Coming up with our own interpretations of the data our neurons pass along, and filling in blanks isn’t just something we have to do to get along. It actually enriches our lives. It fills our experience with significance and imbues everything with a deeper quality, a fullness that makes up for the insecurity that comes from simply being alive. We not only gloss over missing details and flesh out what we’re perceiving – from what we’ve sensed for ourselves or heard from others – but we also give it meaning to find our place in the context of a larger plan. Making stuff up does more than fill objective gaps. It suffuses our lives with a sense of being part of something that’s close – and comforting in the storm.
Our pieced-together, invented versions of reality actually give us the chance to get more out of the experience, than we’d get from highly accurate observation alone. You don’t just see a red wagon sitting in front of a neighbor’s house; you remember what it was like to wheel your own red wagon around your old neighborhood, flying down hills and filling it with sticks and rocks from the woods nearby. You don’t just see your neighbor sitting quietly in the corner of their yard, you’re alarmed by the sight of an unresponsive individual who’s clearly struggling. Meanwhile, other passers-by (with a different set of past experiences) smile at the familiar sight of their neighbor resting quietly after a long morning of gardening.
Whether from the past, from something we’ve read, or from something we think, we’re literally more a part of things when we fill in the blanks. Our feelings heighten the experience, all of our senses are engaged, and that gives it a quality that’s ours alone. Our past plays a part in shaping our sense of things, as does our present. And the spirit of an imagined future imbues the present with even more salience, when we think of our present activities as leading to something important, on down the line.
You hear an old song, and you feel years younger than you’ve felt in a long time. You think ahead to the coming work week, imagining your desired outcomes with a client, and it motivates you to prepare even more. You look around the growing garden in your new back yard, and you think about how long you’ve looked forward to this day… all those years spent in the asphalt jungle without a plot of green of your own… and your little vegetable patch becomes the most precious corner on the planet.