Brainy Optimism and Realism about the Future

To the Future

Studies show that humans have a tendency toward optimism as they look to the future.  And it doesn’t take any studies for us to realize people’s memory of the past is often murky.   Tali Sharot in the 6 June 2011 issue of TIME magazine, The Optimism Bias, explores some of these ideas from the basis of human evolution.  Sharot  asks:

Where did these mistakes in memory come from?

Scientists who study memory proposed an intriguing answer: memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, the researchers claimed. It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.

So in this thinking, memory lapses may actually be part of an evolutionary survival tool.  We don’t simply record the past, we re– member it, adding and deleting elements in a reconstructive process that also serves to help us survive and want to survive.  We re-create the past to allow us to have hope for the future.

 To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind.  . . . It is easy to see why cognitive time travel was naturally selected for over the course of evolution. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward. It also lets us forecast how our current behavior may influence future generations.  . . .  While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. Ajit Varki, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.

Death is a frightening stumbling block to thinking about the future.  Yet even in Genesis where death is a bad consequence of human choices and behavior, the text does not despair about humanity.  The text is always pushing toward the future, toward a better time and place which becomes part of the woof and weave of the scriptural fabric.  There is exile from a better past, but a hope of a better future.  Death is not an obstacle to what God is doing and what He hopes humans will do.   God continues to work with His people and the people continue to try to figure out what direction God is leading them.  By the time of Christianity, there is total hope in the defeat of death, and the promise of a blessed life with God.  The mistakes and sins of the past will not prevent the better future from materializing.

While humans seem to have developed an unrealistic optimism about the future, some suffer from depression.  Mild depression, which can be debilitating to anyone person, can serve a purpose within the human community: it can help us be more realistic about the future.

While healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up being, people with severe depression tend to be pessimistically biased: they expect things to be worse than they end up being. People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events. They see the world as it is.

This may explain why some people with mild forms of depression are often viewed as being pessimistic by others (those unduly influenced by an unrealistic optimism!), while these people often see themselves as not being negatively pessimistic, but rather as being realists.  They are clairvoyant in a way that the unrealistic optimist does not like.

A final point that caught my attention in the article:  when subjects in a study were primed with words that would make them think they would do poorly on a test, “the brain…did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error. A brain that doesn’t expect good results lacks a signal telling it, “Take notice — wrong answer!” These brains will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time.”  Those in the study who were primed with positive reinforcement had activity in the parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that are associated with reflection and correction.  The brain “remembered” the mistake and attempted to use that information to help deal with the future.  The brain thus generates its own optimism – it is possible to learn from mistakes.

Remembering as a Reason to Have Hope for the Future

Prophet Isaiah

Text for the Sermon from Isaiah 46   (23 October 1994)

 One thing very noticeable about the Prophet Isaiah is that he repeats his message over and over.   Scholars today always feel that a repeated message in the bible reflects how important the message is.  The more often it is repeated, the more significant the message.   Obviously, the Prophet Isaiah considered his message very important, because he gives us plenty of opportunities to hear it.  

  Today, we are looking at Isaiah 46.   I hope the message repeated by Isaiah through these chapters will not become boring to you, but rather they will become important to you.

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”

 In the first paragraph, God continues to contrast Himself, His religion and His people with the pagan gods, religions and peoples.    Most noticeable is that the pagans carry their idols, while God carries Israel.   It is God who has carried His people through history, from the beginning of the world, through the worst and darkest times, right into the present.   And God’s unfailing promise is that He will continue to bear, carry and save us!

“Remember this and consider, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man for my purpose from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have planned, and I will do it.”

 Then we come in the second paragraph to one of the biggest words of the entire Old Testament.  The word is “remember.”   God constantly tells us to remember in the bible.   He especially wants us to remember all that He has done in the past, so that we remain faithful to Him in the  present.   God commands us to  “remember this!”           

 What are we to remember?

We are to remember how and when and in what ways God carried and saved us His people in the past.   We need to remember bible stories to do this.   We are to remember all the events of the bible.   By remembering the past, we understand the present & future.   By remembering the past we understand that there is a continuity in God’s action between the past and how God works today.  The same God who carried and saved Israel in the most difficult times, is the same God of the Christians, and He still guides the world and He will save us.  

 When and how do we remember the past saving deeds of God?

Right here in the liturgy and if the feasts and fasts of the church!

Remembering, which is exactly what liturgical services and feast days are, is  a key to knowing God.    God acts in history in order to be known and understood.  Don’t forget that!

 Even if you cannot understand God’s current actions or plan, you know him based on past experience (remember) so trust Him!

“Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from deliverance: I bring near my deliverance, it is not far off, and my salvation will not tarry; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory.”

 The final paragraph repeats a common theme of St. Isaiah.   The theme is meant to give hope to us today as it did to Israel 2600 years ago while they sat in captivity in Babylon.   God continues to work out His plan, His divine purpose in history.   Always remember how He has worked in the past, and do not give up hope.    The present is not more hopeless then the past.   Your actions and your activities as the faithful people of God do count.  It is worth remaining faithful to the knowledge of God and to the joyous and hopeful vision which God has given to us. 

 Let us now in this service give thanks to the Lord as we remember the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven and the Lord’s sitting at the Father’s right hand, until he comes again.


The Future, As Absurd Idea

I’m dedicating this blog to my son, John, whose birthday is today.  He started me blogging, and his interest in media and the future has given me much to think about.

As I was driving this morning I was listening to NPR’s On the Media which aired a story, “Does Science Fiction Predict the Future of Journalism?”  At least from the story it seems that journalist and professor Loren Ghiglione concludes that speculative fiction, aka science fiction, has proven to be a better predictor of what the future will bring than what “futurist” experts predict.  Futurists often base their thinking on current science, while speculative fiction writers invent the science which the future often holds.  Thus speculative fiction writers are not encumbered by existing limitations in technology nor in logic and thus are enabled to imagine a wide variety of technologies that currently are impossible or totally absurd.

The idea of “the future” helped me to understand the Big Bang Theory and the expanding universe.   The sense is that there really is nothing beyond the universe, but as it expands (something like an inflating balloon) it is in fact creating space. [So whereas the amount of matter plus energy in a closed system may be a constant, and thus E=mc2, space and time are not constants].  I always had a difficult time understanding how the universe could be expanding into “nothing” since it seemed to me the outer edge of the expanding universe must be pushing against something.  However (and this is where the future helps me understand this concept), I don’t think of the future as existing, and so time is expanding into nothingness and creating a larger time scale.    Time is not pushing against something that already exists but is in fact creating its expanding existence. [Even though we can imagine the future, that doesn’t mean it exists yet.  Time is wonderously strange – changed by gravity, and dependent on one’s point of observation].   The time it has taken me to type this, did not exist before.  Time isn’t filling something, it is creating something.  In the same way that time expands and creates more of what is, so too space is expanding and creating more of itself, or perhaps more of it is in the process of being created.  Space is not pushing against anything; it is not reducing something else while it expands.  There is nothing beyond the end of the universe.  This is a most marvelous mystery of a logic which is beyond my comprehension, just like the future and the nothing beyond the end of the expanding universe.

In the On the Media story, two quotes worth pondering:

Albert Einstein said, “If at first an idea does not seem absurd, there is no hope for it.”

I’m going to mix a little religion in with science here, for I think this remark applies very well to the claims of Christ’s disciples that He is risen from the dead.

Loren Ghiglione said, “The future is likely to be counter-factual and not built upon what has just happened.” 

When we try to envision the future based only on what is, we cannot see the future at all.   One needs only think about Johnnes Gutenberg or Thomas Edison creating devices, which they could not even envision what they were capable of doing to the world or what they would come to mean for the world.  Guttenberg went bankrupt, and Edison had to try to catch up to competitors who used his inventions in creative ways and who could imagine popular uses for his devices that he could not.

And the implication for Christianity?   Though Christianity is totally based upon Torah and the Old Testament, it was unexpected and really a New Testament.