Thursday, 12 July 2012

What will I be thinking?

Despite the similar title this week's entry isn't going to have very much in common with last week's. However, before I give a more direct explanation I'd like to give a little background on where this entry is coming from. Just recently my life has been pretty turbulent. Work, as evidenced by my unreliable entries here, has been very hectic (and promises to continue to be for the next few months). I've fallen behind on a lot of my personal goals, particularly with regards to writing and finally I've had a few somewhat upsetting personal matters. All in all it's led to both my thoughts and actions being a little messy.
As a result of this, I came back to an idea which someone suggested to me a long time ago, that I think about all of my current problems, decisions and circumstances from the perspective of myself in four years time.

This is a similar concept to the one I brought up in the entry on Robert Anton Wilson (that by taking up a different perspective on life, or 'reality tunnel' as he called them, we can learn a great deal). I'm trying to consider everything in my life as though I am me in four years time looking back. The advantages of this should be obvious. Things which upset me now will hardly bother me in a few years time and there are pursuits which I might shy away from in the short term which would be wonderful in the long term (learning a language or instrument for instance), painful experiences may even, taking the long view, seem beneficial.
Obviously doing this is pretty easy in some ways, I can look back to four years in my past and see which things from then still matter to me now. However it is, in the way which many matters of the head are, dangerous and easily usurped. If I want to do something now that would probably be a bad idea in the long term, I may still be able to find an argument that it is a good idea, that the best possible outcome will have turned into a very beneficial one for future me. What this perspective is guaranteed to do though is enforce a certain patience. That is, whatever rash activity I'm planning can easily be done in a couple of week's time without any harm from future me's perspective.
What I want to stress is that actually forcing myself to take this position turned out to be far more valuable than I'd thought. I was already able to intellectually say to myself that painful things happening to me now are nonetheless beneficial, but knowing that in a purely reasoned way didn't seem to help. By playing the part of this future me I was able to feel that fact, to actually take on the benefits of that experience and point out to myself how influential it had been. It's a little like the difference between reading Shakespeare to yourself, seeing how Romeo feels and actually playing Romeo on stage, acting it out to precisely experience those feelings. Perhaps I'm giving myself too much credit, but I'm trying to point out how different it is to think about a situation and to actually feel it.

Having experimented a bit with this point of view I don't actually think it is a good place to live, mentally. There are a great many things from day to day which now-me may very much enjoy but which future-me would have no interest in. I'm sure future-me would prefer I ate only roughage and exercised every day, but that would be a very boring life, a little cake now and then adds spice to life, it makes it more joyful. However I do think this is an excellent tool to have in my psychological toolbox. A way of thinking to bring out whenever I am feeling overwhelmed or worried by my present life. Often I've found that it indicates much more clearly how little of a problem things are than they feel and gives me a good idea of the proper way out of the current situation.

The final thing I want to mention is that, having toyed with this point of view quite a bit recently, I've found that it has altered my perspective quite significantly on a number of issues. It hasn't done this in quite the way I expected however. I haven't thought much more deeply about my future career or the family I may one day have, those things both seem too random and too unpredictable to me. What it's really made me think about a lot more is the games of chance in every day life. That for every two hundred people I meet there may be one who turns into a lifelong friend, making each one of the potentially boring hundred and ninety nine conversations seem much more worthwhile. Equally it's made me consider self improvement as much more of a ongoing and valuable journey. I would like, eventually, to be someone who could be described as charming. That may not be possible, but I believe even more strongly now that socialising is just a matter of practice and pushing yourself. With this in mind, each one of those boring conversations is also a chance to practice, a honing of my skills and an opportunity to try something which, while it may embarrass me in the short term, may turn out to be a new skill I can use.
Both of these ideas apply to all sorts of areas of life and have left me thinking about, not so much where I would like to be in four years, but who I would like to be.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

What was I thinking?

This will only be a brief entry, but it's a subject which I'm truly fascinated about so at some point in the future I may delve further (for this week I've only done the bare minimum of research).
The origin of this idea came when I had a brief course in psychology back at university. Some of the work I did was an essay about experiments done on split brain patients*. That is people who, due to epilepsy, had the connection between the two halves of their brain severed.
In the experiments a different image is presented to each eye of the patient, they are then asked to point to one of a set of images in front of them which they associate with what they're seeing. What happens is that the left hand points to an image connected to what the left eye is seeing and the same for the right hand **. That is, if the left eye sees a car, the left hand will point to a wheel, and if they right eye sees a desk the right hand will point to a computer. This is because each half of the brain is only connected to one eye. The point is that these two halves of the brain, although they can no long communicate with one another, are still both operating as separate entities. It's as though they are two full people in this one body.

That's fascinating enough, but the experiment which really got me was when the left brain (which deals with all of our language) was asked to explain why the right brain had pointed at something. The example given below (* under the section 'false memories') is that the left brain saw a chicken's foot, so pointed to a chicken, and the right brain saw a snowstorm, so pointed to a shovel. Obviously, with no communication, the left brain has no idea what caused the other hand to point at a shovel, but when questioned the subjects would confidently explain that it was to clear out the chicken coop. They would completely believe this reasoning, providing similar examples in other tests. Whenever I read about it in the literature this seems to be treated like an afterthought, a fun little trick which they caught the brain playing on itself, but to me it seems huge.

I've always been a little suspicious of my brain and of the reasons I give for doing things. Here is evidence that, even if we have a decent sounding reason for an action, we may actually not know the real explanation behind it at all.
I realise that most people are pretty confident that, when they take some action, they know why they took it. This may all sound like hand waving rubbish to you, but just for a moment entertain the possibility that it isn't so certain.
There are often times when I will look around as I walk along the street and, finding I have looked around, I will think to myself that the reason I did so was to look at that pretty lady who just walked past. Upon careful examination, if I'm particularly awake, sometimes I catch the fact that I didn't even notice the lady until after I'd turned around. I really looked around because I saw a flash of colour, or because I thought I saw an old friend, or some other reason which is no longer retrievable from the ether. However, in my internal narrative I came up with an explanation for the action after it happened, using the information available to me at the time (just as the split brain patients do).

I used to ponder this idea a lot, thinking about the possibility that perhaps we all live just a split second after the moment. That we are simply observers of our actions who come up with explanations for our actions after the fact.
Clearly this isn't always the case. After all there are certainly times in conversation where I consciously stop myself from saying something, realising that it would offend or upset the person I'm talking to. However it is noticeable, to me at least, that when I'm policing my thoughts like this my repartee is noticeably more stilted and awkward. The times when I'm really enjoying myself and connecting with someone else are precisely the times when I'm not thinking about what I'm saying, when the words come out long before the thoughts which follow.
That is why, nowadays, I tend to think in terms of a thinking brain and a flowing one. The flowing one, like a carefree person, can enter any situation and speak or act easily without worrying, until something knocks the thinking brain into action. However, all my greatest thoughts and achievements came about as a collaboration. Without the thinking brain the flowing one wouldn't ever get anything done.
I suppose nowadays I wonder more about what the right balance is between the two and how to more accurately call upon each brain as and when I have need of it.

* [ is a pretty decent round up of a lot of this research. There is much much more, but that will have to wait for a later entry]

**[confusingly, the left brain is actually in control of the right eye/hand and vice versa because of the way the brain is wired. I'm going to mostly gloss over this here, because although interesting it's not really relevant.]