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 in our brains, our most important organs and process. Our brains are structures that 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. Once any top-down models 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 traveling between separate neural networks, and by a process of theta and gamma synchronization between separate brain regions (the “theta-gamma code“). This global communication of a successful prediction is what we call awareness, recognition, or consciousness. For an excellent review of what modern neuroscience knows about how the brain gives rise to cognitive functions Lisman (2015, PDF here). I could not think of a better example of why foresight is important than the recognition that it is a leading theory for what consciousness itself is in the brian. Foresight processes are actually found at all levels of the brain, at various levels of sophistication.
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 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 cognitive levels than our consciousness, such as the “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 above). We use these 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, which is almost twice as large in humans as in chimpanzees, as the primary place where we do our most detailed simulations of the long range future. The neuroscience of foresight, at all levels of the brain, has been advancing rapidly since new tools and methods emerged in the 1990s, and gets clearer every day.
This research also shows we use much of the same neural machinery to remember the past as we do to imagine the future, which tells us what we learn and remember has a very large influence on what we can foresee. Neuroscientist Daniel Schacter summarizes these new findings in his concept of the prospective brain. We are naturally wired to imagine and predict the future, an ability that grows with life experience. We also have 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 that self in great detail, as if it already exists, as vividly as our past and present self exist in our minds. Recruitment of our emotion (limbic system) and imagination in this way is a well-known way to improve our thinking about and memory of important processes and events.
Greater understanding of our neural foresight systems by neuroscientists and psychologists in coming years, and digital aids that help us train and strengthen them, will help many of us achieve much better personal and collective foresight. See futurist Michio Kaku’s enjoyable The Future of the Mind (2014) for a popular take on where all this might lead, and Marcus and Freeman’s (eds.) The Future of the Brain (2015) for a survey of some (not enough for my tastes) neuroscientist views on this same topic.
The Heroic Journey
In Human Nature and the Heroic, a key section of anthropologist and psychotherapist Ernst Becker’s Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, 1973/1997, Becker proposes that our desire to be at least a little bit heroic, to ourselves most importantly, and to others secondarily, is the most fundamental drive of the human being. The great founder of psychology, William James said “[humanity’s] common instinct for reality … has always held the world to be essentially a theater for heroism.” All of society, according to Becker, is most deeply a “symbolic action system,” a structure of statuses, roles, customs, games, markets, and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a reasonably fair stage for heroic action.
Becker observes that we all have an inner narcissism, even if we hide it from ourselves, and an undeniable need for self-esteem, that requires us to think of our actions as meaningful. We all seek some kind of heroic vision, one that tells us we can be useful to ourselves, to others and to the universe. Most deeply, even small children seek a sense of cosmic specialness and significance.
We tell ourselves a version of what mythologist and author Joseph Campbell calls the great monomyth of all cutures, the Hero’s Journey. We see it in all our great literature and culture, as Campbell observes in his classic, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949/2008). Foresight is a key player in this essential human myth. We need it in the call to adventure, in the belief that the universe can help us in our quest (at the very least, by being open to our success), in the recognition of helpers and mentors, in the resistance of temptations and distractions, and most centrally, foresight occurs in the revelations that steadily come to us, most importantly, in the pit of despair, that allow us to navigate to growth and transformation into a more powerful figure, allowing us in turn to share our gifts with the world (see lovely Wikipedia picture, right).
When we see ourselves in a heroic light, we are most truly motivated to live, to grow, to risk, to discover, and to create. This is one of the secrets that peak performance leaders 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 always central to our 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 grow right to the very end of our lives.
Foresight is central to our search for the heroic journey, for meaningful challenges for ourselves and our clients. Foresight allows us to understand ourselves within a larger world system of growth, challenge, and progress. At the same time, hindsight and insight help us to be more at peace with ourselves and the world. As Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama have said, world peace develops from inner peace. When we have good hindsight, insight, and foresight, we can 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 that all of us can and will make better futures.
As we’ll see in Chapter 2 on exponential foresight, certain desirable accelerating trends and destinations for humanity and our technology are becoming highly predictable today. 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 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.
Finally, to borrow the Mahatma’s phrase, we can say world foresight develops from inner foresight. Whatever collective foresight we all have begins, in one way or another, with our personal foresight, a topic we investigate in detail in Chapter 4. Each of us, by taking our future seriously, and fighting for better futures for all, works to create the global foresight we all need.
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, probabilistic, 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.