Insanity, Explained.


Definition of insanity: doing the same exact thing over and over but expecting different results.

Contrary to popular belief, unhappiness doesn’t always come from being overly pessimistic about the future. Quite the contrary. Let me explain what I mean.

People are unhappy not because of one event, one mishap, one accident, one loss, one consequence, one mistake. People are unhappy because of self-destructive patterns. Patterns of thought, emotions and behaviors that appear to be repeating themselves, appear to be outside of one’s control, appear impossible to change. Self-destructive patterns are persistent because they provide us with something positive, they serve a purpose, they evoke good feelings, they help us cope. But they do so at the expense of our overall happiness. Changing these patterns can be extremely frustrating. Consider this conversation from a therapy session.

C: Why do I keep doing this knowing it will hurt?

T: Habit

C: But rationally I know where this will lead me. Why can’t I stop myself?

T: Unrealistic expectations. Habit.

C: It’s as if I forget about the hurt, I know it will hurt but I ignore that fact.

T: It sounds like you are overly optimistic.

C: ??

It turns out there is some scientific base to the idea that we see the future through rose-colored lenses if we use our memory. We remember the good AND we tend to predict positive outcomes regardless of past evidence from experience that point to the contrary. Some people will call this denial, namely I refuse to see negative consequence because I chose to do so. Science however seems to point toward a less voluntary process. Memory.

Research from Daniel Schacter at Harvard University calls this “remembering a rosy future”. When we imagine events in the future, our subsequent recall of negative simulations fades more rapidly than our recall of positive ones:

“We found that at the longer delay, details associated with negative simulations were more difficult to remember than details associated with positive or neutral simulations. We suggest that these effects reflect the influence of the fading-affect bias, whereby negative reactions fade more quickly than positive reactions, and that this influence results in a tendency to remember a rosy simulated future. We discuss implications of our findings for individuals with affective disorders, such as depression and anxiety. “

(Schacter, in the Harvard Psychology department, is a memory researcher and author of “The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers)

Even more intriguing is the implication of longer delay. Does this mean, the more time passes, the more likely we are to forget about negative emotions and and focus on the positive ones?

Does this mean, that the more we disengage from a self-destructive pattern, the more likely we are to forget about the pain, remember pleasure and ultimately go back to it?

Is that why time heals everything and yet it doesn’t?

Can we then afford to base future decisions on our memory?

1 thought on “Insanity, Explained.

  1. I really like this and also like Shackter’s work. Memory is such a peculiar and luminous thing with so many different ways to approach it. I struggle with memory, not the act of it, but a dichotomy between a Taoist approach (think Winnie the Pooh just living in the moment) and a more reflective sense of memory that anchors me and deepens me into the past. Then there’s behavioral memory (behavioral habit, going for that morning coffee or smoke without barely thinkging about it), episodic memory (that first bike ride, our first Christmas we remember, where we were on 911), and logistical memory (remembering details, language syntax, mathematical rules). This is truly a wide open frontier for us to deepen our understanding of. The fading-affect bias makes sense to me, else why even get out of bed in the morning? It also rings true for those studies that show that people who are more or less inoculated against depression have a tendency to be LESS realistic in seeing the world, but see it in more positive and optimistic ways.

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