We are living in a simulation. I know what you are thinking. The psychedelic retreat lady has finally done it, she went off the deep end. Really, a simulation? Like The Matrix? Maybe it’s time to lay off the shrooms, ma’am. But just give me a minute and hear me out here, because this is all about neuroscience, and it’s an important concept for anyone dealing with chronic pain to understand.
Modeling, Predicting, Guessing
Your brain takes up an incredible amount of energy. It accounts for about 20% of your daily calorie use, and it is incredibly efficient with the amount of computing power it gets done with this energy. It gets this done by doing a lot of guesswork and using predictive models. Believe it or not, we are not always fully feeling and experiencing the world and our bodies in real time. Based on models and predictions that our brain has made to save time and energy, we don’t go through every experience as if it were a completely new, novel sensation. Our brain is often playing a multiple-choice game of “fill in the blank” based on past experiences and previously collected data. A boatload of suffering can be caused when something goes wrong with this process through damaged nerves or faulty signaling.
How real is this “simulation”?
It is the only reality we know, so it is as real as real gets. Our brain is constantly taking in visual, auditory, and tactile cues and plugging it into some mysterious formula to produce our conscious experience.
We are constantly being tricked as our brain juggles input from a constantly varying environment. For the most part, it is a master machine of efficiency and prediction.
Before someone tries to cart me off to the looney bin over all this “simulation” talk, I’d like to present this case mentioned here in Psychology Today. A young construction worker impaled his foot on a 7-inch nail and was carted away from the construction site screaming in agony. After he was sedated, and the boot was removed, it was discovered that the nail had gone between the toes and had not even penetrated the skin. The eyes see the nail through the boot, the body felt the impact of falling, and the brain filled in the blank and decided that there must be pain. My guess is that the brain probably “filled in the blank” and amplified the pinching pressure of the nail in between the toes. Or perhaps the construction worker wanted to call it quits for the day and get a free ride to the hospital (it was the UK, after all), but your guess is as good as mine here.
Blue is cool while red is warm, right?
In this study here, it was found that an object’s color could affect its perceived temperature. Touching a blue object gave a person the impression that they were touching a cooler object. Touching a red object gave the impression that the object was physically warmer. Our conscious experience of physicality is not strict reality, but rather some bizarre combination of what we expect based on past experiences and patchy current information.
What’s it like to experience sensations without filters and predictions?
Truly novel sensations without prediction just feel different. Members of a certain demographic with certain “preferences” like to take advantage of this by incorporating blindfolds and various sensations into their, ahem, extracurricular activities. Throughout history, kinky souls have discovered that the caress of a feather or the sting of a whip feel significantly different if you are wearing a blindfold. All this time they were just conducting studies in neuroscience all along inadvertently, I guess.
How does understanding this help with pain management?
Well, once you are aware of the “simulation”, it is time to start bending it to your will. Many of the types of therapy we dismiss as being too difficult or that require what seems like an inhuman amount of discipline and consistency do just that. But with the addition of psychedelic therapy, they can become easier to master.
Psychedelics change the way the brain processes tactile sensory information. They can make our reactions less predictive and help us just feel things as they happen in the moment, not as our traumatized brain expects them to be. The same curative properties that are making headlines for helping addicts change destructive habits and get depressive patients out of harmful thought loops applies to physical pain as well. With psychedelics and therapies like meditation, desensitization, and mirror therapy, we can start changing patterns and the predictive models our brains use.
It is not as simple as some trite motivational quote like “your reality is what you make of it”, but you do have some leeway. Psychedelics can help you achieve new levels of flexibility to mold your “simulation” into something more comfortable and welcoming.