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Just Another Teachin’ Tuesday: Your future lies in your past…

So would it cause you pause if I told you your best shot at fulfilling your visions of the future is grounded in the recall of your past? It appears as though it’s true.

A Washington University (St. Louis) research team, led by psychologists Kathleen McDermott and Karl Szpunar, has discovered that the very same brain anatomy and physiology involved in the recall of past events also generates our visions of tomorrow.

Well, here’s how it went down. In the lab, the research team provided specific memory cues to their subjects, and then asked them to recall an event from their past – maybe a great party or a hot date. They were also asked to envision themselves experiencing this event some time in the future, as well as imagining a celebrity participating in the same event.

They were given 10 seconds to respond. And functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) followed and recorded the assorted brain activations.

Fascinatingly, and surprisingly, the research team discovered a huge overlap in the brain regions involved in recalling the past and envisioning the future. Now, it’s always been believed thoughts of the future are generated by the frontal lobe of the brain. And that belief held water. But it’s not an exclusive, as was previously thought.

Although the frontal lobe plays an important role in carrying out future-oriented operations – say, anticipation and planning – the generation of such operations may actually be based in envisioning oneself in a specific future event. By the way, how many times have we discussed the power of visualization here?

At any rate, this is all accomplished using the very same neural networks involved in the recall of specific life events and feelings.

But there’s more – the research results suggest the settings for our envisioned tomorrows are very often put together using our past experiences – even including memories of specific body movements. I mean, incredibly, such detail has been stored in our brains as we made our way through similar settings in the past.

The research also suggests envisioning the future may be a prerequisite for many higher-level planning processes in the brain.

So the take-away…

Remembrance of our past is to be used in assisting us in picturing our future – because the brain anatomy and physiology involved in both are the same.

The applications of the research go beyond simply helping us fulfill our visions of tomorrow. One area, for example, is helping those suffering from amnesia. Don’t forget, not only can they not recall the past, most can’t envision or visualize the future.

Well, in summary, Dr. McDermott states…

“You might look at it as mental time travel–the ability to take thoughts about ourselves and project them either into the past or into the future.”

I enjoy finding and sharing interesting research such as this. I hope you enjoy reading it, as well. Thoughts?

  • Inna

    So does this also mean that if we continually visualize what we would like our future to look like, it will be saved in our memories and help us on a pass to recovery? 

    • Excellent question, Inna. Very nice hearing from you, by the way. Been thinking about you. Yes, your assumption is correct – that’s the basis of a quality visualization. Remember, our minds don’t know the difference between what’s imagined and what’s real. I mean, think about it for a moment. We panic and become anxious over perceived circumstances – they aren’t logically true. Yet, off our minds and bodies goes into panic and all sorts of other icky stuff. And let me throw this into the mix. I believe the research is telling us it’s of utmost importance, in ensuring our visions of the future occur – to recall situations in our lives when we thought, felt, behaved – came through – very well.

  • Be sure to read Inna’s comment and my reply. This research is very meaningful!!!

  • I’d like to share a comment from loyal chipur reader, Linda, who emailed me after receiving this week’s newsletter this morning…

    Hi Bill,
    I enjoyed the article on Guilt!    I have learned, that
    If I can stay in the present moment, I can see guilt and fear for what it is. 
    Nothing.  Because its all about the past.  The present moment is brand new and I
    can choose what it will be.  Love is the answer.  Linda