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697: Future Vision

In general, humans tend to be terrible at thinking about the future. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but it certainly has an impact. Why is this? As Jane McGonigal writes in Slate, quote:

Our future selves are strangers to us. This isn’t some poetic metaphor; it’s a neurological fact. FMRI studies suggest that when you imagine your future self, your brain does something weird: It stops acting as if you’re thinking about yourself. Instead, it starts acting as if you’re thinking about a completely different person. Here’s how it works: Typically, when you think about yourself, a region of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, powers up. When you think about other people, it powers down. And if you feel like you don’t have anything in common with the people you’re thinking about? The MPFC activates even less.

Which, to me at least, makes the fact that we tend to make decisions that sometimes don’t really benefit our future selves on a fairly regular basis. Saving for retirement, in our MPFC, feels like handing money to a stranger, after all.

In a 2017 study by the Institute for the Future, researchers found that, quote:

more than a quarter (27%) of Americans rarely or never think about their lives five years ahead; more than a third (36%) never think about something that could happen 10 years into the future; and more than half (53%) of Americans rarely or never think about their lives 30 years out.

When we think primarily of the short-term, we tend to make decisions that benefit us only in the short term. A very recent article in the journal Human Communications Research found that when smokers are asked to think about their current lives before viewing anti-smoking messages, they were much less likely to quit than if they were asked to think about the future before seeing the messages.

And this thinking about the future less and less is happening on more than just a personal scale. Futurist Ari Wallach writes for the TED blog, quote:

I’ve been a futurist for 20 years, working with businesses and nonprofits to try to anticipate and meet impending challenges. When I first started out, I’d sit down with people and say, “Hey, let’s talk 10, 20 years out,” and they’d reply, “Great.” But gradually I’ve seen that time horizon get shorter and shorter, so much so that I recently met with a CEO and he said, “I want to talk about the next six months.” I call this kind of thinking “short-termism,” and it has pervaded every nook and cranny of our society, from our homes to our businesses to our government policies. In our short-term society, we often feel like we don’t have control over the future, that it’s this thing we’re just waiting to wash over us. But that isn’t true. We do have control, but it requires strategic thinking and action on our part, imagining many possible futures, and thinking beyond our own lifespans. We should all try to push past our own lives — it may make us do things that are a little bigger than we thought were possible.

So in other words — it is possible to avoid or counteract the problems our brain puts in front of us when it comes to thinking about our future selves. But it does require taking the time to actually sit down and try and envision the future — not just wait for it to happen. So what do you see as a possibility in YOUR future?