For this holiday weekend, we’ve decided to go all out and bring you thrice the inspiration and input as usual in a special three-part post. Given that our desire for new and exciting technology shows no signs of abating, we thought we’d take you on a journey into the psychology behind how we predict, simulate and imagine the future...
The first post sheds light on the psychological and social processes behind making predictions.
The second zooms in on the mistakes that creep into this process, and illustrates how these fallacies distort our vision of the future.
The last puts these insights to good use, bringing us a closer look at a vision of 2001 that was imagined back in 1900. What did the author get right, why did most of his recommendations miss the mark, and how can we use this analysis to assess current imaginations of the future in a hundred years’ time?
Buckle up, hold your breath, and let’s jump into the deep end!
An evolutionary advantage?
All that we can experience directly of the world we live in is the here and now. Any hopes we might have for Dr. Who-like time travel have yet to be fulfilled, and so we remain stuck within our current confines of time and space.
However, while we might not be able to pop into a phone box to check out 2116, we do spend much of our day using our brains to transcend these limits and think of events that are temporally (locally or otherwise) beyond our immediate reach (Liberman & Trope 2008).
This fascination with that which is not (yet) real, and our ability to predict how we might feel about different scenarios if they were to materialise, allows us to plan for, adapt to and even affect future events (Wilson & Gilbert 2005, Karniol & Ross, 1966). Which is why, although it may sound fanciful, imaginary time travel is in fact essential to our survival and progress both as individuals and as a species.
Our brain in future (and past) mode
Research has found that the neural networks that become activated when we simulate the future, also overlap largely with those involved in remembering our past.
When we imagine what is to come, the brain flexibly recombines and links information from the past and present to simulate what the future could be like. Instead of predicting the future by thinking back to a singular memory and replaying it, a multitude of details derived from various memories are recalled and then reassembled into one simulation (Schacter, Addis and Buckner, 2007; Schacter et al. 2012).
By combining these mental simulations with incoming stimuli in the present, we experience emotional reactions that can help us predict how we’ll feel if a particular scenario becomes real further down the line (Gilbert & Wilson, 2007).
The hive mind
While any imagination of the future obviously requires at least one mind to do the pre-experiencing, it is frequently an endeavour we share within a community (such as our family or a group of friends) over time. Typically this kind of shared imagining will follow and build upon tradition, to which each of our individual imaginations adds a new brick.
In this way, our shared sets of quasi-experiences (which have been imagined before and can thus serve as the basis for new imaginations), will slowly grow as individual thoughts and ideas contribute to it over time. This pool both informs and confines our individual imaginations of the future, since the structure and content of what we can imagine is limited by our pieces of private memory and the shared imaginations of our group (Zittoun & Gillespie, 2016).
It is for this main reason that our ability to imagine a truly original vision of the future is extremely rare.
As the pool of imaginations expands, and each additional contribution condenses, displaces and recombines that which has been (quasi-)experienced before, a tradition of imagination manifests that adheres to its own logic, history and possibilities. With each iteration, the tradition of imagination progresses over time and represents the thoughts, anxieties and hopes of the present era (Zittoun & Gillespie, 2016).
Maria Popova at Brainpickings writes eloquently about ‘The Science of Mental Time Travel and Why Our Ability to Imagine the Future Is Essential to Our Humanity‘.
A written interview with Donna Rose Addis (cited above) about her work on ‘Linking the Past to the Future Through Memory’.
Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2007). Prospection: Experiencing the future. Science, 317(5843), 1351-1354.
Liberman, N., & Trope, Y. (2008). The psychology of transcending the here and now. Science, 322(5905), 1201-1205.
Schacter, D. L., Addis, D. R., & Buckner, R. L. (2007). Remembering the past to imagine the future: the prospective brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 8(9), 657-661
Schacter, D. L., Addis, D. R., Hassabis, D., Martin, V. C., Spreng, R. N., & Szpunar, K. K. (2012). The future of memory: remembering, imagining, and the brain. Neuron, 76(4), 677-694.
Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting knowing what to want. Current Direc- tions in Psychological Science, 14(3), 131-134.
Zittoun, T. & Gillespie, A. (2016). Imagination in human and cultural development. London: Rout- ledge. (Chapter 7).
Karniol, R. & Ross, M. (1996). The motivational impact of temporal focus: Thinking about the Future and the Past. Annual Revue of Psychology (47), 593–620