The Emotional Replica of Reality in our Brains

The Emotional Replica of Reality Within Our Brains

It feels weird to acknowledge that the model for reality within our brains is nothing more than a model. It is a construction of what constitutes reality based on our experiences and based on the electrical stimuli that reach our brain from various sensory organs, tissues, and nerve endings. The brain doesn’t have a model for things that it doesn’t have a way of experiencing or imagining. Like the experience of falling into a black hole, representations of what the experience is like will never fully substitute for the real thing, and will forever be unknowable to our brains. Consequently, the model of reality that our brain uses for every day operations can only include the limited slice of reality that is available to our experiences.

 

What results is a distorted picture of the world. This was not too much of a problem for our ancestors living as hunter-gatherers in small tribes. It didn’t matter if they fully understood the precise risk of tiger attacks or poisonous fungi, as long as they had heuristics to keep them away from dangerous situations and questionable foods. They didn’t need to hear at the frequency of a bat’s echolocation pulses, they didn’t need to see ultraviolet, and they didn’t need to sense the earth’s magnetic field. Precision and completeness wasn’t as important as a general sense of the world for pattern recognition and enough fear and memory to stay safe and find reliable food.

 

Today, however, we operate in complex social structures and the narratives we tell about ourselves, our societies, and how we should interact can have lasting influences on our own lives and the lives of generations to come.  How we understand the world is often shaped by our emotional reaction to the world, rather than being shaped by a complete set of scientific and reality based details and information. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.”

 

Kahneman writes about news reporting of strange and extreme phenomenon, and how that leads us to believe that very rare events like tornado deaths are more likely than mundane and common causes of death such as those resulting from asthma complications. Things that are dramatic and unique feel more noteworthy, and are likely to be easier for us to remember and recall. When that happens, the events feel less like strange outliers, and more like normal events. The picture of reality operating in our mind is altered and distorted based on our experiences, the information we absorb, and our emotional valence to both.

 

For a social species, this can have dramatic consequences. If we generalize a character trait of one person to an entire group, we can develop dangerous stereotypes that influence our interactions with hundreds or thousands of people. A single salient event can shape how we think about problems or opportunities in our communities and societies. Rather than fully understanding our reaction and the event itself, we are going to struggle through narratives that seek to combine thousands of individual perceptions of reality, each influenced in unique ways by conflicting emotions and opinions of what has happened. Systems and structures matter, especially when our brains operate on inadequate versions of reality rather than concrete versions of reality and can be shaped by our emotional reactions to such systems and structures.

Mindful In All Things

Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness helped me think about the value of the present moment and the value of engaging in the present moment. Returning to his book to write about the sections I highlighted when I read it almost a year ago is bringing my attention back to the present moment and helping me reflect on why it is so important in our lives to ground ourselves in the here and now. I often find my mind wandering onto other things, often on things that I don’t want to think about or know that I should not think about, when I have the opportunity to do something productive. The result is that the actual thing that I am doing is lost in a haze as I move about on autopilot barely aware of my surroundings and sensations, and the time I had  that could have been productive is squandered as I accomplish next to nothing in a distracted fog.

 

Sometimes I try to think about my life if I had lost one of my senses. How would I live if I could not see or hear? What would I miss the most about losing one of those major senses? How would the world become less contextual and interesting? These types of questions help me understand why it is so valuable to live in the present and fully examine our surroundings using the senses we have. One day I know that my experiences and sensations of the world will cease, so I should take full advantage of the time I have to sense the world and live in the world.

 

Throughout his book, Hanh encourages the reader to bring mindfulness to each action, and to try our best to avoid thinking beyond or outside of the thing that we are doing in the moment. “You’ve got to practice meditation when you walk, stand, lie down, sit, and work, while washing your hands, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, drinking tea, talking to friends, or whatever you are doing.”  Each of these things are areas where we can be engaged with something while our mind is completely focused on something else, which I explained frequently happens to me. The banal activities that Hanh suggests we bring mindfulness to are activities where our senses can be alive, and they are areas where we can train our mind to concentrate, rather than allowing our minds to be distracted and to flutter about aimlessly. It is a time where we can truly use our senses and value our ability to experience the world.

 

Returning to this segment a year after reading the book reminds me that there are a lot of aspects of even tedious and boring activities that are rather fascinating. The feel of soap on a smooth metal pan, the textured feeling of plastic on the handle of a pot, and the warm feeling of water while washing dishes are things we would never notice if we watched tv, or thought about what we would rather be doing while washing dishes. But by being mindful, we can fully experience these different sensations and recognize that it is incredible just how sensitive our hands and brains are. Being present helps us appreciate the tiniest details of the moment, because it reminds us that we are alive and we are actors in the world who have the unique privilege of being the only one experiencing our particular sensations at any given moment. What mindfulness in every moment does for me is remind me to be grateful for my life and reminds me to soak up the world around me. Living with our mind in the past or with our mind on future possibilities robs us of actually experiencing  the present moment. Our mind is oblivious to the multitude of sensations that we could focus on if we brought mindfulness to the present moment.