Stumbling on the Present
Where do we go when we are not in the here and now?
Posted May 06, 2019
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert presents his version of "The Sentence": the one statement that every psychologist will make at some point or another in her career. Humans are the only animals that do X, where X is some cognitive or social capacity unique to Homo sapiens. Gilbert's version is: "Humans are the only animals that think about the future." Gilbert allows that other animals act like they're thinking about the future—a squirrel buries nuts in the ground to dig them up later—but these actions aren't based on actual hypotheses about what the future will be like or how best to navigate it. They're closer to instincts. Human-specific cognition, in Gilbert's estimation, is for thinking about the future.
I've been meditating recently. And in my guided meditation practice, I'm asked to do a lot of things with my mind that I've never done. For instance, to try and widen my attention. In psychology courses, attention is often compared to a spotlight. A spotlight illuminates a particular area on the stage. Attention illuminates a particular spot in your visual field. If the discussion goes further, it might be to discuss just how large of an area the spotlight of attention illuminates. But the point is always to get objective answers about attention, never subjective ones. Meditation gives a subjective, experientially-based insight into the mind that complements the objective one provided by psychology.
These subjective insights are the product of looking closely at what's happening in your own head and being sensitive to what you see. They aren't experimentally rigorous. But they are real.
In a recent meditation session, I worked on broadening my attention. I turned my mind toward my perceptual experience. I tried to set aside the conceptual experience. Instead of looking into the world and categorizing what's there, the idea is to look and merely see what's there. Our instinct is not to spend precious mental resources on perceptual acquaintance with something. Our instinct is rather to see something, slap a label on it, and move on—this is a lamp; this is a chair. In this session, I worked on paying attention to my perceptual experience and to let in as much of it as possible. The idea is not just to focus on one object in your visual field, but to let it all in: as much of your visual range as possible, as well as sounds and feelings. It's interesting how you can tune the dials on all these aspects of your mind. You can learn about these dials in Psych 101, but only as they exist in someone else's head. You don't start understanding them in your own head until you begin meditating.
It was during this particular session that I realized something interesting: Perception is inextricably tied to the present.
Perceptual experience cannot transcend time in any meaningful way. When we focus on the visual experience of a lamp, we can only do so because it is right in front of us, right now. If we were somewhere else, or it somewhere else, we wouldn't be able to attain perceptual congress with the lamp. Perceptual experience is bound by the constraints of the present. Perception tells us only about the here and now.
There is, however, plenty of psychological research that shows how our perception can be influenced by preconceptions. Our mind is a prediction machine. We often anticipate stimuli before they actually occur. Our perceptions can also be influenced by contextual cues like they are in visual illusions. But that doesn't change their relationship with the present. Anything that comes to us a percept is, at its core, a response bound up in temporal immediacy.
Thought, however, has no such bounding. It's the label of "lamp" which we're able to transport into a different room or call to mind at a later time. That's a cognitive experience, which liberates us from the constraints of the present. This is the point of Gilbert's sentence, that humans are the only animals who think about the future. Our perceptual experience, which is shared by pretty much all animals, constrains our behavior as a reaction to the present. Our cognitive experience, largely unique to humans, is what frees us to delve into events past, future, and fictional.
But it goes further than that. Just as the sensation is inextricably linked the present, though is incapable of fully indulging in the moment. Not only is thinking an act that extricates us from the present, but it also cannot do anything to the contrary. Thought is, by nature, never about the present.
Of course, we can consider the present in thought. But this is something of an illusion, just as Gilbert argues that the instinctive actions of animals belie their inability to think about the future. The thought keeps us at arm's length with our surrounding reality. It cannot connect us with the immediacy of experience.
Which is why meditation practice offers something important. What society requires of us is to think. Thinking is the most useful thing our humans have got in our evolutionary tool belt. Lots of animals are strong; lots of animals find clever solutions to immediate problems. Only we can find clever solutions to problems that aren't yet in front of us. But with this power comes alienation. It removes us from what's happening in front of our faces. Whenever we are thinking, we are lifting ourselves out of the present and into another temporal frame of reference. Thought deals in hypotheticals, counterfactuals, and contingencies. While we can relate those thoughts to now, we can't use those thoughts to experience now.
Yet when do we make time to take in our perceptual experience? How often do we even attempt to enter a space where we leave our cognitive musings at the door? This is one reason why the practice of meditation has had a profound effect on my daily experience. Even if only for a few minutes, it is one of the only opportunities in our day to dedicate our minds fully to the present.