Imagination Beyond the Constraint of the Past

To generate a future for a thriving humanity will take a critical mass of us imagining realities that stretch far beyond what we know from the past.  So, how do we go about that?

Let’s start with an understanding of the past and the future.  It may seem obvious that both the past and the future are essentially not real and are functions of our memory.  This poses a significant limit on our ability to generate new, bold futures.

Wait a minute!  The past and the future are not real?  The future is a function of our memory?

 Okay, I’ll slow down.

If you look, the past and the future are not a thing like the computer, tablet or phone on which you are reading this post.  You can’t go to the store and buy a pound of future or a pound of past.  While the past and the future exist, they exist in a very different way than the physical objects around us. They exist in how we speak about them and in the memory, in the neural structures of the brain. 

The past is also malleable, it’s not fixed.  Research by Donna Bridge and others at Northwestern University showed that “Every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. Thus, the next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time.”

So, not only is the past not real, our memory of the past can’t be relied on to be accurate.

(Now, if you have brothers and sisters like I do, you are very clear their memory of events of childhood are not accurate and  your version of those events is the accurate version.)  

Okay, so what about the future being a function of our memory?

Julie Beck in her article in The Atlantic points out how our predictions of the future are based on memories of the past.  When we think about dinner tonight we base our view of the future on our memories of past dinners. Additionally, the regions of the brain activated when remembering the past and when forecasting the future were “almost completely overlapping”.

So what about this is a limit on our ability to generate new, bold futures?

As Beck says about people dreaming of the future, “even though they can dream up detailed, novel scenes of things yet to come, their imagined futures are really just projections of their pasts.” Therefore, most of our imagining about the future is limited by our accumulated experiences.  These experiences, meaning the memories of the past, are “the only building blocks you have to construct a vision of the future.”  Therefore our vision of the future is limited by our memories of the past.

To generate a future for a thriving humanity, we need to imagine beyond the limitations of the past.

One way to break free of these constraints is to start imagining 100-year, even 1000-year futures; futures that span several generations, futures that extend far beyond our lifetimes.

While simple in principle, most people find that difficult at first. We have years of limiting ourselves with the past.  There are a few common things people encounter when beginning to consider a future unbounded by the past:

  • Going blank – not being able to think of anything
  • Limiting our imagination only to those things we see how to do
  • Coming up with reasons why something can’t happen, even before the full thought has been formed
  • Trying to figure out how to do something before we’re willing to fully imagine it

Imagining the future beyond the constraints of the past is similar to developing any other skill, such as a new athletic or artistic pursuit: it takes practice.  The more we practice, the better at it we get.

To start, ask: In 100 years, what does a thriving humanity look like?

Don’t worry about getting it right, don’t concern yourself with figuring out how to get there, don’t even spend any time trying to be practical.  Just imagine.  The more all of us are imagining futures for a thriving humanity, the more we will be talking about it, and the more we will be taking action toward it.

You taking the time to imagine futures for a thriving humanity is important.  We invite you to take this on as a practice, meaning an activity in which you engage regularly.  Maybe once a week for 15 minutes you imagine what a future for a thriving humanity looks like.  Maybe an hour a month with others.  Maybe 5 minutes each day.  Find what works for you.

As you begin to practice, it will become easier.  You’ll notice where you are limiting your imagination and you will transcend the limit. And, it will begin to shape how you see the world you inhabit.  For a moment, imagine what it would look like, what it would feel like if you spent 5 to 10 minutes a day imagining futures for a thriving humanity.

We look forward to hearing what you imagine!


Northwestern: Each time you recall an event, your brain distorts it

The Atlantic: Imagining the Future Is Just Another Form of Memory

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3 Responses
  1. Yes indeed, it can be very beneficial to imagine far ahead!
    However, I have this concern, personal interest or should I call it a prayer regarding the creative imagination for a better furure:
    it would be/will be so great if this wonderful future scenario which we are dreaming about and imagining, at least can start unfolding
    during the rest of my lifetime – which for sure (or almost for sure) is going to be less than 100 years from now – so let’s get practical about it NOW!

    1. Maria, you have derived the essence of NOW. How do we orient ourselves towards a desirable future and take action NOW. The orientation is important so we know that the steps we are taking are ones that can lead us to a better future. The time frame is one that removes the selfish motivations of doing better for oneself over all others. Standing in that time we can look back and clearly see which steps to take that would lead to that future. Then we get into action NOW! making a difference, improving lives – of others and ourselves – all in the context of a thriving future. Both part are necessary.

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