Thursday, June 21, 2012


I have often pondered the phenomenal success of "The Matrix" trilogy, particularly the first movie which came out in the distant 1999. I still haven't met a student who hasn't watched it, despite its ancient release date. The promotional web site created for it carried a few philosophical essays, and I read an additional philosophical collection which was published the old-fashioned way. There is now also "The Matrix 101" web site dedicated to "Understanding The Matrix Trilogy." Yet, nothing I read over the years provided a plausibe solution to the problem I was turning in my head. Until I had one of those miraculous flashes of insight Jonah Lehrer writes about in "Imagine."

It happened as I was rereading a piece by V. S. Ramachandran, a star neuroscientists who has studied the so-called "Capgrass syndrome." This is a peculiar condition afflicting some patients who have suffered brain damage as a result of a stroke or head injury. When visited by a close relative (say, a wife or a son), they would start claiming the person they saw looked like someone they knew, and talked like someone they knew; but was not really the person they presented themselves to be.

Ramachandran has an ingenious theory to explain this puzzling phenomenon. He thinks the patients he has observed have disruptions in their emotional processing. As a result, the person standing in front looks to them like a close relative; but fails to evoke an apt emotional response. The left hemisphere of the brain would then try to rationalize any such discrepancy, so the affected individuals reach the conclusion that the person they are talking to must be an impostor.

My epiphany was as follows. There may be a parallel between the phenomenon Ramachandran has observed and a larger psychocultural syndrome. There are many theories proclaiming that modern society (or living in big cities) tends to induce a degree of emotional numbing or vapidity in individuals. This is as a necessary adaptation to a level of social complexity and density of interactions that would otherwise be too draining. In recent decades, this process has probably been taken a step further with the explosive growth of information technology which saturates the senses by unleashing an almost incessant bombardment with visual overstimulation and social trivia. If our emotions are indeed toned down as postulated by such theories (and some empirical studies), then we may easily come to a point where the world as a whole no longer seems to be the "real thing." And a movie like "The Matrix" starts to make perfect sense.

The only question left is how the Buddhists got there first. Oh, and I have a related theory about the mass appeal of “Avatar,” but I’ll come back to it later.