Presentism and Imagination, Depression

How much would you enjoy a nice big slice of pizza right now?  Ignoring the fact that somehow there are people out there who don’t like pizza any time, I would be willing to guess that those of you who are hungry, would enjoy it very much.  Those of you who just ate, probably wouldn’t.  In fact, if you just ate so much that you are stuffed, the idea of eating pizza which you might otherwise love, might just make you feel a little sick.

All animals can predict the hedonic consequences of events they’ve experienced before. But humans can predict the hedonic consequences of events they’ve never experienced by simulating those events in their minds. Scientists are beginning to understand how the brain simulates future events, how it uses those simulations to predict an event’s hedonic consequences, and why these predictions so often go awry.
(Prospection: Experiencing the Future)

What if I was to ask a slightly different question: How much would you enjoy a nice big slice of pizza, on friday night?  Those of you who are hungry, are about twice as likely to answer that you would, as those of you who just ate.  Why?  

Memory uses the filling-in trick, but imagination is the filling in trick, and if the present lightly colors our remembered pasts, it thoroughly infuses our imagined futures.
(thoughts on happiness

Your mind has a fascinating ability to imagine all sorts of things.  You can imagine a space ship traveling through time to a distant galaxy to fight aliens on a wayward moon.  You can visualize almost anything.  Yet, we cannot imagine that we might be hungry again later on today, and how it might feel to be hungry until we actually are.  We can imagine what a space ship might look like, and a distant galaxy, but surprisingly the pilot of the space ship looks, talks, and wears the same outfits that we wear.  


The Kitchen of the Future, 1957
The Kitchen of the Future, 1957

This is your brain filling in the gaps for you.  When your brain imagines things, it uses what it knows to fill in the gaps.  The problem is, when your brain fills in gaps about things it does not know about the past or the future, it uses the present.  Much the same as when you imagine things visually your brain fills in the gaps of things which it does not know, with things it does.

Ask a depressed individual how much fun his 16th birthday was, you will probably get a less than enthusiastic response.  Ask the same individual how he will feel two years from today on his college graduation day, you will also get a less than enthusiastic response.  Your brain uses the present, in this case, your present mood, to infer the things about the past and future which it does not know.

The brain images by enlisting the aid of its sensory areas, we imagine an object by recalling memories of similar objects. Just as we preview objects, so we prefeel events. That is, we imagine future emotions on the basis of recalling and recreating similar emotions from our past. We can almost always tell whether a visual experience is the product of a real or an imagined object. But not so with emotional experience. We mix feeling (from current event in the world) with prefeelings (that originate in memory). A ‘reality first’ principle operates. So, if we are asked to imagine how hungry we will feel tomorrow, our answer depends on how full we feel right now. We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present. And, we can mistakenly assume that the future event is the cause of the unhappiness we feel in the present when we think about it.
(thoughts on happiness

This is called “Pre-feeling”.  I think pre-feeling is the cause of the very difficult downward spiral which is depression.  Can recognizing it be a key to escaping it?  If we hear the advice of our friends, such as, “Things will get better” or other cliches, but do not simply dismiss them and actually are able to catch our mind playing this trick on us can we pry ourselves out of the hole we find ourselves in?

What about comparing things in the present, past, and future? If we want to predict how something will make us feel in the future, we must consider the kind of comparison we well be making in the future and not the kind of comparison we happen to be making in the present. Presentism, the temptation to view the past and the future through the lens of the present, is nothing short of overwhelming.
(thoughts on happiness)  

I am not sure if it is possible to break this cycle.  As anyone who is depressed knows, you are aware you are depressed, you are aware you are probably feeling like crap over something small, which you have no control over.  You are aware of how you feel and you are aware that you aren’t doing anyone any good by feeling that way.  So would being aware that your dismal outlook on everything in your life, past and present, was being affected by this current state of mind allow you to change your outlook?

I doubt it.  So how does this knowledge do us any good?  You can have all the knowledge in the world about the how’s and why’s regarding your current mood, but if you cannot escape from it, then you are clearly not any better off.

Any thoughts on using the tools modern psychology has given us?  Does recognizing the way our brain works and understanding that what we see and how we feel might not actually be the truth allow us to modify our outlooks?

Many of the ideas from this post are taken from the book Stumbing on Happiness.  I have used this book for other posts and will continue to use it.  It has so many great ideas.  I highly suggest everyone read it.

3 thoughts on “Presentism and Imagination, Depression

  1. As to imagination…

    I’ve watched a lot of porn. You’d think with all this reference material, my mind would be able to conjour up some fantastic scenarios. But no, my imagination is totally shot. The best I can do is remember porn that I have watched in the past. I think the imagination center in my brain has atrophied from underuse, because I remember it being more active back in the days.

    As for depression…

    The mind has an incredible ability to explain away almost anything, even with no information to go on. I read this article recently about studies on people with split brains, the bundle of neurons connecting the two halves being cut. Surprisingly, this condition does not really affect them much in daily life, the two halves are able to communicate with each other using different means, such as subtle back and forth movements of the head to allow both eyes to see what the other is seeing.

    In artifical situations, with the eyes being seperated by goggles or a wall between the eyes, weirdness manifests. In particular, if a displeasing image is shown to the left eye (thus fed to the right brain), this would make the subject uncomfortable or sad or some other negative emotion. The left brain would pick up on the changed emotions (presumably since both halves are still connected to the brain stem), but it would have no idea as to why they changed because it did see the displeasing image. Instead of just admiting ignorance, the brain instantly makes up a reason using whatever information it does have, no matter how unrelated. When the subject was asked why they were feeling ‘upset’, the most common response was that the person administering the experiment was being a jerk, or some such. The exact opposit would happen if the subject was shown a pleasent image.

    The amazing thing about this is the brains rationalization took place without any conscience realization by the subject. As far as they are concerned, ‘the experimenter being a jerk’ is simply a fact. Our brains ability to fill in the blanks can lead us to all sorts of erroneus conclusions, and knowing that it has this ability cannot help us distinguish between reality and our brains truthiness equations; to our conscience minds, it’s all the same. It’s like opening a Mad Libs and seeing all the blanks filled in already, even when they are not.

  2. Its amazing the type of stuff your brain just fills in for you. The image being shown to one eye is a great example. Speaking of eyes, if you ever test your blind spot, youll find that your brain will fill in the blind spot with whatever color is most prominent around it.

    Pretty neat stuff.

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