What would we do without wishful thinking?
Not much apparently. According to some of the most recent science on the way our brains work, the Zen Buddhists and psychoanalysts are up against it. No matter how much we try to focus on the present, we’ll be pulled away by the Utopia of the next moment.
As a New York Times piece on some of the most recent science of the brain explained:
[I]t is increasingly clear that the mind is mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past. Behavior, memory and perception can’t be understood without appreciating the central role of prospection. We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities. Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected.
Our emotions are less reactions to the present than guides to future behavior. Therapists are exploring new ways to treat depression now that they see it as primarily not because of past traumas and present stresses but because of skewed visions of what lies ahead.
Thus we are all writers of our own fictions, not searching for truth in the past or peace in the present but constantly striving to write our future selves. Some people might see it as creative recombination but another way of thinking about it is that we are addicted to retelling our stories in order to suit the next version of ourselves.
Humans are, according to this scientific narrative, “Homo Prospectus.” We aren’t just constantly telling and retelling our futures, but sharing “jointly constructed” futures with each other. As the Times piece notes, “We make sacrifices today to earn rewards tomorrow, whether in this life or in the afterlife promised by so many religions.”
So, it appears that we are, depending on how one looks at it all, artists painting the canvass of our imagined future. Or perhaps, taking a darker view, we are collectively subject to the worst sorts of self-delusion, constantly lying to ourselves about our past and present to create a more attractive future.
Then again, maybe we are all Utopians banking on the next moment, fueled by what Ernst Bloch called “anticipatory consciousness,” dreaming of the improved self that could be part of the better collective future.
One could conceive of this kind of research as an excuse to surrender to a mechanistic view of human consciousness, devoid of any mystery or larger agency. Surely, we should be cautious before we reduce ourselves to a series of measurable processes but so much of the demystifying science of the last century has pulled us in that direction.
Still, with that caution in mind, this science might also be seen as evidence that we are built to imagine the future, to make our own myths, to dream until we can dream no more.
In any event, it does make you think about the stories we tell ourselves to make live worth living, to work ourselves out of some of life’s darker corners. Whether we see it as troubling or charming, it’s clear that the band Wilco was on to something when they wistfully sang about the beautiful folly of wishful thinking.