I think a lot about being mindful. Just like a piece of machinery needs to be recalibrated for optimal performance, so too does the human body. Being aware of the present and letting go of all the chaos that rules our brain, this is what I wish to achieve. To me it means more than I have expressed so far and I will get more into it in other articles, but for now it makes me wonder what you might think with only discussing the importance of staying aware and present. It’s not very realistic at first glance because we have a very real need to do just the opposite. If we don’t set our alarm clock tonight, will we wake up for work tomorrow? To do so means taking ourselves out of the present and looking ahead to what might need to be done. There seems to come then a paradox when we try two opposite ways of thinking without fully thinking it through. “You want me to live in the moment but plan for the future? What about the things I didn’t plan for tomorrow because I was living today?”
Nobody really says this to me. These are just pretend arguments I make up to get my point across. But as I was thinking about this it occurred to me that while it’s obvious that we don’t really know how to be present (all scattered across the social universe and bombarded with input overload as we are), what about looking to the future? Do we really know how to think long term or are we forever stuck in the emotionally driven present, lacking any forward thinking and constantly reacting to what happens to us? Why do some people only feel satisfied with instant gratification and others content to wait for the reward to come? Why are some people good planners and good savers while others live paycheck to paycheck their whole life? Does the short term oriented thrive on the challenge or do they truly not know any other way to live? I’m sure there are lots of reasons, answers, and excuses to these questions and I have the answers to exactly none of them, but I feel that given the fact that we are all more or less built the same, it is our development that is the difference between us. Development is all about exposure. You don’t learn something you are not exposed to, do you? So in asking myself these things and with the knowledge that something must be put out there for said someone else to collect and generate that spark of insight, I begin by breaking down what I feel the differences to be.
Think about the difference between long term and short term thinking. What does it take to think about something now as opposed to something later? What parts of our brain are we using when we are sitting here not doing anything? For the first example I will think of me sitting here on the couch (as I am writing this article) and feeling some slight nag of being hungry. My stomach compresses and squirts a sound like the last bit of water flowing down the drain and my brain yells “I’m starving!” I think about what I can eat and I activate the wiring of a memory of what I last saw in the pantry. Crackers, chips, cereal; none of those things will fill me up for long and my judgment leads me to activate other memory circuits. I do this for other parts of the kitchen until I find something I am satisfied with (I guess) and go get it. I would think about driving somewhere and all the choices and steps involved in that if I wasn’t in my pajamas already and it didn’t take so much energy that my mind tells me I don’t have.
That’s about it. Think about that for a second. If I am hungry I just have to walk ten steps and choose from a multitude of things. I don’t have to plan, I don’t have to coordinate anything, I just get my lazy ass off the couch and stuff food inside me. The world is set up for me to think short term.
One hundred fifty years ago and beyond, If I was hungry I would have to think about what to do. I would have to ration out from the very limited resources of whatever I may have had as extra food, if I even had any extra at all. Short term thinking would have led to starvation. I couldn’t think that way and survive for long. If I was to have any chance at the nagging notion of survival I would have had to think long term. I would have needed to think about what crops would have done better in the climate I was in. I would have needed to know the best time to start seedlings in the spring and the best way to tend to the growing plants and how to keep the bugs off and when to harvest. I would have needed to know how to keep the seeds for the next year so I could do the whole planning and planting all over again. That was just 50% of the whole hunter/gatherer thing. For hunting I would have needed to explore my area and find where the animals were. I would have needed to know when they migrate through the area and when the best time of day to stalk them would be. I would have needed to practice my shooting and trapping to actually get that animal I spent so much time thinking and planning on how to get.
If I was in need of clothes back then I would have had to raise sheep or grow cotton. I would have had to skin the animals I hunted for food and cleaned their hide, treated it and sewn it together in wearable fabrics. This all would have taken practice, planning, and foresight. Today we get clothes whenever American Eagle has a 20% off sale. We give just enough thought to find out what’s currently in our closet, when do I get paid next and could I just charge it and worry about payment later. If I am hungry I have a number of drive thru options, sit down restaurants, frozen meals, or snacks of unlimited variety just waiting for me to choose from. We have grown so far from the long term thinker to the immediate task at hand. From a Darwinian perspective there is no down side that forces us to think otherwise. We have vaccinations, antibiotics, federal guidelines for food safety and all sorts of methods to keep us all alive for way longer than at any point in history. If we don’t use it we lose it and it appears as though long term thinking is being lost in this case.
Before I continue on I would like to point out here that obviously we are not the human version of ostriches living only moment to moment (psst…ostriches have very short memories). We put men on the moon and that took enough foresight to calculate when and how fast to fling a tin can full of dudes in front of the moving target to land them softly on its dusty surface. There is always the exception to the rule but to be fair, you and I are not astrophysicists and we don’t need those types of skills. We only strengthen those that we do need. If the need is only to show up and be average and ingest whatever prepackaged excuse for food you can get for the lowest price then that is what some of us will amount to.
Now that we know what it takes to think short term (the bare minimum), what does it take to think long term? In the short term you just activated memories of associated things and use judgment to make a decision. What restaurants are open now? Should I buy my jeans at Target or Wal-Mart? Long term requires something that many people are not good at using, their imagination. Why are they not good at it and why do we need it?
First off, when we are children brought into this world we are questioning and pretending and playing in every situation. This is how we learn at an early age. When we enter into school we are taught to follow the rules. Line up, raise your hand, time to nap, time for recess, and time for lunch. When we get into more advanced schooling we are praised at having the right answers not necessarily asking the right questions. If we daydream we do poorly in academics and if we can’t focus on what is unimportant to us then we have attention deficit issues. By the time we enter the workforce (as John Medina of ‘Brain Rules for Baby’ mentioned) we have all the creative and questioning parts beaten right out of us. We are typically more successful in our society by following the rules and learning to run within the given structure than to deviate beyond (Again, exceptions to the rule I know, just stay with me).
“So we use imagination to think long term huh? Ok I’ll play along” you say to me and wait for the answer. Since the future does not exist we have to create what we think will logically happen to generate a false future that we can then plan for. When we need to plan a birthday party we have to imagine what it will look like. We take pieces of what we have seen in the past and add it to the picture of the decorations in our mind. When we plan to have babies we think about what we were like and imagine little versions of us running around acting crazy and what we think will work to maintain control. When we picture retirement we imagine scenes we saw in magazines of warm beaches and mountain views. Do you see a pattern here? We create our imaginary future by piecing memories together. We really never create anything from scratch. Every artist has some inspiration that triggers him or her to mold that into something new. Every single imaginative thought we have is bit by bit created from something we already have inside us. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) which detects active parts of the brain in real time has shown that when people are asked to imagine something, the same areas in the brain involved with memory are activated.
So let’s bring it back around and get to the point. You know how it feels when you can’t remember the name of that actor in that one movie? It’s on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t name him? Think about having that same computing power when planning for your retirement. Some fuzzy picture of what you want out of life before it’s over. Do you think it will be easy to accomplish those unclear (hold on, it will come to me as soon as I stop thinking about it) goals? Work on your memory by repeating all the little tasks you do. Instead of putting your keys down and forgetting where they are as soon as they leave your hand, repeat three times what you are doing. “The keys are on the table, the keys are on the table, the keys are on the table”. Memory gets strengthened by using it and you can easily do this hundreds of times a day with all your actions. Every time you activate your memory, those brain cells stimulated by the electrical pulse releases the same proteins that were used to create it. Repeating it helps make it stronger and strong memories allow us to create clearer pictures of the future in our minds.
The easier it is to picture the future, the easier it is to plan for it and prepare. If we are ready for what may come tomorrow than are we not making our lives easier on ourselves? If that’s the case then why would we not think ahead and plan things out? Can you even imagine what would happen if you don’t?