Monday, October 4, 2010

The Limits of Imagination: Part 2

More from Stumbling on Happiness:
Right now you can probably imagine a plate of spaghetti and tell me how much you would enjoy eating it for dinner tomorrow evening. Fine. Now notice two things. 
First, this wasn’t particularly taxing. You could probably imagine pasta all day long without ever breaking a sweat, letting your brain do the heavy construction work while you lounge around in your new pajamas. 
Second, notice that the spaghetti you imagined was much richer than the spaghetti I asked you about. Perhaps your imaginary spaghetti was the goopy slop from the can, or perhaps it was fresh basil-rosemary pasta topped with a silky bolognaise. The sauce could have been tomato, cream, clam, or even grape jelly. The noodles might have been piled beneath a pair of traditional meatballs, or sprinkled with a half-dozen slivers of duck sausage studded with capers and pine nuts. Maybe you imagined eating the spaghetti while standing at your kitchen counter with a newspaper in one hand and a Coke in the other, or maybe you imagined that your waiter had given you the small table near the fireplace at your favorite trattoria and poured you a fat 1990 Barolo to start. 
Whatever you imagined, it’s a pretty good bet that when I said spaghetti, you did not have an unrequited urge to interrogate me about the nuances of sauce and locale before envisioning a single noodle. Instead, your brain behaved like a portrait artist commissioned to produce a full-color oil from a rough charcoal sketch, filling in all the details that were absent from my question and serving you a particular heaping helping of imaginary pasta. And when you estimated your enjoyment of this future spaghetti, you responded to this particular mental image as you respond to particular memories and particular perceptions—as though the details had been specified by the thing you were imagining rather than fabricated by your brain. In so doing, you made an error that your future spaghetti-eating self may regret. The phrase “spaghetti for dinner tomorrow evening” does not describe an event so much as it describes a family of events, and the particular member of the family that you imagined influenced your predictions about how much you’d enjoy eating it.
There are endless variations on spaghetti, and the particular variation you imagined surely influenced how much you expected to enjoy the experience. Because these details are so crucial to an accurate prediction of your response to the event you were imagining, and because these important details were not known, you would have been wise to withhold your prediction about spaghetti, or at least to temper it with a disclaimer such as “I expect to like the spaghetti if it is al dente with smoked pomodoro.” 
But I’m willing to bet that you didn’t withhold, you didn’t disclaim, and that you instead conjured up a plate of imaginary spaghetti faster than Chef Boyardee on Rollerblades, then made a confident prediction about the relationship you expected to have with that food. If you didn’t do that, then congratulations. Give yourself a medal. But if you did, then know you are not alone. Research suggests that when people make predictions about their reactions to future events, they tend to neglect the fact that their brains have performed the filling-in trick as an integral part of the act of imagination.

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