New Voices: Imagining our future...and changing it

Scott Cole with the latest in our series for budding writers (see for more information)

The terms ‘prediction’ and ‘mental projection’ might conjure up images of an elderly bejewelled fortune teller, able to foretell upcoming disasters and deep desires. I study future thinking of a different kind – things we imagine and that circle unremittingly around our minds. Typically, we direct our future thoughts toward the full spectrum of life’s concerns – work, leisure, relationships – and they can range from the mundane ‘I imagine going for a medical check-up’) to the life-changing (‘I imagine asking my girlfriend to marry me’). The act of mentally envisioning oneself in a hypothetical future scenario, or of episodic future thinking (envisioning a single event set in a specific time and place in the future), has become a hive of psychological activity and I would like to tell the story of how it has emerged as a central topic of interest.

My personal gateway into researching future thinking started in 2006 when, as a rehabilitation worker in northeast England, I worked with a patient with a curious and rare condition resulting from a stroke. He would frequently and convincingly tell staff (including myself) past events that never occurred and future plans that were improbable (see box). This study (Cole et al., in press) awakened me to a young and vibrant area of psychology that I have been involved in until today. My personal experience with one patient expanded into a PhD exploring the relation between future thinking and memory, how it is measured and how future thinking is affected by healthy ageing and brain damage.

‘Normal’ distortions
So you might think that as a rational human being you are able to make sharp predictions about your future. If your answer was in the affirmative I’m afraid you would be wrong. According to American psychologist Daniel Gilbert, ‘The future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope’ – the prospectiscope being the skewed ways we perceive our future (see Gilbert, 2005, for a range of illuminating prospection distortions). As humans, we continuously trip ourselves up with erroneous predictions, at least in the sense that your present self has real problems predicting how your future self will feel.

Imagine yourself winning the jackpot in the national lottery. You might predict that you will acquire a superior level of fulfilment, well-being and satisfaction. But  based on satisfaction levels after an extended period of time, those who win the lottery are no happier than those who become paraplegic (Brickman et al., 1978). What lies behind this curious error? According to Gilbert, the predictions we make are based on exemplified, distinctive, shorter and decontextualised simulations of our future. In the above example, most people would imagine the time when they receive the money, the celebratory mood and feelings of financial freedom. However, this is unrepresentative of what post- lottery life is like. The sobering truth is that after a month or two regular routines would outweigh your brief elation and satisfaction would return back to pre-lottery levels. Inversely, people typically overestimate how unhappy they will be after becoming seriously ill or physically disabled. There is probably a sound psychological reason for this – it is faster and less demanding to base predictions on the most readily available information (see Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). It is unfortunate that most of us don’t have life managers to develop objective, unemotional plans on which we can rely.

Recent work on mental time travel has found that when asked to rate the emotion of past and future events, healthy participants judge future events as more emotionally positive than past event (e.g. Berntsen & Bohn, 2010). Sharot et al., (2011) explored the future positivity bias further. In one study the positivity bias was traced back to a failure to update negative beliefs. Participants failed to learn from accurate yet undesirable statistics such as ‘you have a 30 per cent chance of getting cancer’ when going on to judge the likelihood of future negative events in parts of the task. Interestingly, though, people successfully updated their beliefs when the statistics were positive (i.e when information stated that they were less likely to experience negative events).

These errors appear paradoxical as people apparently make unrealistically positive estimations in the face of and in contradiction of their knowledge and experience. One tempting explanation proposed by Berntsen & Bohn (2010) is that the positive future bias maintains a sense of motivation, driving us toward novel experiences. Without which we would presumably be at a metaphorical and actual standstill (which may be the case for some amnesic patients unable to imagine the future, see Schacter et al., 2012).

Mechanisms of future thought
So, what do we know about the cognitive, affective and neural attributes of episodic future thought. Quite a bit, it turns out. Since 2007 (a game-changing year in this field) it has been clear that our personal database of memories is used to create novel images of the future. Illustrating the link between memory and future thoughts, the clarity of future events improves when set in familiar locations (Arnold et al., 2011). In fact, an entire neural and cognitive roadmap has been carefully plotted that allows humans past and future mental time travel (see ‘Breakthrough of the year’, 2007). This system emerged from accumulated findings of past–future similarities: To summarise, mentally travelling backwards and forwards to specific events develops at around the same age, recruits a unique distributed system in the brain (which includes the medial temporal lobes, prefrontal areas and posterior cingulate), and is similarly affected by neurological and psychological dysfunction (see Schacter et al., 2012 for a review). My PhD data chimed with this idea, finding that one’s capacity for producing episodic detail is correlated between past and future events (Cole et al., 2012) and that healthy ageing reduces the sensory-perceptual detail associated with future episodic thought (Cole et al., 2013). So much has been learnt about the episodic system, but – as Alan Baddeley said of autobiographical memory – ‘What the hell is it for?’

Guided by imagination
Many important thinkers in the field have suggested that an important function of the episodic system is to help us consider, plan and, indeed, shape the future. Taking an evolutionary view, Suddendorf & Corballis (2007) wrote that ‘the crucial selective advantage mental time travel provides is flexibility in novel situations and the versatility to develop and adopt strategic long-term plans to suit individual selected goals’ (p.302). Indeed, early psychologists such as William James suggested that memory is inherently future-directed as it helps us learn from the past and plan out the future. So, is there evidence that episodic future thinking can foster complex planning in humans? Can simply imagining future events turn our goals into reality?

These are not simply theoretical questions but ones that could lead to changes in the way we plan our goals, whether to find a romantic partner or master tenpin bowling. In everyday goals, students may benefit from envisioning the future to obtain their desired grade. Pham and Taylor (1999) compared the examination performance of students who imagined achieving their desired grade, imagined the steps involved in achieving their desired grade or monitored their behaviour without using imagination. Intriguingly it was found that those who imagined the steps (e.g. going to the library, working an hour after supper) spent longer studying and were more likely to keep on course for their perfect grade. Imagining a positive outcome, however, resulted in no academic benefits.

According to Pham and Taylor, the benefits of imagining the steps were due to reduced exam-based anxiety and increased logical planning. This is consistent with Gabrielle Oettingen (2012), who argues (and provides evidence) that in contrast to what self-help books often propose, fantasies and positive thinking around the future can actually reduce the effort one needs to invest to achieve goals. Oettingen proposed that a successful action plan involves mentally contrasting a fantasy with its potential obstacles. So, although rose-tinted spectacles may be good to keep us looking toward our perfect future self, it is cold hard plans that can transform imagined goals into reality.

Travelling to the future
As I have indicated so far, the science of future thinking is varied and thriving.  We now understand much more about the neural and cognitive machinery that allows humans to simulate the future. We know too that certain attributes of future thinking can have both negative (uncharacteristic projections and unrealistic optimism) and positive (motivation and optimism) influences. When using imagination to attain goals, consider this analogy. Standing and gazing optimistically a mountain peak is the first stage in any hiking challenge. However, you can’t stand  gleefully smiling for long before your hiking buddies walk off without you (or worse still, call the local psychiatrist). Fantasising is one thing but practical steps are the necessary other and are a key process to take you forward to your destination.

Continuing along the theme of travelling, I have recently moved from Leeds to become a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre on Autobiographical Memory Research (CON AMORE) in Denmark. Although some may be daunted by such a change, for me this was outweighed by the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a vibrant lab that is exploring new ground in autobiographical memory and future thought amongst other topics.

I aim to develop research on the functional aspects of future thinking. In asking specific research questions and experimenting, amongst other things, I hope to understand the role of imagination in shaping the future.

Box Text :Distorting the future
[I ask stroke patient MW for a plausible future event associated with the word MOUNTAIN]

MW: I will buy Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Fuji

[I prompt MW for a specific event]

MW: Rent them out, if Sir Anthony Hopkins can own Snowdon, and Sean Connery can own Ben Nevis, I can own Kilimanjaro!


Scott Cole is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre on Autobiographical Memory Research, Denmark
[email protected]


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