Step Outside Yourself

Meditation says to focus on the present. But life may be more meaningful if you don’t.

meditating in the moment.
Sometimes you’ve just got to get away.

Photo by Thinkstock

Mental health experts bombard us with advice to “focus on the present,” “savor the moment,” and “live in the now.” Prominent branches of meditation highlight the importance of being aware of the present moment, and research has demonstrated that the mind is unhappy when it wanders.

The human tendency to leave the present moment, to mentally travel to different times or places, often faces criticism. For example, English author and columnist Terence Blacker warned of the “excessive sensibleness” of continuously planning for the future and stated, “Looking too much into the future can be as harmful as dwelling pointlessly on the past. The trick is to live as well as you can in the present.”  

Yet the human mind possesses remarkable abilities of time travel, teleportation, and mindreading. We can step forward or backward in time by reliving previous accomplishments or trying to predict how we will feel in the future. We mentally traverse space by envisioning what it might be like to be in faraway places. And we enter other people’s heads by considering what they are thinking or predicting how they might act in the future. Humans are the only animals that can transport themselves robustly beyond the here and now. In fact, our minds have a hard time keeping still. Is there a purpose to these forms of mental simulation?

One possibility is that we step outside ourselves in an effort to avoid the “basic despair that we all feel in the pit of our being,” as the comedian Louis C.K. has darkly put it. Recent research, however, suggests a more positive explanation.

Several lines of work seem to converge on the idea that self-projection is a valuable exercise. Mentally traveling in time, imagining other places, and stepping into other people’s minds can give people a sense of meaning in life. Researchers have found that engaging in nostalgia, the process of sentimentally reflecting on past events, produces reports of greater meaning in life. Projecting oneself forward into the future—whether through hopeful thinking or considering one’s legacy after death—has also been associated with elevated reports of meaning in life.

Other forms of simulation also seem to give people insight. For example, considering personal events from the perspective of a hypothetical third-person observer allows people to derive more meaning from these events. Relatedly, research conducted by Adam Waytz (one of the authors of this story) has found that inducing people to consider the mental states of nonhuman entities (such as dogs or robots) gives people the sense that the actions of these entities are meaningful and understandable.

Beyond these simple perspective-taking exercises, attempting to simulate the mind of some external higher, supernatural force can give people a sense of meaning. In fact, psychologist Jesse Bering has theorized that many people consider life events to be meaningful by inferring that some metaphysical agent (such as God) has meant for these events to occur.

Despite these consistent links across studies, the direct relationship between mental simulation and finding meaning in life had not been explicitly examined. In research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we explicitly tested whether simulation in general corresponds to and, more importantly, predicts meaning in life.

In an initial study, we examined neuroimaging scans of more than 80 research volunteers and looked at the strength of connections within a network of brain regions known as the “default network,” which has previously been associated with the capacity for simulation. Some people’s neural networks operate more coherently than others; that is, the brain regions within these networks are more likely to be active in sync with one another over a given period of time. Given that the default network supports the ability to simulate other times, minds, and places, and given that simulation bolsters meaning in life, we reasoned that stronger connections in this brain network would be related to increased perceptions of meaning. After scanning our research participants using fMRI, we emailed a survey to all of them including a questionnaire asking about meaning in life. People who had stronger connectivity in the default network of the brain also reported more meaning in life. (Although older people often engage in more forms of mental simulation than younger people, age in our sample did not account for these effects.)

In five additional studies, we found that having people project themselves forward or backward in time or into other geographic locations—compared with having people think about the present—boosted their subsequent reports of meaning in life. The reason for this link turned out to be deceptively simple. When our research participants considered life beyond the present moment, they often conjured up events and places that were more profound, meaningful, and awe-inspiring than the current moment. Although overly dramatic, Louis C.K. may have been on to something: Now is considerably more banal than what is not now.

Our research involved one-shot instances of directed simulation over short time periods, performed by relatively small sample of adults from the United States (and only people from the Northeastern U.S. in our fMRI study). It is possible that sustained periods of mental travel, or simulation under different circumstances, operate differently. Just the same, simulation can enable people to generate more meaningful experiences, and it can also have benefits for one’s sense of meaning. There are strong links between a sense of meaning in life and a variety of positive outcomes, including better health. It seems, then, that one way to improve psychological and physical well-being is to at least occasionally not “be here now,” but to take a moment to distance oneself from the present time and place.