I’ve been greatly enjoying a read through “The Best American Science Writing: 2009” and there’s a bit of research in Atul Gawande’s piece “The Itch” from The New Yorker (featured in the compendium) that got me thinking about the debate about virtual worlds vs. real ones. I’ve come to the conclusion that not much separates the two, though of course we like to make a big deal about how some folks are disappearing into a computer-created world, and how this is such a terrible thing.

It certainly SEEMS awful that some people would prefer a world other than the one that’s outside. In the wake of the reports of the people who are ‘depressed’ that Avatar’s Pandora (the planet on which all the gorgeous CG action occurs in the film) doesn’t exist, my environmentalist friends have shaken their collective head, pointing out that there’s a pretty beautiful world right outside if you’d just step away from the computer screen or exit the movie theatre. But Pandora is just the latest in a long line of created worlds.

Pandora has existed in James Cameron’s head since he was a kid, and he’s been working on the Avatar project for 15 years, obsessed enough (and powerful enough) to create a version of it that millions of people will see. Cameron’s longtime producer, Jon Landeau, told Wired that the project is “..not just a movie. It’s a world,” and purposefully so. Now I might be biased, having invented an imaginary world as a child (with a similar – but, ahem- much more creative name- mine was called Poentica) but the fact is that Pandora existed wholly formed and in great detail in Cameron’s head, just as my imaginary world existed in mine, and other virtual worlds have filled minds from Star Wars to Buffy and even before TV existed (Greek myths anyone?).

So made-up worlds have always been with us, but the reason I’m going to argue for the virtual is not because we have a history of otherworlds. It’s because the so-called real world isn’t as real as we think. Which means that maybe our virtual worlds, from Pandora to Second Life, and whatever comes next are just as important as this one, or could be.

This is because how we think we perceive the ‘real’ world, (as opposed to virtual ones), involves a fundamentally flawed understanding of how the brain works. Most of us think that our eyes, ears, noses and hands perceive each moment anew, freshly gathering data and shunting it to our brain, which receives it, processes it, and gives us a constantly updated version of the world. As Gawande points out in The New Yorker piece (see page 4, halfway down), this idea of how we understand the world, called “direct perception” is actually incorrect. In 1710 the Irish philosopher George Berkeley wrote, “We do not know the world of objects, we know only our mental idea of objects.” And Berkeley was right (though he went on to mistakenly credit the Christian god with “putting” the info there).

What actually happens is that we gather little new information from moment to moment from our environments (and actually little sensory data even when we enter new environments). Instead we rely on our brains’ previous experience to create a picture, recognize a smell, or figure a texture. “Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety percent memory and less than ten percent sensory nerve signals,” writes Gawande. This means that on an everyday basis, we are making up the world around us (from our brains’ previous experiences), even though we think we are creating it anew each time from our completely unbiased senses.

We know this above is true because studies made on the brain show that “If visual perceptions were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you’d expect that most of the fibres going to the primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty percent do; eighty percent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory,” write Gawande. This is not the sign of a faulty brain, just one working efficiently. Why waste the time and energy putting together new maps of perception in various senses if, for most humans, most of the time, it’s just a whole lot of the same-old same-old?

My argument becomes obvious now; if eighty to ninety percent of what we think we see, hear, touch or smell is coming from our own memories, then virtual worlds, which are wholly created by our minds (or Cameron’s, or whoever) aren’t that far off from reality, seeing as we perceive such a small part of it anyway.

So are highly developed, oft-visited and much beloved virtual worlds really any less real than what’s outside your window if most of what’s on the other side of the glass is just our own memory of what it is anyway? That is- created by our minds?