Lost in Thought

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” – Haruki Murakami

Most of our dissatisfaction actually occurs completely in the mind. The reason is that we have something that no other animal possesses to the same extent: a highly evolved Virtual Simulator.

Constantly projecting into the future and ruminating about the past, the Simulator is a large piece of our brain and conscious experience that pulls us out of the present and makes us suffer. Yet we are no longer living in a hostile environment most of the time, and so these thoughts cause unnecessary suffering. 

Harvard psychologists found in a study that the average person spends about 47% of their day mind-wandering and 65% of those thoughts are negative.[1] What a miserable existance! 

I think this may actually be a generous underestimate of mind-wandering. Although the researchers gathered real-time data using an iPhone app, it still relied on self-assessment by individuals who may not have been entirely self-aware. That same study concluded: “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” 

It makes sense given that anxiety (say, anticipating a lion’s attack) would have helped us survive thousands of years ago, and rumination (learning from past mistakes) helped us make better future decisions. Although not all Virtual Simulations are negative, on the whole it makes for an unnecessarily stressful existence today. At least in the developed world, the human species has escaped daily survival threats such as hunger, disease and predation. We ought to be rejoicing! 

Think about your own life for a second: 

How much of your day is spent mind-wandering? In other words, how often are you thinking about the past or future, rather than focusing on your immediate surroundings?

How many of those thoughts are negative?


Almost all negative emotions are a result of our Simulator, associated with the future or past:

Thoughts about Past: Regret, Anger, Pride, Insecurity, Gratitude, Grief, Embarrassment 

Thoughts about Future: Fear, Anxiety, Despair, Hope, Stress, Doubt

Being Present: Sensations, Calmness, Affection, Interest, Amusement

As you can see, the only pleasant emotions associated with the past and future are pride, gratitude and hope. But the vast majority of the emotions are unpleasant. A great deal of most people’s internal self-talk is negative; from an evolutionary perspective, we have a negativity bias that helped the human race survive.

There are actually no negative emotions associated with the present moment. You might think boredom would be one, but boredom is in fact lack of focus on the present. What about pain? Even in this case, neuroscience tells us that it is the emotional anticipation of pain, rather than the actual painful stimulus, that causes much of our suffering.[2] This is likely the reason that (as mentioned earlier) meditation has been shown to increase pain tolerance by 40%.[3]

If there is one primary reason to meditate, it is this: meditation improves your relationship with the present moment. It allows you to stop using each bit of time as a stepping stone to the next moment. You can learn to appreciate this moment rather than live it as a means to an end. In my opinion, this benefit trumps all others because you are in essence creating a whole new way of perceiving the world on a moment-by-moment basis. Meditation is the only tool we have for controlling our “monkey minds.” With concentrated effort, you can bring your mind under your command and literally rewire it in order feel more present. 

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[1]Killingsworth, Matthew A., and Daniel T. Gilbert. "A wandering mind is an unhappy mind." Science 330.6006 (2010): 932-932.

[2]Ploghaus, Alexander, et al. "Dissociating pain from its anticipation in the human brain." science 284.5422 (1999): 1979-1981.

[3]Zeidan, Fadel, et al. "Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation." Journal of Neuroscience 31.14 (2011): 5540-5548.

Liam McClintockComment