The night sky is shown, with stars

Thinking About the Future

A global pandemic doomed a lot of social and commercial predictions for 2020, but the epidemiologists have reminded us of the potential that still exists for accurate forecasting. The progress of the disease has matched scientific models better than politicians’ hopes.

Still, predictions in any large social concern is about groups rather than individuals, meaning that they aren’t much use in telling us where pitfalls and potholes will appear for us personally. It’s the ecological fallacy at work: Generalizations about groups do a poor job of predicting individual traits.

So should we divine the future by focusing on people one at a time? There’s a trap for such attempts called the actor-observer bias. We tend to fall into making the fundamental attribution error. Instead of evolving as recording instruments with logically flawless responses, we evolved to survive and reproduce, with traits that achieved that purpose long ago, even if they would reveal limitations in the 21st century. At least this is what a number of people suppose, and today we call the traits biases.

On the other hand, we can’t abandon our efforts to figure out what’s about to happen. An unknown future makes us uncertain, and uncertainty creates anxiety—particularly, to take one example, now.

Restlessly, the mind wanders in search of the future, updating memory and entertaining scenarios of future events. Busy and distracted though we often are, we commute, our minds wander, and we discover that memory is about the future. We store our experiences so that they will explain not only the present but what is to come.

Sometimes uncertain futures demand quick changes. For a sea anemone, this is impossible. For humans, the brain retains countless scenarios, partly generated by mind-wandering, which can be called into action if needed, thanks to our often-changeable synaptic connections.

Bringing to mind the imagined future as spontaneous future cognitions is not necessarily mind-wandering. The full range of fears, fantasies and mental images is attracting increasing interest in psychology.

A pocket watch is shown.

BIO: The future often begins with uncertainty. It can certainly generate anxiety, and inside the brain, a part of the basal ganglia grows in volume (research here). In times of uncertainty, the striatum guides our choice of how to act.

Both the striatum and the hippocampus rely on memory (research here) to predict what will happen around us. The striatum can guide our attention to objects through memories of stimulus-response associations, while the hippocampus uses contextual cues to direct attention.

When we search for what we expect to see and lock on to something of interest, the brain becomes more aroused and uses several attention circuits to process sensory information further and exclude irrelevant stimuli from consideration. We use the dorsal and ventral attention networks, a frontoparietal network, and a salience network. (This is neither complete nor a consensus view. There is object attention and spatial attention; covert and overt attention; top-down and bottom-up attention, for a start. See here, there, and yonder for other views.)

Yet we are not always on the lookout for what’s happening. The job of preparing for the future is sometimes a task we pay attention to, but more often we mind-wander through countless possibilities before they unfold, using the default mode network In the brain. It came up for brief discussion in the post about “Boredom”.

The default mode network is active when we are not paying active attention to anything—when we’re daydreaming, for example. While alert attention remains fixed until it shifts to another target, while daydreaming wanders around, as this and that site describe. To some extent, brain systems for mind-wandering and alert attention are mutually exclusive, as you might expect. Sometimes we can see behavioral evidence of a switch in attention when someone yawns or blinks. Film editors time their cuts to the audience’s blinking, when it’s time for them to switch attention. It may give the brain a momentary break, perhaps by way of activating the default mode network. Makes it harder to view the Mona Lisa, though.

PSYCHO: We’re always living in the past a little bit and trying to catch up, just because of the delay between when something happens and when we experience the event. Sometimes that confuses us about how well we can foretell the future. (The article mistakes clairvoyance for precognition, but the distinction only matters to believers.) In any case, living in the past is not what we normally do.

Nostalgia, though interesting, is probably not as useful a task for memory as mind-wandering. Looking back isn’t as critical for survival as looking ahead. In fact, we’re fortunate to hold on to as much as we do. Our memories have many moving parts, and there are parts of our past that were made up, even if you were gifted with highly superior autobiographical memory.

I think the message for all of us is just to make the most of what we’ve got. We can’t trust nostalgia, but our minds are not wired to maximize happiness anyway, because after a point* happiness has poor consequences. As several writers have pointed out, including psychologist Roy Baumeister, a goal of meaningfulness may be preferable to happiness. Happiness may not be particularly good for you, though it feels wonderful.

However, anticipating the future is essential. In the short term we try to avoid mistakes, as a previous post pointed out. Whether you attribute it to brain or mind, we are predictive.

One way to prepare for the future is to update memory, which is what we mean by saying that memory is about the future. We update working memory and long-term memory to keep up with what’s happening. This can be formalized with Bayesian models.

There is a mechanism, called reconsolidation, for updating memories. We use our memories to make predictions about what is going to happen around us. When a memory makes a bad prediction, a prediction error is registered in the midbrain that destabilizes the memory that goofs, and that memory becomes a candidate for reconsolidation. This keeps our memories relevant to our experience.

Every memory has two–or many–lives. Reconsolidation puts a memory through the consolidation process every time the memory is retrieved. The idea has gained wide acceptance and it deserved mention in our textbook. Reconsolidation may make our memories more consistent with our current understanding of events each time they are retrieved.

And if reconsolidation reinforces bad memories and fails to bring peace of mind, it’s possible to help people by intervening. (The free registration is worth a moment’s trouble, IMO.) In fact, psychologists and psychiatrists already have a plan.

Thinking about the future as we daydream is not a mental doze. In fact, the default mode network can be active to a pathological extent, as in the rumination and counterfactual thinking that can accompany major depression.

The mental state that is recommended on many self-help websites, mindfulness, derived from Buddhist meditation techniques, is a condition of active attention rather than mind-wandering. It is recommended as a way to avoid excessive time in default mode, though the reverse is also a risk. Finding the right balance is the trick.

Meditation, a mindfulness technique, can improve attention while it reduces attention shifting. However, this is an imprecise statement, considering that mediatation comprises many practices and may be as varied in meanings as a term like “sports”.

*Up to that point, happiness is fine. Ask your doctor for the right electrode placement.

SOCIAL: Memories can outlast individuals and shape the future for generations. , but memories are not always organized on a timeline. The future is a social construct, to some degree. However much American executives yearn to be forward thinking, not every culture worries about wasting time. What goes around will come around.

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