How Your Brain Shuts Down When You Think About the Future

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“The future depends on what we do in the present.” – Mahatma Gandhi.

I always wondered why it seemed so hard for some people to imagine how things might be different or how things might change in the future.  

When you are trying to do scenario planning or when you are working on a vision the ability to suspend disbelief and step into the future is crucial in order to imagine new possibilities.

The future is the space for opportunities and solutions.

But what I often see in practice is that brains shut down.

There is a real lack of empathy for the future, even if it’s not so far away, which makes it really difficult to plan and design for the future.

Sadly, it’s so easy to forget how your present situation right now is reflection of how you think about or ignore the future.

Interestingly, the book The Future is Faster than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, shed some light on how your brain shuts down when you focus on the future.

When You Project Yourself in the Future, Your Prefontal Cortex Shuts Down

Your prefrontal cortex is the smart part of your brain.  It’s what you use for executive functions and when you are doing scenario planning.

Imagine that when you’re trying to figure out and envision the future, your smart part is actually shut down.

Diamandis and Kotler write:

“It’s not easy for any of us.  Studies done with fMRI show that when we project ourselves into the future something peculiar happens:

The medial prefrontal cortex shuts down.”

Future You Isn’t Current You

The future you is actually a stranger to you, when it comes to imagining the future.

Imagine trying to do future planning but future you is a stranger and your empathy shuts down.

Worse, the further into the future you project, the more a stranger you become to your own brain.

This is actually why storytelling can help think about the future better by making things relatable and activating empathy.

Diamandis and Kotler write:

“This is a part of the brain that activates when we think about ourselves.  

When we think about other people, the inverse happens: It deactivates.  

And when we think about absolute strangers, it deactivates even more.

You’d expect that thinking about our future selves would excite the medial prefrontal cortex.  Yet the opposite happens. 

It starts to shut down, meaning the brain treats the person we’re going to become as a stranger.

And the farther you project into the future, the more of a stranger you become. 

If, a few paragraphs back, you took the time to think about how the transportation revolution would impact future you, the you that you were thinking of was literally not you.”

When We Predict the Future and Make Decisions, We are Blind to What’s Around the Bend

If you ever wondered why it’s tough to really focus on the future, you can thank your neurobiology.

Diamandis and Kotler write:

“This is why people have a tough time saving for retirement or staying on a diet or getting regular prostate exams–the brain believes that the person who would benefit from those difficult choices isn’t the same one making those choices.  

This is also why, if you’ve been reading the chapter and having trouble processing the speed of the change ahead, perhaps fluctuating between ‘total BS’ and ‘holy crap’, well, you’re not alone.

Couple this with the limitations imposed by our local and linear brains in a global and exponential world, and accurate prediction becomes a considerable problem.

Even under normal conditions, these built-in features of our neurobiology make us blind to what’s around the bend.”

How I Learned to Step Into the Future Better

The key is to learn how to “feel” your future.  You need to learn to feel the sensation so that you activate more of your brain so you can really make better decisions.

That’s why stories help so much, especially when you can see yourself in the story, but more importantly “feel” yourself in the story.

I was lucky early on in my career, to work on 18+ month projects.    I felt the pain of bad decisions.   Not just for me, but for the team.

I remember how far away the future used to feel, but then I started feeling the full impact of my past decisions.

After enough times, whenever a key decision came up, all I had to do was remember how it felt to be in the future when I’m

Do I still fall into the trap, and sort of disconnect from the future?

Yes.

But do I also catch myself and remind myself and remember how to feel the future when it counts?

You bet.

And you can, too.

Practice feeling your future today, so you can design a better future and experience a better future tomorrow.

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