How Do You Imagine Your Future?
“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”
Where is your mind right now? Are you thinking about what you are going to do later in the day or are you focused on the words your eye catches on this page?
The mind likes to think about the future when it is not cognitively engaged in a particular activity like reading this article. This is partly due to activation in a part of the brain called the default-mode network (DMN). Greater activation in the DMN is observed while the mind is at rest. However, the brain never actually stops working when it is “resting”. The activation of the DMN essentially tells us about what the mind is paying attention to at a given point in time.
Researchers in the field of neuroscience have been curious about what the DMN activation tells us about our ability to imagine the future. A team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania recently published a study in the Journal of Neuroscience that highlights a critical function of the DMN when it comes to imagining the future.
University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Joseph Kable and colleagues hooked 13 women and 11 men on fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines while they read specific cues. The researchers gave the participants seven seconds to imagine themselves sitting on a warm beach on a tropical island or to imagine that they would win the lottery next year. The study volunteers had 12 seconds to think about the scenario and 14 seconds to rate vividness and valence. The participants repeated this process a total of four times.
According to Dr. Kable, the dorsal or the core default mode network was more active for positive events rather than negative ones. The ventral default mode network (the medial temporal lobe subsystem), on the other hand, was more active for events high in detail. Dr. Kable explains that the ventral default mode network “was equally active for both positive and negative events, showing that the network really is involved in the construction piece of imagination.”
The findings from this study suggest that the divisions of the default mode network serve specific purposes when it comes to the ability to imagine the future. While one division (dorsal default mode network) is responsible for evaluating whether the imagined event is positive or negative, the other division (ventral default mode network) helps us to construct the event with as much detail as possible.
How do we turn our dreams into reality?
Dr. Kable and colleagues’ study sheds light on our imaginative abilities from a neuroscientific perspective. However, it is also worthwhile to visit a 2002 study that tells us exactly what is necessary to turn our imaginations into reality.
Gabriele Oettingen who is a professor of psychology at New York University and Doris Mayer from the University of Hamburg published a study in 2002 that distinguishes two ways of thinking about the future. In this study, Prof. Oettingen and Mayer found that people who fantasize about the desired outcome actually fail to achieve it. However, people who expect to get their desired outcome actually end up achieving their goal.
According to the study findings, positive expectations actually propel people to take action towards their goals. In contrast, Prof. Oettingen and Klaus Michel Reininger from the University of Hamburg posit that positive fantasies “lead people to mentally enjoy the desired future in the here and now, and thus curb investment and future success.”
In light of these studies, we see that the neuroscientific underpinnings of our ability to imagine the future are related to the default mode network; we evaluate our dreams about the future depending on valence and vividness. On the other hand, it may not be enough to simply think positively to turn our dreams into reality. To do so, we need to get clear on our expectations of the future and identify the obstacles that we might face along the road as we step into the future.
- 1. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/05/210518205451.htm
- 2. Lee, S., Parthasarathi, T., & Kable, J. W. (2021). The ventral and dorsal default mode networks are dissociably modulated by the vividness and valence of imagined events. The Journal of Neuroscience, JN-RM-1273-20 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1273-20.2021
- 3. Disorders of Consciousness in Children Stephen Ashwal, in Swaiman's Pediatric Neurology (Sixth Edition), 2017
- 4. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_thinking_about_the_future_makes_life_more_meaningful
- 5. Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2002). The motivating function of thinking about the future: expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (5), 1198-212
- 6. Oettingen, G., and Reininger, K. M. (2016), The power of prospection: Mental contrasting and behavior change, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10: 591– 604. doi: 10.1111/spc3.12271