January 28, 2017, John Æonid
In High School, I had a somewhat peculiar experience. It was very much the kind of experience that I could have taken as being sort of like talking with the dead—except that the person was very much alive. In fact, the person was actually in the room with me—except that I was not talking to his physical being, I was imagining myself talking with him. But, something strange happened.
It was a Physics class, and… No, I did not break the laws of Physics. We had been given a short quiz to complete before the end of class. Physics is one of those subjects that I'm very interested in and tend learn fairly easily. So, I had completed most of the problems on the quiz quickly and confidently. The last problem, however, stumped me. I was stuck.
I went over it, and over it. Yet, I couldn't figure it out. I eventually reached the point where I was quite sure that there must be something wrong with the problem—that it was wrongly stated or something was missing from the given conditions. So, that meant that everyone else was going to have difficulty with this problem—and I was going to have to bring the issue to the teacher's attention.
However, I wasn't just going to go up to the teacher and say: “um, I think there's something missing from this last problem.” I wanted to be sure that I could show that I understood that something was missing by being able to say what was missing and why it was necessary. So, I went over it even more. Eventually, I felt that I knew exactly what was missing and should have been a given.
But, I didn't just go up to the teacher with it at that point. I felt strongly motivated to be sure that, when I challenged the teacher with this, that I could express the issue in a positive way. That is, I wanted him to know that I had carefully considered the issue and wasn't just whining about a hard problem.
So, I mentally rehearsed how I would express the issue until I was confident that I could state my case clearly and concisely. And when I felt that I had it right, I mentally rehearsed asking him that question. I walked through the entire process. That is, I visualized myself walking from the desk at the back where I was sitting and up to the front of the class. I can see it now as I write this. I imagined myself turning toward his desk, the one with the black enameled top of a the physics lab. I imagined interrupting him. And then, when I had his attention, I stated my case. I asked the question.
Imagine how intensely I was focused on getting this right. I hadn't learned any meditative state at this point; at least, not in any formal way. But when I walked myself through these steps, I was in that alternate reality, that virtual reality of my mind. This thing we call mind has evolved to work out scenarios just like this. I was using my personal virtual reality for exactly what it had evolved to do. And, I was as intensely in that virtual reality as I possibly could have been at that time. And, it turned out that it served me well.
He answered me. That's right, the virtual teacher answered. And, it was his voice. It was his personality and with his nurturing kindness. And, he told me, clearly and concisely, what was missing from the problem on the quiz. And, all this while the real physical teacher was sitting at the real physical desk at the front of the classroom.
Suddenly, I was back in my physical body at the desk at the back of the classroom. And, my eyes, which had been affixed to the problem the whole time, could see that what the virtual teacher had said was exactly correct. It was exactly what I needed to solve the problem as it was given. Without ever having actually gotten up from my seat, I quickly completed the problem, grabbed my stuff, took the quiz up to the front, handed it in, and walked out.
When the quiz came back graded, the answer that I'd given was correct. I had used my imagination to get a valid answer from a virtual teacher—one that I couldn't answer on my own. Or at least, I had somehow limited what I thought I could know. But, the imagined teacher answered me. It was spontaneous. I had no intent or made any effort to cause the virtual teacher to answer me. But, he did. He just did. And, I heard his voice. This scenario was something that I had chosen to imagine. There was never any doubt in my mind that this was anything other than my imagination. And, that imagined experience of hearing the imagined teacher was just what I would have expected to hear—except that I didn't see it coming. It was spontaneous.
The amazing thing, at least at the time, was that it was a valid and correct answer. That virtual reality, in that moment, had access to hidden knowledge in my own brain—knowledge that would not come out until it was expressed in that imagined conversation. Obviously, it was just as I had been taught. I was interested in the subject, and despite being addicted to daydreaming in class, I would surly have had some attention on what was being taught.
Thinking has an odd limitation. No matter how vast our knowledge, we only get to work consciously with five to seven chunks of information ( working memory capacity). Any time we think we are working with larger amounts of information, we are really only doing so by reference. That is, we take a bunch of stuff, and we label it with words, images, or such. Once labeled, we can hold the label in our conscious thinking so that we can combine and compare it with other chunks of information. There is more to what we see or imagine in our consciousness, but we can't manipulate more than about seven things.
When copying numbers for dollar values, one thing I find myself doing is using two kinds of working memory. I hold the digits to the left of the decimal point in the usual way, but I visually remember the cents. This allows me to copy from one side of a page to the other without having to go back and forth. The cents, though barely get held long enough to make it to the other side. The slightest distraction will make me forget it. Ultimately, this means that active thoughts are very limited. We simply don't get to work with all that we know at anyone time. We only get to work with a handful of chunks.
However, that virtual reality of our consciousness can be so vivid. It allows us to experience our inner model of the World as if we are in reality—at least, sufficiently to work out problems. There is something about our brains that allows us to use visual regions of the brain, sensory regions of the brain, auditory, and the like to have virtual experiences that mimic reality. And, whether we are dreaming or choosing to to imagine a scenario, most of this is quite automatic.
Our dreams show us how well this works. Pretty much every thing we encounter there behaves in a recognizable way and relatively consistently. Just recently, I dreamed I was in the house I grew up in. I remember going into the bed rooms, and they were recognizable. Except, the layout of the floor plan was different enough for me to think that someone had done some work to make it roomier. I left and came back again, only to find that the layout had been modified again. But, there was nothing there that violated the physical laws—except that it had changed in an unrealistically short period of time.
Notice that we don't have to consciously construct an image of a cup when somebody says cup. There isn't some process where we “draw” out the cup as we think about how a cup would be drawn. The non-conscious brain just offers up an image of a cup, and there it is. I suppose it's whatever image of a cup is most handy in our memories, perhaps the last one we had in our hand. But, there it is; someone says cup, and we imagine one suited to whatever is being discussed. Oh, sometimes funny images will come to mind. For instance, if I say “Freudian slip”, do you imagine Freud in women's lingerie? Well you do now. Funny, isn't it? But whatever the image, something is happing in our brains that is outside of our conscious thinking. Otherwise, it wouldn't be such a surprise when it gets weird.
So, this story, this anecdote, is just one that I offer up mostly because it was such a surprise. It was weird. How did it so precisely model reality, and how did it produce exactly the answer that I needed? How did it pull that answer out of my non-conscious brain and feed it to me in that way? Ultimately, it is the way it should work. It gives us, after all, exactly the kind of evolved advantage from which we benefit—as it serves us in our highly complex society.
So, why didn't I just know what I knew? Why did I have to dig it out in this fantasy? Why did I have to go through that complicated mental ritual of: walking to the front of the class, turning to the teacher, getting his attention, and asking that question? Why all that trouble?
You cannot have a mental virtual reality—one for working out scenarios—without the ability to treat others as not knowing all that you know ( theory of mind and development thereof). You must have the ability to imagine what it's like to not know a thing.
I once got to watch a brief demonstration of hypnosis. I watched a guy being given a hypnotic suggestion telling him that he did not know his own name; and no matter how hard he tried, he would be unable to say it. Following that, he was then asked: “what is your name?” And, I can still remember seeing him struggle. His jaw would open slightly, and his lips would start to move. A little sound would come out, but it would be cut short. And, there were a whole bunch of “ur”, “uh”, and “um” sounds, as he struggled.
It's just the same way you do when something is in the tip of your tongue. It's something you know. It's something that you know you know. It's something that you can remember having used in the past. But, when you try to say it, the word just doesn't come out. You can't even think how it sounds or how it's spelled. But, you know you know it. And, this was exactly what I was witnessing in this guy—after he was told that he couldn't remember his name.
Notice that these things we forgot, and know that we forgot, often come back to us. It typically happens after we stop trying, and after we've spent some time not thinking about it, often the next morning and as we wake. This is an example of us assigning a task to our non-conscious brain.
One thing I've noticed about all the thinking I do is this: the more I work on a challenging question, the bigger the space I create for the answer. When I finally get to an answer, it tends to stick. That is, I'm unlikely to forget the answer or the amount of effort I put into it.
I liken this to Kōan practice, in which a big question, a kind of riddle, is recited as a mantra. Such questions are silently recited in meditation for however long it takes to get a meaningful answer. That mediation is this: it is effort over time that enlarges the space for the answer—creating the clarity sought in Zen.
When there's something we forget, as in something on the tip of our tongue, we generally find ourselves, in frustration, making some effort to remember. That effort creates space for the memory to return, and it's something that our non-conscious brains often eventually attend to.
So, he couldn't remember his name. The memory of his name was stuck. He was stuck. But, we don't have to be stuck. Being stuck is a choice. And, we impose that choice in our beliefs. That means we are stuck until we change our beliefs. To do that, you first have to be able to question your beliefs. And, you have to do that by examining both your thinking and your feelings about those beliefs. You have to be able to step into that mental virtual reality and step into the situations in which those beliefs come into play. That way, you will bring into your consciousness those things that you didn't know you knew. You will bring in thoughts and feelings that you had not yet addressed. Then you will be able to examine whether or not those beliefs serve you and if you can be happy with results.
One key point: there are different kinds of beliefs. There are logical beliefs, emotional beliefs, and empirical beliefs. The latter of which are the beliefs we have about physical reality—the beliefs we get by way of our senses. It's also important to note that beliefs can conflict with each other. Most often this is disagreement between two different kinds of beliefs, and most often this is discord between logical and emotional beliefs. And finally, most often these are discords that are acquired through culture, which can be combinations of logical and emotional beliefs. Generally, we are happier when we resolve such conflicts, and it's best to get at them when they are causing problems. That's because emotional beliefs are most accessible when you are experiencing them.
Disclaimer: see a properly licensed therapist as needed.
How amazing. We have the ability to imagine ourselves as something other than what we are. And, we can do it with either a either a limited range of knowledge or an expanded one. Yes, we can image ourselves as virtually anyone—including geniuses. This is us accessing the model we have of another person's personality. It gives us access to our model of how the World works and all the knowledge that comes with it. We do this in our mental virtual reality by imagining their behavior. We just have to ask the right questions or set up the right scenarios. I think this describes a major portion of the field of Psychotherapy.
This aspect of our minds has everything to do with our sense of social connectedness. Being able to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others is very valuable. It charges that connectedness with a kind of energy—emotional energy and mental energy. All of our cultural content is charged with that emotional and mental energy. It energizes our fascination about what people think and feel.
We can see, hear, or read any story, even the ones I've told here, and imagine ourselves in the place of others. We can do this for any person in any story. We can even do this for dead people. I do; don't you? I love to fantasize about having conversations with people from the past. This is why we have period fiction—so that we can better understand what it was like to live in the past. Isn't there someone in your ancestry that you'd like to feel closer to? Science fiction and fantasy is all about the lives of beings that don't or can't exist. There are those that feel a connection with angels, fairies, and the like. They play a fabulous role in enriching our sense culutre. We can also do this for statues and pictures. We can also do this for animals—even trees and plants. Inanimate objects, say stones and crystals, are also possible. Consider Animism, in which all things are regarded as alive. Living in such a culture would mean being able to imagine yourself as a tree or any other physical object. And, there has been fiction of just that sort. Can you imagine what you might gain by putting yourself in the place of a rain forest, an ocean, or even the entire planet. How about the moon, the sun, a star, or the milky way?
This mental virtual reality is pretty much always on—though it changes as our focus changes. The neurons in our brains are pretty much always processing sensory input. Of course, mental states like sleep allow for this to have periods of rest, but to be awake is to have this activity going all the time. And in all this sensoral activity, there is always an emotional aspect involved. The non-conscious brain is very busy working out what things are objects and what things are beings capable of thought. And, it automatically attempts to assess how they might be feeling and what they might be thinking. This way, your brain is already prepared to construct the image of things in your environment—or wherever you might put your focus.
So when you imagine people and places that don't exist, those same processes are engaged. They take your memories and your understanding of how things work, and they construct a virtual reality—one that behaves pretty much as you would expect reality to behave. Of course, you can change the rules somewhat, and you can create realities that behave in strange and funny ways. And, in these imagined places you get to interact with others. And when you interact, you are also imagining what they think and feel. This is a key aspect of human consciousness and interaction.
This ability exists for the purpose of being connected. It evolved for all of the advantages that being connected gives us. We can know what others need. We can know what we have to offer. We can know and trust that others value our contribution and our presence.
So, with every intuitive hit that I've ever experienced, I've had to wonder. Was there something magical about it. Or is it that we have this massive unseen capacity just below our consciousness—one that knows things—things that we have simply chosen to treat as unknowable? Pretty much every intuitive hit has turned out to be something that I could know—that I would have some basis for already knowing. And, I think intuitive experiences of this sort came in this way for a reason. They came that way because there was some block—one that had prevented them from coming by way of direct knowledge. This was something about the way that I had chosen to be. We are acting out a particular character—that being that we think we are. And, there are somethings that would simply be out of character to know. But clearly, we are capable of knowing more—more than that to which we have chosen to limit ourselves.
It seems magical. However, I can't prove that it is or that it isn't. But, the issue isn't completely closed, as there are still questions for both Physics and Evolutionary Psychology, and these are questions about both the Mind-body problem and the question Free Will. What is important is that we understand that there is more to us then just what we think—much more. Thinking alone does not completely encompass all that our minds entail. And, this nature of consciousness is worthy of a high degree of respect. It's worthy of being treated as sacred.
This is the thing that connects us to others, and it is healthy to treat Love as a magical thing. And, it is healthy to allow that our connectedness is a sacred and holy thing. Believe in the positive inner voice that connects you to others. You do belong. We all belong. And in this, we are connected. We are all connected.
Peace, Blessings, Insight, and Clarity