Sorry about the confusing title, it's kind of impossible to condence this into a single one-sentence question.

Background information (skip if you already know a little about Divergent and Inception):
Divergence: In the book Divergent, people are tested by being injected with a serum that induces fear by triggering certain areas of the brain, causing a "simulation" in which you have to face your worst fear. For example, if you were terrified of enclosed spaces (claustrophobic) you would suddenly find yourself in a tight box that you couldn't break. Some people, the Divergent, can tell when they are in a simulation, and manipulate it(so break out of the box, or make it bigger).

Inception: The movie Inception is largely about a technology that allows people to share dreams, and consciously shape them, controlling what happens in the dream and manipulating the setting. The main character of the movie always carries around a token, a unique item that only he knows about to be able to see if he is in reality, his own dream, or somebody else's.

How would you know if you were in a simulation created by the serum in Divergent (assuming you couldn't manipulate your surroundings or just 'know'?

I ask this because it seems that the idea with the token would NOT work in the question, as your own brain creates the simulation, and therefore you would know about your token and it would be included.

  • $\begingroup$ token is just symbol of knowledge - it have not to be accepted literally. There is no way for us to distinguish good simulation from reality. Denying subjective perception is more medical question. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ Does the serum have external computational abilities ? If else get a calculator/mobile and type two big digits and press multiply, it would take a huge time if it was a simulation/dream. This is the reasons in dreams, clocks keep changing time because brain cannot actively calculate time. $\endgroup$
    – Chinu
    Commented Aug 27, 2016 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ MolbOrg, the token is actually a legitimate way to distinguish between dreams and reality (at least in a situation like Inception). As nobody but you know the exact dimensions and attributes of the token, nobody can create a dream with it in it. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ Chinu, your idea is a good one, but I see a bit of a problem with it: what if the serum is created so that you cannot do exactly that? Or when you do something like that, your brain just rounds to the nearest power of ten, or something like that, so you have no way to see if the answer is right or not. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 15:11

2 Answers 2


Interesting Questions, here's a few ideas.

Spirituality - The connection to knowing you're in the simulation could be that your longing or knowing of a higher power sheds light on the reality of the simulation.

Death - maybe through near death experiences in the simulation individuals find out more than they should about the simulation and can somehow begin to unravel the mysteries behind it.

Made aware by outside source - Maybe the way to figure out about the simulation is by someone else who is in the simulation and is already aware of it has to show you, this of course begs the questions who figured it out first?

Dreams - lastly maybe in the simulation the only time you can truly be aware of the simulation is during your lowest brain activity (sleep and dreams) in this state if you can become aware of your dream state you can start to be awakened to the truth of life, check out lucid dreaming.

Hope I could help! Also check out The Matrix, Surrogate and The Truman Show, for some inspiration.


In James P. Hogan’s Realtime Interrupt, the VR is programmed with a clue that was meant to prompt the person to both remember/realize the VR existed and how to gain command.

In general, there is no innate way to tell. It is an arms race of flaws and fixes to known flaws, to prevent the person from ever realizing. It is an aspect of the specific story plot to find a flaw that still exists in this instance and use that as the basis of the plot.

There may be innate limits based on the specific implementation you can design in. In Hogan’s example the sense of smell did not work. In other stories there have been physical limits to the size of the simulated world. And being a presented sensorama not “in the head” they can't mess with his desires and plans, and has limited ability (limited success) to influence him through perceptions and hormone driven emotions.

For example, Truman might have been more inclined to not leave the island if he was wired up to VR that could really induce a fear reaction, rather than just showing him things. If a VR could go in and manipulate the person’s desires and goals, it would be much harder to break out.

So set limits and imperfections in the VR. A perfect simulation of unlimited scope would have no way out.

But you decide on the limits.

  • $\begingroup$ Phillip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch goes into this in some depth. Recommended. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 27, 2016 at 9:41
  • $\begingroup$ Oh yes. Dick had serious issues with reality vs his own memory and perceptions. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Aug 27, 2016 at 9:45

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