Human beings remember the past, experience the present and imagine the future. It is in this future whatever the possible option.
The future is something that has not yet come to us, but we can imagine ourselves and how we are going to deal with what appears at that time.
This act of seeing yourself in what might happen next is called episodic future thinking. and it is a fundamental thing in our conduct. This is what allows us to orient our behavior towards an end, and then we will examine it in more depth.
What is future episodic thinking?
Being able to think about the future is an integral part of human cognition. In fact, this ability to imagine events that have not yet taken place, but that we consider plausible in the future, it is considered a crucial aspect to differentiate itself from other animals.
Future episodic thinking is the human ability to project our own existence into an event that has not yet happened. It could be understood as our ability to imagine ourselves in an event that we believe may occur. Essentially, it’s about pre-experiencing something, a future event.
The idea of episodic future thinking, originally conceptualized by Cristina M. Atance and Daniela K. O’Neill, part of Endel Tulving’s episodic memory idea.
This author has classified memory into two types: semantic and episodic. According to Tulving, semantic memory is what is defined, in the broad sense, as knowledge of the world (knowing the meanings, the dates of historical events, data in general …). however episodic memory has to do with the ability to remember experiences related to ourselvesIn other words, relive past events.
For example, we would talk about semantic memory if we tried to remember the name of our institute, what our classmates and professors were called, what we saw in the subject of biology and what exactly Lamarck’s theory was about . Instead, episodic memory would have to do with memories brought to us by high school, when we had an argument with one of our classmates or failed an exam and the teacher scolded us.
Based on this, it can be understood that episodic memory and seeing yourself in a future situation have a lot to do. It’s like we remember, but instead of looking at the past we do it by looking to the future.
Moreover, this same idea is based on another of Tulving’s, the autonoetic consciousness, which is that which is in the knowledge of the individual’s own existence and identity in a subjective time, extending from the personal past to the present. in the personal future.
This awareness, with the idea of episodic memory, would be what would allow us to “travel to the future”. We would relive experiences already lived but projecting into the future.
It should be understood that when we speak of episodic future thought, it is not synonymous with “pure” imagination. In this process there is no excessive creative process.But a visualization of how the future can take into account different factors, positive and negative, that limit and focus on the future scenario that we are pre-experiencing.
To better understand, we may be planning a beach vacation. For that, we imagine ourselves enjoying this well-deserved vacation, but we also imagine ourselves working the week before to move the work forward, imagining what we are going to put and what will not be in our backpack and what we will need while we’re here. In other words, we set more or less realistic limits when it comes to imagining and experiencing the future event.
There are several concepts related to episodic future thinking.
Forward-looking memory is what we use when we remember something with the intention of doing so in the future. That is to say that it is envision an action we want to take in the future with the intention of achieving a goal or objective.
For example, a prospective memory use case would be when we need to remember to message a family member or friend the next time we see it, or to water the plants the next time. as we step out onto the balcony.
In prospective memory, three processes are involved:
- Develop a plan
- Remember the plan
- Remember at some point in the future to execute the plan
Episodic future thinking has a lot to do with prospective memory, especially when it’s meant to generate a way to remember what we need to do.
For example, suppose we need to take medicine immediately after we get home today. To make sure we took it, we decided that before we left the house, we would leave the medicine on the kitchen table, near where the glasses are.
It’s not random why we left medicine in the kitchen. We predicted what we’ll do the moment we get home, knowing we’ll be heading into the kitchen for our snack after a grueling day at work. So when we get there we will see the medicine and remember that we have to take it.
Judgments and decision making
Humans tend to be more optimistic when it comes to imagining when we’re going to finish a project, especially if the date of the project turns out to be very distant in time. This has been called the planning error.
One explanation behind this error is that we tend to base our predictions only on the future plan, ignoring or neglecting all the details that might affect how long we need to do.
The tendency of people to conduct episodic future thinking and their accuracy in making predictions about future events can also be mediated by the temporal proximity of the future event in question.
We saw that people represent in a more abstract way the most distant events of the future, Although the information they have about the event remains constant. We have seen that people tend to consider time constraints only when the event is closer in time.
Future episodic thinking and its development in childhood
The ability to imagine oneself in possible future situations varies with chronological age. More or less in the third year of life, both the ability to speak and other behavioral apsectos, as well as the ability to prepare for an event that has not yet occurred, reflect the consciousness of the ‘to come up. It is at this age that a child’s discourse emerges an understanding of the future that is not limited to a simple recapitalization of the past..
The child is aware that the future is an uncertain situation, in which different things can happen. In fact, between 2 years and 2 years and 11 months in the speech of the child appear words which indicate uncertainty for the future, such as “maybe” and “maybe”. These constructions of the future are based not only on the past and what has already been experienced, but on projections for the future, predictions and assumptions.
The ability to plan for the future increases between 3 and 5 years. For example, at these ages you may be asked “what do you imagine you are going to do in the park?” and the child can tell us whatever he wants to do, run with other children, play in the sand, take a walk but not play with the swings because they scare him. So he tells us what he’s sure of, more or less, what he ended up doing, instead of telling us what he’s done other times here.
At 5 years old, the child has a better ability to plan, not only in terms of language. He is already able to prepare and make decisions for the future, and set a series of goals to be achieved, Although still much less organized than in adults. He is more aware of the future and how he can change it.
Preschoolers have even been shown to have some ability to consider the future consequences of their behavior. This was amply illustrated by Walter Mischel’s candy test (also called marshmallow). In this experiment, a candy is placed in front of the child and he is told that after a while, if he has not eaten it will have another treat. From the age of 4, children prefer to wait and receive twice as much as controlling themselves and eating marshmallows.
What does this have to do with psychopathology?
Future episodic thinking has been linked to clinical psychology, particularly with regard to understand the progress and concerns expressed by patients with disorders such as anxiety or depression.
One thing that has turned out to be quite striking is the type of future-oriented thinking that people with generalized anxiety disorder have. While in the general population, episodic future thinking is a very important part of cognitive activity, helping to plan for future situations, it has been found that in patients with this anxiety disorder, thinking about the future is more nonspecific and negative.
In this case, it is presented a concern for the future which, in the context of the disorder, is akin to rumination and general and abstract thoughts are presented, lacking concrete and specific details. Patients with generalized asthenia have mental imagery more likely not to visualize realistic future scenarios, but to sense worry about the aversive event they imagine will happen to them.
- Atance, CM and O’Neill, DK (2001). Episodic future thought. Trends in Cognitive Science, 5 (12), 533-539. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1364-6613(00)01804-0
- Wu, Jade and Szpunar, Karl and Godovich, Sheina and Schacter, Daniel and Hofmann, Stefan. (2015). Episodic future thinking in generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 36. 10.1016 / j.janxdis.2015.09.005.