– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Lights! Camera! Action!

The bright beacon behind us delivers the images to the screen. We know that what we’re seeing is something that was recorded to film some while ago. But here it is now, right there, and we squirm or cry or cheer or boo.

Good movies are compelling because they pull us in and we react as if to reality.

OK, cue the psychologist.

Our own life, our own history, which was also recorded some time ago, is something that we project into new moments all the time. But because the projector is invisible to us and because we live in the theatre of life all the time, the actual projection of our past onto the present isn’t noticed during our usual, day-to-day activity. Let’s look at some examples.

Do you ever think you know what other people are thinking? Can we ever really know what’s on someone else’s mind? It seems to me that we have a hard enough time knowing our own thoughts and motives. ‘Knowing’ what someone else is thinking is really our own thinking being projected on to someone else, and we then laugh or cringe or judge.

Some people react to mishaps in traffic, such as a bad lane change, with anger, feeling like it’s a personal inconsideration. It takes a mindful moment to realize that people just make mistakes and that our anger is about our mind, not someone else’s evil intent. A similar, scary scene is of men glaring at each other in bars, challenging “What’s your problem?” if someone looks at them – it’s like their past abuser needs to be confronted in each moment.

We assign motives and make attributions about things all the time. These come from our mind, as we construct our reality. Parents may react to what their teen or even their toddler does as if their child is defying them in some profound way, when the child may be simply responding to his own wishes to be with friends or just exploring her world.

Is love at first sight not a full on projection, perhaps keeping us from taking a second look? Isn’t dread of future disasters, a.k.a. anxiety, a projecting out in time of our past pain?

Here’s some hard science: A functional MRI brain imaging study in the 2010 journal Emotion found that the sadness we feel watching a sad movie clip (think Terms of Endearment) is accompanied by activation in “cortical areas that are characteristic of cognitive elaboration, increased self-focus, and ruminative problem solving that would be typical of reappraisal processes”. Translation: We relate to the movie with what we know about ourselves. What’s more, another group of subjects who had completed a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course showed much less of that “It’s About Me” cortical activation, although they felt just as sad and even read their body signals of sadness more vividly.

I have no doubt that it’s healthiest for us to take a more discerning role in our life, perhaps as the director (if you’re not too tired of this metaphor by now). Paying attention helps us to keep that boundary between us and the rest of life, and to better see what’s actually going on.

When you’ve been watching a scary movie, have you noticed yourself pulling out of the movie from time to time in order to calm down your fear, reminding yourself that the film isn’t real – “It’s just a movie!” We manage our fear with mindful awareness, and then laugh at how we get pulled in. As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching”, and if we watch ourselves we’ll find a lot to laugh about.