Conceptualizing yourself in the future is not easy. Research shows that we tend to see our future selves like celebrities: vaguely knowable figures that have little to do with us today. This disconnect can lead us to make decisions in the present that don’t benefit us down the road.
When this shortsightedness expands across societies, bad decisions can compound and cause outsized problems for future generations.
Although it might be difficult, thinking of your future self while making day-to-day decisions can yield real benefits, such as making you more likely to eat right and exercise, more likely to plan ahead financially, and more likely to forge strong and healthy relationships.
In this Big Think interview, Ari Wallach, the Executive Director of Longpath Labs, explains how keeping the future in mind tends to create a better life for everyone across all timescales.
- The more aligned you are with your future self, the more likely you are to take care of your present self. Right now, I would say a majority of us are not thinking in a future-conscious way, we're thinking very much in the present. The more aligned I am with the future version of me, the more likely I am to save for retirement, the more likely I am to eat and exercise, the more likely I am to behave in a more ethical and pro-social way in my relationships with other people. The fact of the matter is now though, at a societal level, we have to be future-conscious in mass at a much higher level than we're used to because once we can solve for that, we can solve for the moment that we're in, and then start to solve for some of the bigger problems we're facing as a society. It's hard to think like that, but the more you are connected to the future self version of yourself, the more likely you are to bring the future into the present.
One of the things that we're trying to do at Longpath is get people to connect to their future self. But here's the thing: it's really, really tough to do, and we know that even when we examine people's brains. So Hal Hershfield at UCLA, along with his team, has done an amazing set of experiments and interventions. When he puts people into an fMRI machine, and he looks at the brain, he'll say, "Think of yourself right now," this part of the brain will light up. And then he'll say, "Think of Matt Damon," you know, someone famous that everybody knows, and this part of my brain will light up. Then he says, "Okay, Ari, now think of yourself And you know what happens? This part of my brain lights up.
So I had this vague idea of future Ari 10 years from now, but I'm as connected to him, the future Ari, as I am to Matt Damon. Then what we do is we pull folks outta the fMRI and we'll do a series of interventions. He will actually scan an individual's face and body, then he will age them about 10 years and he'll put them into a virtual reality room. And as current Ari is walking around the VR room, I'll actually look in the mirror and see my aged self The visual field when coupled with emotions is the strongest anchor to how we actually connect to something.
So when we think about how we are going to change and better connect with our future self, it's these interventions, that actually having us visualize and feel and emote and in many ways embody with our future self, that allows us to have that almost perfect overlap between today Ari and future Ari.
So, when I go downstairs at night and I'm hungry, there's two Ari's that are in the kitchen looking at the open door of the freezer. There's Amygdala Ari looking at the pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. I want that right now, I don't know where my next meal comes from. There's a prefrontal cortex part of Ari that says, "That's not in your best interest, you're not gonna like the way you look or feel in the weeks and months to come." Future-conscious is actually pushing that forward and saying, "Okay, we know we have these emotions, these drives for short-term satisfaction, but we can overcome them."
If more people were to bring a Longpathian mindset into what they do in their day-to-day, that would literally lead us to a kind of step change in how society operates. How is what I am doing now going to impact seven generations from now? Imagine how our entire global economy would operate if we had that as an underlying mission statement to both our actions and our strategies to how we move forward as a society. So it would literally evolve us into a way where we were moving forward almost at an exponential rate- in the same way that were exponential with technology, we'd be exponential with our morals and values in the way that we live.