Monday, May 15, 2017

Time Travelers

There’s something to be said for living in the present. After all, focusing and concentrating on the task at hand is a good thing. Allowing your mind to wander and ruminate might distract you from what you are doing. Being less attentive might produce errors.

And yet, as happens with most psycho wisdom, this piece of advice is deceptive. Does living in the present mean not learning from the past? Does it mean not planning for the future? Verbs have present tenses. They have past tenses. They have future and future perfect tenses. If we were meant to live in the present, there would only be present tenses. There would be no infinitives or past participles or subjunctives.

Learning from the past is not the same as becoming mired in the past. Certain forms of therapy recommend introspection and regression. At times, the tell you to regress, thus to relive the past. At other times, they tell you to recollect the past. 

They believe that by miring yourself in the past you will become more present in the present. And yet, digging deeply into your past, on the grounds that the you are being chained down by past traumas, will do nothing more than to tighten your chains. You cannot deal with a present situation if you are not focused on the present situation. You cannot ignore the facts at hand in favor of the so-called meanings you believe are buried in your forgotten memories.

One suspects that therapists emphasize the past because they do not understand very much about the present. And they would not know how to plan for the future. The result, in many cases, is that their patients delay action because they have come to believe that they must await a final epiphany that will lead to enlightenment. At that point, it won't even matter what they do, because opportunities will have escaped them.

Beyond even Freud, we have all been cursed by Santayana’s dictum, to the effect that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The line is not true. It is patent nonsense. It is closer to the truth to say that we never repeat the past. As I have mentioned, Heraclitus said that you cannot step into the same river twice. Let that be a caution for those who wish to relive the past, to continue to bask in the glow of their past laurels. And who use the idea as a way to avoid doing anything new. At times, even to avoid doing anything at all. If you can take joy from your pass successes why would you risk future failures?

The best way not to repeat the past is to forget it. At times, it is best to pretend that it did not happen. You gain no special advantage at belaboring the past. If you want to overcome past trauma you ought to focus more clearly on the specifics of your present dilemma. If you feel that you are drawn to make the same mistake again, ask for the opinion of an objective adviser. If you cannot find an adviser, pretend that the problem is someone else's. 

And then, do not analyze the present dilemma in terms of past dilemmas. Direct your attention to the future, to what you want to accomplish, where you want to go and what you want to become. Of course, the future is more uncertain than the past. So, get over your Cartesian lust after absolute certainty and learn to live with doubt.

Anyway, Olivia Goldhill writes in Quartz that neuroscientists have discovered that living in the present is not such a good idea. It is not even natural to human beings. As I mentioned, a quick glance at English grammar would have enlightened the scientists… but I guess it sounds better when it bears the mantle of science.

Goldhill writes:

While it’s certainly well meaning, the catchphrase alone offers limited guidance. After all, a life spent entirely dedicated to making sure the present moment was enjoyable would never go anywhere; no one would subject themselves to New York’s subway, for example. And neuroscience suggests that, while it may be unfashionable, humans’ ability to mentally transport ourselves into the future is one of the key distinguishing features of our species.

If you had eyes in the back of your head you could direct yourself toward your past. Since your eyes point out of your head and toward the future, take that as a hint. Living in the present means not planning any trips, not projecting yourself into any future situations and not envisioning scenarios about the future.

The genies of neuroscience tell us that other animals can project themselves into the future. Perhaps it's just instinct. Perhaps it's not imagination. Whatever it is, we humans are better at it. We can, after all, draw a plan of a building that has not been built. We can imagine all of the fun we are going to have on our next Hawaiian vacation. Earthworms cannot do as much.

Goldhill explains:

Dean Buonomano, behavioral neuroscience professor at UCLA and author of the recently-published Your Brain is a Time Machine, says that the human brain is an inherently temporal organ. “Not only does it tell the time, it also allows us to mentally project ourselves into the past and the future,” he says.

To a certain extent, all animals have a basic ability to predict and prepare for the future. Even worms have circadian rhythms and so instinctively know when it’s daylight and when predatory birds are more likely to be around. But humans have a far more sophisticated ability to conceive of the future—to “sculpt and create futures that we imagine,” says Buonomano.

“What’s fairly unique about humans is this aspect of mentally projecting ourselves into the past or the future—the degree to which humans can engage in what we call mental time travel,” he explains.

So, we are time travelers. Yet, as happens with all good things, it’s possible have too much of it. We can become so enamored of our visions of the future that we fail to do what we need to do to bring it about. One can only wonder what the neuroscientists have to say about those who focus on the future, who understand what the future offers in terms of possibilities and dangers, and yet, who don’t do anything about it. We know that they are torqued over the fact that people know the dangers of smoking and still smoke. They are even more torqued over the fact that people do not ignore the dangers of climate change. And yet, politically correct moralizing tells us nothing. We do not know to quite the same certainty that human beings are responsible for global warming or cooling. And we do not know how to estimate what will happen if we repeal the Industrial Revolution or stop exhaling... all in the interest of saving the climate. Fictional futures might spur us to action, but they do not tell us what to do.

Planning for the future is one thing. Doing something about it is quite another. Dreaming about the future is well and good. If it does not produce action, and not just any action, then what value does it have? After all, you and I can envision a building being built on the corner of State and Main. An architect can also envision the building. A developer can see it in his mind’s eye. And yet, taking the step from imagining the building to actually building it takes a massive number of actions, coordinated with the actions of other people.

You do not learn how to build a building, how to coordinate all of those actions by all of those people by imagining how the building is going to look when it is built. You are not going to build a building by imagining how rich you are going to become when you sell out all of the space in the building. Are you even thinking about what will happen if you build the building and cannot sell it? What will your banker say? What will the bankruptcy attorney advise? How will your family react to your newfound penury? I trust that you have a distinctly heroic vision of yourself celebrating your future success. Do you sense what you will feel in the future if you do not succeed?

While I agree that our ability to project ourselves into the future is a very human activity, I am less confident that we know what to do with that ability.


trigger warning said...

SS: "One suspects that therapists emphasize the past because they do not understand very much about the present."

I have a different theory. While I agree that therapists understand little to nothing about the present reality, I think they focus on the past because they share the philosophical view that humans, like dogs and worms, are fully contingent organisms. IOW, soulless meat machines driven by the Pavlovo-Skinnerian reinforcement structures and past experiences. If true, why focus on the present?

In fact, Proglodyte politics are this view writ large, wherein all maladaptive social behavior is derived from poorly designed social institutions (e.g., nation-states, criminal law, economic institutions, etc.). All we need to "Progress" is better designed, centralized, socially engineered nudgery. Remember when behavior therapy and token economies were so popular: Walden Two, eh?

SS: "You do not learn how to build a building, how to coordinate all of those actions by all of those people by imagining how the building is going to look when it is built."

Dude, Visualize World Peace.

"Imagine all the people living life in peace, you
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can..." ♫

Ares Olympus said...

Iain McGilchrist's "The divided brain", based from a book, like this shortened version seems helpful for perspective here. RSA ANIMATE: The Divided Brain

He sees different ways of seeing between the left and right hemispheres, and sees the right hemisphere as more holistic, and the left hemisphere more narrowly focused. His analogy is like a bird uses its left hemisphere to focus on potential food, while the right hemisphere has a broader awareness for potential dangers in the environment.

He also talks about the left's hemisphere's ability to reason and abstraction, so we can replace reality with a model of reality, and manipulate that model in our minds, and each model only needs to contain the aspects of reality that we want our model to work with. However this is dangerous because once a model seems to work, we can forget our model has excluded a large portion of observable reality, and so if we don't have feedback to see where our models go wrong. So it can be the ever vigilant right brain that will "notice" where our assumptions are not matching observations and tell us we need to pay attention more to the world than what we assume it contains, or should contain.

So I'd think this distinction is important when considering past, present and future. As long as you're in the past or future, you're entirely in "model space" and so its only in the present that you have a chance to observe the apparent anomalies and then we have new data to work into our models.

I've long liked the bumper stickers that say "Don't believe everything you think", played off the older one "Don't believe everything you hear." So both of these are calls to try to test what you know, if you can. Wrong pictures of reality are fine, ideally you can have more than one, because each one gives us a basis to be wrong, if we can test them in action.

We can try to predict the future, and if we track all our failures honestly we'll probably be more wise than an average person who prefers to only pay attention to his apparent successes, although the average person is still better off than the one who fails once or twice and gives up rather than trying to descontruct what might have gone wrong.

David Foster said...

Ares/Models. "However this is dangerous because once a model seems to work, we can forget our model has excluded a large portion of observable reality, and so if we don't have feedback to see where our models go wrong."

Peter Drucker wrote about Uncle Henry, the founder of a succesful department store....a businessman who did things by intuition more than by formal analysis, and his own son Irving, a Harvard B-School graduate, was appalled at “the unsystematic and unscientific way the store was being run.”

Uncle Henry. “Would tell stories constantly, always to do with a late consignment of ladies’ hats, or a shipment of mismatched umbrellas, or the notions counter. His stories would drive me up the wall. But gradually I learned to listen, at least with one ear. For surprisingly enough he always leaped to a generalization from the farrago of anecdotes and stocking sizes and color promotions in lieu of markdowns for mismatched umbrellas.”

Drucker also knew another leading merchant, Charles Kellstadt. Kellstadt and Drucker served together on a Department of Defense advisory board (on procurement policy), and Kellstadt told “the same kind of stories Uncle Henry had told.” Drucker says that his fellow board members “suffered greatly from his interminable and apparently pointless anecdotes.”

On one occasion, a “whiz kid” was presenting a proposal for a radically new approach to defense pricing policy. Kellstadt “began to tell a story of the bargain basement in the store in Chillicothe, Ohio and of some problem there with the cup sizes of women’s bras. he would stop every few sentences and ask the bewildered Assistant Secretary a quesion about bras, then go on. Finally, the Assistant Secretary said, “You don’t understand Mr. Kellstadt; I’m talking about concepts.” “So am I,” said Charlie, quite indignant, and went on. Ten minutes later all of us on the board realized that he had demolished the entire proposal by showing us that it was far too complex, made far too many assumptions, and contains far too many ifs, buts, and whens.” After the meeting, another board member said admiringly, “Charlie, that was a virtuoso performance. but why did you have to drag in the cup sizes of the bras in your bargain basement forty years ago?” Drucker reports that Charlie was surprised by the question: “How else can I see a problem in my mind’s eye?”

Reflecting many years later, Drucker observed: “There are lots of people with grasshopper minds who can only go from one specific to another–from stockings to buttons, for instance, or from one experiment to another–and never get to the generalization and the concept. They are to be found among scientists as often as among merchants. But I have learned that the mind of the good merchant, as also of the good artist or good scientist, works the way Uncle Henry’s mind worked. It starts out with the most specific, the most concrete, and then reaches for the generalization.”


“Fifty years or more ago the Uncle Henry’s and the Charlie Kellstadts dominated; then it was necessary for Son Irving to emphasize systems, principles, and abstractions. There was need to balance the overly perceptual with a little conceptual discipline…But now we again need the Uncle Henrys and Charlie Kellstadts. We have gone much too far toward dependence on untested quantification, toward symmetrical and purely formal models, toward argument from postulates rather than from experience, and toward moving from abstraction to abstraction without once touching the solid ground of concreteness. We are in danger of forgetting what Plato taught at the very beginning of systematic analysis and thought in the West, in two of the most beautiful and moving of his Dialogoues, the Phaedrus and the Krito…They teach us that experience without the test of logic is not “rhetoric” but chitchat, and that logic without the test of experience is not “logic” but absurdity. Now we need to learn again what Charlie Kellstadt meant when he said, “How else can I see a problem in my mind’s eye?”

James said...

This post reminds me of a Yogi Berra quote:
"We might be lost, but we're making good time"