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Imagining the Future Is Just Another Form of Memory

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/10/imagining-the-future-is-just-another-form-of-memory/542832/

theatlantic.com

Imagining the Future Is Just Another Form of Memory
Humans’ ability to predict the future is all thanks to our ability to remember the past.

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John Green, Looking for Alaska

“Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.”

John Green, Looking for Alaska

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We use our memories to imagine the future

We use our memories to imagine the future

We predict what the future will look like by using our memories. This is how actions we do repeatedly become routine. For example, you have an ideas of what your day will look like at work tomorrow based on what your day was like today, and all the other days you’ve spent working.

But memory also helps people predict what it will be like to do things they haven’t done before.

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Past and future for amnesia patients

An evidence that memory and imagining the future might go hand in hand comes from research related to amnesia patients. Studies show that when they lose their pasts, it seems they lose their futures as well.

Functional MRI scans made possible for researchers to discover that many of the same brain structures are involved in both remembering and forecasting.

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Construction of mental scenes

You can remember facts and you can make entirely informational forecasts, but most of the time, when you recall something, you are reliving a scene from your memory.

You have a mental map of the space (you are able to hear, smell and taste elements and you are also capable of feeling the emotions you felt in that moment). Similarly, when you imagine something you might experience in the future, you are actually “pre-living” that scene.

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Close and distant scenarios

Just as memories are more accurate the more recent they are, imagined future scenes are more accurate the nearer in the future they are.

When we attempt to imagine the more distant future, we are inclined to rely massively o a cultural life script (i.e, in the West, the script would go like this: go to school, move out of your parents’ house, get one or more college degrees, find a job, fall in love, get married, buy a house, have kids, retire, have grandchildren, die.)

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Planning for the future: an evolutionary advantage

If you can plan for the future, you’re more likely to survive it. But there’s are limitations as well.

Your accumulated experiences and your cultural life script are the only building blocks you have to construct a vision of the future. This can make it hard to expect the unexpected, and it means people often expect the future to be more like the past, or the present, than it will be.

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The optimistic bias toward the future

There’s an extreme positivity bias toward the future: we think that future events are more important to our identity than the past events.

But we have to temper our expectations and keep in mind that no matter the degree in which we can dream up detailed scenes of things yet to come, these imagined futures are just our projections of our pasts. There most likely will be more suprises and even more disappointments than we have the willingness to predict.

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Facing Change: Millennials Vs Boomers

Past experience, which many experts think helps them to better understand the world, surprisingly does not improve the ability to predict the future. The research data showed accuracy levels of the younger generation (25 to 35 years of age) being the highest.

Old people are slower to comprehend change, faster to believe and share fake news and less likely to be objective.

Humility

Working with an open mind, ready to dive into unfamiliar territory and learning new things, makes the entire exercise stress-free and rewarding experience. This state of mind, along with basic humility makes for better performance. One’s arrogance, ego and past can negatively affect the prediction quality.

A humble attitude also makes people listen to others opinions and share their own unique insights, helping collaboration and constructive teamwork.

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The perception of time

Although some physicists would argue against the existence of time, we all do have a perception of time that reflects the reality of our lives on Earth.

False pasts

Most of us forget more than we remember. We change memories to make sense of what has happened in our lives. When we then recall a memory, we reconstruct the events in our minds and even shape them to fit in with any new information.

Understand the future

Many of us think of our past as a kind of a video library where we can look at records of our lives. If memories were fixed like videotapes, you would find it difficult to imagine a new situation.

It is our past memories that help us imagine a future, and to preview future events. This skill of using the past to predict the future helps us try out different hypothetical scenarios before we commit.

Mistakes in predicting our future feelings

Mistakes in predicting our future feelings

We are not very good at guessing how we'll feel in the future. In predicting how we will feel in the future, we commonly use the past experience as a guide.

But our br...

Overestimating our future emotions

We overestimate the strength of our emotions in the future.

Studies show that people overestimated their happiness at winning and their disappointment at losing because they forgot all the other things that would happen in a day that would influence their mood.

Feelings are not long-lasting

A lottery winner, for instance, won't spend every day celebrating their win. Nor will someone with a disabling accident spend all their time in shock.

When imagining either situation, we like to think that the feelings will be long-lasting. We forget that we will adapt and that the feeling will eventually wear off.