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March 8th, 2022
Realism, pessimism and everything in between robs a person of quite a lot. Even a philosophical optimist who tries to armor themselves against downside with a cautious entertainment of pessimism is robbed. Perhaps this is speaking too much from experience, or perhaps this phenomenon is pervasive among realistic optimists: but it seems very positive memories are very often shuffled out of sight.
Recently I was talking with someone from my past who described a certain day that I had engineered. It was a spectacular day, and I had completely forgotten almost every single detail, despite the fact that I’d dreamed up the entire program. I only remembered the single dark event that punctured the day unexpectedly. This is despite the fact that I rallied against this dark event for fear that it would detract from the day I’d planned - it didn’t really matter anyhow, so why not enjoy the moment? And yet, my memory doesn’t appear to abide by the same good logic. Despite enjoying that day, and doing everything in my power to make it excellent, my only lasting memory was the one thing that went wrong with it.
The recollection has made me wonder anew: what else in my past has my memory swept aside in order to highlight all the negative that can be learned from?
Frankly, none of us get out of this game alive, so what really is the utility of such a negatively-focused algorithm? Naturally, this could easily be a personal development, but I’m tempted to think it’s a more pervasive issue. Humans are incredibly susceptible to concentrating on the negative at the expense of ignoring the positive. The average person takes a lot longer to pick out the one smilie face in a sea of frown faces than it takes to pick out the one frown face in a sea of smilies. This is exactly the propensity that my mind is playing when it comes to memory selection and importance.
From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense: preparing for the worst is easier if you can remember the worst of what’s happened. Remember the best of yesterday doesn’t do much good for preparing for the worst. And the point of this difference is that the worst to come has a much higher chance of wiping our your genetics when compared to the best of what’s to come - as backwards as that sounds. Backwards because the continuation of our genetics usually entails some great moments -subjectively speaking. In terms of evolutionary biology, the brain has no interest in remembering good times because that has no bearing in surviving bad times in order to have more good times.
This feels like an enormous betrayal of memory. In the modern civilized world, what should memory be like? Some wonderful amalgam of a museum and a music festival comes to mind: Closing my eyes should be a phantasmagoria of the most wonderful moments that stand as touchstones in the arc of a person that I have become. Memory should be the best place to retreat - no matter how bad things get, I should be able to instantly form a chrysalis of the best that is behind me. Why isn’t a selection of the best nights, the best mornings, the best days and afternoons on constant offer when we close our eyes? Such memories represent incredible achievements. No matter how hard or easy life has been, the fact that these experiences could come into existence is itself an achievement worth.. everything. For why are we here if not to gather up some small patch of treasured memory?
No matter how rich someone is, all we crave is more of this treasured memory.. which is so hard to hold on to. When our mind is hardwired to remember the worst, do we remember less and less the better life gets?