Simulation is creative
Chapter 2 endnote 3, from Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:
For my daughter’s twelfth birthday, we exploited the power of simulation (and had some fun) by throwing a “gross foods” party. [...] We used mashed baby food — peaches, spinach, beef, and so on — and artfully smeared it on diapers, so it looked exactly like baby poo. Even though the guests knew that the smears were food, several actually gagged from the simulated smell.
Simulation explains how ancient Greeks saw gods and monsters in the stars. It explains how you and I can have realistic dreams about being able to fly, with the wind in our hair and the Earth far below, even if we cannot soar through the air in real life (alas).
To simulate an experience, you needn’t have had that exact experience before. Simulation is creative. Your brain can combine bits and pieces of prior experiences to perform a completely novel simulation. (Scientists call this generativity.) That’s why so many people imagine space aliens as having humanoid faces or insect-like bodies. We imagine a creature that is completely new but constrained by our prior experiences, whether it’s directly lived or something we’ve merely read or heard about. In order to dream about flying, your brain samples bits and pieces of past experience with airplane travel, superhero movies, roller coasters, and sliding boards, to construct a simulation of flight.
Simulation explains how we can see animals and other objects in the clouds. It explains how an image sent back from the Mars rover Spirit created an international stir when some people thought they saw a human figure perched atop a rock on the surface; the image was actually a small piece of sedimentary rock that eroded in the wind. Simulation explains how, from time to time, people see the image of Jesus Christ in a slice of toast, a pancake, a flour tortilla, or even in a pierogi. (Someone once paid $28,000 for a grilled cheese sandwich that bears the likeness of the Virgin Mary!) Or why, when you listen to “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin backwards, you hear words about Satan within completely random units of sound (called phonemes). It even explains how the infamous Rorschach inkblot test works. Collectively, these are the phenomenon called pareidolia, seeing or hearing vague and random sensory inputs as meaningful.