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Memory and futures-thinking

June 13th, 2013

Contemplating my filebox. Will I remember what's in it? What can it tell me about futures thinking?

I’ve been not-very-systematically accruing interesting articles to feed my ongoing obsession with thinking about thinking about the future.  Time to share some stuff I’ve picked out of my favourite filebox of delicious brain science articles (pictured left). The usual caveats apply: I’m sharing my thinking-in-progress, mulling over some of the questions I’ve been kicking around. If you’re interested in the research discussed below you can follow the links to the source material – or perhaps find a friendly neuroscientist who doesn’t mind you asking them lots of questions. Actually, that’s something I’d like to do, because some of this stuff is quite complex science but I think it’s really useful in making sense of how we think about the future (and  how we might become better futures-thinkers so that we can apply this to the task of re-imagining education). So if you’re a neuroscientist, consider that an open invitation to connect with me. If you are someone in the field of education, or just an ordinary human being who is curious, please read on as I attempt to engage with some complex brain research and draw out ideas and unanswered questions that I think we ought to think about. Roll up your sleeves cos this is gonna take a few posts.

Memory and future prediction: What’s the connection?

If you start looking into the neuroscience of futures thinking you’ll quickly find yourself reading about memory, because surprise! – these two kinds of thinking are intimately connected.  A study reported in this 2007 ScienceDaily article used advanced brain imaging techniques to show that remembering the past and envisioning the future involve “strikingly similar patterns of activity within precisely the same broad network of brain regions”. Findings like these seem to suggest

…a tentative answer to a longstanding question regarding the evolutionary usefulness of memory…..It may just be that the reason we can recollect our past in vivid detail is that this set of processes is important for being able to envision ourselves in future scenarios. This ability to envision the future has clear and compelling adaptive significance.

While there are vigorous debates amongst evolutionary biologists about the extent to which different traits can be explained by their adaptive advantage, let’s assume for arguments’ sake that there is something to this idea:  one can see why being a better future-thinker would have obvious survival advantages.

In any case, if our brains use the same “wiring” to achieve both things, it stands to reason that in seeking to understand how we think about the future, we need to also understand memory – and vice-versa. Research on memory is a substantial and fascinating field unto in itself, but I’m specifically interested in the turn in neuroscience towards looking more closely at the connections between memory and predictive/future thinking.  After reading this article by Moshe Bar, I went ahead and ordered  a copy of his edited book, Predictions in the brain: Using our past to generate a future. (This excellent collection of chapters by experts in various fields of neuroscience it isn’t exactly bedtime reading, you do need to be committed science-literate reader to get through it).

In search of unifying principles

What drew me into Bar’s work – and keeps me reading through the complicated parts – is his interest in seeking unifying principles that can help to account for much of the brain’s operations, as opposed to seeing the brain “like a collection of many little modules, each expert in a specific task”. (This approach reminds me of another “unifying” book, Fritjof Capra’s The Hidden Connections, which I posted about here).

One of Bar’s key ideas is that our minds are proactively generating predictions about the future all the time, and that they do this by associative thinking – taking the features of incoming information and linking it to existing, familiar information. In other words,

…when encountering a novel input (and all inputs are novel to some degree because we never encounter anything twice under exactly the same conditions), our brains “ask” what is this input like that we are already familiar with? (Bar, 2011, p. 14)

Bar is saying that our brains receive input and – based on the “gist” of the input – rapidly search for analogies in memory (what is this like?), and engage in proactive associative thinking (what is this connected with?).

The proactive brain?

Bar contends that associative thinking is actually  our brain’s “default” mode – it’s what’s going on all the time, when our brains aren’t engaged in “task-specific cognitive effort”. This proactive view of the brain “implies that, by default, when we are not engaged in some demanding and all-consuming task, the brain generates predictions” [1]

Bearing in mind that “for the brain, “future” is any time between a fraction of a second and a lifetime ahead” [2], what can we learn from this research? So our brains are generating predictions all the time, but are those predictions any good? Are they accurate? Are they useful? How aware are we of the mental underpinnings for our own predictions/projections regarding the future? How do our these shape our actions, and what are the consequences?

Oh dear. Something's gone terribly wrong here...

Oh dear. Something's gone terribly wrong here...

These are a among the many questions I’ve been looking at with my reading, and it appears that while the answers are not simple, they are pretty compelling and even a little bit mind-twisting. And inevitably all questions about future-thinking at  the psychological and neurological level keep connecting back with  memory – not to mention the very closely related processes of imaginative/prospective thinking.

Where am I going with this?

In the next few post(s) I am going to try to cover more of these ideas, including:

  • more on “associative thinking” and what this means for our capabilities to think of the future (for example: how does the brain generate predictions in  completely novel situations? If our brain systems work with the  ”assumption” of a reasonably stable/predictable environment, what happens if this is no longer true?
  •  ”mental time travel”  -  and why “seeing” the past and “seeing” the future involve mental processes which also apply to the mental construction of purely imaginative scenarios.
  • what research says about the inherent emotional component of memory, future-thinking/predictive thinking, and generative/creative thinking.
  • some of the systematic cognitive biases that appears to be inbuilt into our  thinking about the past, present, and future – and how can knowing about these “errors” in our innate predictive systems be adapted into our thinking and behaviour, and does knowing about our own thinking help us think differently?
I’m always on the lookout for ideas/input from anyone else who has already thought longer or deeper or is more qualified to provide a viewpoint on these matters, so if that’s you, please go ahead and get in touch.  And for anyone else, if you’re interested in the same kinds of questions I am, get in touch to let me know!
References

[1] Bar, M. (2011) ‘The proactive brain”. pp. 13-26 in M. Bar (Ed) Predictions in the brain: Using our past to generate a future. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Dudai, Y. (2011). “Predicting not to predict too much: How the cellular machinery of memory anticipates the uncertain future”. pp. 283-294 in M. Bar (Ed) Predictions in the brain: Using our past to generate a future. New York: Oxford University Press.

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