As we know people born in and connected to the Matrix retain a residual self image. Morpheus told Neo:

Your appearance now is what we call residual self image. It is the mental projection of your digital self.

Freed people that hack back into the Matrix keep that projection and do not change it at will (see: Did People Within The Matrix Always Resemble their Real World Bodies?).

But here's the question: How do people born (or grown for that matter) in the Matrix develop a residual self image that resembles their own body in the first place? You simply do not know how you look if you never saw yourself. It would therefore require that the Matrix feeds your brain with a mental image based on your real body thus requiring some scanners (or whatever) inside the tank to obtain ones features within the goo.

That leads to the more important question as to why would the machines go through all this trouble to provide "proper" residual self images for their connected humans? The prime purpose of the Matrix is to keep their "guests" attached for live, pretty unaware of the fact that they are in the Matrix - as Morpheus puts it, blinded from the truth of being a prisoner. That goal could be perfectly achieved without everybody knowing their own look safe those who are freed from the Matrix (but then again why would the machines be worried about them)?

For the sake of the discussion lets assume that there is only one layer of the Matrix - that being: the "Zion-real world" is the real world - as nested layers of the Matrix would of course simplify things greatly.

  • This question made me think of a similar question... how would getting fat off of an excess of calories work in the Matrix with RSI? I'm sure your body in the real world isn't being fed any more than the machines need to keep you alive, yet in the Matrix, you would become obese.
    – Scottie
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 15:07
  • @Scottie - There are no obviously obese people in the matrix. I'm struggling to think whether there are any babies, either.
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 15:11
  • 4
    There are small children when Neo is waiting to see the Oracle...
    – Scottie
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 15:33

9 Answers 9


The brain and the body are still connected

You're assuming there's a total disconnect between brain and body. Based on what we see (damage to the brain causes damage to the real-world body, conversely damage to the real-world body also causing the digital self to falter) this simply isn't true.

Morpheus: The body cannot live without the mind

Since the brain and body are intimately connected it makes perfect sense for the RSI to mirror the real world body, ensuring the minimum of effort on the part of the machines. Imagine the additional computing power needed to trick a 10-year-old into thinking they've got the body of a 30-year-old or to explain to a supposedly healthy 20-year-old (who's really 80) why they're tired all the time.

The machines want to be helpful

The Matrix and Zion are a sham. The whole point is to allow the small proportion of dissidents to freely move around inside it and escape from it. If the RSI was dramatically different from the self, it would make things much harder. You simply wouldn't know who was who and who you could trust.

The machines can scan you

As to how, as you've already pointed out, the machines have access to your body. It would be a simple matter for them to scan you periodically and then serve that image up to you whenever you view yourself (on film, in mirrors or when you look down) so you see what they want you to see. These images will reinforce your own self-image as you grow up.

  • While I did not intend to assume a total disconnect between brain and body, I'd argue that a person in the tank has got no (or little) means of getting useful feedback of its own body's features (that is without the Matrix feeding those information directly to the brain). The idea that Zion (and thusly the real World) itself is vital to the Matrix and the machines however is key to the question as to why the machines do care about a matching RSI. +1
    – Ghanima
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 10:27

The line about "residual self image" occurred when they were in a construct--a small virtual world created by the computers of the Nebuchadnezzar, disconnected from the Matrix. See the transcript here), when Neo asks "Right now we're inside a computer program?", Morpheus replies:

Is it really so hard to believe? Your clothes are different. The plugs in your arms and head are gone. Your hair is changed. Your appearance now is what we call residual self image. It is the mental projection of your digital self.

So I think the implication is that his image in the construct was not directly determined by the programming of the construct, but depended on his own mental self-image, which he had formed from seeing his own "digital self" during his life in the Matrix (which would explain why his appearance in the construct matched how he had looked in the Matrix rather than how he looked in the real world, as Omegacron pointed out, and note that the scriptwriters actually had Morpheus highlight this point in the beginning of the line I quoted). There was nothing to suggest it worked the same way in the Matrix--to speculate, a person's appearance there may have been programmed by the machines to simulate what the person would look like if they were able to exercise their muscles, grow their hair etc., given their genetics and other biological factors present at birth.

  • 2
    I think the most important point here is the distinction between being placed/born in the Matrix originally and the construct/hacking back into the Matrix. The former being set by the machines/Matrix and the latter being a subconscious projection.
    – Ellesedil
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 18:44
  • 19
    I think you've got it there at the end. Rather than make up a body, the Machines scan the physical body and insert it as a template to build their self-image, much like building a character in a video game. Details like hair, skin color and muscle tone would develop according to how they live their life in the Matrix. As the body grows and ages, the template would be updated. This would all make the subject's mind less likely to reject the Matrix, since the self-image matches the physical body. There's no canon to support this, but it's a good speculation.
    – Schwern
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 19:22
  • Doesn't address the bolded question: "why would the machines go through all this trouble to provide "proper" residual self images for their connected humans?"
    – KRyan
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 5:15
  • 1
    @KRyan - I don't think there is any way to answer that with information from the movie or spin-offs, it would be total speculation. To speculate, there are ways in which personality may be correlated with appearance, like if you have a lot of testosterone it can affect both, and there's some evidence people can predict all kinds of personality traits better than chance based on facial features. So to accurately simulate human social interactions it may have worked best to choose the biological appearance that nature 'intended'.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 5:32
  • @Hypnosifl, if there is no canon answer than that would be that. But maybe someone knows whether there was something hinted on this issue in some of the side works like the Animatrix or whatever.
    – Ghanima
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 10:11

This is more of a psychology question than plot explanation, but the answer is still the same. Any human being - even one that has never seen themselves in a reflection, such as a blind person - has a mental image of what they imagine themselves to look like. This is human nature, and occurs with both children and adults.

To address your question, however, the "residual self" presented in the film is an image of their digital self, not the physical one sitting in a capsule somewhere. Someone who grew up in the Matrix would have only their digital selves to judge by, which is why Neo appeared similar to how he did within the Matrix (sans plugs and nifty new hairstyle).

The convenient fact that everyone's digital self looks like their actual body is a conceit by the film-makers that must be taken as fact in the Matrix-verse.

  • 1
    Even the blind have some sensoric feedback to estimate theirself (say touch your nose to figure out how big it is). Somebody inside the Matrix cannot do that. And as for the the difference of the "digital self" and the residual body, well the characters we know from the movie look pretty much the same in the Matrix and in reality to count on pure chance. The last sentence of your answer however does not provide any clue as to why the self image is as it is. Of course they keep it when re-entering the Matrix, but that is a different question.
    – Ghanima
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 16:54
  • Actually, the "real" version of Neo has little to no hair, yet his residual self keeps his Matrix hairstyle. So there ARE differences - it's just not something that the film-makers decided to make a big deal of. And inside the Matrix, your digital self IS your real self... at least, as far as your mind is concerned.
    – Omegacron
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 18:08
  • 3
    I am really not refering to his hair style but the whole person. Say height, weight, facial features... The Neo in the tank could be looking like Tyrion Lennister while the mind of Neo (or the Matrix itself...) inside the Matrix makes him see himself as Keanu Reeves. After being freed by the Nebuchadnezzar that would be quite a shock to him.
    – Ghanima
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 18:46
  • 1
    @Ghanima It would have cost too much to hire totally different people to play the cast outside of the Matrix, and too confusing to the audience (not to mention the actual characters). ;-)
    – user11521
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 18:52
  • 2
    @Omegacron Ghanima's point is the Matrix people didn't grow up seeing themselves. They're effectively blind. Got a citation that blind people develop a self-image that matches their physical body? We're not talking a rough approximation or little details like hair length, we're talking same face.
    – Schwern
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 19:15

Randomness is hard

Sure, it's sort of easy to get a few random integers. But multiply that out by billions of people, and you're bound to reuse patterns, and have odd things happen (like redheadedness randomly dispersed across the world, as well as all genetic properties), and then you might as well throw all of genetics out the window, since all a child's traits are randomly selected anyway.

Instead, perhaps they just randomly selected off the parents' traits - but surely things would be missed, and it could be that not enough variation would be present to provide the 'less than perfect' Matrix iteration they needed.

So perhaps they could - reinvent genetics then, but have it uncorrelated to the genome you actually have?

The mind is still connected to the body

Since this is given in the Matrix canon, then it would be likely that the mind might reject the 'software' that is lying to it. Perhaps they have a huge mole on their face that the mind is somewhat aware of, but the Matrix has them with a smooth face. Or they have DD breasts in the matrix but their mind knows they're As. Or they're 6'5" in the matrix and 5'1" in reality....

So just measure

Instead of bothering to recreate all of genetics, and dealing with software rejection issues that may result (and may have in the first Matrix), why not just let biology happen and mimic it, in at least the basic sense, to the mind? If you have the genes for black hair, give them black hair. If they have the genes for baldness, have them loose their hair. Measure their actual height and make it so.

It's quite plausible that this is both easy to collect (basic sensors and monitoring data, quite the forte of computers) and easy to implement (residual self image hints/video rendering), whereas recreating plausible genetic distributions and variety and lying to minds about the bodies they are in is not quite so simple.


If the matrix had indeed rendered a complete image of what the virtual world looked like, then that image would then be preprocessed by the part of the brain responsible for visual inputs.

The amounts of data passed on to the conscious part of the brain is much smaller. But that doesn't mean the matrix could have cut any corners in the rendering process. If the rendering didn't produce a perfect image, then the preprocessing done by the visual part of the brain would pick up the rendering artifacts and alert the conscious part of the brain to the rendering artifacts and not have it pay as much attention to everything else.

In the movie there is evidence that this was solved by completely bypassing the part of the brain performing this preprocessing of visual inputs. It is more likely that instead of going from simulated model to images to processed images, the matrix went directly from simulated model to processed images. The processed images of course have to be injected at a different place in the brain than the preprocessed images would have been.

In the movie it is explained that turning the model data into images is computationally expensive, and hence is rarely done. Instead when inspecting the model data on a computer screen it is just shown as a series of symbols closely matching the model data.

The computational cost was mentioned in the context of what the computers on the ship could do. But it seems quite reasonable that the matrix wouldn't waste computational resources on this unneeded computation. Also if the matrix had actually done the computation, we would have expected that on the ship they could simply have switched their computer monitors to display these rendered images instead of the model data.

This means that in the movie, whenever you are looking at images from within the matrix, you are looking at images that do not exist in-world. They represent the step that was actually left out from the computation.

Obviously the images had to be rendered for the movie, because otherwise watching the movie would have required years of training in decoding the symbols on screen or a plug directly into your brain.

Before the question then comes up about why it was even possible to render the movie, if the rendering was so expensive, it should be pointed out that to produce the movie only rendering from a single point of view was needed and it could be done offline. Should the same have been done inside the matrix it would have had to be real-time with a different point of view rendered for every human.

So if Neo were to look into a mirror while inside the matrix. He doesn't see an image of what he looks like. He simply see a tag saying that is me plus possibly tags indicating any parts of his body looking in an unexpected way, for example if a bruise had suddenly turned up in his face that would be tagged separately.

It is only once he leaves the matrix that actual images starts getting attached to the tag. If Neo were to look at his own hand in the real world and turn it around in front of his eyes, his brain would realize that since this hand was turning as he was turning his hand, then that was his own hand, and the image would be remembered for future comparisons.


How do people born (or grown for that matter) in the Matrix develop a residual self image that resembles their own body in the first place?

I think the simplest answer is that the Matrix initially supplies their self image. I doubt there is a need for scanners in the tanks. The Matrix must pick healthy humans to grow, as it wouldn't be efficient to grow humans with genetic conditions that could prevent them growing into adults. I would take this to mean that it is trivial for the Matrix to project what someone would look like from their DNA.

why would the machines go through all this trouble to provide "proper" residual self images for their connected humans?

We know that the first matrix failed because it was perfect. Using "normal" looking people with their imperfections would assist in building the imperfect world. And it may just be so incredibly trivial for the Matrix to use their DNA to project their image that it is the simplest thing to do.

  • This is what I thought, if someone in the matrix goes to a hospital the image would have to be detailed down to the DNA, and the DNA contains what you will look like your entire life (excluding little details like hair style or spots ect), the machines know how your physical body will change over time from the moment you are born as your image will need to contain a full DNA seq to be convincing in some scenarios (like gene testing in a matrix hospital)
    – Matt
    Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 12:19

They develop their residual self images as others have suggested from their projection in the matrix. Theoretically someone could be imaged in a way that doesn't match their body. So your second question seems more to the point.

Why would the machines go to the trouble?

The first Matrix was perfect... and human minds rejected it.

Supposing peoples images were perfect as well, the machines may have decided that was a contributing factor to the programming being rejected. For example, real human bodies are not perfectly symmetrical so images that are generally appear unnatural to us.

Similarly machine generated images may have a lack of diversity in features, and our pattern recognition facilities tend to notice that. Duplicating something that already exists would provided that diversity without requiring a high degree of creativity on the part of the machines.

  • Good point but if the key issues were symmetry and lack of diversity those could simply solved by making the avatars inside the Matrix different. I'd argue that it would not take a high degree of creativity nor a huge load of computational power to do so (after all, they are rendering a whole city/world VR).
    – Ghanima
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 10:16

The core question here is, Why do people in the Matrix see their actual physical appearance as their digital appearance, when people in pods can't directly see their own physical appearance? I believe the answer boils down to one word: MIRRORS.

The Matrix is simulating the whole physical world for everyone in it, including providing images for everyone to see this world. This includes people seeing themselves in mirrors. Since these mirror images are themselves simulated, the question becomes: From where does the Matrix derive these images? Coming up with an algorithm capable of generating billions of unique and physically-realistic images of humans is challenging, to say the least. Is there a (computationally) cheaper way? Why YES - thanks to this thing called genetic variation, humans themselves naturally provide a source of such images! All one needs is a little scanning equipment in the pods - which the Matrix needs anyway, to monitor the humans' ongoing biological processes - and one easily captures appropriate images for each person's Matrix appearance, for use in mirror images, and while we're at it, for use as what other people see too.


I always believed that once you got out of the matrix and saw your real self, your memory altered all memories of yourself with the new image. As far as your mind knows, you've always looked this way.

We know that memory does this already. If you are a witness to a crime, and see a photo of someone you believe to be the perp, your memory will go back and replace all memories of the perp you saw with the one in the picture.

  • Also a very good and interesting point! Though that would probably work best if there are at least some similarities but those could be more easily established by the machines.
    – Ghanima
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 10:20

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