Did you know that the frontal lobe is the last part that evolves in our brain, the slowest to mature and the first to deteriorate as we age? How curious is that? It allows us to travel to the future before the actual experience takes place.
Did you also know that the visual cortex is the region of your brain that is normally activated when you see objects through your eyes? Yes, you might already know that. What you are unlikely to know is that the same sensory area (visual cortex) is also activated when you retrieve mental images from your memory, that is “inspect mental images with your mind’s eye”.* The same applies with other senses like hearing (listening) and their respective cortices – auditory, in this case. The areas of your brain that respond emotionally to real events respond emotionally to imaginary events as well.
As the same sensory area is used for both it makes it difficult for us to imagine lust when we feel disgust in the present, same goes for feeling affection when we are angry and so on. That is to say the perception of reality is the brain’s first duty, which makes the imagination’s requests to be denied as they can’t both happen simultaneously, due to their recruitment of the same sensory area. “If the brain didn’t have this Reality First policy, you’d drive right through a red light if you just so happened to be thinking about a green one”, agrees Daniel Gilbert in his book “Stumbling on Happiness”.
The visual experience that follows from information that originates in the world – vision, is difficult to be taken for mental imagery – a flow of information that originates in memory. This is not the case with emotional experience though. “The emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in the world is called feeling; the emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in memory is called prefeeling; and mixing them up is one of the world’s most popular sports”.*
That is probably what makes depressed people unable to imagine any kind of future happiness. Feeling good about an imaginary future is almost impossible when we are busy feeling bad about the actual present. Still, we think we are thinking outside the box only because we can’t see how big the box really is. Therefore, what we feel while imagining the future is a mere reflection of what we are feeling at the moment, rather than what we’ll actually feel when we get there.
*”Stumbling on Happiness” – Daniel Gilbert
Synapses, Neurons and Brains course – Hebrew University of Jerusalem
The Science of Everyday Thinking course – The University of Queensland