Investigating the Brain When Thinking About the Future and How To Take Advantage of It
For the past 12 weeks, I have been part of a High Impact Practitioner coaching program. And for the past 12 weeks, I have been imagining my future at every session. Imagining what my days would look like, what my future life would look like, and my future self. The point of the program was to come up with a framework to tap into this imagined future as motivation, but more specifically, to instil a process, a framework, and actions for the now.
When we imagine the future, we use a different part of the brain than when working towards our goals and future self. So, I was curious to understand what was actually going on and if there was anything more I could do to take advantage of these processes to help me move closer to my future.
Joseph W. Kable, a UPenn Neuroscientist, explains that the region in the brain, where we imagine, splits neatly into two regions for two purposes(1).
The first process is imagining WHAT you want, what it looks like, and the details. This is the constructive or building phase. For example, I’m letting my mind wander around the idea of being a writer full-time for the rest of my life. I imagine my own office and a comfy chair. I see the view out of my window, looking at a large elm tree.
We use our imaginations to construct vague and sometimes detailed images, which researchers call CONSTRUCTIVE function. It’s when your imagination constructs images and scenarios in your mind. Scientists refer to this process as “vividness”.
Now, hold those images (detailed or not) in your mind. As they swirl around, the next process is EVALUATING those visuals. For example, I imagine sitting in my future chair looking out at the beautiful green leaves on the tree and feel calm. I think about being my own boss and how I could make my own schedule, which makes me feel excited but makes me feel a bit apprehensive as well. My office will be all mine and a place where I can create, which makes me feel happy as I think about how wonderful this would be.
In this process, the evaluative process, my mind is using emotional input to categorise whether an image or a situation is positive or negative. Scientists refer to this process as “valence”.
What’s happening in the brain when we construct and evaluate?
When you’re imagining your future, a specific set of regions in the brain, called the default mode network (DMN), is active. The DMN is active when we’re NOT focusing on a task in the outside world. Tasks in the outside world require conscious thinking. The DMN is active only when we direct our thinking inward, to our memories, internal thoughts, and mental imagery and away from thinking outward.
The default mode network is also the region associated with mind wandering, imagination, and self-reflection (Bruckner, 2008). This network of regions is extremely important in how you interpret your internal life, which impacts how you act or make decisions in your outward life.
When we imagine the future, our default mode network splits into two complementary parts(2). During the imagination constructive process, one subcomponent is active to build vividness. Then, during the evaluation process, another subcomponent builds valence. This would seem to make sense, two different subcomponents are responsible for two processes.
Using the example of my want to be a writer full-time, I imagined and constructed how life would be in the future. I build visual vividness and construct scenarios for my future. This first part of the process is what coaches and self-help books want you to sit with because it’s fun, it’s wacky, and it’s creative to allow your mind to just run free, IMAGINE and NOT FOCUS. And this is what I tapped into when I took part in the high-impact practitioner coaching program.
The second part of the process, evaluating, is attaching the emotional valence to those visuals, which takes place under our conscious radar. But this is the bit that’s important.
“When psychologists talk about why humans have the ability to imagine the future, usually it’s so we can decide what to do, plan, make decisions. But a critical function is the evaluative function; it’s not just about coming up with a possibility but also evaluating it as good or bad.” — Joseph W. Kable
Kable points out that our imagined future isn’t just about what to do next, or how to plan and to make choices. A crucial point of imagining is the evaluation piece of whether our ideas are good or bad.
Although it may seem that in one second we’ve imagined a great life in the future, what actually happened was the different subcomponents of the DMN worked together to create vividness and valence bringing forward into our conscious mind, a complete image with emotional context.
The key takeaway here is that whenever we take part in intentional programs, like the coaching program I attended, to help us either be creative, be more efficient, or set and achieve goals, it’s really important to realise that these intentional activities are using our cognitive thinking for our outside world, which takes place in a different part of our brain.
The default mode network doesn’t use thinking circuits. It is only active when we’re NOT FOCUSING. And during that not focusing time, these two processes of construction and evaluation are taking place, automatically. Providing us with a complete picture or future scenario, whether we like it or not.
So, shouldn’t we spend more time NOT FOCUSING and letting our mind imagine, self-reflect, wander and allow the DMN to do its thing? Yes.
If I am going to use my imagined future as my guide for current actions and behaviour, then isn’t it important for us to make sure our brain spends the time sloshing around the vividness and valence of our imagined life? I believe so.
Perhaps setting up some time to let your mind wander, imagine and self-reflect on your inner world could help in guiding your behaviour toward your imagined future in the outside world. This differs from meditation, which is about focusing and bringing your mind back to one place. Not focusing is when the default mode network engages and I believe can do some good work for you behind the scenes and potentially affect your outside world and behaviour.
The only way to take advantage of your brain when you’re imagining your future is to not focus and let your brain do its job.
What do you think?
(1) What Happens in the Brain when we imagine the future? http://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/Penn-neuroscience-research-what-happens-in-brain-future-imagining
(2) Sangil Lee, Trishala Parthasarathi and Joseph W. Kable, The Ventral and Dorsal Default Mode Networks Are Dissociably Modulated by the Vividness and Valence of Imagined Events, Journal of Neuroscience, 17 May 2021, JN-RM-1273–20; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1273-20.2021