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.
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.