Imagining the Future Is Just Another Form of Memory

“Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.” This is a line from John Green’s young-adult book Looking for Alaska. It’s pretty, and melancholy, and very popular on Tumblr. It’s also scientifically accurate.

Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia, because humans predict what the future will be like by using their memories. This is how things you do over and over again become routine. For example, you know generally what your day will be like at the office tomorrow based on what your day at the office was like today, and all the other days you’ve spent there. But memory also helps people predict what it will be like to do things they haven’t done before.

Say that you are imagining your future wedding (if you’ve never gotten married before). You probably see it as a scene—at a church, or on the beach, or under a wooded canopy in a forest with the bridal party all wearing elf ears. There are flowers, or twinkling lights, or mason jars everywhere. You can envision the guests, how they might look, what your soon-to-be spouse is wearing, what look they have on their face. All of these details come from your memory—of weddings you’ve been to before, as well as weddings you’ve seen depicted in pop culture, or in photo albums. The scene also relies on your memory of your friends and family.

“When somebody’s preparing for a date with someone they’ve never been on a date with before, or a job interview—these situations where we don’t have past experience, that’s where we think this ability to imagine the future really matters,” says Karl Szpunar, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. People “can take bits and pieces, like who’s going to be there, where it’s going to be, and try to put all that together into a novel simulation of events.”

The first clue that memory and imagining the future might go hand in hand came from amnesia patients. When they lost their pasts, it seemed, they lost their futures as well. This was the case with the famous patient known by his initials, “H.M.” H.M. had epilepsy, and to treat it, he received an experimental surgery in 1953 that removed several portions of his brain, including almost his entire hippocampus, which is a vital brain structure for memory. After the surgery, H.M. had severe amnesia, and also appeared to struggle with the future. A researcher once asked H.M., “What do you think you’ll do tomorrow?” He replied, “Whatever is beneficial.”

Since then, functional MRI scans have allowed researchers to determine that many of the same brain structures are indeed involved in both remembering and forecasting. In a study Szpunar did, he and his colleagues looked at activity in the brain’s default network, which includes the hippocampus as well as regions that involve processing personal information, spatial navigation, and sensory information. They found that activity in many of these regions was “almost completely overlapping” when people remembered and imagined future events, Szpunar says.

Researchers are still trying to pin down exactly how different brain regions are involved in these processes, but much of it has to do with the construction of scenes. You can remember facts, sure, and you can make purely informational predictions—“We will have jet packs by 2050”—but often, when you remember, you are reliving a scene from your memory. You have a mental map of the space; you can “hear” what’s being said and “smell” smells and “taste” flavors; you can feel your emotions from that moment anew. Similarly, when you imagine something you might experience in the future, you are essentially “pre-living” that scene. And just as memories are more detailed the more recent they are, imagined future scenes are more detailed the nearer in the future they are.

“It takes so much cognitive effort to come up with detailed simulations,” Szpunar says. “So it’s like, why would you spend all that time when it’s not going to happen for 30 or 40 years? Whereas if it’s something happening this weekend, and you’re like ‘How’s this date going to go?’—those things, people just anguish over them and really come up with these detailed simulations.”

Read more at The Atlantic.