Imagining ourselves into existence

It’s an unusually warm day in early spring and I’m in Skipton, a beautiful market town at the southern tip of the Yorkshire Dales. I’m revisiting and reconstructing my past.

For a couple of years in the early 1980s I lived here, in a tall terrace house on a road that seemed so much steeper to the younger me. At the top of the road there used to be a number of council office buildings; we would climb onto the roof of the smaller building during the weekends when the site was empty, sit and chat or dare each other to leap to the ground below. The buildings are now gone, replaced by new houses that look over onto the allotments and the Leeds to Liverpool canal below. The old mills that were abandoned and derelict in my youth have been transformed into offices and plush apartments; no longer can the local youths climb the old brickwork to salvage the lead from their roofs.

The canal is still lined with barges, some brightly painted while others are in need of repair. I would walk this way on Saturday mornings on my way into town or cycle along the towpath with my friends. In the opposite direction is the school I attended for two years, still an old style secondary modern, Skipton having retained the system whereby children sit an exam known as the eleven plus at the end of their primary education to determine which school they attended. If you passed you would go to the Grammar School or the Girl’s High School, if you didn’t (like me) you’d find yourself at Aireville, situated on the edge of the park of the same name, itself once part of the Aireville Estate. The old mansion house, the centrepiece of the school, is Grade II listed and is where the eleven-year-old me would be taught English by the slightly eccentric Mr Hume.

The memories of my childhood draw me towards Skipton far more often than to any other place I lived as a child — and I lived in a great many places. The Skipton of the early ’80s is still visible beneath the modern exterior, old towns like this don’t change that much, even though the auction mart where they once sold sheep and cattle has been replaced with a large supermarket and some of the older town centre building are now quaint shopping malls catering mainly for the tourists or the walkers heading towards the Pennine Way.

My history is scattered throughout English towns and New Zealand suburbs, and with it, relationships made and lost or abandoned. As I walk along the High Street and past the market stalls I wonder if any of the people here are the kids I went to school with — or the children of the kids I went to school with? Even though I feel a deep emotional connection to this town, I also know that any social connection is long gone. I sometimes wonder if I should move here, but then I realise that there is more to the emotional connection than just place, connection is about people and our sense of self is partly constructed by all those people we have met, loved and lost. Our memories are, therefore, as much about this connection to others as it is about the actual events of our lives, my memories are certainly triggered by place, but they are also triggered by the connections I feel to others, most of whom ceased to be a part of my life long ago.

What is it to perceive?

In the book, Cloud Atlas by British author David Mitchell, the character Somni-451 reveals that ‘to be is to be perceived, and so to know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.’ When I read this line (and later heard it spoken by South Korean actress Doona Bae in the Wachowski’s film adaptation of the book) I was reminded of a similar quote by the sixteenth-century Irish philosopher George Berkeley: the only things that we perceive are our perceptions. Berkeley argued that all objects (such as tables, chairs and the book you might be holding in your hand) are simply ideas in the minds of the perceiver; a book, for example, only exists because it is perceived by the neurological architecture of the brain. Somni-451, a type of clone known in the book as a fabricant, alludes to the belief that our very existence is dependent on others perceiving us. We cannot truly know ourselves unless we can know how others see us. This is an important concern for Somni-451 because, unique to fabricants, she is becoming aware of herself and developing both memories and a personality.

How does the experience of Somni-451 help us in our search for connectedness? Our perceptions of others are often clouded by biases and value judgements, preventing us from connecting with and seeing the real person. Labels are useful, but they also make us blind to people’s true nature and prevent any kind of connection from taking place. Somni-451 understands this need to relate and to connect to others, of the role other people play in shaping our own self: ‘our lives are not our own, she continues, from womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future’.

Of course, the idea of connectedness is intricately bound up with the more complex concept — consciousness. Human consciousness arises from a number of different constructs, but essentially concerns the perceptual architecture of the brain. Anil Seth, Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, UK describes the human brain as a prediction machine; sensations arise from within our brains and we receive data externally from the world around us. We then have to interpret this information in a particular way (a best guess), and in a way that agrees with the interpretation of others. If there is a mismatch between my interpretation and the interpretation of the wider world, I might be accused of hallucinating. Reality, claims Seth, is simply an agreed hallucination and we, essentially, predict ourselves into existence. To desire connectedness with others we have to have some idea of how we want this connectedness to pan out. And to want to be connected to a particular person we have to understand the nature of the relationship we want and mentally project ourselves into the future to examine the consequences.

Our ideas of the world have their source in both internal and external factors, this is why the people created in our imagination or daydreams often contain both aspects of ourselves and components salvaged from people we have known. This is also why so many novelists and excessive daydreamers feel so connected to their constructions. It would then surely follow that the connection people feel to imagined individuals might bleed through into the real world, a kind of experiential crossing, to use Charles Fernyhough’s expression.

Perception or Emotion?

(Murray Close/Netflix)

So it’s not only about perception; it’s also about emotion. In a scene from the Wachowski’s Netflix series Sense8, the character of Sun Bak (again played by Doona Bae) offers a different perspective on life: ‘This is what life is,’ she says, ‘fear, rage, desire… love’. Between directing Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and creating their own Sense8, Lana and Lily Wachowski had moved from life being about perception, to life being about emotion. Indeed, Sun concludes her monologue, ‘to stop feeling emotions, to stop wanting to feel them, is to feel death’.

The siblings were obviously able to connect with Mitchell and his complex, sweeping narrative because many similar elements can be seen in Sense8. The success and the beauty of the Wachowski’s is that they don’t appear to think like the rest of us, their world is one where pretty much everything is possible and nothing (not even the very nature of reality) should be taken for granted. Sense8 represented the embodiment of a lived expanded reality; all that is in our head, all our daydreams, imaginings and vast complex paracosms they made real, while ours remain trapped inside our mind.

Sense8 was first aired on Netflix in June 2015. The basic premise revolves around eight people born at exactly the same time but in different parts of the world, all of whom are part of the same ‘cluster’ and therefore psychically connected. The strength of the show isn’t necessarily the thriller-type storyline or the many action sequences (indeed, the narrative is often chaotic and appears somewhat self-indulgent at times), but, rather, the emotional connection between the characters; the acceptance of both who they are and who the cluster siblings have chosen to be. In this sense, the narrative is emotionally driven, emotions that include an obvious and deep felt love and connectedness for each other. In one scene the character of Nomi Marks (played Jamie Clayton) discusses the violence we do to ourselves when we are afraid to be who we are.

After the cancellation of the show by Netflix after just two seasons, an online petition forced the company to offer fans a two hour special as a compromise. Fans felt connected to both each other and to the characters in the show, fuelled by online content that included interviews and exclusive footage. Fans even attempted to find their cluster, those people born on the same day as themselves. This wasn’t unique to Sense8, but I can’t recall a show that prompted such fervent support from a relatively small yet varied fan base or one that drew these people together in such a positive way.

Daydreams and social connection

Some people internalise their imaginings into elaborate and narrative-driven daydreams. Sometimes referred to as maladaptive daydreaming, such behaviours can lead to symptoms associated with psychological illness and the possibility that daydreaming can lead people to commit acts of violence on themselves and others. However, there are many positive benefits to daydreaming, many related to creativity, but also as a means of nurturing positive social relationships — or feelings of being connected to other people.

Daydreams about positive significant others have been found to increase our feelings of happiness, love and connection as well as help us regulate emotions. Most daydreams are social daydreams, that is, they involve close others, both real and imagined. Daydreamers feel a closeness and a feeling of connection even to those characters they create and often the narratives that are written in our minds pursue a deep and lasting relationship with them. While this can cause problems between the real and imagined realms, such as the young man on one online forum who believed he could never find a long-term partner in the real world because the one he created in his daydreams was so perfect, engaging in imagined relationships or daydreaming about real ones, does appear to both enhance our real-world feelings of connection and make us feel happier and more content.

Humans are social creatures and even those of us who would describe ourselves as introvert or anti-social still crave connection. Social relationships and interactions have been found to contribute to health, happiness and meaning in life. These findings are perhaps more important now than they have ever been due to a seemingly stark rise in the number of people admitting to feeling lonely and disconnected from family and the wider community, more so in the age of Covid. It’s certainly the case that people are generally happier when socialising, even those who claim not to like social events. Levels of happiness and wellbeing rise when we are interacting with friends and even in the absence of social activity people daydream about past social interactions or project themselves into the future to experience possible interactions to come.

While Freud assumed such imaginings are related to wish fulfilment, the modern consensus is that they are connected to our goals, thus, the content of social daydreaming has something to do with our social goals, our desire to be connected to others. People, therefore, mentally pursue goals that may not be attainable in real life, such as being in a relationship with someone unattainable or imagining a family that is either absent from real life or with positive attributes not seen in the real thing. Perhaps our goal is to experience these emotions or to use daydreaming as a proxy for relationships and feelings of connectedness in the real world?

Either way, there is a good reason to believe that they are in some way goal-directed. Kim Berg Johannessen and Dorthe Berstein assessed people’s current goal commitments in relation to a number of social life categories; intimacy and sexual matters, and friends and acquaintances, discovering that their daydreams were predominantly associated with mentally pursuing social goals. These, in turn, increased positive social feelings associated with imagined pursuit or attainment. The need to feel close to others, therefore, drives human behaviour towards the formation and maintenance of relationships and it may not matter too much if such relationships are real or imagined.

Daydreams themselves invariably involve other people, indeed, in a sample of more than seventeen-and-a-half thousand individuals, Raymond Mar discovered that seventy-three percent reported that other people were frequently or always in their daydreams (less than one percent said that they never daydreamed about other people). Similarly, seventy-one percent of a different sample admitted that people appeared in task-unrelated thought. Evidence from neuroimaging has also revealed an overlap between brain regions involved in daydreaming and those involved in social cognition, that is, the way thought processes deal with social encounters. These feelings of connectedness also relate to our emotions and it’s clear from research into daydreaming that our imaginings can affect our emotions as if the event were occurring in the real world — our daydreams are a simulation of these real worlds.

In studies where researchers wish to induce a specific mood state in volunteers, they often achieve this by asking them to imagine emotional events, both positive and negative. Similarly, guided imagery is often used in therapy to reduce negative feelings and promote positive ones. This means that social daydreaming should induce social feelings that are part of the imagined experience and the general narrative. This would imply that falling in love in a daydream enhances our feelings of love and acts of compassion promote compassion. If our goal is to love or to become more compassionate, then simulating, or imagining, situations that promote them would not only enhance such feelings within the daydream but might spill over into our non-daydreaming state. Essentially, we daydream our way to love and compassion and this is what the research appears to be implying. For example, in a 2005 study conducted by Madoka Kumashiro of the Free University of Amsterdam and Constantine Sedikides of the University of Southampton, participants asked to visualise a close positive relationship expressed warmer and more positive feelings directed towards others than the second group of volunteers who visualised a close negative or neutral relationship.

But this phenomenon has also been seen more widely, with many studies finding that imagining positive and neutral interactions with members from outside our own group can promote positive feelings towards others. The implications of these studies are clear, especially when presented against a backdrop of racism and xenophobia. This deliberate imagining of interactions and interpersonal relationships, therefore, has the power to evoke positive social feelings.

Daydreaming is often viewed as a frivolous activity, yet engaging our imagination can lead to many positive outcomes. Writers, artists and film directors understand this all too well. This is not to imply there aren’t any down sides to daydreaming; maladaptive daydreaming can result in physical isolation and despair. Many maladaptive daydreamers will spend hours within their own minds creating elaborate worlds that are almost as real as the external one; real-world relationships can suffer because the imagined ones are simply too perfect.

But imagining positive outcomes can also change the way we view the real world, whether it be a greater appreciation of different types of people or cultures. Often our prejudices are directed towards people we have never met and will perhaps never engage with, as well as cultures we have never experienced. And while there is no substitute for real-world experiences, our imagination could very well prove a useful starting point.

Chartered Psychologist. Behaviour Change. Becoming Buoyant — out July 2020

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