Why it’s so challenging to imagine who we’ll be in the future
Why is it increasingly difficult to imagine our future selves? Have you ever thought about who you will become in the future or what consequences your short term actions have on your future self? If the answer is no, this behavior has always piqued the interest of both psychologists and neuroscientists and they have conducted several studies to better understand it. Most of the studies found a common culprit: The brain. The human brain fails to make the connection between who we are today and who we will become in the future. In other words, it recognizes your future self as a stranger.
How does it work? A recent study found that the medial prefrontal cortex is highly active in reference to the present self and becomes less active in reference to the future-self. This explains why people have a hard time acknowledging their future selves and as if it is a stranger to their present self. Located in the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex involves executive functions which are responsible for personality expression, social behavior, emotions such as empathy, fear, and intuition; reasoning, decision-making, and planning. In other words, it is implicated in the way we see ourselves and others.
The illusion of continuity: If you reflect on who you were in the past, you might recognize that you are no longer the same person but if you imagine yourself in the future, you are more likely to believe that you’ll stay the same. This paradox — known as the illusion of continuity — was coined by the American writer and science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. Our brain tricks us into thinking that we have reached the best version of ourselves and that we are no longer going to change.
The end-of-history illusion: People tend to claim that they have changed more in the past than they will in the future, and research into the end-of-history illusion backs it up. A 2013 study analyzing 19k individuals ranging in age from 18 to 68 on the basis of personalities, values, and preferences. The study concluded that people of all ages believed that they will continue to be who they are with little to no change but participants of all ages described more change in the past 10 years than they would have predicted 10 years ago.
So how will we be able to imagine our future selves? A lot of the decision making we make on a daily basis requires a trade off between the present and the future and using our imaginations to dream up scenarios can significantly alter our decision making process and develop our empathy towards our future self. New technologies such as VR and AR help us vividly imagine ourselves in the future and could prove to be a powerful tool in generating empathy towards our future self, helping us realize the impact of present decisions. A 2022 study tested VR on 45 convicted offenders and found that interaction with a “future self” avatar helped to decrease the potential to engage in self-destruction behavior by increasing the vividness of potential impacts.