Keeping Past and Future at a Distance

One day a few years ago I asked my students to meditate with their hands on the desk in front of them. They were to designate one hand to represent the past, and the other hand to represent the future. Whenever they noticed their attention had drifted away from their breath, they would note whether it had drifted ahead to the future or back to the past, lifting the appropriate hand just a few inches off the desk, and returning their attention to the breath as they lowered it. I had no idea which hand was which, but for most students one hand stayed mostly at rest while the other would rise and fall.

If I wanted to guess whether my students were more preoccupied with the present or the past, embodied cognition – the notion that the way we think is determined by the way our bodies work, and the scourge of artificial intelligence theorists everywhere – says I should place my money on the future.

Thanks to a trick of perception, as we are walking the things we are walking toward seem to loom close while things we are walking away from shrink quickly from sight. In what has been dubbed the temporal doppler effect (after the way the sound of a train or other speeding object will change as it gets closer to you), this visual experience of everyday life can change our perception of time. In other words, if you ask people how close Valentine’s Day is the present on February 7th, they’ll say it’s only a short time away, but if you ask them on February 21st, it’s more like a medium time away. A week in the future is practically tomorrow, but a week in the past is so last month.

The good news for those who want a little more distance from the future is that a backwards stroll through a virtual reality can bring the past closer, and push the future away. That is, undergraduate students who donned some virtual reality goggles and watched a scene either zoom backwards from a fountain square  felt the future was closer than the past, while the undergraduates who saw virtual reality zoom towards the fountain stuck with the perception that the future looms large.

In other words, if you want to distance yourself from the future, you can watch a brief snippet of the video yourself and have the future recede into the distance. You may have to loop that video a few times – the report didn’t say how long the students were immersed in this virtual reality, but I imagine it was more than just 17 seconds.

There’s also no word yet on whether this is an effect that could be achieved through visualization, the same way that mental imagery can help doctors learn surgery. But perhaps the next time I decide to have students meditate in class, I may suggest they imagine themselves walking away from whatever event in the past they might want to leave behind – or walking backwards away from some future event that has a hold on their attention. And perhaps if mental imagery works, we can imagine a scenario where we have walked away from both, and be totally in the present.
Caruso E.M., Van Boven L., Chin M., & Ward A. (2013). The temporal Doppler effect: When the future feels closer than the past. Psychological Science, 24 (4), 530-536 PMID: 23474832


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