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The Human Brain is the Best Time Travel Machine!

I never stop being fascinated by the human brain and how it thinks about time. I am particularly fond of understanding the place of the future in our thoughts and in our brain circuits!

30 years ago, brain scientists made a surprising discovery. Randy Bruckner, graduate student at Washington University in Saint Louis, found out that the brain scans of the control group which were supposed to be at rest, were actually more active than the studied group. 

That opened a whole lot of studies and literature on the human brain in resting state, led by Nancy Andreasen, brain scientist at the University of Iowa. A first conclusion is that the human brain at rest is indeed showing activity as it “effortless shifts back and forth in time”. In other words, when resting, our brains travel in time! She made another counterintuitive finding: as we daydream, we use the regions of the brain that are most pronounced in Homo sapiens compared with other primates. These areas are also often the last to become fully operational as the human brain develops through adolescence and early adulthood. 

It has actually become common knowledge that what distinguishes our species from others is our ability to “think the future”, and this very well reflects in our brain structure. The capacity for prospection has actually been amplified by many of the social and scientific revolutions that shaped human history, from agriculture (predicting seasonal changes), to the banking system (sacrificing present-tense value to the prospect of greater future gains), to health (accepting to be injected with a pathogen in a vaccine in exchange for a lifetime of protection against disease), etc. 

As Martin Seligman, psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania explains: “A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise.”

In his book The Future of the Mind, Theoretical Physics Professor Michio Kaku replaces homo sapiens in the realm of conscious beings. “Human consciousness is a specific form of consciousness that creates a model of the world and then simulates it in time, by evaluating the past to simulate the future.”

  • Plants are at level 0, with no brain structure, using feedback loops limited to temperature and sunshine parameters.
  • Reptiles are at level 1, with brain stem, showing a model of the world adding the space parameter.
  • Mammals are at level 2, with a limbic system and a model of the world including social relations (in addition to exterior conditions and space parameters).
  • Humans are at level 3, with an additional prefrontal cortex and a more complex representation of the world including time (and especially the future) on top of other parameters.

As summarized by Michio Kaku, “Simulating the future, the heart of level 3 consciousness, is mediated by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the CEO of the brain, with competition between the pleasure center and the orbitofrontal cortex (which acts to check our impulses).”

But if our brains love to make us travel over time, there seems to be a threshold. Over a time-window (around 5 years average) our future self become estranged to us and we have difficulty empathizing with the stranger we will become. As Futures Thinker Jane McGonigal tells us “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.” Usually when you think about yourself, the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), powers up, whereas it powers down when you think about other people. But when we try to conceive our future self – and the further in time we push – our MPFC shows less activation as if we were thinking about a stranger. No wonder then if this is so difficult for us as individuals and as a society to prepare for our future, when we naturally give preference to the present self we are familiar with over our future self for whom we don’t care much.

The Institute for the Future conducted a survey to dig into this phenomenon and found out that more than half of Americans rarely or never think about the far future (30 years from now), whereas a closer future (5 years) is a bit more common. The survey also suggests that the older you get, the less you think about the far future, probably as you don’t expect to survive that long, but also because brain regions associated with mental simulation of the future degenerate. Having children or grandchildren doesn’t induce future thinking. However, one life event does: “a brush with mortality, such as a potentially terminal medical diagnosis, a near-death experience, or other traumatic event (…) as brushes with mortality are often associated, in the psychological literature, with a renewed effort to lead a meaningful life and leave a positive legacy behind.”

This discovery was a complete eye-opener to me… Perhaps one day I will tell you all about how a major traumatic event and near-death experience changed my life this summer. And you will connect the dots – knowing I am now 100% dedicated of establishing my Futures Thinking practice!


Published by Sylvia

Futurist - Futures Thinking & Strategic Foresight

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