In my recent article on hypnosis, I mentioned that we don’t live in the present moment. We live in memories and dreams. This is an idea that will not be unfamiliar to those with a mystic bent, but the rest of you may suspect that there is some craziness going on here. In fact, there is! But it is a craziness that is supported by a tremendous amount of neurological and psychological research.
Psychologists have been talking about a phenomenon called transference for over a hundred years now. Transference is what happens when you react to someone in a way that isn’t justified by the situation itself, but rather points back to an earlier experience that you had with someone else. You have transferred the feelings from the person in your past onto the person in your present.
The reason this has been such a big topic in psychology is because it becomes a major factor in psychotherapy: in order to understand what’s happening with your patient, you have to unravel the mysteries of their transferences both outside and inside of the consulting room. Where this gets difficult is that the therapist is in no way immune from this effect. The therapist experiences what is called countertransference. Essentially, the whole time that the therapist is trying to figure out what kinds of misplaced emotions and perceptions the patient has brought into the room, they must also figure out which of those feelings belong to their own past, rather than to the patient’s.
The last thirty years of neuroscience have been gradually building up to an understanding of the way that we represent people and situations within our actual brains. This has involved a lot of deep thinking about the nature of experience, and also a large number of cut-up rat brains. Researchers have traced the paths of neurological signals as they activate emotional responses, as they stimulate the formation of new memories, and as they trigger the retrieval of old memories.
In fact, we never experience the actual reality that we believe we are interacting with. We experience a kind of touched up version of the world around us, running on a slight time-delay, and filtered through the patterns of all of our prior experiences. In other words, we experience the present only in relation to previous versions of the same moment that have been neurologically coded into response pathways. To put it in more psychological terms, we experience a version of reality that largely conforms to our existing worldview. We take the endless quantity of information around us, and fit it into a pattern that makes sense.
Of course, all of this is done completely automatically. The part of you that you identify with and think of as your self—the consciousness—constitutes only a very small portion of the total neurological (and psychological) functioning. What’s more, the consciousness is consistently late to the party: it only receives the finished perceptions from the rest of the brain after they have been fully processed. And that includes not only perceptions of what is going on outside of you, but inside as well. Even actions. When you feel like you are making a conscious decision to perform a certain movement of your body, for example, neurologically the decision was made before you had the conscious idea for it. The parts of your brain that govern the movement itself go to work before the parts that make the conscious decision to move.
The you that’s doing all of this is larger than “you” could possibly imagine, and you can only find out what it’s up to by examining your actions after-the-fact. We do not live in the world, we live in a series of memories and dreams about the world. These experiences are produced for us by a vast unconscious mind that is unconcerned with our claims to conscious decision-making.