I’m in a rut. Now that COVID restrictions are being lifted, I’m wondering what to do about work. I love working from home, but I miss people. So, I decided to relax and imagine my future.
What do I want it to look like? Who do I want to meet? What am I going to do?
I imagined my future as a full-time writer. I imagined my office, in a new home, with a window looking out onto a large tree, with the sun shining. I imagined my laptop in front of me while sitting in my comfortable office chair with a cat on my lap.
I could see it. I could visualise it. And I could imagine it.
Go Ahead — Imagine the Future
When we imagine the future (or anything for that matter), two processes are taking place in the brain.
The first is imagining IMAGES of what we want, what it looks like and the details. For example, as I let my mind wander around the idea of being a writer full time for the rest of my life, I imagine and CONSTRUCT my surroundings. This creation piece is what researchers call “constructive” function as your imagination constructs scenarios. During this constructive phase, the images that come up in our mind can pop or be vague. This is referred to as Vividness.
As we hold on to those images (detailed or not), our mind then evaluates them using our EMOTIONS. I think about being a writer and think about how I love being on my own and how I love making my own schedule. During the evaluative phase, our mind uses emotional input to decipher whether an image or a situation is something we want to happen. It EVALUATES whether the event will be positive or negative. This is what scientists refer to as Valence.
These two processes are more important than we realise. We make decisions based on our wants, our memories (both subjective and objective, which I wrote about here), and when we think about our future, our imagination.
Our decisions are based on the EMOTION that is behind them. The evaluation process of our imaginations constructed images can make or break a decision.
How do these processes affect our decision making? Let’s look at a new study that’s come out helping us understand how we imagine, construct, and evaluate our future.
What’s the Science?
When we imagine our future, a specific area called the default mode network (DMN) in the brain is active. This network is elusive, yet it has been associated with mind-wandering, imagination and self-reflection.
Studies outline that when the DMN is not active, we perform better at tasks that require our attention. This seems obvious — shut off the DMN and focus , but we can’t focus all the time. Our mind needs time to reflect.
It’s here in the DMN where our imagination runs wild. And it is here that scientists have found the DMN splits into two complementary parts.
When we are in the imagination constructive phase, we’re building vividness. When we are in the evaluative stage, applying emotion, we’re building valence.
A study published just this week in the Journal of Neuroscience outlines how these two processes are neatly split between two areas of the DMN and their impact on our decision making.
The Study’s Findings
The study points out that a couple of things are happening during these two phases.
When we imagine “highly vivid events” versus an event that doesn’t have any detail, the sub-network of the DMN called the ventral default mode network is active. They found in their study that this activity, even if positive or negative evaluations were taking place, suggests it is part of the construction phase during imagination and hence building vividness.
The other sub-network, the dorsal default mode network, was more active for positive versus negative evaluations. Still, it wasn’t influenced by the vividness (or the other DMN sub-network), which suggests that this network is involved in the evaluative function, the valence piece.
In the UPenn Article, where the study was carried out, Joseph Kable’s head explains that these two processes provide a “neat division”.
Why It’s Important
These findings are important for several reasons.
- This research lays a foundation for further research. Now that the researchers could distinguish these processes neatly into two different regions, future research can begin to build on this information. It will also lend information for researchers to look at more nuanced evaluations, “moving beyond the simple good-versus-bad dimension”.
- It provides evidence that the construction of imagined events, individual components from memory, and the evaluation of our imagined events do not use the same network to form future-forward imagination.
This separate modifiability of different subcomponents of the DMN by vividness and valence provides strong evidence for a neurocognitive dissociation between (1) the construction of novel, imagined events from individual components from memory and (2) the evaluation of these constructed events as desirable or undesirable.
3. But for us, non-researchers, it holds another insight. One that is so important that it requires us to think and possibly act differently. The author explains that this division in processes may explain why we tend to value immediate outcomes versus potential future outcomes.
What’s The Impact?
When I read this new study on the DMN, it now makes sense that the vividness of my imagination that produced so many positive emotions (a positive psychology intervention tool) is done by one sub-network. Yet, when I started to evaluate, the other sub-network went to work.
Quote: “When psychologists talk about why humans have the ability to imagine the future, usually it’s so we can decide what to do, plan, make decisions. But a critical function is the evaluative function; it’s not just about coming up with a possibility but also evaluating it as good or bad.”
The authors provide a theory that because the future isn’t as detailed or vivid as something in the here and now (it’s not tangible), we make decisions based on the present and not what we imagine in our future.
To change that, perhaps we can look to this study to change the way we make decisions?
As a coach, I work with individuals looking for their purpose in life and help them get over thinking blocks. This new study may provide us with a new way of thinking about how we make decisions.
Imagination & Decision Making
Decision making is a huge area of study and can take many different perspectives. You can look at decision-making from an economic point of view, a neuroscience point of view, and a philosophical point of view. But Imagination has a role in decision making especially when we’re making decisions.
In a paper titled “The Role of Imagination in Decision-Making”, the author argues that we not only use rational and motivational pursuits to make decisions, but those decisions also include your desires and your beliefs within your imagination’s eye.
For example, I have two actions to possible take, so which one do I engage in? I could either have a coffee meeting for an hour with a colleague or spend the time writing. So, I imagine myself as a full-time writer and compare those images with having coffee with a colleague. Whatever decision I make, I not only used my rational and motivational mind, but I also used my values, my beliefs, and my desires.
If you imagine your present self…this will not give you a particularly reliable way of deciding. It is irrelevant how your present self would feel in that situation, as your present self will never be in it. But if you imagine your future self in that situation, you would need to have some idea about how your future self may be different from your present self, which, again, requires imagination. You can imagine what your future self will be like, but you have no reliable information about what it will be like. — Bence Nanay, Author
What’s most important here is that we usually use what’s called the “belief-desire framework” when we rationalise a decision after its made, and this “in fact relie[s] on imagination.”
Pulling It All Together
With the new findings of the Default Mode Network and linking that with decision-making models, we can develop new ideas about making decisions.
Perhaps, spending more time imagining the outcome, using our DMN and vividness to CONSTRUCT a more detailed picture could help in decision making as long as we time travel forward and imagine what we may be like then.
When we get into that EVALUATIVE stage, adding in the emotion, perhaps having a pause button to imagine and evaluate the future differently, may be beneficial.
Either way, I’m just glad I know that two networks are working for me, giving me new insight into how I use my imagination. Our brain has and always will utilise our imagination to help us make decisions, so let’s work it.
Go Get ’Em Beth!
Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli and Judith M. Ford, Default Mode Network Activity and Connectivity in Psychopathology, Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 2012 8:1, 49–76. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032511-143049
Sangil Lee, Trishala Parthasarathi and Joseph W. Kable, The ventral and dorsal default mode networks are dissociably modulated by the vividness and valence of imagined events, Journal of Neuroscience 17 May 2021, JN-RM-1273–20; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1273-20.2021
Nanay, B. (2016). The Role of Imagination in Decision-Making. Mind & Language, 31(1), 127–143. doi:10.1111/mila.12097