From the moment I saw the 1999 movie “The Matrix,” I was obsessed. But in truth, it didn’t become my favorite film for more than a decade after that. Like all good science fiction, it was masterfully prophetic. As I watch neuroscience unfolding and advancing it seems more and more likely that the brain and technology are on a collision course that will make the next 10 to 15 years a very wild ride. But that isn’t why The Matrix has taken up more and more real estate in my mind. The reason for that is the way the film so accurately depicts the human condition.
“Say wuuuuuuut?” I can practically hear you saying. Follow me here…
The brain is a three-pound lump of Jello encased in darkness. It never touches the air or sees the light of day. There are a whole host of things that it’s simply guessing at. For instance, did you know each eye has a blind spot where the optic nerve connects to the eye? It’s true. It’s a region of pure black right in your field of vision, and yet you never see that blind spot. Why? Because the brain makes a guess and fills in the region with what it thinks is probably there.
Now, if the brain is simply interpreting electrical impulses and guessing at what’s really going on, how do you know that what you see is really real? Here’s the answer: It’s not real. It’s a facsimile. It’s a damn good facsimile that lets you walk around without banging into things all the time, but it’s not an objectively real experience. Once I realized that, everything in my life changed. Everything.
Let me say it another way. Imagine you were blind and you went everywhere with a friend. Let’s call him Brain. Not Brian or Bryan — Brain. When you walk into a room Brain guides you around and introduces you to new people. The catch is, he doesn’t just describe what’s there, he provides color commentary. He describes not only objective attributes such as height and color, but how you should feel about those things.
And when there are obstructions to his view, he just makes things up to keep the commentary seamless. This is where that awesome Shakespeare quote comes into play: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” But that’s not our everyday experience with the world. Some things feel really good and some things feel really bad. That’s just the way it is, right?
To me, the brain IS the Matrix. And just like once you wake up in the Matrix you can bend it to your will, the brain will bend to your will and allow you to do things you never thought possible. But first you have to believe.
Nobody Makes the Jump the First Time
In “The Matrix,” there’s this big test where Neo has to jump between two high-rise buildings. No mortal could make the jump — it’s way too big of a gap. The test is set up to see if Neo can allow himself to believe that he can make the jump. Because if he can believe it, he can do it. This is the Matrix, after all, you can bend even the laws of physics once you figure out how. But in the movie, as in life, Neo fails to believe and thusly falls.
Can you blame him? It’s hard to believe that the things we hold to be self-evident about the world and about ourselves are, in fact, merely a construct — a series of conscious and unconscious decisions and beliefs that string together into a cohesive picture of how things are. This picture is, at least partially, a work of fiction. And that’s a good thing, because if it’s a work of fiction, it can be rewritten to something more advantageous.
The only catch is, before you can begin the rewriting process, you must first believe that rewriting is possible. And this is where people struggle. It feels kinda weird and self-indulgent to think that you can do anything you set your mind to. We all have sooooooo many examples of when that just didn’t feel true. We tried, we failed. We were embarrassed. Usually publicly. And it all stemmed from the fact that we just kind of suck at things. We weren’t born with the talents that other people were born with. Unlucky. It’s just the way of things. Right? Wrong. That’s Brain at work, describing the world in his often depressive color commentary. A commentary that’s good at keeping us safe, and good at keeping us from trying anything that might lead to embarrassment, but absolutely terrible at helping us leap between two skyscrapers. If we want to achieve something great in our lives, however, we’re going to have to jump. And believe that we can make it.
Learn Kung Fu
Once you believe that the brain itself IS the Matrix, and that the impossible is only impossible because we believe it to be, you begin to realize that virtually anything is possible. If that’s true — if humans really are capable of nearly anything — you’re no longer limited by the “realm of possibility,” you’re limited only by the skills you possess.
That’s the key insight that “The Matrix” gave me — not having the right skills is the only thing that’s stopping me from being able to do kung fu, or fly a helicopter, or run my own company. Waking up to that idea caused me to begin asking a whole slew of new and more empowering questions. I began to ask not what’s possible, or what am I good at, but rather what do I want to accomplish and what do I need to learn in order to be successful at it? That to me is the key — to identify the gap in skill set that stands between who you are today and who you need to be to accomplish your mission in life.
You don’t have to want to save the world like Neo, but just remember, whatever it is, you can do it — you can make the leap. This is only the Matrix after all.