The Danger of Imagination

Brains these days are pretty advanced. I think, maybe too advanced. I’m not sure I’m ready for a frontal lobe yet and neither are you.

You see, sometimes in history things go through rapid spurts of advancement. Like the ‘4 minute mile’, once a record is broken or a new precedent is set, it seems to open the cosmic floodgates for our collective consciousness to follow. If that’s a bit deep, then we can simply look at how, at times, we try to advance too fast and pack too much into things. Look at the recent release of the Samsung Note 7. They tried to fit too much into it, too quickly and well it just self-combusted. So what about our brains?… You’re probably thinking that a segue from smartphones to human brains is a stretch but, stay with me.

I’m currently reading ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ by Daniel Gilbert. In his book, he points out that humans are the only species (that we know of) who have the ability to use our brains as a simulator. That is, to rehearse and play out possible future events and scenarios or re-live past memories and ‘experience’ them without physically having the experience. This can be pretty handy. For example, we know that peanut butter, fish sauce and ice cream would taste pretty awful together and we know this without actually having to have the horrid experience of sweet, bitter fishiness in our mouths.

Throughout evolution, our frontal lobes have essentially developed as a virtual time machine allowing us to travel back in the past and re-live old memories as well as project and simulate possible future scenarios.

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So, why do we have this ability? Well, it’s an essential tool for decision-making, as well as learning from our past. Memories form part of our reality and we need to be able to imagine hypotheticals so that we can make the right choices. But… you see this is where the problem begins. I wrote recently about choice and how having too many options in life can breed discontent and regret, causing you to always wonder “what if…”.

This fact is made worse by our ability to jump in our virtual frontal lobe time machine and experience a simulated reality. If we, as humans, are now so clever that we can simulate any experience with all the associated sensations then how can we ever be content with our (perhaps not as interesting) ‘real’ reality? How can we ever make the ‘right’ choice and be happy without replaying¬†other possible options and constantly questioning if we’re on the right path or not?

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There have been many movies made about addiction to virtual reality. Dystopian futures where humans ‘plug in’ and live realities that don’t exist. I think this points to a key element… The more our brains are able to simulate a reality-like experience, the more discontent we become with actual reality. It may even come to the point where the line between reality and simulation is blurred and more of us begin to live in our own minds and detach from our unbearable reality as much as possible. Overthinking is already a disease plaguing the human race with books on mindfulness selling like hot cakes as people have to re-learn how to be present… Think about that for a moment… We have to learn how to just ‘be’ again. How ridiculous.

Don’t get me wrong, I own every major book on the topic and am always searching for ways to subdue my mental noise. I’m just saying that’s it’s all a bit ridiculous and sad that we have to train ourselves to just be in the moment. As if we’re temporarily stuck in some evolutionary bridging period where our brains have capabilities that our psyches aren’t yet ready for.

Simulation or visualisation is powerful. Studies have shown that, for example, when athletes¬†visualise an activity, the neurones in their brain respond as if they are really doing it in real life. It’s not just a complete fantasy, it’s a legitimate rehearsal that primes our brains and can be very powerful.

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So, where does this leave negative experiences, depression and anxiety? Like the athlete, if we simulate a desolate future for ourselves and constantly imagine bad things happening to us, then surely the same parts of the brain will be activated as if these awful imagined events are really happening. This is why people who suffer from anxiety often experience physical symptoms from their bodies constantly being in ‘fight or flight’ mode as they sit in their dark frontal lobes playing out worst case scenarios every day.

If our brains respond in a similar way to imagined stimulus as they do real, then maybe it’s possible that we could suffer a form of PTSD if we’re constantly rehearsing dire scenarios. Surely this is dangerous and can have a lasting effect on our brain structure and physical health. This is why Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is successful as it’s about reprogramming the brain away from simulating negative patterns.

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The interesting thing is that studies into quantum physics are proving that what we perceive as our ‘reality’ through our rudimentary senses is anything but. The physical world doesn’t really exist. So if that’s the case, what is the difference between what we perceive with our physical eye versus our mind’s eye and can either experience shape and affect our psyche just as much as the other?

So what’s the answer? How do we use this incredible time machine when needed yet, stay out of it when not necessary? Well, I think mindfulness is the right approach for now. I think we all need to learn to live less in our heads and more in the moment and this will help discourage over-thinking and negative thought patterns. We need to learn to tame our advancing brains and regain control so that we don’t all mentally self-combust.

 

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