Why Think About the Future?
Modern neuroscience has taught us that we think about the future because our brains are literally built, by natural selection, to do so. Parts of our mind choose whether and how much to think about the future, and other parts are driven to do so, whether we consciously want to be future-thinkers or not.
Roughly eighty percent of our genes are expressed in some manner, at some time, in our brains and nervous system, our most genetically and structurally complex living system, and the core of our biological intelligence. Our brains are mentally wired to predict what will happen next in any environment, in both our conscious and our pervasive subconscious thinking activities. Graboi and Lisman (2003) offer evidence that our higher brain regions are constantly doing top-down predicting of what is being fed to them bottom-up, by lower brain regions in the neural hierarchy, and our senses. The difference between these two models is constantly generating a prediction error, and we use this error feedback to try to minimize that error over time, making our models better reflections of reality. Computational neuroscientists like Rajesh Rao are beginning to model this potentially universal biological learning process in artificial neural networks, creating much more biologically-inspired learning machines.
Once any top-down models begin to correctly predict the bottom-up information flow, that prediction is then communicated globally throughout our brain, via our thalamus (a central relay station for the brain), by action potentials (electrochemical neural messages) traveling between separate neural networks, back to areas like the visual system, and to relays like the lateral geniculate nucleus. What we predict, in turn, influences what we see, think, and feel.
This continual communication and dialog between our competing and cooperating neural networks even seems to include a poorly-understood process of theta and gamma synchronization between otherwise separate brain regions (the “theta-gamma code“). What we call awareness, recognition, or consciousness seems to be either based on, or at least closely associated with, a global communication of successful predictions across the different regions of our brain. For an excellent review of what modern neuroscience knows about how the brain gives rise to cognitive functions, see Lisman (2015) PDF here). Perhaps there is no better example of why foresight is important than the recognition that it is a leading theory for what consciousness itself is, as one of the highest level processes in our brains.
Jeff Hawkins in On Intelligence (2005), describes EEG experiments that show that even our unconscious minds are constantly anticipating, or making predictions, about the world. We are instantly surprised at the unconscious level if the world behaves in a way contrary to those predictions (e.g. if a dog in a movie quacks, when previous life experience tells us that dogs always bark). Amazingly, these mental predictions happen in our brain a full half-second before we are consciously aware of anything being wrong. This is one of a series of experiments that tell us human consciousness arises from, and is in many ways subservient to all of our predictive unconscious brain activities. See Mlodinow’s Subliminal (2013) for more on our unconscious mind.
We also all choose, or are driven, to predict, imagine, and envision our futures at even higher (more rational and emotional) cognitive levels than our consciousness, which is merely awareness of the world. We see this in the well-known “executive function” areas of our brain. Suddendorf and Corballis, in The Evolution of Foresight (PDF), Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2007, outline these executive systems in our frontal (“foresight”) lobe, the area in blue in the picture above. We use these executive systems to model the world around us, and they give humans a unique advantage in doing foresight over all other animals. Based on fMRI studies of the thinking brain, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has even proposed that a specific area of our frontal lobe, Area 10 in our dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area roughly twice as large in humans as in chimpanzees, as the primary place where we do our most detailed simulations of our long-range future. The neuroscience of foresight, at all levels of the brain, has been advancing rapidly since new experimental tools and methods emerged in the late 1990s and 2000’s. This exciting story gets clearer every year.
This science has also shown us that we often use the same neural machinery to remember the past as we do to imagine the future. That insight tells us what we learn and remember, our accumulated experience and world view, have a profound influence on what we can foresee. Neuroscientist Daniel Schacter summarizes these findings in his concept of the prospective brain. We are naturally wired to imagine and predict the future, and that ability that grows with and is dependent on the nature of our memory and life experience.
It shouldn’t be surprising then to learn that we have a variety of natural weaknesses in our predictive brains. In a 2017 article, futurist Jane McGonigal summarizes fMRI studies that suggest that when most people imagine their far-future selves, they think of them as strangers, and we stop using our prefrontal cortex. One way around this limitation is to invest emotion in our image of our future self, and to imagine our future self in great detail, as if it already exists in the world. That kind of visualization can motivate us to painful but necessary change.
Regular recollection of a highly detailed image of the future will pull us toward it, motivating us to try to make it real, the more clearly, frequently, and positively we envision the image. Just make sure you’ve got a well-critiqued, evidence-based future vision, or you may end up somewhere you don’t want to go. Greater understanding of our neural foresight systems by neuroscientists and psychologists in coming years, and digital aids that help us train and strengthen these systems, will help all of us achieve much better personal and collective foresight in coming years. We’ll focus on the most powerful and important of those digital aids, personal AIs (PAIs), in Chapter 8.
Seeing Evidence of Progress
Another great benefit of foresight is that it makes us pay closer attention to the past and present, to facts and trends. When we seek to understand where we are going, we realize we need a better understanding of where we have been, where we are today, and how things have been changing with time. Social foresight requires better hindsight and insight, and allows us to see the real trends of the world. The world, and human beings, are far better, most of the time, and are improving more generally and at much better rates, than most of us give them credit for.
As we’ll see in the Guide, we have an evolutionary bias to fear and seek out danger first and fast, and to only slowly and reluctantly look for opportunities and upsides. Almost all cultures also have a media bias to report violence, failure, and dystopia far more than their alternatives, as such selective reporting sells much better with the public, and it also serves the ends of those who own and govern our mass media industries. But the world, on average, is getting better, in most ways, and the more we use foresight, the more we seek out good evidence for our views, and are able to adjust for these biases and see and lead our teams to personal, organizational, and social progress. The better we understand the many forms of progress, and ways we block progress, and regress, the better we become at catalyzing positive change.
Books like psychologist Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), which document sharply declining global trends in violence over the last few thousand years, and statistician Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–And Why Things are Better than You Think (2018) will convince you that the world is getting much better, much faster, than most of us realize. The great problem most of us have today is learning to see the world as it is, and what it is becoming, and our central role and responsibilities in in this accelerating global transition period in which we are trapped, whether we like it or not.
Finally, perhaps the most fundamental way to understand foresight is that it is the production of a special kind of information, which is most simply understood as the opposite of entropy. As our universe is running down, generating more entropy, living systems are continually running up, generating more useful information, a certain kind of complexity. At the technical level, information is anything that allows us to reduce our uncertainty, and make better predictions, about systems whose futures we do not already know. So anyone who practices foresight, whether personal or beyond, is doing what life, in its most universal sense, is driven to do. That’s pretty exciting stuff! For an introductory academic discussion of information, and its role in structuring biological change, see Walker et al. (eds.) From Matter to Life (2017). For a technical article, scientists may enjoy Chris Adami’s What is information? (2017).
Foresight and the Heroic Journey
Finally, for those who need a personal motivation to strive for better foresight, consider that there’s also something heroic about trying to understand and guide the future, for yourself or any other system in the world. One of the founders of psychology, William James said “[humanity’s] common instinct for reality … has always held the world to be essentially a theater for heroism.”
We love to think of the human condition in heroic terms, and foresight is no exception. In Human Nature and the Heroic, a section in anthropologist and psychotherapist Ernst Becker’s Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, 1973/1997, he proposes our desire to be at least a little bit heroic, to ourselves first, and others secondarily, is the most fundamental drive of the human being. I’m not sure if that is true, but we all have an inner hero, our own quiet conscience, striving get more attention, and lead us to a better future self.
We all tell ourselves some version of what mythologist and author Joseph Campbell calls the great monomyth of all cutures, the Hero’s Journey. We find this myth in all our great literature and culture, as Campbell observes in his classic, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949/2008).
Consider the role foresight plays in this essential human myth. We need foresight in envisioning a worthy call to adventure, in the identification of helpers and mentors, in the resistance of temptations and distractions (fun now, but ultimately holding us back from our vision), and in the revelations of better paths that come to us, sometimes in the pit of despair. We use this foresight to grow into a more powerful figure, defeat our inner and outer demons, and finally, to gain wisdom, and share the fruits of our success with the world. See the lovely Wikipedia artist’s depiction of this journey, in the picture at right.
When we see ourselves in a heroic light, we are particularly motivated to live, to grow, to risk, to discover, and to create. This is one of the secrets that peak performance experts like Tony Robbins have discovered, and offer to us in motivating books like Awaken the Giant (1991/2013). We discover that growth, progress, and a sense of the heroic, as it relates to our own lives, are all among our deepest needs. When we deny the heroic journey in ourselves, Becker would both say that we deny our essential humanity. Robbins would put it more simply and powerfully: We are either growing, or we are dying. Growing is always the heroic path, no matter our limitations, and we can continue to grow right to the very end of our lives, as our most inspiring mentors, like Alvin Toffler and many others for me, are a living example.
Leading Ourselves to Better Futures
At the same time, we need to recognize that foresight is just one of a Temporal Triad of cognitive processes to which we must attend, to become better leaders of ourselves. Hindsight (past thinking and feeling) and insight (present thinking and feeling) are also critical to adaptation, and to becoming more at peace with ourselves and the world, even with all its current problems. As Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama have said, world peace can only emerge, when it does, from inner peace. When we have good hindsight, insight, and foresight, we can learn to be calm in the face of our present challenges, and channel our energies into productive action, rather than complain, because we clearly see many ways we can and will make better futures.
As we’ll see in Chapter 7 on exponential foresight, certain desirable accelerating trends and destinations for humanity and our technology are becoming highly predictable today. Not all of these are desirable to many of us, and there are lots of ways these accelerating processes will create pain, disruption, and regression for some, but they are coming nonetheless. More than ever, we need foresighted people who see those destinations, and who can help us move toward them in humanizing ways. The world always needs more people who take personal responsibility for “civilizing the (accelerating) machine”, in John Kesson’s clever phrase, because the machine, science and technology in all their forms, will play an increasingly central role in humanity’s future, whether we like it or not. So better foresight is a precondition for good management of ourselves, our families, our organizations, our societies, and our planet.
In 1999, as our last millennium was closing, the editor of the leading global weekly The Economist observed in a prescient article on foresight, “In every way that people, firms, or governments act and plan, they are making implicit forecasts about the future.” One foresight challenge of our new millennium will be to make our implicit, intuitive and often unconscious forecasting, imagining, and goalseeking far more explicit, collaborative, evidence-based, cognitively diverse, and conscious. We must find the best foresight methods for the best contexts, and estimate how much useful marginal foresight remains unclaimed, and how costly it might be to acquire for each context. We’ll outline a few of the ways that will happen in this Guide.