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The longer your past, the longer your future

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about how the human brain deals with the future.
Here it is with added links.

I recently came across the phrase
“remembering the future.” Rather than some empty poetic paradox, it
appeared in an article about a neuroscientific experiment that
tested a hypothesis of Karl Friston of University
College, London, that the brain is more active when it is

In the study, volunteers watched patterns of
moving dots while having their brains scanned. Occasionally, a dot
would appear out of step. Although there was the same number of
dots, the visual part of the subjects’ brains was more active when
the dots broke step. According to Arjen Alink of the Max Planck
Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, who did the experiment, the brains
were predicting what would happen next and having to work harder
when their predictions failed. They were “remembering the

There is a growing conviction within
neuroscience that one of the human mind’s chief preoccupations is
prediction. Jeff Hawkins, the founder of Palm Computing who is now
a full-time neuroscientist, argued in his 2004 book “On Intelligence”that the mind does this by
detecting a familiar pattern in its input, then anticipating from
past experience what usually follows. The more unexpected something
is, the more conscious we are of it.

This explains a lot about awareness. When I
push my foot down on the brake pedal, I expect to feel
deceleration. If I do, I am barely conscious of the fact: My mind
continues to concentrate on the radio or my conversation with my
passenger. If I don’t, I am immediately so aware of the car
skidding on the ice or the brakes failing that my mind is fully
occupied with the failed prediction.

The big brains of human beings undoubtedly
lead them to predict patterns further ahead than other animals. My
dog is quite capable of expecting to be taken for a walk or given
her dinner at certain times of the day. But she is not capable, as
I am, of expecting cold weather in winter or predicting the need to
pack a suitcase before a trip. Still, she probably has a longer
view of the future than a guinea pig, which in turn sees further
ahead than a frog.

Some birds stand out as exceptionally good
at “mental time travel.” The psychologist Nicky
Clayton observed that western scrub jays steal food left behind by
lunching students at the University of California at Davis. The
jays hid the food by digging it into the ground. Sometimes they
came back later and moved the food-but only if they had been
observed by other jays when hiding the food in the first place. Dr.
Clayton has since shown in her lab at Cambridge University that
they do this to foil thieves, and that scrub jays are uniquely
forward-thinking in this respect, even compared with other
food-caching species of bird.

Dr. Clayton’s other experiments with children
reveal that this mental time travel becomes possible for human
beings around the age of five. As adults, we inhabit longer futures
than children, and longer pasts, too.

Daniel Schacter of Harvard University
has made the remarkable discovery that the same
parts of the mind hold both our episodic memories and our imagined
futures. That is to say, if asked to imagine some specific future
event, people activate the very same regions of the brain as they
do when asked to recall some particular past event. Indeed, people
who suffer strokes that affect these regions lose not just the
ability to remember their own lives but the ability to imagine
future possibilities as well.

Dr. Schacter concludes, much like Dr. Hawkins
and Dr. Friston, that “a crucial function of the brain is to use
stored information to imagine, simulate and predict possible future
events.” Through technology like writing and printing, the longer
we extend the past, the longer our view of the future becomes. But
that is a subject for another column.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  wall-street-journal