Episodic Future Thinking: What It Is And What It Is For

Episodic future thinking

Human beings remember the past, live in the present and imagine the future. It is in that future where any option is possible.

The future is something that has not reached us yet, but we can imagine ourselves and how we are going to face what appears at that moment.

This action of seeing oneself in what could happen next is called episodic future thinking and it is something fundamental in our behavior. It is what allows us to guide our behavior to reach a goal, and below we are going to look at it in more depth.

What is episodic future thinking?

Being able to think about the future is an integral component of human cognition. In fact, this ability imagining events that have not yet taken place, but that we see as plausible In the future it is considered a crucial aspect when it comes to differentiating ourselves from the rest of the animals.

Episodic future thinking is the human ability to project our own existence onto an event that has not yet occurred It could be understood as our ability to imagine ourselves in an event that we believe is possible. In essence, it is about pre-experiencing something, a future event.

From what part?

The idea of ​​episodic future thinking, originally conceptualized by Cristina M. Atance and Daniela K. O’Neill, part of Endel Tulving’s idea of ​​episodic memory

This author classified memory into two types: semantic and episodic. According to Tulving, semantic memory is that which is broadly defined as knowledge of the world (knowing meanings, dates of historical events, data in general…). Instead Episodic memory has to do with being able to remember experiences related to our person that is, re-experiencing past events.

For example, we would talk about semantic memory if we try to remember the name of our institute, what our classmates and teachers were called, what we saw in the biology class and what exactly Lamarck’s theory was about. On the other hand, episodic memory would have to do with memories that school brings us, when we fight with one of our classmates or fail an exam and the teacher scolds us.

You may be interested:  Are Impulsive Phobias Dangerous?

Based on this, it can be understood that episodic memory and seeing ourselves in a future situation have a lot to do with each other. It is as if we remember, but instead of looking at the past we do it looking at the future

Furthermore, this same idea is based on another of Tulving’s, autonoetic consciousness, which is what mediates the knowledge of the individual’s own existence and identity in subjective time, extending from the personal past through the present to the future. staff.

This consciousness, along with the idea of ​​episodic memory, would be what would allow us to “travel to the future.” We would re-experience experiences already lived but projecting them into the future.

It is worth understanding that when we talk about episodic future thinking it is not synonymous with “pure” imagination. In this process there is no excessive creative process but a visualization of what the future may be like taking into account different factors, both positive and negative, that limit and focus the future scenario that we are pre-experiencing.

To understand it better, we may be planning a beach vacation. To do this, we are imagining ourselves enjoying those well-deserved vacations, but we also imagine ourselves working the previous week to get ahead with work, we imagine what we are going to put in the backpack and what we are not going to put in the backpack and what we are going to need while we are there. That is, we set more or less realistic limits when it comes to imagining and experiencing the future event.

Related concepts

There are several concepts related to episodic future thinking.

Prospective memory

Prospective memory is the memory we use when remembering something with the intention of carrying it out in the future. That is, it is take into account an action that we want to carry out in the future with the intention of achieving a goal or objective

For example, a use case for prospective memory would be when we have to remember to send a message to a family member or friend the next time we see them, or to water the plants the next time we go out on the balcony.

Three processes are involved within prospective memory:

Episodic future thinking has a lot to do with prospective memory, especially when we try to generate a way to remember what we have to do

You may be interested:  Does Empathy Exist in the Animal Kingdom?

For example, suppose we have to take medicine immediately after getting home today. To make sure we take it, we decide that, before leaving home, we are going to leave the medicine on the kitchen table, near where the glasses are.

The reason why we have left the medicine in the kitchen is not random. We have predicted what we are going to do as soon as we get home, knowing that we are going to go into the kitchen to have a snack after a tiring day at work. Thus, when we arrive we will see the medicine and remember that we have to take it.

Judgments and decision making

Human beings tend to be more optimistic when it comes to imagining when we are going to finish a project, especially if the project date appears very far away in time This has been called the planning fallacy.

One of the explanations behind this fallacy is the fact that we tend to base our predictions only on the future plan, ignoring or leaving aside all the details that could affect the duration of what we have to do.

People’s tendency to engage in episodic future thinking, and their accuracy in making predictions about future events, may also be mediated by the temporal proximity of the future event in question.

It has been seen that People represent events that are further away in the future more abstractly, even if the information they have about the event remains constant. It has been seen that people tend to consider time limitations only when the event is closer in time.

Episodic future thinking and its development in childhood

The ability to imagine oneself in possible future situations varies depending on chronological age. Around the third year of life, both the ability to speak and other aspects related to behavior, such as being able to prepare for an event that has not yet happened, reflect awareness about the future. It is at this age that an understanding of the future appears in the child’s speech that is not limited to a simple recapitulation 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, words appear in the child’s speech that indicate uncertainty about the future, such as “perhaps” and “possibly.” These constructions about the future are not based only on the past and what has already been experienced, but on projections for the future, predictions and hypotheses.

You may be interested:  How to Cultivate Healthy Habits to Have a Strong Mind?

The ability to plan for the future increases between 3 and 5 years For example, at these ages you can ask them “what do you imagine you are going to do in the park?” and the child can tell us everything he wants to do, run with other children, play in the sand, go for a walk but not play with the swings because they scare him. Thus, he tells us what he is sure, more or less, that he is going to end up doing, instead of telling us what he has done before.

By the age of 5, the child has a better planning capacity, not only in terms of language. He is already capable of prepare and make decisions for the future, and establish a series of goals to meet, although still in a much less organized way than in adults. You are more aware of the future and how you can change it.

It has even been seen that preschool children have a certain capacity to consider the future consequences of their behavior. This has been widely exemplified by Walter Mischel’s candy (also called marshmallow) test. 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, he will have another candy. From the age of 4, children prefer to wait and receive twice as much as not to control themselves and eat the marshmallow.

What relationship does it have with psychopathology?

Episodic future thinking has been related to clinical psychology, especially when it comes to understand the course and concerns expressed by patients with disorders such as anxiety or depression

One thing that has turned out to attract a lot of attention is the type of future-oriented thinking of people who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder. Although in the general population episodic future thinking constitutes a very important portion of cognitive activity, helping to plan future situations, it has been seen that in patients with this anxiety disorder, thinking about the future is more nonspecific and negative.

In this case it is presented a worry about the future that, in the context of the disorder, is analogous to rumination and general and abstract thoughts are presented, lacking concrete and specific details. Patients with generalized anxiety have a mental image that is more likely to not visualize realistic future scenarios, but rather to experience worry about the aversive event that they imagine will happen to them.