Thursday, June 29, 2006


The Reduced “Stumbling on Happiness” IV. Presentism (The tendency for current experience to influence one’s view of the past and the future.) – the second shortcoming of imagination

Chapter 6 The Future Is Now

“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.”

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.

Chapter 7 Time Bombs

Time is an abstraction, not an object, so is compared to space by people all over the world, yet in different ways. Past is ‘behind’ us, future is ‘in front’... English put past on the left, Arabic speakers put past on the right, Mandarin speakers put past on the bottom. Reasoning by metaphors like this can mislead as well as illuminate.

Habituation, adaptation, declining marginal utility, marriage: wonderful things become less wonderful with repetition. Time and variety are two ways to avoid habituation, and if you have one, then you don’t need the other... when episodes are sufficiently separated in time, variety is not only unnecessary, it can be costly. If we compare a variety of dishes we derive different pleasure from, we should want a variety to choose from at a single sitting. If we are asked to choose ahead which we would like at weekly intervals, we pick variety again, but in fact would derive more pleasure from just choosing our favorite dish each week.

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.

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