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Our thoughts are slaves to the past

Posted: Fri, August 23, 2013 | By: Religion / Atheism

By Richard Collins

Our brain is a living digest of all our life experience; all the words we have read, pictures we have seen, miles we have driven in a car. Our lives are pretty much controlled through involuntary subliminal forces and these forces arise from our life experience which is a vast series of contingencies stretching back in time to the day we were born. Some say even to the womb. 

At any moment, when we are called upon to decide something, our stored experience magically delivers the result we get. So do we have any control at all? My answer is that we only have control of those things we focus our attention on, which are the raw material of our decision making process. This means what we chose to read, what movies we chose to watch, every waking mental activity. 

Sam Harris argues even such choices only seem to be our conscious will at work. Ultimately you cannot escape the fact that every choice depends upon your life experience and the configuration of the largely static neuronal connections in your brain. Which, we surmise are wired according to a plan we are not conscious of nor do we control. The wiring just happens. How it occurs is one of the big mysteries that remain to be solved. 

As a pragmatist, seeking the best possible route through life, I attempt to control the stream of information to my brain as best I can. For me that means I will never dwell on the supernatural. I long ago decided it was not only a waste of time, but actually harmful to my mental health. In the same way that staring at the sun was harmful to my eyes. The supernatural was like a rabbit hole, an endless warren of unfounded speculation that never led anywhere. 

Some research suggests that mental effort is conceptually fed by a store of energy that can be used up as the day progresses. As a professional writer I know what this means. Late in the day, after writing for hours, my brain grows less responsive. I lose focus and cannot easily connect my thoughts into coherent sentences that flow together and result in a satisfying result. I struggle, I backspace, rewrite, pause, think. Finally, I decide to call it a day confident that after I sleep and rest my mind will be “fresh”. Usually this works and I awaken the next day with my mental energy restored anew.

Sam Harris: “You can change your life, and yourself, through effort and discipline— but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less). You are either lucky in this department or you aren’t— and you cannot make your own luck.”


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