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  • Writer's pictureSeth Harrell

How Neuroscience Could Engender Better Futures Communication

Updated: May 6, 2022


Take a deep breath and imagine if you will…it’s 15 years in the future and you’ve decided that you want to rent a robot for the day to run errands for you. You quickly transfer cryptocurrency using the robot-rental app that validates your identity as you wait for the delivery. You want to be outside because you’ve been feeling more energetic since your food delivery service used your DNA profile to infuse your meals with probiotics that cater to your personal gut biome.


While you were reading this short scenario, your brain performed a myriad of interesting tasks. Many of those tasks were performed by what is known as the default mode network (DMN) and it split the work of imagining the future into two primary parts. The first part involved constructing and predicting the scenario being described. The second part evaluated whether this constructed future is positive or negative. The discovery of this process comes from a recent study conducted by Joseph Kable and published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Kable explains that the human brain’s process for imagining the future is not just about envisioning future events but equally as important, evaluating if they are good or bad.



The neuroscience of prospection (future thinking) has yet to be heavily incorporated by the foresight community. However, due to a dramatic increase in research spurred on by advancements in new technological such as fMRI, this field has recently been gaining more attention as with the recent article “Exploring the Links between Neuroscience and Foresight,” by futurist Maree Conway and published in the Journal of Future Studies (2021).

Asking people to imagine the future is one of the key tools of foresight, so shouldn’t we consider just how that information is being processed in the minds of our audience? For example, futurists often engaged an audience through facilitating a mental time travel experience for the purpose of affecting change. These imagined scenarios are then infused with rich detail for the specific purpose of inducing an emotional response to a future situation. However, a branch of neuroscience research known as Affective Foresight, has shown that people are generally not adept at predicting their own future emotional states.


I too assume that imagining an emotionally powerful event set in the future, would presumably change a person’s behavior. You can imagine my surprise when I came across contradictory results in a research paper published in Frontiers in Psychology that was designed to measure the effectiveness of future-thinking. In the paper “A Terrible Future: Episodic Future Thinking and the Perceived Risk of Terrorism” ( and Wolff, 2019) researchers had study participants imagine a future terrorism event using assigned prospection methods and then rate their perceived risk of a future terrorism event. The researchers found that this specific type of future-thinking, known as episodic, had little influence on the study participants. In addition, none of the methods tested were particularly influential in producing higher self-reported perception of risk scores.

Intrigued by these results, I decided to use a neural network* learning algorithm to illuminate which data inputs were most utilized in replicating the results. Surprisingly, the neural network analysis showed that the factor which influenced the study participants’ future-thinking the most was their self-reported gender. More precisely, participants that reported as female** were more likely to also report higher perceived risk of terrorism scores.


I believe that imagining a future terrorist attack would be a prime example of mental time travel that should create a vivid and visceral future experience for anyone, not just participants reporting as female. I would also assume that an imagined negative future experience such as this would heighten one’s sense of risk in the present, regardless of gender. However, in this study 16% more females than males reported a high perceived risk of terrorism (PROT) score of 5-7, 38% versus 22%. On the other end of the scale, 70% of males reported low PROT scores of 1-3 versus only 46% of females. As a whole, study participants reporting as female were close to an equal split between high and low PROT scores, but males were considerably skewed towards reporting low scores.




While there could be several factors contributing to this unbalanced result, it prompted me to wonder how future-thinking may be influenced by gender? Could it be that gender characteristics, whether brought about through biology or social construction, result in differences that affect the actual cognitive process of future-thinking? Looking for evidence, I found interesting research published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2017. This study was the largest brain imaging survey ever conducted at the time and measured the neural activity of over 46,000 subjects. The researchers found that the brains of female subjects tend to have more activity (measured in blood flow) in the prefrontal cortex which is part of the default mode network of the brain that is associated with future-thinking. Perhaps even more clues could be found in studies that account for gender distinctions in both sexual anatomy and identity.





The notion that self-reported gender may have played a more influential role than future-thinking methods in a study about future-thinking is unexpected and very interesting. It suggests the possibility that demographics could be influencing scenario effectiveness more than any future-thinking exercises or techniques employed on a given audience. This is significant because it means that futures communication processes may be just as important as the futures being communicated.


The ability to imagine the future is one of the most defining qualities of the human species. The human brain even utilizes a unique process specifically for performing future-thinking tasks. However, I believe we need to become more aware of how differences such as, but not limited to, gender (both sex and identity) can affect this unique process. I hope that by sharing my own investigation, the foresight community will attempt to reduce the uncertainty in futures communication by actively incorporating the neuroscience of future-thinking.


What do you think? Do you have any unexpected experiences with futures communication that might be explained by neuroscience?


*the neural network simultaneous optimization algorithm (NNSOA) that was employed learns how to replicate the outputs of a data set based on the inputs through a process of trial and error. Once the network has been trained, the inputs that were used the most indicate the strongest correlation with the outputs.


**gender was entirely self-reported by participants and although a non-binary option existed, all participants chose to self-report as either male or female. It is unknown if participants based their self-reporting on sex, gender, or gender identity.



References


Amen, Trujillo, Keator, Taylor, Willeumier, Kristena, Meysami, Raji (2017). Gender-Based Cerebral Perfusion Differences in 46,034 Functional Neuroimaging Scans.Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, vol. 60, no. 2. DOI: 10.3233/JAD-170432

Bø, S., Wolff, K. (2019). A Terrible Future: Episodic Future Thinking and the Perceived Risk of Terrorism. Frontiers in Psychology. 10, 2333. Doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02333


Conway, M. (2021). Exploring the Links between Neuroscience and Foresight, Journal of Futures Studies (in press).



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1 commento


John M Smart
John M Smart
31 mag 2022

Brilliant post Seth! There is so much we are learning about the brain that can help us create better personal and team foresight. There's actually a new academic textbook, The Psychology of Thinking about the Future, that explores the intersection of these two vital domains (psych and foresight). It's dry reading, but worth a skim.

https://www.amazon.com/Psychology-Thinking-about-Future/dp/1462534414

The main editor, Gabriele Oettingen, has written a fantastic book on the use of optimism and pessimism in personal planning, Rethinking Positive Thinking, which is quite readable and actionable.

https://www.amazon.com/Rethinking-Positive-Thinking-Science-Motivation/dp/1591846870/


I hope that we see personal and team foresight research centers emerging in the Psychology Depts of universities a decade hence. We can also use neuroscience insights to design more foresighted and safer learning…


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