Does your brain live in the Past, the Present or the Future?
Indeed this question has been asked & answered many, many times. But it’s time to give it one more try, and provide an answer that uses the constructs of Noesis Theory.
Let’s start with some… axioms. According to the Theory, your attention (“Selector”) is always focused on one thing (a set of inputs) and uses your brain power (“Battery”) to project what the most probable evolution of it would be, i.e. trying to guess the most probable future (the next set of inputs).
Having said that, one could easily jump into the conclusion that our brain always lives in the future, and more specifically the plausible futures that lay ahead. This is not incorrect, but in reality it does not answer our question fully. The full answer is a bit more elaborate, and to reach it we need to incorporate into our discussion another theory construct, the Driving Pockets.
Thinking and investigating about alternatives to a specific reality is not an exercise in futility; it is a costly (in terms of resources) exercise and needs to be done with a purpose. The purpose that the brain identifies and knows that it’s meaningful to keep thinking (investigating… exploring…) is getting the taste of a pleasurable or painful experience. When you have felt that in the past, all the neurons that related to this experience got bound together and thus you can recall it once your investigation brings you around these paths again. It’s like setting a landmine on that site. If you cross again around this path, it will blow up and will definitely capture your attention. The bigger the initial pleasure/pain, the bigger the landmine, the bigger the mess it will uncover.
Actually the landmine is not a great analogy, because you need to step on top of it to get activated. An analogy that uses smell could be a better one, because smell gets dissipated in the air more radially and the closer you get the bigger the smell. So it would be better if I compared it with taking some radioactive dump in a place. The closer you approach this place the next time around, the stronger the smell will remind you of what happened the last time. And since it’s radioactive, there will be decay as time goes by and after a lot of time it will have gone back to normal. (please appreciate the effort and don’t ruin my analogy by pinpointing that in radioactive dump the microorganisms that cause the smell in poop would probably not be able to live, so it wouldn’t smell 🙂
Notice also that I’m not differentiating between pleasure and pain, because any of the two can trigger us into exploring alternative futures. Futures on which we are able to experience the pleasures and avoid the pains.
Coming back to our question of where does your brain live. The answer is that your brain lives on the time-reference that the Driving Pockets (pleasures/pains) of your brain live.
If a very unfortunate event happened in your recent past and everything you see reminds you of it and brings back the pain, then your brain will be focused on finding alternative futures (to this past event) where this dark event did not happen, or was mitigated, or any other solution that you think would avoid the pain. Your brain will revisit the scene again and again, playing it back, thinking how you should have reacted, how others should have reacted, what you would have liked to happen. This is actually a very useful function of the brain, because in non-irreversible event, this reliving will allow you to deal with it better next time. And indeed if your brain find a plausible solution (alternative future), the Driving Pocket will subside and you will relax, letting another DP take over and capture your attention. But for this whole duration, you were living in the past.
If you are a type that is very averse to pain, then you might find yourself focusing a lot on your potential futures and trying to identify which is the one with the less discomforts ahead. Notice here that I’m not really breaking my rule of treating equally pleasure and pain, it’s just that our world has many, many more options for pain available, if you misstep along the way, than for pleasure. Therefore such persons will not just let it rest. They will investigate future A, and go beyond, and think this through, and how will I respond if he says that, and if the other thing happens what do I do, and let’s also think about scenario B. And this goes on and on. In essence, for such cases your brain is living in the future!
Finally, you could also be a type that is very much incentivized by the short-term pleasures. You are relatively optimistic for the future, either because others are taking care of it for you, or because nothing very bad has happened thus far for you to change your focus, or because as a character & life mentality you take bad things very lightly and let them brush off past you. For persons such as these, it is quite likely that they will be focusing on the here and now. They will be exploring briefly all currently available components of the present, and seek which one of them can deliver the most pleasure right here and now. They can even be addicted to the now, because there is the added “benefit” that on whatever you focus your brain at, you experience it in a more grand manner (think of a girl that is afraid of needles, is she more likely to panic if she’s looking away from the shot and listening to her favorite song, or if she’s looking directly at the needle?). Therefore these profiles are tuned to get maximum reward by focusing on the now and thus live in the present!
To sum this up, we could say that there is no universal answer. Any person can be living in the Past, Present or Future, and up to a point it’s his or her decision where to live. We could theorize that some character traits may make it more likely for somebody to frequent in his past, his present or his future… but in the end what you need to remember is: you live on the timeline that you choose to focus your attention on. You decide whether you want to relive your past, shape your future or enjoy your present.
And there is no right answer. All are useful, and that’s why all are available as tools in our noetic algorithm. You could say that animals are probably more likely to live in the present and the other two modes emerged more lately with the rise of superior human intelligence. But be careful on what conclusions you can extract out of that. Reliving in the past deprives you of your future, but also thinking too much about it in a world that is heavily imbalanced between the abundance of pain & pleasure, may let you experience too many unpleasant potential futures that will never really materialize and miss out on the simple pleasures of the here and now.
So living the Present is not the less intelligent thing to do. If you strive to live a pleasant life, maybe it’s even the smarter thing to do. So those exercises for mindfulness may be useful after all!
And even if you don’t agree with the above, or just don’t want to change your default -time-focus orientation, the fact that you are now aware of those options is one more step into giving you back the power to shape your focus and at least make it more balanced. Because hopefully I just created a Driving Pocket in your brain, and now you must explore it further and identify the potential future that suits you the most. 😉