The Matrix and Me

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T. 

The character’s name is Cypher, and I see the actor (Joe Pantoliano) weekly on The Sopranos on HBO playing a vicious mobster with a wicked sense of humor. His portrayal of Cypher in the movie The Matrix is similar. This movie and its connection to my life in therapy has been going through my head a lot lately, and Cypher’s role is prominent in that thinking. 

Let’s start here: In Plato’s Republic he uses what is called “the cave allegory” to describe what he believed to be the way most people perceived the world. Plato said it was as if they were chained against the wall of a cave, unable to turn in any direction and able only to see the light and shadows cast upon the wall before them by a nearby fire. Those in charge occasionally move figurines that are seen as certain shadows on the wall. This vision of the light and shadows contained all anyone chained in the cave knew of reality. One day a man was allowed to escape and see the world as it actually existed, which was, of course, a little different. When he returned to the cave in order to share his vision with the others he is received with mockery and resistance. The cave dwellers tell him he’s gone mad.  

Now, you might think that I’ve made a tremendous leap from The Matrix to Plato’s Republic, but I’m simply repeating what many professors of philosophy have noted in the book The Matrix and Philosophy edited by William Irwin (Open Court 2002). To these people the movie is first and foremost a retelling of the cave allegory and that this accounts for a good deal of its popularity though I would suppose that most of its fans wouldn’t normally be especially conversant with Plato’s writing. Me, for instance. Anyway, The Matrix is a movie about a young man named Neo (Keanu Reeves) who appears to be living in the late twentieth century but finds out that all he’s seen, felt and heard his entire life, everything he thinks is true is in fact an illusion created by an immense computer that many years previously had enslaved the human race. In reality, humans exist in individal “fetal pods,” soaking in a chemical goop and fed the vision and experiences of Neo’s world electronically. This artificial world is called The Matrix. Like the man from Plato’s cave Neo escapes from the pod and lives with a small band of rebels dedicated to the destruction of the computer. Neo’s purpose becomes the waking of mankind from their collective illusion of reality and a return to freewill. He doesn’t get to do this, but there’s a sequel coming. 

So what’s this got to do with therapy? Well, bear with me a moment. 

Traditional Therapeutic Illusions 

In my experience most therapists (this occasionally includes me) practice clinically as if certain things were true despite the fact that researchers have learned that they are not. Here’s a short list of what I call “therapeutic illusions”: 

Ø      Strength and posture are related

Ø      Pain and posture are commonly related

Ø      Strength and pain are related

Ø      You can stretch connective tissue with your hands

Ø      You can reliably palpate vertebral joint movement 

There are more, but I suppose you get the idea. I have found that these ideas endure due to a combination of ignorance (of the literature), reverence for the traditions of therapy and fear of change. This is not a situation conducive to change, and I find that I have to approach my colleagues carefully with the news of research contrary to their beliefs. Often this doesn’t work either. Let’s return to The Matrix

Neo isn’t just told of his body’s imprisonment, he is carefully offered a choice; either to learn that all he normally perceives is “a prison for (his) mind” or be painfully wakened to “the desert of the real” or he can remain ignorant of this and return to the familiar. This choice is represented by the ingestion of either a red (reality) or blue (The Matrix) pill. He chooses the red pill. 

Coincidentally, when I teach I always carry with me what I call “the red file.” In here I have compiled the peer-reviewed literature demonstrating that many dearly held notions of therapeutic practice are, in fact, based upon a model of the body that is incomplete at best and often just wrong. You could say that the traditional ideas listed above are illusions maintained quite easily until one reads the contents of the red file. I offer the contents of the file quite literally to my students both as lecture subjects and as a palpable and immediate resource for learning. Some choose to listen and read and some don’t. In addition to the file I have a table full of books that support my assertions about self-correction and esoteric knowledge of neural functioning. These are available for anyone’s perusal but only a small percentage of my students ever touch them. The red pill might be tempting but not everyone is going to swallow it. 

I mentioned the character of Cypher at the beginning of this essay and I want to return to him now. Like Neo, Cypher lived in the imaginary world of The Matrix for many years but chose the red pill once given an opportunity. In the movie Cypher has lived the difficult path of reality for nine years and he wants to go back. His recent existence may include the use of his own consciousness but The Matrix is warmer, safe and the food is much better. Cypher knows full well that all he perceives there is an illusion, but he no longer cares. He says, “Ignorance is bliss.” 

I offer my students an arresting and perhaps startling vision of normal function, principally by introducing them to ideomotor movement. Having never before seen this, the therapist is suddenly confronted with a world of therapeutically useful movement they hadn’t known existed. Once shown how to elicit it, they find that alterations in painful function may rapidly and unexpectedly occur without any real effort on the part of the patient or therapist (I’ve watched this happen in my clinic and at workshops for over twenty years so I say this with a great deal of confidence). Faced with this, many therapists are initially confused and then thrilled with their newfound skills, to say nothing of what they’ve just discovered about their patient’s ability to improve. 

It’s at this point that my mind turns to Cypher. Evidently it’s hard to stay with the kind of thinking and practice I advocate, and I know from long experience that most of the people who learn how to elicit ideomotor movement do not continue to do this for any significant length of time after the course. The traditional rituals of practice followed by most clinics outweigh the potential effects of care that includes counter cultural movement and the distinct alteration in methods of handling can be remarkably disruptive to the roles played by ancillary caregivers. I know that billing patterns and documentation must also be changed, and I don’t know how that might be avoided short of simply abandoning the entire theory of care I propose. For most therapists, Cypher’s reasoning is the best choice. 

I live with that.