What you see isn’t always what you get
If you would be so kind, please indulge me for a moment with a series of hypotheticals. Just play along, it’ll be fun. Alright now, let’s say you’re hungry. The last thing you ate was a bowl of cereal that tasted more like you ingested a sheet of construction paper than anything the cereal box claims it tastes like. That was hours ago, and your stomach is starting to growl louder than the whirring of your computer fan. You imagine what you want to eat: maybe a bowl of ramen, a juicy steak, or the most amazing sandwich. As that thought forms, the dish appears beside you. Poof. While you’re at it, you mentally will your homework to be done and for that annoying itch under your chin to vanish. Poof and poof. Done. Imagine the ability for all your desires to come true with just a thought. Then imagine you secretly want your cute classmate to appear naked in your room and that happens too. It’s what you wanted but…yikes, not really. Not now! Having your mind shape the world around you has its fair share of positives, negatives, and generally interesting facets to think about.
I’ve seen quite a few anime lately that take the idea of subconscious desires or how our perception of the world can be altered by own thoughts and twists it into a cool superpower. If you haven’t watched Sasami-san@Ganbaranai yet, it is about a girl who has the ability to change the world around her. Whenever she wants something to happen, the world will quite literally bend to her will to appease her. In episode one, this manifests in the whole world turning into chocolate on Valentine’s Day. It’s very different from having her wishes granted, because it goes straight to her rawest desires and shapes the entire environment around that. It’s like a more extreme version of Haruhi’s godliness from The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, except Haruhi was unaware of her powers.
While our own secret or not-so-secret wishes don’t usually result in actual physical changes to the world around us, it does affect our perception of it. In that sense, we all technically have an ability like Sasami does. Sasami-san and Haruhi hint that what we want to see is often what we do see. Humans are not aware of all of their desires. Everyone has hidden biases and things that they want that they themselves are not fully aware of. Without realizing it, these things shape how we see the world as much as our conscious train of thought does.
We use our memories, current emotions and past knowledge to interpret the world around us in something called top-down processing. So if we’re really hungry, we may not be able to make a meal spontaneously appear on our desk, but how we interpret the environment does change. We will be more aware of food ads, smells of food, and it will seem like anyone eating in the general vicinity is eating the most delicious and tempting meal because the concept of food is now highly salient in your mind. Likewise, being sad makes everything depressing in the world stand out more. These aren’t just things people noticed, but there have been multiple experiments showing that people who are depressed will actually react faster to negative words than neutral or positive ones.
Basically, our perception of our surroundings can change at any time with our mood, physiological state (drunk or sober), or what we’re focusing on. Anime like Sasami-san and Haruhi take that and turn it into a fullblown power, which is a really cool way to look at just how much sway the brain has over the world. Instead of just changing their viewpoints of the world, it makes absolute changes in reality.
All in all, the world is very subjective. All of our 5 senses might not be an exact replica of the world, so our reality can vary from person to person. Do you ever wonder if other people perceive the colour red the way you do? Or the smell of mint tea? Or the feeling of a cat rubbing affectionately against your legs? How do you even describe what those things mean to you? So much of our world is decided by just a wrinkly lump of brain matter.
The following in spoiler tags are spoilers for episode 10 of Shinsekai Yori. Show ▼
To finish with one more, slightly less superpowered example, I wish to bring up Gankutsuou. Admittedly, I doubt anyone needs any more examples, but I just recently finished this highly charming anime and wanted to find any excuse to talk about it. This was as good of a chance as any, even if it doesn’t quite follow the supernatural/supernatural trend I’m going for. Think of it as a bonus? *sigh* I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to indulge me again…
Would you trust a man like this?
Gankutsuou stars a mysterious Count who is either regarded as being a wonderful gentlemen or a dirty trickster. He presents himself in largely the same manner to everyone, so what the characters make of him is usually a result of what they want to see instead of what is actually there. Albert is a naive character who is bored with his life, so he sees the Count as a wonderful change of pace and assumes he can do absolutely no harm. Throughout the show he’s provided endless strings of evidence that prove the Count’s wickedness – yet he refuses to believe any of it. He wanted a new friend to show him grand, exciting things so that’s what he saw in this mysterious man. His world was one where the Count was his best friend and everyone else was being paranoid.
Albert’s best friend, Franz, is a lot more interested in finding the truth. Right from the beginning, he hates the Count and how he easily enters Albert’s life and takes it over. He sees reality as close as possible to how it actually is, and not through rose-coloured glasses. Normally, you’d be suspicious of a man with blue skin, fangs, and strange eyes. I originally thought his appearance was a stylistic choice given the bold animation style However, at one point a kid points to him and blurts out “Vampire!” when he sees the fangs. Everyone can see these unsettling features, yet no one says anything about them except an innocent child who is totally open with the world.
The brain is such an endlessly interesting thing. It is as I say it is – a thing – but it controls almost every aspect of our life. I like when anime take these kinds of concepts and just run with them to make the brain a possible source for all kinds of superpowers. Even Phi Brain turns the brain into a weapon capable of solving deadly puzzles and unlocking God Scrolls to destroy the planet with knowledge. Psycho-Pass is also all about psychological states and how they are now regulated by the law. Everyone likes to imagine that their thoughts and imagination could come to life. In a way, it does…It just won’t make the world turn into chocolate any time soon.
Fanservice is the best way to sign off from a post. Don’t try and tell me otherwise.