Despite not being a cognitive psychologist, while writing his hit single ‘Clarity’, John Mayer was wise enough to realize that no matter how hard you try, you can never really live in the moment. The chorus is dedicated to a crucial moment in his life – or anyone’s life, for that matter – and the sad realization that by the time he recognizes it, it will probably be gone. “But I’d better pretend that it somehow lingered on”, he laughingly says.
His tragic observation is now verified by science!
What makes Homo sapiens so successful?
Martin Seligman, an American psychologist and the author of Homo-Prospectus suggests that Homo sapiens should actually call themselves Homo prospectus, because prospection is the key feature that differentiates us from other animals. That same ability to contemplate the future allowed us to build tools, set traps for prey and develop the pinnacle of our civilization – language.
However, Seligman’s research in the emerging field of pragmatic progression shows that even though it seems like we go through our lives living moment by moment, continually raking in our surroundings with our eyes wide open, our brains are actually involved in constant prospection and planning for our future. This robs the attention that the present deserves and forbids you from living in the present, independent of any thoughts or worries.
Memories are reconstructed, not reproduced
Research suggests that memory, unlike a hard drive, isn’t just a vessel to store information; instead, it evolved to retain information that is most likely to be needed in the future. Our memory only looks out for and retains the unexpected. This makes sense, as the future is never an exact replica of the past, which is why we only need to extract an event’s key elements, the “gist”, and use that as a guideline to produce desirable outcomes in the future. Such generalizing and the compression of information to its simplest form might also protect us from memory overload.
Also, while recalling an event, the brain reconstructs the entire episode. Remembering something requires you to, in your mind’s eye, live the event over and over again each time you recall it.
This episodic nature of memory makes it susceptible to alteration when recalled in a different context. This is prevalent in court systems, where new evidence allows the jury to view an event in a new light or reconstruct an eyewitness’ memory of a crime. However, surprisingly, to the flag-bearers of pragmatic prospection, this is not a defect, but rather a feature that allows the exploitation of memory with respect to a situation and helps us face both the present and the subsequent future.
The theory becomes more viable when we consider fMRI scans that show considerable overlap in psychological and neural processes involved in memory, reconstruction and imagination. The major function of our memory systems might be to draw on past experiences in a way that allows us to imagine and simulate episodes that might occur in our personal futures. The frontal cortex is identified as a major player in constantly planning and anticipating the future.
SEF and Metacognition
Another research study highlighted a new area called the Supplementary Eye Field (SEF) in our brain, which is dedicated to directing our eyes to unexpected events in our environment. This system supplements our constant monitoring as it, in turn, compulsively monitors and controls our cognition. Yes, thinking about thinking. This is called meta-cognition. In recent studies, meta-cognition has been found to help us and other primates assess their own decisions and bets about the future.
The SEF is responsible for the rapid eye movements when we encounter something unpredicted. This reflexive action disrupts our Default Mode Network (DMN), which acts as our autopilot and takes over when you are involved in comparatively lesser mentally taxing activities, particularly when you are resting.
The DMN takes over when you lose focus or take a break during a mental exercise. Even though you are practically idle, the brain still doesn’t stop contemplating the future. For instance, daydreaming is something that we take for granted, and why shouldn’t we, given that wandering off into our thoughts on the daily commute while listening to our favorite music comes so easily to us.
Yet, it seems that daydreaming is a serendipitous gift and it is the perfect example of ruminating on the past or projecting yourself in future scenarios based on prior events, something Endel Tulving called “mental time travel.”
Prospection is a two-way street
Unfortunately, our obsession with the future is also the root of our miseries. Conventionally, the majority of people believe that people afflicted with depression are traumatized by disturbing events in their past or their cynical view of the present, but this theory pitches in the opposite direction and suggests that their misery is the fruit of overthinking and overestimating their future risks. The anxiety and worry regarding the future leads them to paint a bleak view of what’s to come, leading them to imagine themselves in negative scenarios.
This is why planners are comparatively happier and more content, as they are able to convert a chaotic mess of concerns into an organized set of obstacles. Although advanced levels are unique to humans, prospection is shared by other animals, but unlike us, they aren’t capable of holding a thought for an extended amount of time. They are sensory organisms who live in the present and their actions are driven by intuition. For instance, squirrels bury their nuts by instinct, not because they know that winter is coming.
This line of thought led to an experiment that looked to debunk a long-standing assumption of psychology, namely that we avoid thinking about the future because we fear confronting our inevitable death. This is called the terror management theory. The experiment assigned a group of people to ruminate about their mortality. Interestingly, only a mere 1% of the people were found to be doing so.
It seems that, as Martin Seligman put it, “Homo prospectus is too pragmatic to obsess on death for the same reason that he doesn’t dwell on the past: There’s nothing he can do about it.”
- Prospective Psychology
- Semantic Scholar
- The Royal Society
- National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)