Past Thinking

If you could meet a previous self of say twenty years ago how close would you feel to that person? Would you feel comfortable for example in sharing the same clothes or toothbrush and if not how close would the gap in age have to be? You might or might not understand them – would they understand you? We inherit from our own past just as from our parents but in the same way feel ourselves changed and separate.

Going the other way would the person you are now fully exist a decade or two hence? Or would there be a steady fading out of that consciousness not just in the cells but in all we rightly or wrongly consider lies mysteriously beyond them.

It’s been discovered we use the same cerebral mechanism to commune with a future self as we do to empathize with strangers so that self control can fairly be called empathy in time rather than space.

Physically we will likely want to stay the same or even regress a little but psychologically we wouldn’t go back in time for even a minute. We hold our memories tighter than our bodies, indeed we identify completely with these thoughts of the past, recordings that are less fixed and trustworthy than we believe.

We’d like to keep our memories while changing past events but unfortunately there’s no dress rehearsal for life, no chance to do it all again this time for real, avoiding previous mistakes this time – or indeed deliberately repeating them.

Contrary to how we usually verbalize it we don’t really face the future at all but face the past as we travel backward through time. It’s only the past we can see and consider – and often a distorted incomplete view at that – while the future is behind our field of view and must be unknown.

One finds the simplicity of a fuller engagement with the present is more effective and efficient than our crowded and tortured past-based thinking. Memory, the use of information, is still vital of course but in an impersonal objective way as if it happened to someone else, which in a way it actually did; our past and future selves are different if related people, strangers on a continuum.


You may be familiar with the story of the two monks who are walking through the mountains each carrying a heavy bag. They stop to rest and the younger curious one asks his senior colleague what enlightenment is. The older one takes his bag off his back and rests it on the ground. “Aha I see! But after enlightenment, what comes then?” The older one lifts the bag back up.

To add a bit of realism, he’d take something out of the bag – it may be quite small – to lighten the load.

Insight as art and science