Why do we think about the future

Cognition: How we imagine the future

Other regions of the brain network described are responsible for very specific aspects of future thinking. Depending on whether we are thinking about events, people, objects or places, other areas of the network become active. This was suggested by an imaging study by American researchers. How far the event lies in the future and to what extent it affects us also makes a difference: thoughts about a federal election in the coming years activate different areas than those for the next meal.

Decision support and anger brake

Basically, our ability to mentally visualize the future has several advantages. A mental journey through time helps us make more prudent decisions. A study by a Taiwanese research team shows that this works even on a small scale. The scientists gave their test subjects a choice: Would they rather win $ 120 in a lottery game right away or get a higher reward a year later? Anyone who had to imagine intensively and visually beforehand that they would be a better person in a year's time was more willing to wait for the larger amount.

In addition, precise, pictorial planning can help you to remember a project better later. If you have a lot of things in your head in the evening that you have to do at work the next day, it's easy to forget something. In such a case it can make sense to mentally go through the individual steps beforehand: When do I do what, how and in which order? Older people in particular can benefit from this reminder.

When mental disorders rob you of perspective

How do people with depression or schizophrenia see their future? This is the question David Hallford and his team at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia are studying. They found that depressed subjects look ahead in less detail: They do not decorate their simulated scenarios as much and thus perceive them as not as vivid. Above all, they cannot imagine positive things so well. On the other hand, they are apparently thinking ahead into the future - and with rather negative expectations.

People with schizophrenia also have a harder time imagining pleasant events. As Hallford and colleagues from China, Great Britain and Spain found out, those affected seem to be less concerned about the future than healthy controls - regardless of whether these thoughts are positive or negative. In addition, they apparently rely primarily on their semantic factual knowledge. They used episodic, autobiographical details less.

The researchers do not yet know exactly how depression and schizophrenia are related to changes in future thinking. It is also unclear whether this fact can be used for treatment.

Thinking about future situations also makes it easier for us to regulate our emotions. Anyone who expects the boss to treat him unfairly before a conversation with him can possibly react more calmly and prevent a big argument from the outset. Ā»Future thinking helps us to set and plan goals and gives us the motivation to implement our plansĀ«, says Roland Benoit.

However, in 2016, together with British colleagues, he found out that it can sometimes even be advisable to suppress thoughts about the future. The researchers had subjects list various future scenarios that worried them. Those who were then asked to imagine these in their minds reacted much more anxiously than participants who were supposed to consciously avoid thoughts of the negative events. So you shouldn't allow yourself too much brooding about negative events.