Thursday, April 8, 2010

Anticipating Moments, Anticipating Memories: When to Simulate and When You Risk Dulling an Experience

So, in this post I want to explore, again, how the imagination is involved when we 1. think of pending experiences, 2. when we have the actual experience itself, and 3. when we form the memory of the moments that we have already anticipated and experienced. In particular, I am curious about how it is that in certain moments, my ability to exist and just be in that experience is hindered because I have 1. already imagined the situation before hand, and 2. I am anticipating my memories of that moment. In other words, sometimes I can't just be in a moment because I have already thought too much about it, or because I am too busy thinking about how it is going to be converted into a momentous and important memory.

I am going to start off with an anecdote, my graduation ceremony and celebratory dinner. This was probably the most recent moment, and strongest moment, where I was really struck with the sense that my mind was not in the moment because it was being pulled into different times by my imagination. My mind wasn't there because I had already thought about it in the past, and I was already thinking about how I would remember it in the future.

Then, I'll discuss a few ideas about how it is that the imagination is involved in anticipating moments, and how this may stunt the experience itself. Then, I'll talk about the idea of anticipating a memory, and how that can also hinder your ability to be in a moment. Lastly, I'll try to make some conclusions that I'm not aware of at this moment. I have some ideas about how it is that the past, the present, and the future all live in the imagination, and how there may be some overlap between these thought processes (conceptually, neuronally) that would be worthwhile to explore.

So, my graduation dinner. Now I was pretty into my undergraduate experience. I really took a liking to reading and writing and I think it changed me in a lot of ways. Naturally, then, my graduation was sort of a big thing for me and my parents who were excited for me. Also, my sister didn't walk across the stage so I had to do it for my parents. But anyways, it was a highly anticipated event. Even outside of my personal academic success, it is a hyped up moment. All of youth and young adulthood sorta culminates in the college graduation. At least where I came from. How could I not have all sorts of ideas about oh my cap and gown, and oh school done is, oh we are gonna go out to eat and there is gonna be a celebration, oh etc etc etc. Oh graduation is coming blah blah! It seems impossible for it to not feel like a momentous event.

So, the whole months leading up to graduation it is something that my mind is constantly revolving around. I imagine what the ceremony will be like, what the dinner will be like. What will my parents say? What will the speaker be like? What will anything be like? Hypothetical simulations abound. My mind runs through these scenarios many many times. So by the time the moment itself comes I already have a wide variety of imagined possibilities. Unfortunately (or fortunately maybe) the actual experience never really lines up with how I imagined it. Things look different, people say things, all kinds of things that I was never able to imagine. My already imagined scenarios, however, create a sort of parallel and illusory version of the real moment. It seems like these imagined outcomes can pull me away from the moment itself at times. It can be hard to forget what I had expected, what I was trying to anticipate; my imagination is so strong that it pulls me away from the immediacy of the moment.

Perhaps the graduation ceremony and dinner were immediate enough that the anticipation didn't make too much of a difference. I think that is true. I remember what the chairs were like, the heat, the speaker, etc. I am not sure if it lined up with my imaginings. But perhaps I am suggesting that to not speculate about a future event, to somehow avoid the imagining of yourself in those situations, may make it easier to just be in those moments at the time. Don't think too much about what you are going to do beforehand in a situation, just do what you do when you get there. But that is hard. And there might be some benefits to imagining future situations, i.e. synthetic experience.

The anticipation of memory, however, seems to have much more of a dulling effect. I think that at my graduation dinner I was experiencing this pretty hard core. Basically, I'm at this dinner with mom, dad, grandma, nice restaurant, nice setting, everyones happy. But it had such a surreal quality to it. My dad ordered a bottle of champagne straight away and it felt more like a celebration for some reason. Then he said a toast and it felt intense. It felt like time compressed. The past(all my anticipations of the moment) came rushing into the present, and at the same time my mind was plunged forward into time, and I was looking back on the moment as if it had already passed somehow. I was anticipating my memories of that moment. Thinking 'man when I'm 30 and I'm doing whatever I'll remember how dad bought this champagne and said this intense toast and how this moment is just so surreal.' I think it felt that way because of the 2 forms of anticipation I'm talk about, anticipating moments and memories. I had already thought about this moment so much that when the real moment came I was hit with the frailty/inadequacy of my imaginings. Then I was launched into the future and I was reflecting on the moment as a budding memory while the actual experience was going on. It felt very strange to be thinking about a contemporary moment as a memory waiting to be. Because I'm sure it will be a strange memory for reflection. Especially now that I have recognized that both the actual experience and the memory was distorted by my anticipation of the memory. This post feels very weird.

Enough about graduation dinner. Hopefully this gets the point across: being in a moment is harder when you have 1. anticipated it, when you have extensively imagined it ahead of time or 2. when you begin to imagine how it is that you will remember that experience while still actively having the experience.

So what the heck is goin' on here?

Why am I being pulled from the moment by anticipation? Is the mind being thrust away from the present into both directions? Is the brain being primed by the anticipation of the moment and thus guiding your behavior during, pulling you into the past? Are you pulled into the future because you are already in the habit of futurizing yourself, i.e. of anticipating.? How are my experiences being dulled by these forms of anticipation?

Imagining and Priming
So, I guess I'll talk a little about how it is that anticipating moments might do somethings to your brain. This section hinges mostly on my understanding of simulation theory of mind, and of mirror neurons, which are related. When you imagine yourself in a future scenario, it is as if your mind/brain actually enters that given scenario. In your brain, the neurological changes are very similar. When dancers reenact dance moves in their minds, their brain activates all of the neurons that are involved in those actual movements. When piano players imagine themselves playing a certain piece, it is the exact same thing. Mirror neurons, they activate when we perceive or imagine a certain action. With dancers and pianists this is an aid to training and memory. They are working out all the neurons required to perform merely by imagining themselves perform. These neurons then become 'primed.' They have been used repeatedly and the neural connections have become stronger, and they are now more likely to fire in the future. So, the conclusion that will facilitate speculation about imagining future social moments: when you imagine yourself doing something you are simulating the experience in your mind, and neurologically the effects are very similar to having that experience in reality. In essence the imagination of an event is an internal simulation of that event that produces a synthetic experience for your mind/brain.

So, what if we are imagining ourselves in a situation we are soon to have? What sort of synthetic experiences are we creating for ourselves? And is it useful? Or is it damaging? To run with my previous example, was it at all useful for me to imagine my pending graduation ceremony and dinner? Or did that somehow facilitate my distance from the moment, my difficulty with being in the moment?

Well, I guess first I'd like to talk about how it is that imagining future scenarios would be beneficial. After I'll turn to how may be less desirable in certain instances.

Imagine/simulation of a future experience could be beneficial simply because uncertainty is hard to deal with. It feels very unsettling to not know what is going to happen, to walk into an experience without any way to gauge it before hand. So, imagining the experience we are about to enter, simulating a synthetic experience of it, would help us when we actually got there because we would have a sense of the possibilities we were facing. We could create hypothetical scenarios and think of possible responses. This wouldn't be to deliberately create a list, but to prime ourselves to answer at the time. We wouldn't write it down, and we wouldn't be able to remember everything systematically, but we could strengthen connections between neurons that would be in play during the pending moment. For example, before a job interview we can think of what types of questions will be asked, and we can simulate what our response to said question would be. Or before an exam we can try to anticipate the questions that will be asked so we can come up with a hypothetical answer. In both of these cases imagining pending moments would let us simulate the difficulties we are approaching, and we would be utilizing all of the parts of our brain that we would need to use in that actual moment. Here simulation would be useful because we would be priming our brain with answers, so that when were asked question X Y or Z we would be more ready to call it up at the moment because we have already exercised those neural connections with our imagination.

Well, then, the anticipation of a moment (i.e. to imagine a pending situation and a create a synthetic experience by simulating it) is useful so long as we are dealing with a situation that is simple enough that we can grasp the intellectual and emotional factors that are relevant. We know there are a limited number of possible questions that will be asked at an interview or on an exam, we can easily imagine the relevant factors and we can simulate them. So long as we can rationally manage the challenges that we will face, we can create a synthetic experience that will improve our on the fly decision making in that actual moment. So that is how I can see the anticipation of moments as useful. If imagining them provides us with a useful synthetic experience that really captures the space of possible choices and outcomes.

But what if a situation is too emotional or complex to really imagine? What if you are dealing with lots of other people that you don't know that well? What if your imagination isn't up to the task of imagining all the relevant factors and possibilities? Of what use is a synthesized hypothetical experience then?

Well, I suppose here I am suggesting that if a situation is too complex to be adequately imagined then we might not be gaining a lot from thinking about it before hand. I can also think of a way in which it might damage our ability to perform when we arrive the moment.

So, recall that imagining a future situation primes certain neurons which you have imagined yourself using. So what if you imagine a situation and prime yourself to use certain neural connections (certain ideas) that you don't need? For example, what if you imagine social situation and you are nervous so you try to anticipate what the conversations will be about, what would be the best way to respond. But then you get to the situation and everyone is talking about totally different thinks and all of your imaginations/simulations are useless. Well, what if by priming your brain, you are locking it into certain neural circuits that will hinder you at the time. If you imagine too much your thoughts will literally become rutted, they will drift around the themes you had anticipated and you may struggle to escape those ways of thinking.

So, if you can reasonably predict the pending situation, you can imagine/simulate it in a way that would be beneficial. You can anticipate questions and prepare yourself to answer them. But in social situations that are too complex or variable, there may not be much use. You may actually rut your thinking and prevent yourself from being open and creative with conversations at the moment.

Moments and not Thinking
So, now I'll talk a little about how it is that in certain moments you just need to be there reacting without having too much idea of how before hand.

Like I discussed above, if you think too much about what will happen in a certain situation you might, through false simulating and priming, rut yourself in certain ways of thinking and prevent yourself from acting on the fly.

I think I used to, and perhaps still do, have a problem with this. It seems so natural and helpful to try to anticipate. But honestly it seems like it doesn't offer too much help sometimes.

The answer: become comfortable with uncertainty to let yourself just react to people. Socializing happens so rapidly, there is no time for reflection or real thinking. You just need to react to people. A friend of mine once told me how exciting he found it to be in a room just speaking and reacting to another person who was speaking. How dynamic it could be, and how if you let it take you, it could be really exciting. It's true. Me and him had/have great dynamic conversations like that. Ryan Gleason.

All I really want to do in this section is claim that the anticipation of future events (imagine, simulation, priming) is in some way at odds with the reality of social interaction and conversation. Conversation is about spontaneity, about going wherever, saying whatever, being willing to go odd or unexpected places in a talk. Anticipating, simulating, priming, all of that depends on our ability to plan for actualities. But that is really hard to do in social situations.

So, for these types of things we need to learn to trust ourselves to act on the fly. To react in moments with any sense of what we will be reacting to.

Anticipation, imagination, simulation, would be useful if we can allow them to enter our brain simply as possibilities, and not as pre-produced scripts. If we take them seriously, as something we can rely on during those actual moments (like we could do with an exam or interview) then that is a problem. If we use them at all for preparation of social situations, then we need to think of them just as hypotheticals that prepare our mind in a very general way. They prime it for intuitive responses, not for regurgitated replies.

Imagining the Future and Being Now
Lastly I need to talk about how my anticipation of memory pulled me out of a moment, and what that is all about.

Quick recap: I was at my graduation ceremony/dinner and I found the moment so highly anticipated that when I got there I found my mom revolving around the anticipation of my memories of the moment, and so I wasn't as there as perhaps I could have been. I was too busy imagining the future.

I guess there are two things I can think of: 1. How my anticipation of the event primed me to keep pushing my sense of myself into the future, 2. How it is that the imagination can dominate the present moment.

So, I am a bit lost in this section. Don't really know what I am writing or trying to say. But I am just sorta wrapping up on the idea of anticipating memory.

Before the event I was very involved in imagining and simulating it. It was a landmark event so it was hard not to think of it. But because of that tendency to imagine my future self, my future perspective, probably made me more inclined to keep doing that. It was easy to continue imagining myself in the future. So it was a habit sorta continuing itself. Imagining myself in the future had been my MO so here I was doing it naturally again.

But this was different because I was imagining the development of memory. I was imagining how this event may feel significant in the light of many more years. How as a 30 something year old professor (or whatever I end up doing) I will think of that dinner as the end of undergrad etc.

I guess this is what I mean about the imagination dominating moments. I was prevented from being fully present at the dinner because my mind was pushing in so many different hypothetical direction; I was using many different hypothetical perspectives on myself and the moment. I had already anticipated it from the past, and now I was anticipating it by the future. The moment was essentially sandwiched by the imagination. Anticipation of moment leads up to the moment which is dominated by the imagination of the pending memory.

I don't want to write this post anymore. There are more conclusions to draw about memory and the imagination and mirror neurons and other things. But for some reason I have run out of steam on this one.

Brief conclusion: When a big deal of a moment is coming it is hard to not anticipate it. For me, it was also hard not to anticipate my memory of the moment. So, the general conclusion is to be careful of how your imagination can affect your interaction with certain moments. It can be beneficial if we are dealing with a relatively predictable experience (exam, interview). But in complex social interactions we have the potential to rut our thinking and hinder our ability to respond naturally to people. When it comes to really being in a moment it is a good idea to not imagine too much, just be there and do what you are doing. But when the anticipation of memory comes knocking maybe it is a good idea to redirect yourself to the present. Just by paying attention I guess.

This is a sloppy ending to a long and, for me, very fascinating post. I was trying to explicate a feeling that I had. Something that just happened to me. Those moments were heavy and changed me. I don't know. Maybe I'll come back to this post at some point. It certainly is related to so many of my others posts and ideas so maybe I will just reference it in the future. But I felt like I had bigger conclusions to draw when I began. But now I just feel disheartened and unsure of what to do. I think it is a lack of patience. I have many other blog posts already started and want to keep moving. No slowing down. Whatever.

This is about 12 hours or so about initially finishing. I guess I realized I don't quite know what to do with the idea of anticipating memories. Or what use it is to think about it. Or why it happened to me and whether I should try to avoid it or not in the future. I have no idea. I can think about it and make it happen most times but I just don't know what kind of effect it is having on my mind. I think I understand a lot more about thinking about hypothetical future situations, or thinking about past situations, but when it comes to thinking about future memories, I seem to be lost. So I think that is why this post broke down into a discussion of how it is that imagining future situations could either be beneficial or harmful.

Anticipating memory. I have no idea what is going on with that idea other than that it happened to me and sometimes I think that way and it sorta happens again with less intensity. I'll sit on it and maybe it'll turn into something but i dunno what.

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