notion that we could build spaces that viscerally bring to life some of the literature, the history that seems a bit stodgy to us now, but then when you dig into it really is very interesting and not at all stodgy.

Steve (16:55):

So if you were to tackle another book, what would it be?

Tracy Fullerton (17:00):

I always joke and I say, Ulysses-

Steve (17:03):

James Joyce Ulysses?

Tracy Fullerton (17:04):


Steve (17:05):


Tracy Fullerton (17:08):

I always joke with folks and say, if you're going to choose a [inaudible 00:17:13].

Steve (17:14):

Well, at least you didn't pick Finnegans Wake.

Tracy Fullerton (17:16):

Exactly, exactly. I don't know. That would be a huge challenge. And right now I'm a little bit tired from 10 years working on a game about a pond. So we'll see. I'm actually searching for the perfect next step right now.

Anne Strainchamps (17:43):

Tracy Fullerton is a game designer and the director of the USC game innovation lab. She and Steve talked about the award-winning game Walden back in 2017. And by the way, she and her team have just made the game free for students. So if you've got a kid you're trying to keep busy during quarantine, check out their website, waldengame.com.

Anne Strainchamps (18:12):

High-minded design goals aside, the core loop of any game is all about triggering that dopamine hit, whether by killing zombies or upgrading your Island home. Games work because they stimulate the pleasure center in our brains. So here's a challenge. Could a game get players to invest in an experience that is awfully dreadfully boring?

Simon Parkin (18:41):

My name is Simon Parkin. I am a British journalist. I first heard about the video game Desert Bus on the internet. It was designed by the magicians, Penn and Teller, kind of as a commentary on, I guess the idea that video games can get you to do quite boring things for quite a long amount of time. They wanted to see how far they could push that. And so in this game, you have to drive a bus down a very boring straight road that very occasionally veers one way or the other.

Simon Parkin (19:20):

It doesn't take any skill to play the game particularly. I think a child would be able to do it well. The only thing it's testing really is your endurance and your resilience to boredom.

Simon Parkin (19:34):

I don't think I've ever played a game as monotonous as Desert Bus. It takes eight hours to score just one point. I think there's something funny about that. There's something weirdly heroic. There's a group of friends who got together, they wanted to raise some money for charity, and they were trying to figure out a way that they could make some money playing a video game for charity, and they came up with the idea of revisiting this game, Desert Bus, which had been recently rediscovered. So yeah, they seized on this game. They said, look, we're going to see how long we can play Desert Bus during a one, two, three day stretch. You can watch what we're doing, donate your money and cheer us on all of that kind of thing. And they've been doing that for a number of years now.

Simon Parkin (20:22):

Fun is such a nebulous word and it means different things for different people. I think. I think probably a true a word to use about video games is challenge that, video games issue us with the challenge and the sense of elation that we get when we overcome that challenge is what we probably classify as fun a lot at the time. And the challenge that Desert Bus issues to its players is so extreme that it almost becomes alluring. How many hours can I do this very monotonous drive back and forth? How can I challenge myself? There's something marathon esque about it, except without the leg cramps and all that stuff.

Anne Strainchamps (21:06):

Journalist Simon Parkin on the game, Desert Bus. Games are filled with powerful motivators designed to keep us playing. Coming up, what if there was a way to harness that potential to change people, to make us better? It's to the best of our knowledge from Wisconsin public radio, NPRX.

Anne Strainchamps (21:48):

Getting sick can make you feel like you're at the bottom of a well, and you'll never climb out. It's an experience game designer and scholar Jane McGonigal knows personally.

Jane McGonigal (22:03):

It was the summer of 2009, and I was in the middle of writing my first book, which was all about the psychology of games. I actually hit my head and got a concussion. I was kind of laid up in bed for a few months, headaches, nausea, I couldn't think clearly. And on top of all of that, I got severely depressed, I actually started feeling suicidal and kind of at my lowest point, I decided to try to design a game that would help me get better.

Anne Strainchamps (22:51):

Jane used her own super power, game design to open a path out of her illness. And she thought maybe she could use it to help other people too. So a game, for mental health, how would that work exactly?

Jane McGonigal (23:09):

One of my favorite sayings about games comes from a psychologist, Brian Sutton Smith. These said about 30 years ago, the opposite of play isn't work. The opposite of play is depression. And I think that's the big idea that I hope we can rally around. We know that when you have high levels of dopamine in the reward, pathways of your brain, you feel more optimistic, you feel like you will put more effort and energy into trying to achieve your goals. The more dopamine you have in the reward pathways, the more motivated and determined you'll be.

Jane McGonigal (23:44):

And ,it turns out that all games, especially video games, give you a tremendous amount of dopamine. Every time you take an action that could possibly lead to a positive outcome, whether you're firing a weapon in the video game, or you're swapping candy pieces, every time you do that in a game, you get a little dopamine hit because the brain is anticipating either possible success, or you're going to learn from what went wrong so you can do better. And the dopamine actually helps you learn faster, kind of pay closer attention so that you can actually improve.

Anne Strainchamps (24:17):

But that's what makes video games addictive though, right? Because it's the same dopamine rush that say, an addict gets from their drug?

Jane McGonigal (24:25):

Just because you happen to have a lot of dopamine motivating you doesn't mean you're addicted. Say you've been playing candy crush saga, and you've failed a level 50 times and you decide to try again the 51st time, because you feel optimistic, you feel determined, you really want to do this. You think you're getting better. Is that addiction or is that the ability to stay motivated and goal oriented in the face of frustration? If you're trying to learn something new or practice a skill or achieve something, it's actually great.

Anne Strainchamps (24:58):

The other thing that's really interesting about this is that you're not the only person, the only researcher beginning to explore the way games can treat emotional and physical pain and suffering. There's some examples you give in the book. There's a game that helps burn patients ignore their pain?

Jane McGonigal (25:16):

Well, it's fascinating. They don't ignore their pain. They actually prevent pain. It's a game called Snow World. And it's a 3D virtual reality game that you are in this snow world. You throw snowballs at penguins and explore snow caves and frozen rivers. And patients play this while their burn wounds are being cleaned, which is known to be the single most painful medical procedure there is. It turns out that patients who were playing this game while they received treatment, had the ability to block 91% of their awareness of the pain. For many of the patients, it was more effective than morphine.

Anne Strainchamps (25:59):

Wow. How can that be?

Jane McGonigal (26:01):

It turns out that there's limited resources in your brain at any given time. There's only so much blood flow, only so much energy and video games require a lot of cognitive processing. You're paying very close attention. You're very engaged on the obstacles that you're wrestling with. And there may be a lot of visual processing as well if it's a really visually rich world that you can see when the game has gone, the fry machine, all of the blood is flowing away from the part of the brain that processes pain towards these more problem solving goal oriented regions. And what that means is not that they were ignoring pain or that they were distracted from pain, but that literally the brain was rejecting pain signals from the body because, I don't have the energy to process pain right now. And so the blood just never flowed to the region of the brain that needs to be activated in order for you to notice the pain signals that are being sent from your body.

Jane McGonigal (27:02):

So, that's a great example of how much more power we have to control our own minds. If a burn patient can literally prevent the brain from feeling pain during the most painful medical procedure known, all of us should be able to have more control over what we're feeling.

Anne Strainchamps (27:23):

So could you actually prescribe a video game for a particular life issue or challenge? Let's say you're inclined to be really anxious and worried, and you've got a big work presentation coming up, what game would Dr. Jane prescribe?

Jane McGonigal (27:41):

Tetris or candy crush saga are great. I mean, anything you can put on your phone, and those are both games that have been tested extensively in the scientific literature as being fully absorbing enough to help you wrestle back control of your attention of your thoughts and feelings. And I hear from doctors and therapists all the time who are prescribing video games, it's becoming quite common, particularly in terms of preventing PTSD. There've been three studies out of Oxford University now showing that if you play Tetris for 10 minutes, within 24 hours of witnessing a traumatic event, it actually prevents the brain from creating flashbacks from a visual flashback, which is the single hardest to treat symptom of PTSD. And people who played Tetris for 24 hours within witnessing the trauma had fewer flashbacks and fewer symptoms of PTSD. And it's the same principle, your brain actually gets fixated on the visuals of a video game and you wind up having flashbacks of Tetris instead of the trauma.

Anne Strainchamps (28:45):

That is just extraordinary.

Jane McGonigal (28:48):

Yeah. And it's interesting. As you start to dig into the scientific literature, you realize that this medium that we've been very dismissive of turns out that these are really powerful tools. And, that the same reason that maybe they worry us because they seem so engaging, we might get addicted, those aspects of games are actually the very thing that allow us to become better able to control our attention, thoughts, and feelings.

Anne Strainchamps (29:15):

I'm curious, I know you identify as a Buddhist and it seems like the other big approach people use for anxiety in particular is meditation, which just seems to me, that's such a different mental activity than playing a video game. It seems very calming as opposed to a video game.

Jane McGonigal (29:35):

Well, as I talk about in the book, when you actually put gamers and meditators in FMRI machines, you see that their brains are actually being activated in quite the same pattern.

Anne Strainchamps (29:47):


Jane McGonigal (29:48):

It's true, it's true. And now, there are many researchers who believe that a lot of the benefits that we associate with meditation, like improved anxiety, actually stem from the fact that meditation is a flow inducing activity. And flow is a psychological state that you enter into when you're fully engaged with a difficult challenge, and video games are all about inducing flow state. There's even a lovely interview in the book with a Buddhist monk that I met when I was doing a silent retreat in South Korea. And he admitted to playing angry birds every single night. There are only so many hours in the day to do formal meditation he used angry birds to continue that practice every night.

Anne Strainchamps (30:34):

Buddhist monks playing angry birds in their monasteries. Love that. So, this gets at a kind of deeper question about our culture, which is our suspicion of play and fun. Why is it that we tend to assume, a video game is fun. It makes us feel good therefore it must be bad?

Jane McGonigal (30:55):

Well, I mean, you could write whole other books on that topic. We've always been suspicious of things that seem to take us out of reality. I hope we can all start to see that these playful ways of thinking or imagining stories and storytelling are very much capable of changing how we think and act in real life.

Anne Strainchamps (31:25):

That was Jane McGonigal, author and creator of SuperBetter. So we've been talking about the sometimes blurry lines between the digital and the real world. But what if reality itself is the fiction? Coming up a conversation that is going to feel like going right inside the matrix.

Anne Strainchamps (31:53):

I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's to the best of our knowledge from Wisconsin, public radio, NPRX.

Anne Strainchamps (32:08):

How do what's real? Well, you can start with your senses. If you can see, touch, hear, or taste something it's real, right? Well, Steve Paulson is here to say not necessarily.

Steve Paulson (32:21):

That's right. It might all just be another illusion. At least that's what some very smart scientists believe. I've been doing a series of conversations at the New York Academy of Sciences back when we could still travel about the nature of reality. And one of the most fascinating was with Donald Hoffman who's both a cognitive scientist and computer scientist at UC Irvine, and Suzanne O'Sullivan, a neurologist in London who treats people suffering from psychosomatic illnesses, and I have to say it was just mind-boggling.

Steve Paulson (32:56):

For starters, Hoffman says evolution has wired our brains just so we stay alive, but not in order to see the underlying reality.

Donald D. Hoffman (33:06):

Well, one example I like to give is the jewel beetle, a beetle in the Outback of Western Australia, it's dimpled, glossy, and brown. The males fly. The females are flightless and the males fly around of course, looking for a female. And when he finds one, he lights and mates. And, it turns out that in the Outback, there are also these beer bottles that are dimpled glossy and brown. And it turns out that they're just the right shade of brown that the male jewel beetles flock all over these bottles and try to mate with them. And the females are of no interest compared to these bottles and the species almost went extinct.

Donald D. Hoffman (33:43):

It's the classic thing of the male leaving the female for the bottle. It's tragic, very tragic. But, here's a species where the males had found female successfully for who knows how many hundreds of thousands of years. And, you would think that means that they had evolved to truly know what is a female and what's not. And what we see is that's not the case. They evolved with a simple heuristic, a little trick, a female is something, anything that's dimpled, glossy and brown, and apparently the bigger, the better. And that's what evolution does. It does things on the cheap, right? Because every calorie you spend on perception is a calorie you have to go out and kill something and eat it to get that calorie. That's dangerous. So you get just enough to stay alive and it turns out that truth isn't needed to stay alive.

Steve Paulson (34:37):

Okay. So Suzanne, let me turn to you. You come at these questions from a very different perspective from your clinical experience in the world of neurology. From a neurological perspective, do we have a sense of what's real out there?

Suzanne O’Sullivan (34:52):

When you hear a story about a beetle, we think, Oh, well, we're a bit more sophisticated than a beetle, but actually it isn't about intelligence. Our perception is constantly tricking us. Just to give you an example of somebody that I met when I was quite a junior doctor and sort of how much I misunderstood her at the time and how much I'm sort of learning to understand better.

Suzanne O’Sullivan (35:13):

This woman was perfectly well before, no particular medical history. She was working in a supermarket and she got some spray cleaner in her eyes. She got immediate first aid. People washed out her eyes. She went home, her eyes were very red, very inflamed. She went to bed. She was a little distressed by this incident. And when she woke up the next day, she was completely unable to see. And therefore you go through the usual range of investigations, which is testing the integrity of the eyes, measuring their brain's reaction to visual stimuli and so forth. And what the test said was that her eyes were working absolutely fine. And she couldn't see anything. That was her perception rather than this actually being a reality.

Suzanne O’Sullivan (35:59):

But what was most troubling for me when I was a junior doctor, still kind of learning about these disorders was this concept of how much insight she had into this. She couldn't see, but she could see. So for example, she's being wheeled down the corridor in a wheelchair, I'm passing her by and she says, hello to me by name. Well, I don't believe my odor is so distinctive that a person can spot me from 10 paces. She's reacting to me as if she can see me. And the thing that happened, which absolutely blew my mind was am I been looking after her for a while and then when she was going home, she gave me a card and she had drawn the picture on the card herself. And she had drawn flowers, a tree, and it was perfect. The colors were right. It looked like a picture drawn by a sighted person.

Suzanne O’Sullivan (36:46):

I did say to her because I was so kind of shocked at the time. And she said that, she was able to draw by using the feel of the pen on the paper, but it still didn't make any sense. And while I still believe she has a serious problem, you wouldn't be in hospital saying you can't see unless there is something significant wrong with you. I don't necessarily think that the thing that's wrong with her is the thing that she thinks that's wrong with her.

Suzanne O’Sullivan (37:08):

I see these kind of people very, very often now, and, that is only part of the tricks that the brain can play in us leading to illness. So now I see a lot of people have problems like paralysis, blindness, memory impairment, et cetera, which are tricks of perception or belief. In fact, all the pathways in their nervous system are intact and could function except through some trick of their own belief about their ability to function they're enabled to do so.

Steve Paulson (37:38):

So I want to step back for a moment, just sort of try to wrap my head around this notion that what we think is real is not real. We have almost a fictional representation of reality up there. Why? Wouldn't it be to our advantage to have an accurate perception of the world? I mean, wouldn't that help us survive?

Suzanne O’Sullivan (38:00):

I'm going to give my very simplistic view of this before Donald gives the technical scientific view. The way we think about it as neurologists it's practical. The way we think about how we perceive things is that we just can't handle all this information that we have. It's too much. We've be bombarded with visual and other sensory information all the time. That is why we're constantly filtering out things like sensations. You're not feeling the chair underneath you now because it's not important for you to feel the chair. The minute you start thinking about it, well, you're feeling it. If you are constantly aware of everything that was happening around you, you wouldn't really be able to function. You need to shut down something.

Donald D. Hoffman (38:44):

What evolution has done for us is trying to keep us alive. And if seeing the truth was critical to keeping us alive, it would show us the truth, but it turns out it's not critical. In fact, seeing the truth gets in the way of doing what you need to stay alive. And I think a good example is the desktop interface on your computer. And that's what I think evolution has actually done for us. I think that our perceptions of space and time are like the desktop of a computer interface and physical objects are like icons on that desktop. And that's what evolution has really done for us. It's given us a user interface.

Donald D. Hoffman (39:17):

And the reason is, for example, if you're writing an email to a friend, the icon for that email is blue and rectangular in the middle of your screen. Does that mean that the file in the computer is blue and rectangular? Of course not. Anybody who thought that just doesn't understand what an interface is about. It's not there to show you the transistors and voltages and magnetic fields. It's there to hide all that stuff. If you had to toggle voltages to craft an email, your friends would never hear from you. But the truth gets in the way. If you had to face the truth, you couldn't do what you needed to do. It's too-

Steve Paulson (39:52):

You're saying the truth is to actually understand the underlying reality?

Donald D. Hoffman (39:56):

That's right. Whatever the reality is, evolution doesn't need to show us that reality. It needs to give us eye candy.

Suzanne O’Sullivan (40:03):

Well, the problem is that the brain cannot be trusted. 50 years ago or mid 20th century, we thought everything was just, we're recording like a video recorder or taking pictures like a camera. We now know that's completely wrong so that we're constantly altering our experience of the world. But the minute you start thinking about it, it's so obvious. If you're in a room and your sort of ex boyfriend comes in with his new girlfriend over there, that's all you can hear. No one else can hear that because that's not the thing that's interesting them.

Suzanne O’Sullivan (40:34):

I think physiologically, there's examples of these sort of ways that we're altering our own experience of the world around us all the time.

Steve Paulson (40:43):

So Don, from a scientist perspective, how do you put that in your model? I mean, this idea that the mind can actually cause physical manifestations.

Donald D. Hoffman (40:53):

It means that the very language of space and time and physical objects is the wrong language to describe whatever the true cause and effect of reality might be. So we have all these correlations between neural activity and conscious experiences, and I've concluded the reason we can't figure out how brain activity causes conscious experience is because it doesn't.

Steve Paulson (41:14):

Doesn't there have to be something that causes conscious [crosstalk 00:41:17]-

Donald D. Hoffman (41:17):

Something deeper has to cause both our experience of the brain and the experience of the other conscious experiences that we have.

Steve Paulson (41:24):

What's that something that's deeper?

Donald D. Hoffman (41:27):

What I'm working on is an idea that consciousness itself, long gland you're talking about, the consciousness itself is fundamental.

Steve Paulson (41:35):

Your theory is that consciousness is fundamental and others that can't be reduced to the stuff of physics, right?

Donald D. Hoffman (41:41):

That's right.

Steve Paulson (41:42):

So it's outside the whole world of matter of particles. It's something else?

Donald D. Hoffman (41:48):

That's right. Every scientific theory makes certain assumptions that says, please, if you're a physicalist you might say at grant me space and time and neutrons and protons and electrons. And if you grant me that, then I'll explain chemistry and biology and even psychology and consciousness. And what I'm saying is those are the wrong things to start with. Space, time and physical stuff are the wrong starting point. Let's start with conscious experiences like the taste of chocolate, the smell of garlic and so forth. Start with consciousness, have a mathematically precise theory of that, and then show from that foundation, how space, time and physics comes out as a user interface that certain consciousnesses use as they interact with other consciousnesses. So it's a very different kind of approach.

Steve Paulson (42:34):

Do many people agree with you on this?

Donald D. Hoffman (42:36):

Oh very few. Just my graduate students. Only my graduate students.

Steve Paulson (42:44):

You might ask how would physicists think about this? Because surely physics knows that space time and matter is fundamental.

Donald D. Hoffman (42:51):

Well, it turns out that physicists, for example, Nima Arkani-Hamed at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Ed Witten who won the field's medal, David Gross, who won the Nobel prize, these guys are all saying this phrase space, "Time is doomed."

Steve Paulson (43:08):

What does that even mean?

Donald D. Hoffman (43:09):

It's pretty profound. What they're realizing is that in the attempts to get general relativity and quantum field theory to come together into a unified quantum gravity, they're going to have to let go of space time. We all think of space, time as the stage on which the drama of life plays out.

Steve Paulson (43:28):

Wasn't that Einstein's great discovery?

Donald D. Hoffman (43:31):

That was his feeling. He assumed that space time was fundamental. Now we're realizing that space time has to be emergent from something deeper. I'm saying let's get a mathematical model of consciousness on its own terms, not inside space and time, but rather as the author of space and time.

Steve Paulson (43:50):

Where you're saying consciousness precedes space and time.

Donald D. Hoffman (43:53):

That's right. Consciousness precedes space time is not... So the space time that you're perceiving right now is not a stage that you're in, it's a data structure that you're creating right now. You create space and time, you create all the stuff that you're seeing. When you close your eyes, you make it go away.

Steve Paulson (44:09):

You're kind of blowing my mind. Are you saying consciousness was there before the big bang?

Donald D. Hoffman (44:17):


Steve Paulson (44:19):

This is a big one.

Donald D. Hoffman (44:20):

That's right. I'm sober.

Steve Paulson (44:24):

But aren't there actual real objects out there independent of our subjective experience of that? I mean, if there's a bus barreling down the street, if I step in the middle of the street, I'm going to get knocked over. If there is a mosquito buzzing around me decides to bite, are you saying the mosquito is not really there?

Donald D. Hoffman (44:45):

Right. I'm saying that the bus exists only when you perceive it, but I have to be very careful. Something exists independent of your perceptions, namely this vast social network of conscious agents. When you interact with that vast social network of conscious agents, what you see as this dumbed down description that we call buses and so forth. So we have to take our perceptions seriously. I don't want to step in front of a bus. I take it very, very seriously, but I don't take it literally. And from an evolutionary point of view, this makes sense. Evolution shaped us with symbols designed to keep you alive.

Steve Paulson (45:22):

Okay, so Suzanne, I have to have you-

Suzanne O’Sullivan (45:24):

I'm way-

Steve Paulson (45:24):

I'm not going to ask-

Suzanne O’Sullivan (45:25):

... Out of my depth here.

Steve Paulson (45:26):

I'm not going to ask you to comment on the nature of quantum physics here.

Suzanne O’Sullivan (45:31):

I'm taking it on. I don't have a clue what he's talking about, this is essentially what my mind finally started thinking about. If I took someone from an Island who'd never seen a bus and asked them to draw it, they draw it the same. If these are constructs, why are all the constructs the same?

Donald D. Hoffman (45:48):

Well, as members of the same species, we share a very similar interface. And so we're going to do things in a very similar way. So we have the same graphical user interface. And then what we do is we say, well, because we all agree, therefore

Suzanne O’Sullivan (45:59):

So something outside ourselves?

Donald D. Hoffman (46:01):

That's right.

Suzanne O’Sullivan (46:01):

Entirely outside ourselves.

Donald D. Hoffman (46:02):

It's entirely outside of space and time. So what's going to be required as a far more sophisticated biology and neuroscience. Right now we look inside brains, we see neurons and synopsis. I'm saying no, okay, we have to reverse engineer our interface and figure out what... So there's lots of job security for neuroscience in this. I've just opened up. If this is right, we have a lot of job security for neurosciences and I'm probably wrong, but that is the case with all of our sciences. None of our theories are right. I don't believe a single scientific theory is correct. And I think that the most advanced scientists in general relativity, they would say no, general relativity, it's beautiful, you should study it. There's something deeper.

Donald D. Hoffman (46:45):

Quantum field theory, it's beautiful, great insights, it's not quite right. Evolution by natural selection, it's beautiful, it's deep, it's the best tool we've got, we should study it, we should use it, there's probably something deeper. And I think every scientist who's at the forefront of their field and really thinking about it would say, yes, our theories are the best tools that humanity has ever come up so far and they're still not there yet. And there's a humility that comes with this whole approach. Be willing to be shown wrong.

Steve Paulson (47:14):

So I want to come back to the question that's at hand here, what is real? What is reality? If so much of how we perceive is not real is a fiction, Suzanne, how do you start to answer that question? What is real?

Suzanne O’Sullivan (47:28):

I think that it's not about necessarily on a day-to-day basis saying what is real? It's being aware that not everything is real is a very mentally healthy place to be basically. Is that you can't completely trust yourself and you can't completely trust your perceptions. I find that very comforting I'd have to say.

Steve Paulson (47:48):

Is reality overrated?

Suzanne O’Sullivan (47:52):

I think you're just generally better to have be a little bit skeptical about what's going on around you. There's no point in torturing myself with the reality I'm faced with.

Steve Paulson (48:03):

Wouldn't it make you feel worse?

Suzanne O’Sullivan (48:05):

No. Basically it makes me feel like I have a chance to positively influence it. You are what you believe you are. I like the fact that I have this influence and I also like to then disbelieve things that don't suit me.

Steve Paulson (48:17):

So in other words...

Donald D. Hoffman (48:20):

Maybe my fictional universe is actually kind of a nice place to be.

Steve Paulson (48:23):

Yeah, it could be very comforting. The position on reality is maybe seen by a concrete example. If you look at your face in the mirror, all you see is skin, hair, and eyes, but you know firsthand that what you can't see. Your love of music, your hopes, your fears, your aspirations, all of your conscious experiences, that huge rich world, that's the real you. You can't see that. It's hidden behind this simple interface symbol that we call a face. When I see your face and you smile, I can infer that in that rich conscious realm, you're possibly happy, but that happiness as an experience does not resemble a smile. There's just no resemblance. Smiles and happiness are two utterly different things.

Suzanne O’Sullivan (49:14):

My own brain keeps trying to remember the name of that movie with Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne-

Steve Paulson (49:20):

The Matrix.

Suzanne O’Sullivan (49:20):

Yes, the matrix. Does anyone ever see behind the curtain, or should we be listening to people who believe in an alternative reality because they're the people that are seeing behind the curtain?

Steve Paulson (49:31):

Well, I'm offering you the red pill.

Anne Strainchamps (49:43):

That's Steve Paulson talking with Donald Hoffman and Suzanne O'Sullivan at the New York Academy of Sciences. Hoffman's the author of The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes, and O'Sullivan's books include, It's All in Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness.

Anne Strainchamps (50:01):

That conversation was part of our collaboration with the Neuro Foundation and The New York Academy of Sciences. You can find a link to the video of the entire conversation and other mind melting conversations like it on our website at ttbook.org.

Anne Strainchamps (50:23):

And that's it for our show this week. To The Best Of Our Knowledge is produced from Madison, Wisconsin at Wisconsin public radio. Mark Riechers put this hour together with help from Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane and Angelo Bautista. Our technical director is Joe Hardtke, our executive producer is Steve Paulson and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks to you for listening.

Speaker 15 (50:47):


Last modified: 
January 11, 2021