“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
— Mark Twain
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Memories are different from associations. Memories are snapshots and associations are the connections between them. Most of our memories are combinations of both that trigger each other and extend in various directions to the limit of our usually shallow interest and ability to hold related ideas.
A continuous memory, something like a video, is a series of memories sequential in time. No memories are as continuous as a film or audio. Our memories are more like a quilt of patches connected in more than three dimensions.
If your memories were presented to you as you actually experience them, it would drive you crazy. You wouldn’t know what was real. We accept the twisted spaghetti of our memories in the same way that we accept the fantasies of our dreams.
We remember aspects of events, bits of pictures, elements of meaning and implications. I remember few sounds, and those that I can are more like words with feelings and not audible sentences. I remember feelings associated with circumstances.
My smartphone takes still pictures with half second videos attached. This is how I remember most images, with a bit of motion, but only enough to orient my attention. I remember even the most emotional experiences as a series of short videos lasting only as long as the peak of my focused attention, which barely amounts to half a second.
These memories, taken by themselves, lack connections, and it’s only the larger recollections—situations along with their associations—that trigger our thoughts and feelings. Associations bind the collage of thoughts and feelings into relevance. The lines of these collages craze outward like the fractures of a struck glass pane. Cameo tapestries and tree-like extensions—not at all like waves—dominoing outward.
Memories are lightening storms, metaphorically and neurologically. Even the softer ideas that come during meditation are distant thunder. They are never like ocean waves, whose continuity, expanse, and even textures impress us. But beneath these memories are layers of textures, only the peaks and whirlpools of which catch our attention.
Without associations, memories are a random jumble. Lunatic collages; abstract mixtures of fear and longing disconnected from the tempo of waking life. Dreams are much more a reflection of our real selves than is our waking personality. They follow the pathways through emotional mountains we’re not willing to travel. You create the reality you imagine, and there are many things we won’t dwell on because of what they release.
Your Personality Is Not In Motion, It’s in Neutral
At this moment, you are your full and normal self. You will act and react to events in ways that are typically and predictably you. You aren’t aware of or remember anything outside the current moment until you’re triggered by some direct or associated event. We graze in our outward focus and, when something illuminates us, we are deer in the headlights. Thinking is largely an involuntary act.
Science offers useful exercises because its ideas purport to be logically connected. Like jigsaw puzzles, science offers a pallet of problems with missing pieces you can think about. Scientists are people who prefer well-phrased problems over the illogical problems of life.
The attraction of logical puzzles is the illusion that we experience a logical world. That’s a comfortable illusion, which is what religion offers. “Spiritual bypassing” is the phrase used to describe the substitution of dogma for judgement, which results in a disabled-follower mentality.
Logical puzzles can offer intellectual bypassing, which results in a disabled-leader mentality. This happens when we accept other people’s rules instead of crafting an understanding from our own experience.
People enjoy these exercises. Sometimes we indulge in them as games. At other times, we insist we have real insight, but these games are not constructed in the ways we construct ourselves.
Games allow us to evaluate our moves and find rewards at their conclusion. Life is not structured in this way. Our attraction to simple conflicts reflects our animal nature. In the 30,000 years we have been with dogs, we have become like them. We have learned to succumb to conditioning.
We chase contrived puzzles in the way that dogs chase cars, instinctively and with enthusiasm. These recreations exercise our preconceptions and our inclination to put things in order, but otherwise serve no real purpose. I’m a strong believer in the fertility of chaos over predictability. Order is good when things stay the same, but repetition teaches us not to pay attention.
I can help you recognize your potential.
Your Potential Is Not Limited By Who You Are
Behind your wall of perceptions and presumed relationships lies a network of alternatives and revelations. Beneath the floor of your normal amnesia lies a labyrinth of unrecalled experiences and implications. It’s what you don’t remember that shapes your personality, like long-gone rivers that carved your disposition.
The little you do remember comprises the small amount of leverage you have to recognize your feelings. Most of your emotional foundation is well below the waterline.
You may have heard the expression, “what fires together, wires together,” which masquerades as an explanation of memory. When applied to human thought, this is little more than the tautology that habits are repeated behaviors.
What fires together is not what’s wired together, it’s what fires together. There are always alternatively wired pathways, they’re just not used. Thought networks are not hardwired; the mind is not defined by hardware, it’s re-programmable. It’s like the thruway exit that you always take. It’s not hardwired in your brain, it’s just habit.
The learned neural structures seen in primitive animals are not causal. What appears as a result of conditioned learning are not “thoughts,” they’re reflexes. They are automatic, like the muscles that result from exercise.
These neural changes are not the cause of your memories, thoughts, and personality, they are the result of them. Changes in neural structure do correspond to changes in behavior, but this is not thought. Classical conditioning is conjectured to explain memory, but it is only a small part of it.
“This analysis pertains to only relatively simple and short-term behavioral modifications, a similar approach may perhaps also be applied to more complex as well as longer lasting learning processes.”
— Eric Kandel (2000), neurophysiologist, referring to his observations of the nervous system of the sea slug Aplysia.
I see no evidence that thought patterns are rooted in slow growing neural wiring. The emergence of new ideas and rapid changes in personality indicate memories and associations are not the result of neurons wiring together. You conceive of new ideas on a much larger scales and much faster time-frames than neural structures grow.
You Are Not Aware of the Limit of Your Potential
To put it another way: all that you are aware of does not describe the limit of your potential. And as long as you limit yourself to what you’re aware of—reactions, attitudes, preconceptions, reflexes, and reasonable certainties—you won’t get beyond them.
If you think you can think your way to greater understanding of yourself and others, you’re fooling yourself. Thinking for the purpose of greater understanding is great, but don’t trust your conclusions.
All that’s “in the box” is more of the box. There’s a time and place for everything, and the time and place for reasonable thinking is understanding what you’re limited to, not what you’re capable of. The time and place for being a fool is when you’re committed to change.
They say, “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him,” which means eliminate all rational projections. And while you’re at it, kill the projection of yourself as well.
I don’t mean kill your physical self, I mean kill your logical self. What’s left is your emotional self. Your emotional self is both foundational, nonlinear, irrational, and the guiding force for who you can become.
When you meet your emotions on the road, embrace them. Intellect answers the question of how to continue without change. Emotion yield insights into questions that don’t make sense.
As a therapist, my clients struggle to learn and change. Their conflict is between what experience is telling them and how they understand it. If behavior was just a matter of firings and wirings, then people would not get so tangled up in conflict.
If you want to change, improve, or grow up at all, then thinking out of the box is somewhat of a deception. “The box” is all that can make sense, and as long as you resolve your situation sensibly, you are still in the box. To grow and change is to get out of the box, and the thought structures you find there will not make sense in that context.
New solutions require new people, which is why most existing people, along with the institutions they have created, generate nothing new. You can either wait for old thought forms to die—which usually requires the death of the people who support them—or you can create new ones. And the new ones will be unrelated to what you’ve learned and who you are.
Creativity, imagination, chaos, and reconnection. You don’t need reason, but you do need emotion. Forget the goals, grasp the distinction between positive and negative.
Intuition is your guide at whatever level it has developed. Follow it, educate it. To gain control of your mind, pay attention to the silences between your thoughts.
Kandel, E. (2000). The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2000/kandel/biographical/
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