Saturday, April 30, 2011

Emotions and the Dual Self

Emotions are hugely complicated (and the driving force of much of what we do).  In my last post, I hinted at the idea that we're not very good at deciding why we currently feel the way we do, although we concurrently always seek to know why that is the case.

Instead, we offer ourselves--are compelled even, to come up with--reasons that seem more or less palatable to our current emotional states, and hope to skate across the ice on them to the other side of a peaceful mental state.

Part of my ugly realization is just this: we're often times wrong about the reasons we tell ourselves, and, worse, at some level, there are no reasons for the emotions we feel--at least, not for the question the emotion produces.  Whether this is an uglier truth or not, I don't know, but we certainly seem to, at times, occupy a divided self--a self that consciously wants one thing and also consciously knows that the want will not lead to a good result, at least, in so much as the result creates problems later on.  Drinking a beer, after all, won't create a problem for me in the next half hour, and, taken in isolation, the beer I have after that beer won't be a problem either.

In short, our ability to see into the future beyond the next hour or so underpins part of what is so intriguing and damning about us: we can express intentions beyond our immediate power or control. 

And so it is also the case that we express and layer reasons over the past behind us that are likewise behind the purview of what is relevant to our current emotional state, and that we, likewise, have a long and short view of the past as well.  In the longer view, we see general shapes on the horizon, experiences become reduced to simple narratives, and inconvenient facts get washed over.  We have to do this.  If we remembered everything, we wouldn't have enough processing power to function moving forward.  We're an Ipod of life, and we want to condense as much music as possible. 

And yet.

Yet, when we experience a strong memory, it certainly feels full of texture, not thin.  This is particularly true regarding the sense of smell, and how it triggers memory.  There's a certain "attic" smell, for me, for example, that always triggers memories of summer with my grandparents--mostly because their upstairs rooms had the same smell. 

So, we are under a bit of an illusion that we fully record the past, at the same time that we condense what are seen as important bits for the sake of moving into the future fully aware of potential risks or opportunities, and our brain reports back, at times, highly textured, nuanced bits of memories about how things were, and, eventually, I think, we can fall into some sort of easy emotional engagement with those things, just like we can see only the highs or lows of a potential outcome in the future; but the granular experience real time engagement provides  may not be quite so pleasant (i.e. when driving 10 hours to a beach, it is common to speak about the final goal, and the benefits). 

The fact that we can literally disengage our brains from the present is fascinating, because it allows us to consider possibilities that are not current, and weigh pros and cons--it also allows us to consider what once was.  When we consider the past, we are often times under the illusion, though, that we can consider it in a fully informed way, or that we experienced it fully.  We didn't.  We never do.  We never will. 

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