The Virtual Simulator

If you’re reading this in the developed world, I’m going to assume that you’re as lucky as I am: we escaped the fetters of natural predation and hunger… we should be celebrating! But instead, we’re stressed out. Ironically, the cause is the very mental component that allowed us to ascended nature’s hierarchy in the first place: our Virtual Simulator.

We are the only animal that possesses a highly evolved Virtual Simulator, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the Virtual Simulator allows for great innovation and creativity. On the other hand, however, it also constantly projects into the future and ruminates about the past, pulling us out of the present and causing us to suffer. But we are no longer living in a hostile environment most of the time, and so these ideations cause unnecessary suffering. 

This makes sense given that anxiety (say, anticipating a lion’s attack) would have aided in our survival 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. 

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 species survive.

There are actually no negative emotions associated with the present moment. You might think boredom would be one, but boredom is just the inability to stay focused on the present. What about pain? Even in this case, neuroscience tells us that the emotional anticipation of pain, rather than the actual painful stimulus, causes much of our suffering.[1] This is likely the reason that (as mentioned earlier) meditation has been shown to increase pain tolerance by 40%.[2]

The more present we become through meditation, the more we can enjoy our lives rather than getting sucked into the Virtual Simulator all the time.

Sources:

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

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