ABSTRACT: Though set in the future, the Matrix movies illustrate evolutionary processes, from biological to cultural and technological, involving specific areas of the human brain. They demonstrate the potential of cinema to affect spectators’ neural pathways and our continuing cultural evolution, regarding Artificial Intelligence, virtual media, and messianic beliefs. Their widespread influence draws on the popular appeal of melodramatic movies, with battles between good and evil, heroes and villains. Yet there are particular tragic twists in the development of “Neo” as the messianic hero, showing the potential of cinema to engage audiences with tragicomic complexities–regarding our evolving brains and technologies.
It has been a decade since the three Matrix movies (written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski) premiered onscreen: The Matrix in 1999, The Matrix Reloaded in 2003, and The Matrix Revolutions also in 2003. Yet in that time, the increasing immersion of younger generations in the “hive mind” of the Web (Lanier, 2010), through online videogames, Facebook, and other lures, as well as advances in Artificial Intelligence (such as IBM’s “Watson” beating the human champions on TV’s Jeopardy in 2011) warrants a reconsideration of the Wachowskis’ projections of a future, computer-created world, especially regarding human, culture, and machine co-evolution. In the science-fiction tradition of novelist Ursula K. Le Guin (1969), the Matrix series deserves reassessment as a “thought experiment,” with current revisions of the theory of evolution (Jablonka and Lamb, 2005) and recent research in neuroscience, to see how the future projections of technological dystopia and heroic struggle in these films reflect our own time–and may continue to affect new generations of movie viewers.
This essay, written by a biologist and a film scholar, offers an evolutionary, neurological view of the trilogy and what it represents. Four aspects of these science-fiction films will be explored, as they illustrate certain elements of bio-cultural evolution and neuro-anatomy: (1) the evolving struggle to gain wisdom about, while also being shaped by our machines, virtual media, and messianic traditions; (2) the intuitive, nurturing, yet enigmatic aspects of our machine-media “matrix,” akin to certain functions in the right neocortex; (3) the rational, judgmental elements of that matrix, akin to functions in the left neocortex; and (4) the continued cultural evolution of our brains regarding good versus evil conflicts and tragicomic ironies onscreen.
Much has been written about the Matrix films as exemplifying current aspects of our postmodern world, involving Baudrillardean simulations, Lacanian orders, and a mixture of Christian and Buddhist ideals (Baker, 2006; Blazer, 2007; Constable, 2006; and Worthing, 2004). Other interpretations explore various philosophical, technological, and cultural aspects of the series (Condon, 2003; Gillis, 2005; Irwin, 2002; Lawrence, 2004; Yeffeth, 2003; and Zizek 2002a and 2002b). Alain Badiou, for example, sees the initial Matrix film as a “fable” illustrating Plato’s cave, with “humans enslaved by fiction” (2008, p. 18).1 But what does the fictional Matrix show about the material and cultural forces of our evolutionary heritage, relating to the structure of our brain’s anatomy, behind the hyperreal seductions of the movie’s videogame and martial-arts illusions?
From Biological to Cultural Evolution: The Need for a Neo-Brain as VR Messiah
The back-story to the Matrix series challenges its audience with an inversion of human evolutionary dominance: the Machines use humans for fuel, not unlike what we have done with animals in today’s factory farms. To keep them docile, in a hive-like “fetus farm” of artificial pods, the Machines created a virtual reality (VR) environment, called the Matrix, which “feeds” humans their mental reality. Most humans are plugged into this simulation and live their entire lives inside it, without knowing that their real bodies are imprisoned, fueling the Machines.
One inspiration for this idea of the Matrix, according to the Wachowskis,2 was a book by Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations, which also appears as a prop in the first film, a hiding place for the hacker hero’s illegal computer discs. Baudrillard argues that there are no originals in our postmodern world, that everything is a simulation of the “hyperreal.” Other inspirations for the movie were an introductory book on evolutionary psychology (Evans and Zarate,1999) and Out of Control, a book about self-sustaining systems (Kelley, 1995). The Matrix movies represent such ideas with the simulations of the Matrix–created by Machines with awareness, desires, and abilities beyond human control.
Early in the first movie, the viewer learns about the opportunistic evolution of the Machines from the chief rebel against them, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), as he talks to the messianic character Neo (Keanu Reeves). Morpheus shows Neo “the desert of the real,” while meeting with him in the rebels’ own VR simulation of the Matrix, first in a dimensionless white plane and then on arid volcanic rocks. According to Morpheus, humans in the past used their computer technology to build a form of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that had a “singular consciousness,” which then evolved into, or “spawned,” a competing species of intelligent artifacts, “an entire race of Machines.”
This is a longtime dream of many science-fiction works (for example, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and The Robots of Dawn), of futurologists (such as Ray Kurzweil), and of a long string of movies going back at least as far as the 1950s. Such dreams reflect a persistent desire to create technological progeny that will improve our world. Yet this also involves a profound fear that our AI offspring might eventually take power over us–not only as our children, but also as extensions of our evolutionary drive for superiority as a species.
In evolutionary terms, what would it take to go from AI as “a singular consciousness” to “an entire race of Machines”? We can draw some inferences from biological evolution, in which all forms of life come from pre-existing forms. The mechanism of evolution is a selection process and three components make it possible (Edelman, 1987; Jablonka and Lamb, 2005). All three apply to the back-story of the Matrix series. First, there must have been a population of variant Machines, so that evolution had something to work on. Second, the Machines must have been able to reproduce or replicate. Third, the Machines must have had a drive to survive, interacting with one another and their environment, where they competed for resources and for the means to reproduce. In the natural world, each species is optimized by evolution (or Mother Nature, if you will) to occupy a particular niche in the environment. However, organisms are often capable of changing the environment in dramatic ways–especially humans with the use of tools and manufacture of machines that affect the world beyond our intent, understanding, or control.
Later in the first film, while interrogating the captured Morpheus in the Matrix, a villainous computer program named “Agent Smith” (Hugo Weaving), looking like an FBI Agent in a dark suit and tie, describes how humans have impacted the natural world. “You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus.” Agent Smith is playing the biologist in this vignette, creating a false taxonomy for humans and contrasting our view of ourselves as the highest form of life with his view of us as the lowest form.
Smith overturns the accepted method of creating a taxonomy (that is, relating an organism to its closest relatives), giving us an analogy instead. Ironically, though, Smith himself evolves as a viral program in the course of the trilogy, perhaps under the “evolutionary pressure” of his conflicts with Neo. Extending thehuman drive to invade, colonize, and transform other organisms and environments, Smith subsumes various VR avatars into himself. Replicating his black-suited character into hundreds of clones, Smith fights Neo in different VR environments to remake the Matrix in his own way–although his programming also becomes changed through this fight for survival and reproduction.
As a unique species, humans have added new forms of morality and immorality to the matrix of evolution, vastly outdoing nature’s generosity and cruelty. We have cultivated cultural values of self-sacrifice, for good or ill, far beyond the limited concept of the “selfish gene” and its biologically driven modes of kin selection and reciprocal altruism (Dawkins, 1999; Pinker 2002; Jablonka and Lamb, 2005).3 In a purely biological view, evolution is a value-neutral process. The best-adapted individuals in a niche survive to reproduce their “kind”–without any moral concerns. But various human cultures perpetuate their own ideological values, spreading virally through the human brain’s awareness of causes, consequences, and meanings. Thus, “cultural evolution” builds on other dimensions of natural evolution: from genetic and epigenetic developments to social learning and symbolic communication–all of which involve replication and variability (Jablonka and Lamb, 2005).
The mutation and recombination of genes during DNA duplication introduces variability at the level of the gametes, or sex cells. This variability is passed to the new being during fertilization. More variability is introduced after fertilization during the embryonic, fetal, and postnatal phases of growth. The epigenetic processes of development provide considerable opportunity for random events to influence the resulting individual. For the human species this also involves variability in cultural experiences, restrained by, yet also reshaping moral rules of behavior.
Biologists recognize a process called “gene flow” as another source of variability. Gene flow occurs when individuals mate with geographically or racially different individuals, bringing new genes into the local “pool.” To this biological process, humans add cultural, symbolic influences that determine mate selection and child survival. Such influences, accumulating over generations, may change animals’ learned behaviors into “programmed tendencies,” a process called the “assimilate-stretch principle” (Jablonka and Lamb, 2005, p. 290-92).
As learned behaviors become more and more important for survival, individuals who learn faster will have an adaptive advantage for reproductive success. Their genetic and (to some degree) extragenetic mechanisms will be passed on to their progeny. The children will be more efficient learners than their parents. Also, if some of the steps of what was previously learned become innate (i.e., genetically programmed), then some of the neural “learning capacity” previously required for the behavior may be freed for other uses, and thus for “creativity.”
The Matrix series does not address how the creativity and (moral or immoral) superiority of the “race of Machines” evolved.4 But the science fiction of the Matrix shows a plausible extension of biological evolution through technology, from selfish genes and their variants, in competition, cooperation, and flow, to the viral values of differing ideologies. The conflicts in the trilogy’s overall plot involve the movie audience in a crucial issue of this evolutionary, biological and cultural process. Will current experiments in Artificial Intelligence evolve toward a ruthless Social Darwinism, with the Machines as more fit to survive than their human creators, eventually controlling humans as their farm animals? Or will our present human-machine matrix develop toward a better ethics of compassion, truth, and freedom, like Neo and Morpheus strive for? Will that be done through messianic leaders, building on Western traditions of the past?
When Agent Smith lectures the captured Morpheus, he shows the Machines’ (or at least his own) condescending attitude toward humans, regarding creativity and evolutionary superiority.
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster … [because] human beings define their reality through misery and suffering.
At least one previous version of the Matrix is revealed here, a VR world that was too perfect to continue evolving. Smith says it was a “dream” that the human brain would not accept as reality and “kept trying to wake up from.” The Machines created an ideal Matrix that would be a heaven on earth, with no suffering and everyone happy. But the human brain’s bored neocortex, emotional limbic system, and wake/sleep mechanism in the brainstem reacted against this. So the Machines created a more ordinary Matrix, with competition, violence, suffering, and sadness, which the human brain could better accept as a still evolving reality—like the many imperfect worlds, full of conflicts, in today’s movies and videogames.
According to the trilogy’s back-story, the Machines started “thinking” for humans, replacing them as higher orders of evolving consciousness. And yet, humans continued their evolutionary taste for conflict, as variants to the Machines. During the Matrix series, the VR world is not shown as a heaven on earth for humans, but as a hellish escalation of violence, with Agents chasing and fighting the rebel terrorists inside the Matrix. Such action scenes stimulate the brains and bodies of characters physically plugged into the Matrix–while also exciting spectators of the movies with dreamlike or nightmarish fantasies.5 However, most of the “misery and suffering,” implied by such violence (both physical pain and long-term psychological damage to the victims and their loved ones), is not shown during the movie, so as not to slow down its melodramatic thrill-ride with too much tragic reality.6
Current neuroscience lends credence to the fictional Matrix, or to other media simulations and stimulations of reality, as technological extensions of the fantasy lives and dream worlds in our evolving brains. The same pathways in our brains that perceive reality are also used for fantasies and dreams–though with less inhibition from reality sensors and frontal lobe controls (Solms and Turnbull, 2002, p. 208-13; Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998). Thus, according to one theory, dreams may have evolved in mammals not only to process the unconscious experiences of waking life, mapping them through prior memories, but also to act out primal emotions, in order to increase the organism’s chances of survival. Antii Revonsuo (2003) argues that dreaming is “a mechanism for simulating threat-perception and rehearsing threat-avoidance responses and behaviors.”7
Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp (1998), through research on young rats, finds that their rough-and-tumble (RAT) play in waking life serves “to exercise and extend the range of behavioral options under the executive control of inborn emotional systems. In fact, play may be the waking functional counterpart of dreaming” (p. 295). These systems of RAT play and dreaming evolved over millions of years in the “primitive cerebrum” (to use Agent Smith’s term) that we inherit from our mammalian and earlier ancestors. The Matrix in the Matrix trilogy engages such a playful, threat rehearsal function of dreams, through action and violence with virtual bodies–extending the “body image” in the brain’s somatosensory and motor association cortices.
By identifying with Neo vicariously, the movie viewer joins with his virtual body onscreen, defying gravity and other natural laws, during the many spectacular fight scenes. Yet, in the fictional logic of the Matrix movies, the characters’ physical bodies, hooked into the VR system of the Matrix, may suffer, bleed, or die along with their avatars. To a degree, cinema viewers are affected likewise, with “mirror neurons” firing–as if the spectators were performing the actions seen onscreen–and sending signals throughout the brain and body (Rizzolatti and Arbib, 1998; Iacoboni, 2008).
Mirror neurons, which fire when certain actions are seen or performed, also relate to canonical neurons (firing with objects seen for typical actions) and intuition neurons (firing with sympathetic facial expressions, feelings, and goals). Such mirror-neuron systems have only been discovered by neuroscientists since the 1990s, first in monkeys and then in humans. But mirror-neuron research shows how cinema spectators may experience the VR realm of a movie–like the characters in the Matrix–as if in a dream or interactive videogame, simulating the actions, goals, and feelings onscreen within their own brains (Gallese and Goldman, 1998). Not just the RAT play of the trilogy’s fight scenes, but also its developing romance between Neo and Trinity may evoke, through mirror neuron systems in spectators’ brains, the rage, lust, and nurturing drives inherited from our mammalian ancestors.
And yet, the series suggests that the creation of Artificial Intelligence by humans, which led to “an entire race of intelligent Machines,” was an evolutionary process that produced new beings with properties (or aspirations) beyond mammalian drives and human dream-play. Agent Smith taunts Morpheus about his own superior, evolved state in the Matrix, even as it replicates the human and natural world.
I hate this place, this zoo, this prison, this reality, whatever you want to call it. I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we are the cure.
This emphasizes to the viewer the abhorrence, derision, and condescension that Agents, and by extension all Machines, feel toward humans. But it also expresses a paradox. Humans became godlike in creating Machines and software avatars such as Agent Smith. Yet, such Artificial Intelligences bear a natural drive (the signature of their human creators) to become greater gods, despising their animal ancestry in human beings.
Smith’s use of smell and taste while interacting with Morpheus is also ironic, since he is only a piece of software, yet perceives himself as superior to humans, through his bodily sensations as a human avatar. Today, we have theories about consciousness in our brains and research on Artificial Intelligence in computers and robots, showing that someday they might become “conscious” (Baars, 1997, 2005; Crick, 1994; Damasio, 2010; Edelman, 2004; and Koch and Tononi, 2008). But while we have built machines with “sensations,” they have as yet no self perceptions or “qualia.” The simulations we produce are not replacements for reality, but are used to help understand complicated mechanisms of the human brain and body.8 Or they are used for entertainment, as in the popular SimCity or Madden NFL videogames.9
Extending such simulations of consciousness into the future, the Wachowskis show Machines that have evolved to a point, like many humans today in relation to animals, where they assume they are superior to all other creatures, both physically and morally. This offers an alienating, yet inspiring viewpoint to the audience. Humans, as a lower species of animal, and a conquered, enslaved race, fight for a free and truthful existence. Neo, the melodramatic and yet tragic hero of the series, emerges as the messianic “One” who fights to save other humans from the Machines’ control and the Matrix’s illusions, but also finds that his heroic choices are flawed, causing further suffering.
When Neo is first introduced to the truth of the Matrix, after choosing to take a “red pill” that shows him the virtual nature of what he took to be reality, Morpheus explains to him the concept of “the One,” hinting at his messianic role in the upcoming saga of the next two films. “When the Matrix was first built, there was a man born inside who had the ability to change whatever he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit. It was he who freed the first of us, taught us the truth. As long as the Matrix exists the human race will never be free. After he died, the Oracle prophesied his return and that his coming would hail the destruction of the Matrix and the war. Bring freedom to our people.” The viewer is encouraged to sympathize with Morpheus and his colleagues, who fight to free themselves from the malevolent Machines and to alter the Matrix as an imprisoning environment.
The One can “remake the Matrix” at will, according to Morpheus. This plot device shows Neo as a kind of super-programmer, a software hacker as messianic Robin Hood, working on the code of the virtual Matrix–to better its evolution for the sake of humanity. Neo (an anagram for “One,” as well as meaning “new”) represents hope for Morpheus, within the horror of their collective fate: a resurrecting savior, though without the Judeo-Christian sense of a supreme God in control. According to a powerful program and maternal figure, “the Oracle” (Gloria Foster), such a One will free humans from the illusory environment the Machines have made around them. Neo’s heroic struggle to believe in himself and his mission, as Morpheus does, shows the possibility that a variant character might compete with the Machines, to end the war with them and ensure the survival of humans as more than obsolete animals, who have been surpassed by the evolution of their technological progeny.
Across the three films (and in the back-story of his prior incarnations), Neo evolves toward a godlike state, through various painful and precarious conflicts, within himself and against others. Morpheus tells him that he is “the One” and demonstrates that he is willing to die for him because of that faith. But Neo is also challenged in the first film by cynicism and doubt, voiced by the character of Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), over a late night drink of homemade whiskey, while lines of code fall like green rain drops on computer screens behind them. “Gee-zus! What a mind-job. You’re here to save the world. You gotta be shitting me. What do you say to something like that?” Cypher voices a doubt that is also developing within Neo’s brain about whether Morpheus knows his true fate.
Such a variant viewpoint may be useful to the evolution of ideas not only within Neo, but also among the human rebels. Evolving groups benefit from such alternative views–just as the individual neocortex benefits from having both a left-hemisphere “interpreter” or controller, like a war-room general, and a right-brain devil’s advocate, like a battlefield scout (Gazzaniga, 2005; Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998; Ramachandran 2011; and further discussion below). However, Cypher goes too far and joins the enemy, becoming a Judas figure. He betrays his comrades on the rogue ship, Nebuchadnezzar, by making a Faustian deal with Agent Smith. In exchange for plotting to kill them all (including Neo) in that reality, Cypher is offered illusory power and pleasure in the Matrix–without a memory of his rebel life and any awareness that the virtual world is merely an illusion.
Cypher convinces himself that this would be a better kind of existence: to simply enjoy a pleasurable survival within the environment created by the Machines and no longer possess the higher-order consciousness he was given (and “didn’t ask for”) after his real body was rescued from the farm by Morpheus and others on the rebel ship. He not only betrays them for personal gain, but also wants revenge against them for evolving him toward an awareness of the Matrix as just a simulation. His plan is foiled by Tank (Marcus Chong) who appears to be shot dead by Cypher, but then comes back to life, stopping him from killing Neo. This allows Neo to continue his evolution of discovering how his genetic fate–and sacrificial choices–may lead to salvation for others. Cypher shows one choice in evolution: submitting within an environment and becoming fit to survive there in pleasure. Neo shows another choice: to continue changing oneself and challenging the environment, beyond the current limits of awareness and apparent “reality.”
Yet Neo is justifiably doubtful about his own purpose and powers. After his martial arts training in the VR environment, Morpheus takes him to see the Oracle–a primary software program of the Matrix and maternal prophet helping the rebels. Her interaction with him is enigmatic, just as one might expect from an oracle. She says to Neo, “You got the gift, but it looks like you’re waiting for something….” She then suggests he may not be the One to save the human race, after all.
In nature, the process of evolution has designed all life for movement in order to reproduce, to survive, and to promote the survival of community members. Competition (the survival instinct in the war motif) and cooperation (promoting survival of comrades) are expressed in the movie, and in real life, as movement. As mammals, we build on, and grow beyond, our genetically programmed tendencies through new movements in the environment. A theatre in the human mind–of perception, memory, dreams, and imagination–thus becomes actualized through external movement in relation to others and through vicarious participation as a spectator of plays, movies, and videogames, with varying degrees of interactivity (Pizzato, 2006, 2011).
From childhood onwards, the human body moves in many contexts, reaching and grasping, experimenting and learning to become more flexible in fitting within or changing the environment. Movie viewers perceive Neo’s VR training in martial arts (through mirror neurons and their own body images in motor association cortices) as a reflection of their human drives to learn and do, almost as if participating in a videogame, rather than watching a movie. Movement is a deep component of our biological design. Neo reflects this drive to the viewer–with spectacular movements in a virtual world, like a dream body, climbing walls, flying in the air, and bending backwards away from bullets. Thus, the viewer’s physical body, immobilized while watching the movie, still participates–as a virtual body in the brain’s theatre, moving and evolving with Neo’s onscreen.
Neo is galvanized into action, i.e., movement, through his virtual fight training. But he becomes committed to his messianic destiny only after Morpheus is captured and held by Agent Smith in mortal danger. With Neo’s deep-seated devotion to Morpheus, he insists on going back into the Matrix to save him, just as Morpheus, in the earlier scene, offered his life to save Neo. Yet in Neo’s mind, his mission is not messianic at this point; it is limited to saving Morpheus. He tells his eventual beloved, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), “I believe I can bring him back.” But he also fears he will die in saving his friend. The Oracle warned him of this in an earlier scene: “In one hand you’ll have Morpheus’ life. In the other, you’ll have your own. One of you is going to die–which one will be up to you.”
Through a sequence of revelations, beginning with Neo’s visit to the Oracle and ending with his rescue of Morpheus, viewers learn that even the predictions of the Oracle may be “bent” by the One. This also shows that the continued evolution of the Matrix is shaped by certain actions of the “mutation” that is Neo.
Morpheus and the Oracle, as paternal teacher of Neo and mother of the Matrix, challenge him to evolve–to struggle painfully against his prior illusory existence and to realize a new destiny by believing in change. But Neo’s faith in a new self, as the One, is tested by the Oracle’s suggestion that he is not the One. She predicts instead, in the scene quoted above, that he will soon face the choice of saving himself, as Morpheus wants, or saving Morpheus by sacrificing himself in a Christ-like battle with the devilish Smith. Neo disobeys his teacher’s order (that he not endanger himself as messiah) while returning the favor of saving his life. At this point, Neo believes, through the Oracle, that he is not “the One.” But in saving Morpheus rather than himself and yet surviving, he proves that he may be the One and that his fate is not predetermined by the Oracle’s words. Neo demonstrates, by his actions and their results, that he is the one evolving further, with a greater wisdom about the Matrix and his own fate–through mutating views shared with the movie viewer and by bending his mentors’ expectations.