Some years ago one of my neighbors worked in the film industry doing special effects. He showed me a brief clip for one of his projects, of a whale swimming underwater, and he mentioned that the powerful computers at his company had worked overnight to render that single beautiful scene. It seemed remarkable to me that it had taken many hours for their equipment to create a few seconds of imagery that the brain could produce at any time in the theater of imagination. The circuitry of this inner theater has been one of the major evolutions of the brain over the past several million years. It’s an extraordinary capability that helped our ancestors survive, and it aids and enriches our lives today. But it has some drawbacks, and it’s important to learn how to use it wisely and not let it use you.
Watching Your Inner Movie
Our powerful brains allow us to mental time travel and have a strong sense of self. We draw on our neural networks for what’s called affective forecasting; affective is a psychological term that means “relating to moods, feelings, and attitudes.” This forecasting involves imagining and evaluating different scenarios, such as considering how it would feel to talk with someone in a certain way or simply wondering, “What would taste good for dinner tonight?”
Pause for a moment and consider how much time you spend in the mental activities that draw on these powerful neural capacities. For most of us, it’s a lot. Experientially, we’re caught up each day in many mini-movies in which there is a kind of “I” observing various situations, people, events…and often a “me” to whom things are happening…with lots of thoughts and feelings about the show.
The more a person’s mind wanders, the more it tends to tilt negatively, toward anxiety, resentment, regret, and self-criticism.
This ability, evolutionarily speaking, helped our human and hominid ancestors to get better at learning from the past and planning for the future. But sometimes we just need a break to daydream, which can reveal creative connections and hopeful possibilities. These capabilities have brought many benefits. Still, they’ve come with a price.