Virtual worlds inside of our heads

August 27, 2014 | By | 6 Replies More

This morning, I found myself reveling in the representational capacity of brains.

Here’s an illustration: Sometimes I misplace an item such as my keys and I can’t find them while physically walking around my house. Sometimes, frustrated, I pause my physical search. I sit down and close my eyes. Using only images, sounds and memories embedded in neural pathways in my head, I “see” that I had my keys when I last walked into my house. I “play” a series of short “videos” and “images” in my head reminding myself where I walked and what I touched. I run through the logic that I could NOT have left them in certain places, because I didn’t go to those parts of the house, seeing images of them as I run through this logic? Then, perhaps, I “see” myself closing my car trunk while holding my briefcase. I’m now wondering–did I put the keys on top of the car for a second while closing the trunk? I go outside and there are the keys on top of the car.

My mind contained detailed representations of my home and car, as well as episodic memories that, while imperfect, is often good enough. My neural pathways contain a virtual, somewhat explorable, world inside of my head. Although it is not perfect in all of its details, it is quite functional. It’s a capability we use every day, drawing on the brain’s extraordinary power to represent the world around us, allowing us to perform virtual manipulations of objects, “searching” our house while sitting down with our eyes closed. What type of magic is this that a 3 pound living organ can do this and so much more? How is it even possible that a system like this can spout up and train itself over a lifetime without a “person in the brain” to guide the process? And how is it possible that we experience consciousness on top of this amazing process?

This is but one reason for my love of cognitive science. It’s not my profession, but it is one of my passions to better understand this process that we so often take for granted.


Category: Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Of great curiosity to me is the sort of innate memory — we call it instinct — that inhabits the minds of non-human animals. Newborn dolphins somehow know to hold their breath and swim to the surface to get air. Newborn kangaroos, despite being blind and too fragile for their mothers to touch, somehow know to climb into the mother’s pouch to get food. Squirrels know to bury nuts for the winter, and how to find them again when winter arrives. Chipmunks know to hibernate for the winter. Frogs do, too. Likewise, some frogs hibernate during the dry season, waiting for the rains to return. Many insects and other bugs go through a whole series of life stages — sometimes including both air- and water-based forms — with remarkably little in the way of a nervous system, yet they somehow know what to do, and when. Quite amazing displays of ‘memory.’ Perhaps the virtual world that Erich mentions is merely an adaptation, because we humans don’t instinctively know where we put our keys. What if we are the dumb ones?

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Responding to Edgar’s comment: I didn’t know that about human infants. I wonder how far back that trait goes. Maybe it supports the theory that dolphins & humans have a common (amphibian) ancestor.

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