Looking Toward The New Year: How Do Our Brains Simulate the Future?

Nearly half of Americans are said to make a New Year’s resolution. Among the top commitments are to save dollars, be a better person and exercise more. These generic vows of self-improvement yield the same old stories about motivation and happiness year after year.

I could go that route, or — I could tell you a more interesting tale. It’s about our brains … and the future. How do our brains simulate the future?

This is no easy question. Essentially, it asks: what is consciousness? Or how do we think? Neuroscience is nowhere near answering these broad, philosophical questions, but it can try — one thing at a time.

On a basic level, simulating the future is simply about learning. We experience a particular situation in our environment and respond a certain way. When we encounter stimuli from that experience in the future, we know what to expect for the most part. This is called prediction.

Through classical conditioning, a stimulus that once meant nothing, gains predictive qualities when you pair it with something emotionally significant. In my work, rats know a tone predicts a footshock after it has been paired with one in the past. When a tone sounds, the rat freezes, expecting the impending threat. If the expectation doesn’t meet what actually happens, say, the shock doesn’t come, this is a prediction error, and it’s the key to learning. When this happens, expectations of the future get murky. Rats turn to environmental indicators to predict the most likely future scenario.

Prediction in the rat, however, is different than imagination in the human. With imagination, we can go beyond experience, deny likely possibilities and just have fun. That isn’t to say experience isn’t important. One study suggested that imagining an action relied on the same neural coding as perceiving and executing that action. More simply, our brains worked similarly to physically do something and to simulate doing something that had not yet happened. What I’m getting at is different. It’s more about denial — or optimism, depending on the amount of water in your glass.

While I can’t say that a lab rat can imagine a shockless life when it returns to its cage after a day in the lab, a human has boundless optimism. And I think that’s what we’re doing with resolutions. We are predicting the future based on the past, and by changing one thing, imagining a better life.

I can’t answer how the brain combines prediction and imagination to simulate the future. Maybe we’re not good at it. I can’t reconcile how nearly half of us continue to make a yearly vow and break it. Are resolutions goals, preventative measures or imagined products of denial? I resolve to find out by next year.

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