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. Our nervous systems are the most genetically and structurally complex systems on Earth, and they are at the core of our biological intelligence. Roughly eighty percent of our genes are expressed in some manner, at some time, in our brains and nervous system.
Dual process theory in psychology and neuroscience tells us that our brains look to and make decisions about the future in two very important ways. The first way we look ahead and make decisions is very fast, more emotional than reasoned, and largely unconscious. The second way is slow, more reasoning-based than emotional, and more conscious. Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman popularized these two decisionmaking systems in his bestselling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2012). Because we use emotion and reasoning in both of these systems, and because science still doesn’t have a great model of consciousness, he calls them System 1 and System 2. In practice, the speed difference between the two systems is their most obvious way to tell them apart. Let’s look briefly at each system now.
Foresight System 1 – Our Rapid, Largely Unconscious Thinking and Emotions about the Future
Our most fundamental drive to look ahead can be found even in the most primitive animal neural networks. It was the first to emerge, evolutionarily speaking. All animals with nervous systems do this kind of future thinking, and it happens very rapidly and largely unconsciously, with more emotion than reason.
All animals have at least the basic emotions of pain and pleasure, working in opposition. In higher animals, emotions are tied to our sense of future pain or reward, and often emotions are unconsciously triggered, below our level of awareness. The more complex our brains get, the more thinking-dependent and context-dependent our emotional pleasure and pain combinations become. Our sense of morality, for example, clearly arises in this largely unconscious system. Monkeys, for example, display a largely unconscious sense of moral fairness. If they see a nearby monkey get a better reward for the same task (say, a grape instead of a cucumber), they will typically get angry, and stop playing the task game. The previously learned and now unconscious prediction of the proper future was violated, and their emotion guides them to an adaptive response.
Emotions are also critical for decisionmaking, which also depends on our models of the future. Humans who have lesions in their amygdala, a key relay station for emotional processing, can endlessly rationally deliberate for and against all kinds of actions, but they will never make a decision. They get stuck in “analysis paralysis” (has this ever happened to you?) because they either don’t have access to or aren’t willing to rely on their gut instinct, which allows them to make emotion-guided decisions when rationality fails to provide a clear answer, as it so often must in a complex world. See Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error (2005) for more on how various forms of emotional prediction are fundamental to thinking.
Our past experience and unconscious thinking and emotion form our intuition, a good term for System 1. Books like Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal (2013) and Jeff Hawkins in On Intelligence (2005), tell us that the various parts of our unconscious mind are continually competing and cooperating to try to better anticipate, or make predictions about, the world. EEG experiments have shown that we are instantly surprised, at the unconscious level, if the world behaves in a way contrary to our unconscious predictions (e.g. if we watch a movie where a dog quacks, when life experience tells us dogs always bark). This surprise happens within local, unconscious neural networks a full half-second before we are consciously aware of anything being wrong. Such experiments tell us that human consciousness is actually a meta-process, something that happens after, and that is in many ways subservient to, all of our predictive unconscious brain activities, which form the vast majority of our thinking processes.
Foresight System 2 – Our Slower, Largely Conscious Awareness and Deliberation about the Future
In animals with more complex brains, a growing degree of environmental awareness and self-consciousness emerges. Conscious awareness, and the slower, deliberate thinking that we do in our conscious minds is a “top-down” thinking system. We call this System 2, and as far as we know it is present on our planet only in humans, at least in a complex form. Graboi and Lisman (2003) offer evidence that our higher brain regions are constantly doing their own top-down predicting on what is being fed to them bottom-up, by lower brain regions in the neural hierarchy, and our senses, which are predicting in a much more bottom-up and competitive fashion. The difference between these two models, one bottom-up and the other top-down, generates a prediction error, and we use error feedback to try to minimize prediction error over time, making our models better reflections of reality. Computational neuroscientists like Rajesh Rao are beginning to model this process in artificial neural networks, in the effort to create more biologically-inspired learning machines.
Thus even what we call awareness and consciousness and all our deliberate thinking processes appear to depend on a wide variety of simultaneously shared bottom-up predictions, each happening in parallel in different regions of our brain. When we argue with ourselves consciously over what to do next, we do this arguing using separate, competing and cooperating neural networks, in a manner presumably very similar to the way our unconscious brains compete and cooperate to predict what “should” happen next, as with the dog quacking instead of barking.
Our most complex System 2 networks are 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. Doing good foresight is thus central not only to our subconscious, intuitive, emotional mind, but to our higher thinking processes as well.
Neuroscience 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 is both sobering and enlightening to learn that we have a variety of natural weaknesses in our predictive brains. Kahneman discusses a number of our unconcious biases in Thinking Fast and Slow, and we’ll explore several of those in our Emotional-Cognitive Biases section in Chapter 2. 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. A way around this limitation is to invest emotion in our image of our future selves, and to imagine our future self in great detail, as if it already exists in the world. That kind of visioning and visualization can motivate us to painful but necessary change.
As the pioneering futurist Fred Polak describes in his classic, The Image of the Future (1973), 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 that image. Just make sure you’ve got a well-critiqued, evidence-based future vision, or you may end up going somewhere you don’t really want to go, like Communism, Fascism, Racism, or any other regressive -ism you can imagine.
The neuroscience of foresight, at all levels of the brain, has been advancing rapidly since new experimental tools and methods, like fMRI and optogenetics, emerged in the late 1990s and 2000’s. The story of how our amazing minds emerged, and how they work and fail, gets clearer every year, and it is helping us not only to improve human mental health, but to build far more intelligent (and perhaps soon, moral-ethical) forms of artificial intelligence, as we’ll discuss in Chapter 8. Greater understanding of the many forms of biological intelligence by biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and computer scientists in coming years, and the development of increasingly powerful IT platforms for education and collaboration, will allow us to achieve new levels of personal and collective foresight in coming years. We’ll take a good look at perhaps the most socially important of our coming digital systems, personal AIs (PAIs), in Chapter 8.
Foresight and Evidence of Progress
As we’ll see, foresight is one member of a Temporal Triad of cognitive processes that help us become better leaders of ourselves. Hindsight (past thinking and feeling) and insight (present thinking and feeling) are also critical to adaptation in our complex world. One great benefit of foresight is that it makes us pay closer attention to the past and present, and to evidence-based things like facts and trends.
Whenever we seek to understand where we are going, we realize we first need a better understanding of where we have been, where we are today, and how things have been changing with time. Social foresight, in other words requires better hindsight and insight, and a hunger to see the real data and trends of the world. As we’ll see in the Guide, the vast majority of human beings and our societies 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.
We don’t often notice how good things have become because, as we’ll see, we have an evolutionary bias to fear and imagine distress and danger first and fast, and to only slowly, secondarily, and reluctantly look for opportunities and upsides. Modern capitalist cultures also have varying levels of media bias to report violence, failure, and dysfunction far more than their alternatives. Such selective reporting is unfortunately what the public wants, due to our bias to think of distress and danger, as opposed to what it often needs, the ability to see and move toward the next great opportunities ahead. Presenting the world as dysfunctional and dangerous also serves the ends of those who own and govern our mass media industries. The less self-directed we are, the more we’ll be directed by them instead, staying fearful and obedient to “higher authorities.”
Nevertheless, as we’ll see, the world is rapidly getting better, and in certain special areas, even the rate of improvement itself is accelerating. The more we use foresight, the more we can seek out what is actually happening, and focus on the trendlines rather than the headlines, as the phase goes. The better we can see and understand the many forms of progress, and ways that societies, organizations, and individuals try to block progress, and regress, the better we can become at leading ourselves and others to better futures, and catalyzing positive change.
Later in the Guide we’ll consider 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). The evidence presented in such books will convince most clear thinkers that the world is getting much better, much faster, in a majority of ways, than most of us realize. We just have to be willing to see this progress, and ask how we can aid its development.
Again, the greatest perception problem most of us have today is learning to see the world as it is, what it is rapidly becoming, and the great, even universal forces and trends driving change. Once we see our current status and the key trends, we can better understand our role and responsibilities in this great global transition period in which we live. The 21st Century, it seems, may be a time when humans will be involved in creation of machines that learn how to think, and feel, for themselves. It’s an amazing and humbling time to be alive.
Perhaps the most fundamental way to understand foresight is that it is the production of special kinds of information, which is most simply understood as the opposite of entropy. At the technical level, information is anything that allows us to reduce our uncertainty, and thus make better predictions, about systems whose futures we do not already know. For an academic discussion of information, and its role in 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).
As we’ll see in Chapter 7, while our universe is running down, generating more entropy, living systems and their technologies are always running up, generating more useful information, complexity and intelligence. So when we practice foresight, for ourselves or on a larger stage, we are doing what life, in its most universal sense, is driven to do. That’s pretty exciting stuff!
Foresight and the Heroic Journey
If you’d like a personal motivation to strive for better foresight, consider that there’s something heroic about trying to understand and guide yourself and others toward better futures. All of us like to think of our lives, at least a bit, and often in secret, in heroic terms. 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.”
In Human Nature and the Heroic, anthropologist and psychotherapist Ernst Becker proposes that our desire to be at least a little bit heroic, to ourselves first and others secondarily, is a basic drive of in all of us. In Becker’s view, we all have an inner hero striving get more attention, and lead us to a better future self. We can think of our conscience, in particular, in heroic terms. It often faces titanic battles to get us to do what we know, in moments of quiet and conscious reflection, is best for us to do.
As mythologist and author Joseph Campbell tells us in his classic, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949/2008), we tend think about heroism, in ourselves and others, through a monomyth found in the literature and stories of many cultures, a myth he calls the Hero’s Journey, depicted in the figure at right.
Consider the role that foresight plays in this myth. We need good foresight to envision a worthy call to adventure, to identify helpers and mentors, to resist temptations and distractions (often fun in the moment, but able to harm or prevent us from achieving our vision), and to gain the central revelation that a worthy paths lies in front of us, foresight we may gain only in the pit of despair. We use this foresight to address our challenge, defeat some of our our inner and outer demons, become more powerful, and eventually, to gain wisdom, and share the fruits of our successes, and the lessons of our defeats, with the world. See the lovely Wikipedia artist’s depiction of this journey, in the picture at right.
When we see ourselves in this heroic light, we are particularly motivated to live, to grow, to risk, to discover, and to create.
Envisioning ourselves in a more heroic light 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 small sense of the heroic, as it relates to our own lives, are all among our basic needs. When we deny the heroic journey in ourselves, Becker would say that we deny an aspect of our 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 the futurist Alvin Toffler and others for me, are a living example. Who are your mentors? What are your heroic struggles, at present? If you don’t have any in mind, you aren’t yet consciously on the journey to self-growth.
Leading Ourselves to Better Futures
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 Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama have said, world peace can only emerge, when it does, from inner peace. Many things in the world are beyond our ability to fix today. We can only see the problems for what they are, and manage them as best we can.
At the same time, as we’ll see in Chapter 7 on exponential foresight, certain accelerating trends and destinations for humanity and our technology, including thinking machines, are becoming highly predictable today. There are lots of ways these accelerating processes will create pain, disruption, and regression for some, but they are coming nonetheless. Universal forces appear to be driving them, and we can only control the way they arrive, and their rough timing. It doesn’t look like we are powerful enough to prevent their arrival, even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t.
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 can happen in this Guide.