No, I'm not talking about people who say they can predict the future, such as fortune-tellers. On the contrary, this post is about a process that our brain is using extensively and routinely. When you think about your next meal at a favorite restaurant, your brain 'creates' images for you. Now, researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis have found that we're using the same areas of our brain to remember the past and envision the future. Even if this doesn't lead to practical applications, it indicates that people who clearly remember stories from their past are better equipped to imagine their future than people suffering from amnesia for example.
"In our daily lives, we probably spend more time envisioning what we're going to do tomorrow or later on in the day than we do remembering, but not much is known about how we go about forming these mental images of the future," says Karl Szpunar, a psychology doctoral student in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.
Szpunar worked with Jason Watson and Kathleen McDermott on this project, which was done at Washington University's Memory & Cognition Laboratory. McDermott explains why their findings are important.
First, the study clearly demonstrates that the neural network underlying future thought is not isolated in the brain's frontal cortex, as some have speculated. Although the frontal lobes play a well-documented role in carrying out future-oriented executive operations, such as anticipation, planning and monitoring, the spark for these activities may well be the very process of envisioning oneself in a specific future event, an activity based within and reliant upon the same neurally distributed network used to retrieve autobiographical memories.
Second, within this neural network, patterns of activity suggest that the visual and spatial context for our imagined future often is pieced together using our past experiences, including memories of specific body movements and visual perspective changes – data stored as we navigated through similar settings in the past.
Of course, these findings will need to be confirmed by other experiments. But how this one was conducted?
In this study, researchers relied on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to capture patterns of brain activation as college students were given 10 seconds to develop a vivid mental image of themselves or a famous celebrity participating in a range of common life experiences.
In fact, the researchers asked the students to remember an event from their past, to imagine something happening to them in a near future, and to think about... Bill Clinton. Because he's well-known, but very few students knew him personally, the thoughts about the former U.S. president were used to establish a baseline level of brain activity. So the researchers were better able to compare the other kinds of thoughts the students have about their personal past and future.
Comparing images of brain activity in response to the "self-remember" and "self-future" event cues, researchers found a surprisingly complete overlap among regions of the brain used for remembering the past and those used for envisioning the future – every region involved in recollecting the past was also used in envisioning the future.
The researchers have presented their results at the 4th meeting of the International Conference on Memory, Sydney, Australia, July 2006, in a paper called "Brain regions involved in autobiographical memory and projecting oneself into the future." This research work should also been published very shortly by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the mean time, you can read two short articles from Scientific American, "Back to the Future: How the Brain 'Sees' the Future," and from BBC News, "Scan shows how brains plot future." And for a broader view, don't miss the article on memory at Wikipedia.
Now I have a question for you. Do you remember what you did for New Year's Eve? If yes, I wish you a Happy New Year! If not, I'm sorry, but you might have a bad year in front of you.
Sources: Washington University in St. Louis, January, 2007; and various websites
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