The Past is a Creation of the Present (Book Snippet 12)

In order to allow us to stay appropriately functional and to respond and act in socially acceptable ways, the brain selects bits of data it deems relevant and discards those it deems irrelevant. One way to assess relevance is to compare data to internal representations of past events, also known as memories. If, in the past, I have had experiences that were unpleasant for me, or that induced fear, my artistic brain might have chosen to paint these experiences in shades of grey to correspond to how I felt at the time. Now, instead of painting on a fresh canvas every time something new happens, the brain simply paints over existing areas of the old canvas. Unless I prompt my brain at some point to use a different set of paints, it usually sticks to the colours it has used previously.

This inevitably leads to the most current version of my painting strongly resembling past versions of my painting; if my brain only used grey paints, my painting is grey.

Staring at my grey painting understandably leads me to believe that Reality is grey, because I can clearly see that it is grey. I assume that I am painting what is happening right now, when I am in fact only making gradual adjustments to the existing image on my canvas. Very rarely do we perceive the landscape in front of us with fresh eyes, we merely reiterate what we already know. Our brain has tricked us into a feedback loop in which it is impossible to experience anything new because we keep staring at an image of the past. We don’t remember original events — we only remember the last time we remembered them.

From an evolutionary perspective, recreating the world based on past experience serves a clear purpose. The amount of information received by our brain via our senses (touch, smell, vision, taste, hearing) is so large, that the fastest way of processing is to keep things as simple as possible; group data into chunks, compare it to memories and act on the most likely hypothesis for the future. This process organizes incoming data into manageable portions and brings personal meaning to the chaotic realm of the infinite complexity of Reality. Without this efficient data-selection process, our brain would freeze like a computer with too little processing capacity, leaving us incapable of understanding and interacting effectively with the world around us. To stick to the palette of colours we have used previously is nature’s attempt to keep us functional. Unfortunately, as I explained in the beginning of this chapter, whatever we do over and over does have a visible influence on the hardwiring of our brains. The more we repeat the same feelings and responses, the more we reinforce specific pathways and clusters of neurons, which in turn makes it more likely for us to experience the same feelings and responses in the future. Alternative pathways, which generate different responses, eventually wither away.

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