Ruth Byrne heads the psychology program at Trinity College, Dublin. Her book, The Rationale Imagination, explores the mechanisms behind people's excursions into the realm of what she terms the counterfactual. Her thesis is that even though people depart from what is truly happening in the present, the realm of the imagination is not irrational. It follows rules that closely resemble rational thought. The propositions "if only..." or "even if..." discover:
"joints" in reality, junctures that attract everyone's attention. There are point at which reality is "slippable."
These openings permit a person to mentally change reality and explore what would happen or would have happened if something had altered an action one performed - verbs are often the lynchpin - if only I had (or had not) done...something - stopped for a drink, left earlier, not left the window open. These departures allow one to mentally explore cause and effect. An awareness of what Byrne calls "fault lines in reality" permit one to mentally rehearse alternatives. Potentially this provides a way to learn - it's like replaying part of a chess game and saying, what would have happened if I had not taken her knight - then what might have followed? However, pining away for lost love, nostalgia, and other regrets are the same mechanism gone slightly south - they generally do not provide an opportunity to learn and revise, and as such have no use. Actually I suppose sometimes they offer comfort, but they can also be very destructive.
Byrne describes this possible role for counterfactual thought as an ordinary and effortless one, which got me thinking about actors - who are constantly responding to the proposal "what if..." except they exert effort in doing so. It is practically the same action except often the actor doesn't personally need to do so. Then their excursion into the propositional realm becomes tinged with ambition - which is often what makes it difficult (to do and to watch). The "technique" of acting is often some ritual, trick, means of either getting that ambition out of the way or, at best, discovering the personal need that turns effortful action into natural effortless departure from the facts.
I am only a few chapters in so far, but I already see myself taking issue with one element of Byrne's thorough and cogent book - must it be a complete departure? Is it all or nothing? I too think we make these alternatives but I think we do it while interacting with the facts of reality, using those facts - each realm influencing the other. I think in a certain way we deal with the "counterfactual" very frequently but don't necessarily leave the factual behind to do so. We see a square drawn on a piece of paper and we relate to it as an "object." It exists in only two dimensions but we propose to ourselves that it stands for something more and accept it as such. We interact with a friend by protecting them from the truth. This is based on how we think that friend will react when hearing this truth - our expectation is a counterfactual reality. It hasn't even happened yet. I think there are ways in which the factual and the counterfactual can co-exist.
In any event, it's a fascinating analysis and I'm enjoying it.