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The Past is All that We Know

It's a misconception to believe that we can make decisions based on our past experiences. At the same time, do we have an option?

The things we can do with our brains are miraculous. We can use it to store memories of the past, and we can use it to predict the future. Some people call it mental time travel. That same gift can be a curse if we stay attached to the prediction of the future based on our past experiences. There’s a good chance that it is incorrect.

The truth is we know nothing about the future. We only know the past. Our perceptions are different from others because our past experiences are different. In that way, we make judgments based on what we’ve gone through, not the potential of the situation ahead of us. When spiritual gurus tell us to be in the present moment, it’s such a momentous task because we are always in the past, even if slightly. When it comes to making decisions in the present moment, our brain is always working on outdated information.

As we continue to be a more logical species, we like to believe that we are moving in the world as objectively, but it simply isn’t true. Our past experiences block us from seeing the world as it is even though we are generally naive about its effects. The decisions we make tend to come from unconscious bias. We talked about this before, but everyone thinks in a different way, but here can connect it to why. If someone has lived a life of privilege in which they are given everything they desire, they may tremendously hate, or perceive the one person who decides to tell them no as an enemy. A person that doesn’t come from that same privilege may not see help as an expectation and is grateful whether a person says yes or no.

Playing With Our Emotions

Our emotions play a big part in our perceptions as well. If we were to describe emotions for the purpose of our discussion is the meaning our brain gives to bodily sensations based on past experience. To break it down further, we can also use the word feelings as a synonym for emotions. We call them feelings because not only do we have an emotional response in the brain, but we have a bodily response.  When we’re sad, we have this tightening in our chest. When we are scared there’s this sensation of having “butterflies” in our stomach. You can tell how you feel by the sensations in the body, and we give those feelings meaning by assigning emotions to them. Did I just blow your mind? 

The other keyword in the definition is that it’s based on past experience. The reason why we feel these emotions is not the reason we think. Our current pain usually has to do with something that was done to us in the past. This is why our modern therapy is focused on childhood trauma. Once we find the origins of our trauma it becomes easier to heal ourselves from the emotions that we feel.

For example, a person can be in a relationship with anyone for a long time. If the relationship fails and they split, this person can fall into a deep depression. The depression really has nothing to do with the current relationship, but maybe it has something to do with a parent abandoning them as a child. The repetition of this action is felt as the same as the original abandonment. The same thing can be said of that friend who is always happy. They weren’t just happy today. They were probably nurtured in an environment that was filled with joy and laughter. That previous history shapes who they are today.

How the Brain Works

Now I’m no neurologist, but I’m going to attempt to explain why this is the case with research I’ve done. One of the many jobs of the brain is to monitor your bodily sensations in order to keep you alive. It monitors your heartbeat, how your lungs are doing, and those gurgles you have in your stomach. It’s the reason why you feel pain when you find yourself with a cut or a mosquito bite. With your brain in the dark chambers of your head, it has to rely on past experience to give meaning to bodily sensations. For example, the emptiness in your stomach means that you are hungry. The only reason you know this is because you’ve been hungry before.

Taking this concept into the realm of emotions, we can easily describe what happens to us when we are in our feelings. Let’s choose love because that’s a great feeling. Imagine you’re walking down the street and you see your crush. The first thing that happens is that you feel tightness in your chest. Maybe your heart starts beating faster. Maybe it feels like you can’t breathe. You’re exhilarated by seeing someone you really like, but also a bit fearful because what if they see you and reject you?

Without meaning, these are simply bodily sensations, but the reason they have meaning is that we felt these feelings before. This isn’t the first time we’ve fallen in love, but there is also the fear of rejection because we’ve been rejected before. We can’t have emotions about things we haven’t experienced. I can’t tell you how it feels to jump out of a plane because I’ve never done such a thing.

Our Past Can’t Predict the Future

I’ve worked in marketing for quite some time. In my experience, I’ve been the one to manage the analytics of the marketing initiatives. One of the biggest misconceptions in analytics is benchmarking our future performance on past experience. At every company I’ve been in, I’ve done this. We look at what has done well in the past but aspire for higher expectations thinking the things of the past will do just that.

The inclination is to reject the new idea because it has no track record of success. So, we continue to do the same things we’ve always done. If we make the goals set out in the marketing initiative that’s great, but there are times when it doesn’t. It’s a common flaw to believe that past experience is going to equal future success, but the past is all that we know.

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