This image shows Hebden Water as it flows downhill to Hebden Bridge past Midge Hole. The blue sky and the rim of the valley seen through the interlacing branches of the woodland capture this serene scene within the picture frame. It is remarkable that this scene appears to us as outside of us, when in fact it is within our subjective inner space that is, in our inner world. Another way of putting this is to say that all our perception of the world is seen in our brain but projected back out as a virtual experience that luckily corresponds with the objective & material world. Our virtual world is primary. What is incredible is that this virtual world corresponds exactly with the material world that is its source. And, that jointly with others, by consensus, our private virtual experiences gain objective value and credibility since they are validated by others and also by our successful negotiation of the world about us.
How can we tell that our experience of the world is primarily virtual in nature? Well, in cases of the so-called phantom limb, the virtual experience obtrudes and reveals itself. Individuals who have had an amputation, say of a leg, can sometimes continue to feel the leg and foot, and be able to wiggle their toes and suffer cramp and discomfort in the evidently absent leg. The feelings in the absent leg can be compelling and are certainly real and not ‘imagined’, that is, they have all the characteristics of a real experience. In psychiatry, we would say that they have a veridical quality to them. In these cases the hidden aspect of our everyday virtual experiences is revealed. Usually, explanations of phantom limb rely on the fact that representation of the body in the primary sensory cortex remains intact despite the amputation. But, this explanation whilst correct misses the point, namely that all our perception of the world is occurring within our brain and is projected outwards as a virtual world that luckily coincides with the external material world.
There are other experiences that confirm this explanation. In Cotard’s syndrome (Jules Cotard 1840-1889), a disorder in which an individual maintains that bodily parts are either missing or dead, or indeed that the whole body has already died, decomposed and disappeared, the subjective virtual experience of the body has been pathologically altered for reasons yet unclear. A woman once said to me that she was ‘already dead and buried’ and another that her midriff was missing such that food fell directly from her chest through the air into her hollow legs, and another that her neck was missing and she had to hold unto her head so that it would not fall off! Against all commonsense, despite visual evidence to the contrary, the compelling experience of an altered virtual image of the body forces the individual to a patently false belief. Phantom limb and Cotard’s syndrome are but mirror images of one another. In one a devitalized body part is experienced as still present and in the other a vital body part is experienced as already dead.
What is extraordinary is that there are not more cases of mismatch between the external objective world and the virtual world that the brain projects unto it. Why for example are there no reported cases of mis-timings between the observed and experienced world, so that an arm is felt to move when the observed concrete arm is still at rest? Or more cases of autoscopy?
There are the more obvious errors when the brain projects a private virtual experience unto the world in the form of hallucinations. Here, an object is inserted in the perceptual field and this anomaly becomes obvious and is revealed because there is discrepancy between the consensual world that we all share and the false newly created and pathological world.
To return to the photo of Hebden Water, it is remarkable that all the beauty that we observe in the world, the glancing rays of sunlight falling on leaves that are shades of indescribable green, and the gurgling of the stream as it flows downhill, the sky and the atmosphere of a place that is all itself and familiar and comforting, that all these elements of the external world are virtual images built up in the brain, given their appropriate valence and value, and then projected out to correspond with the objective world. It is a marvel, indeed a miracle, that the process works most of the time.