With every millisecond of existence our minds are crunching data from every sense we know and painting this bizarre experience. It's just happening all around us.
What we barely recognize is our imagination. Somewhere between our automatic bodily functions and psychological translations for every action, we're building worlds inside our heads.
But does your mind know the difference? Does the computer between your ears articulate between what's in front of your nose and what you were daydreaming about at work yesterday afternoon? More importantly, what does it mean if it doesn't?
Maxwell Maltz was grappling with this idea back in the 1950's. Maltz was a plastic surgeon that noticed people would come to him for cosmetic surgery and drag along their life story. Of course everyone had a reason for wanting to go under the knife, but Maltz heard story after story where people would attribute the way they thought the world reacted to them back to the irregularity they saw on their body. A housewife struggling with her husband and kids thought she needed a face-lift to make her family appreciate her more. A businessman too shy to make a company-wide presentation thought he needed a stronger jawline. They were right that a part of their body was holding them back, they just didn't recognize it was more than skin-deep.
Maltz started taking the psychology of his patients more seriously. Then he was struck by the hot, new scientific field of his day - cybernetics. He described it as having to do with the "goal-striving, goal-oriented behavior of mechanical systems." Think torpedos or heat-seeking missiles. But Maltz noticed parallels with the human mind. He noticed how the "self-image" of his potential patients directed how they acted. If they imagined themselves as ugly, they found reasons in the world to prove that - a longer than average stare, an over-eager make-up salesperson, an unsuccessful date. Their imagination became more real the more vivid they made it.
These people weren't weird. We've all been there. How do you feel when someone in the office asks if you're feeling sick, and you're not? You want to punch them in the mouth, right?
Building on the cybernetics field, Maltz wrote Psycho-Cybernetics. He described it as the idea that man is not a machine, but "that man has and uses a machine." When we're downloading the world around us and daydreaming about what it all means, our minds are cranking the gears. No matter where thoughts begin or end, it's a cycle. Your mind adapts to the reality you feed it.
In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell offers a similar, more modern example. He tells the story of two Dutch researchers who gathered groups of high school students to play Trivial Pursuit. For just five minutes before the game, one group was asked to think about and write down what it meant to be a professor and the other group was asked to imagine what it meant to be like a soccer hooligan. With just five minutes of imagined experience, the differences in their scores were starling - the "professor" group scored 55.6 percent right while the "hooligans" got 42.6 percent right.
There is something going on behind the scenes that we don't quite comprehend. It is not just the power of positive thinking. We're just getting closer and closer to closing the gap between our imagination and the world around us. Virtual reality has brought the future to the forefront. Maxwell Maltz thought it took 21 days for a patient to adjust to their new face after plastic surgery. Now it takes something like 21 minutes for you to trick your mind into thinking you're someone else. Joshua Rothman wrote in The New Yorker that he experimented with virtual reality headsets and the sensation of virtual embodiment. With just some physical tracking software and a few minutes of mirrored exercises, Rothman thought he was the embodiment of the robot he saw on the headset screen. What's even more wild is that when Rothman's avatar reached out to touch a piece of virtual cloth, Rothman's biological fingertips felt the sensation! Can we deny the power of the machine now?
The mind adapts to the reality you feed it and sometimes that's the problem. We can be so heavily planted in our norms that we don't take a moment long enough to recognize what's going on inside. We can have such strong routines and habits that we can't even imagine doing anything else. But we know that's not true. There are endless decisions to make and if you want to take an extra moment with each of them, there is nothing holding you back. Because, at the end of every millisecond, the reality is there isn't just one.