Throughout the series, TNG examines many philosophical perspectives, and this episode delves into themes common to the New Thought movement – the idea that thoughts create reality. This is expounded by books like Think and Grow Rich, The Secret, and As a Man Thinketh.
The Enterprise is ordered to test out some modifications to its propulsion system, which should help it move at unfathomable speeds. The brainchild of the new approach is an insufferable jackass called Mr Kosinsky.
Now, Kosinsky appears to be a civilian, owing to the liberal disdain with which he is able to treat everyone – plus the fact that everyone calls him “Mr” Kosinsky. But he wears a Starfleet uniform anyway, with an unknown insignia on his collar. It’s a bit weird.
Anyway, the crew are highly skeptical of Kosinsky’s theories. They don’t make sense, and the simulations failed. However, he has completed a couple of successful test runs on other star ships. So what’s going on?
Well it turns out that Kosinsky’s theories are bullshit, and in reality it’s the Traveller who’s actually pulling the strings, as he possesses some kind of special powers that help him affect the ship’s engines. So the Traveller is using Kosinsky as a front so he can joy ride on starships.
Everyone is fooled by this elaborate long con, except of course for boy genius Wesley Crusher, who for some reason is just hanging out in engineering when the test is taking place. Happily they are keeping him away from the blue chips – but he finds another way to throw a spanner in the works.
You see, Wesley, being the smartest boy in the galaxy, suggests a few tweaks to Kosinsky’s model to the Traveller, which he happily applies. When Kosinsky and the crew run the tests, these tweaks – plus the Traveller’s intervention, takes the Enterprise to the edge of the universe – a place where space, time, and thought are not as separate as they appear to be. Dun dun daaah!
We’ll come back to Kosinsky in detail in a later post, as he deserves closer attention. Here, we’ll focus on this thought-reality idea.
Thought and reality
At the edge of the universe, the crew’s thoughts star to manifest themselves in reality.
This causes all kinds of chaos. Worf manifests his childhood pet. Yar has a traumatic flashback to her extremely troubled youth. Picard nearly walks directly into space from a turbo lift. A random blue shirt creates a huge fire.
The Traveller explains that humans were not supposed to be here yet – they need to develop more control first (as you know, to develop the virtue of discipline was one of the first lessons of the series).
There are many who hold this world view today – that thoughts influence reality. According to this point of view, if you hold in your mind a representation of what you want, then reality will conspire to see that you get it. If you want to be a millionnaire, you might visualise what you’d be doing with your life if you were (yes, most people use this knowledge largely to try to make money and/or get laid).
However, there are a couple of things to keep in mind, proponents will tell you, or else it won’t work:
- It has to be a very realistic visualisation. Not just a vague image. You must create a full, simulated experience – sights, sounds, feelings, and all – and reality will react in such a way as to bring this into your conscious experience. Feelings are the most important aspect of this – you must feel, emotionally, as if your vision is real. The other senses are mainly doing the job of creating the feeling.
- You have to believe that holding the representation will create the reality. It must be a deliberate intention to create, not an idle daydream.
- It takes consistent and effective work – you can’t think of winning the lottery in the morning, and cash in your winning ticket in the evening. You have to make a strong impression, which means holding your vision constantly and realistically.
How does this work?
As for the mechanism behind this, that depends on who you ask.
Some say consciousness is the fundamental building block of reality, not matter, and by changing consciousness we change reality. This seems to be the viewpoint of the Traveller: “You do understand, don’t you that thought is the basis of all reality? The energy of thought, to put it in your terms, is very powerful”.
Some say that the universe itself is a living, thinking entity that responds to our thoughts.
Physicists don’t believe in any of this. They tend to take a materialist point of view – matter is the fundamental building block of reality, and thoughts don’t influence it, at least not directly.
Some people largely agree with the physicists’ materialist view, but say our thoughts can influence that material reality, in ways that are not yet well understood. This might be defined under psychic powers or magic.
More still say this works because we’re living in a computer simulation and that’s just how the program is set up!
I’m not going to get into an ontological debate about metaphysics here. Bottom line for our purposes, is that physics and science currently says no, there’s no link between thought and reality, and others believe there is, and posit many different explanations for this. What you believe, is for you to decide.
But note that if you do hold the materialist view, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water just yet. There are explanations within for why visualisation exercises of the sort described here can improve performance and outcomes.
Our brains are full of cognitive and perceptive modules which are flexible in how they work, and their functioning can be influenced. For example, if your friend buys a car with an unusual colour, you’ll probably see more cars with that colour around. They were always there, but your perceptive systems didn’t focus on them. Because your friends car is more salient in your mind, you start noticing them consciously.
So if you hold a vision of, say, starting a successful business, then you’re making that more salient in your mind. Then maybe you notice something that would be useful to that end (maybe a free course that would be useful to you, a business opportunity, etc), that previously your perceptions would have filtered out because this goal wasn’t at the front of your mind. Maybe it will make you more motivated to take certain actions. Maybe old, relevant things you learned years ago, stored in the deep archives of your memories, will suddenly pop back into your mind.
There’s also reason to believe that visualisation can help improve motor learning and performance. Sports people have been using this trick for years, visualising positive outcomes from games, fights, and matches. Indeed, some neuroscientists believe that when we mentally rehearse a physical task, it can trigger activity in the same brain areas as when we perform the task for real.
Here’s the step-by-step:
- Make a clear, specific goal
- Think of how you would know the goal was achieved
- Sit or lie down somewhere you won’t be disturbed, give yourself 20 minutes or so to practice
- Mentally put yourself into that situation, as vividly as possible, from a first-person perspective
- Try to simulate as closely as possible the what you would see, smell, hear, taste, and especially, feel. Try to use the other senses to generate the feeling that you would have if that vision was a reality
- Keep experimenting with different visions until you are able to generate the feeling consistently.
- Do this as often as you can
- Try to avoid contradictory thoughts – it’d be pointless to spend 20 minutes thinking of doing something successfully if you spend the rest of the day failing at it
This may be hard at first, but your ability to create accurate, evocative visualisations will improve with practice. Remember the Traveller’s advice to learn control first – it’ll take a little time if you’ve never done any mental exercises like this before.