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In Conversation: Mental Time Travel

Gareth Priday and Janie Busby Grant

future / future

Chronference Premiere: Melbourne 2014

Gareth Priday from Action Foresight spoke on his Master’s research at Chronference, September 2014 under the future perspective of the future, representing things yet to take form. This conversation on Mental Time Travel was sparked by his presentation, and Janie Busby Grant's research interests at the University of Canberra.

Gareth: Janie, it was lovely to meet you at the Chronference and I’m excited to have this conversation. I mentioned that I’m a futurist or foresight practitioner, these get used interchangeably a bit, but I’ll use futurist and futures as the field of study for this discussion.

Janie: Thanks for the invite to participate in this Gareth. I’m glad we’ve had a chance to continue our conversation. As a research and teaching cognitive psychologist, in many ways I am a traditional academic, and it’s really interesting to me the very different ways other people conceive of the future, and use this understanding, in other contexts. I’m hoping to learn a great deal about what it is you do.

Gareth:The futures field has blurry edges so giving a strict definition that everybody is going to agree to can be a bit tricky. For this discussion, I think we should go with Wendell Bell who wrote one of the first books that really defined the field. He proposed that the “distinctive contribution of futurists is prospective thinking” and that the purposes of futures studies “are to discover or invent, examine and evaluate, and propose possible, probable and preferable futures”. More generally futures is about generating multiple forward views of the future, which can be used to inform our actions now; after-all we can’t know what ‘The Future’ will be we can only explore our ideas about it from the present.

Janie: What I really like is this very concrete applied approach you’re describing. While generating projections about the future is of course (!) fascinating, it’s taking steps to use these ideas for decision-making in the present that grabs my attention. We do this constantly in everyday life, but usually without a great deal of awareness, so what you’re talking about is clearly describing this process, generating the future scenarios, and then explicitly applying this knowledge to the present.

Gareth: Some time ago when I was studying for my masters degree I noticed that I would have the occasional ‘flash forward’ as I thought of them then; involuntary mini visualisation of the future. There would always be some clear indication that these were future oriented, e.g. I would be older. They were often informed by material we’d been studying so there may be some new technology present or noticeable social changes. Like most people I could also generate these little flash forwards through deliberate effort as well, although these tended to lack the emotional impact and clarity of the involuntary ones. Then I stumbled across the neuroscience literature on Mental Time Travel (MTT), it seemed that what was being described was very much like my experiences and I began to wonder if neuroscience of MTT could inform futures methods, perhaps even shed some light on whether we ‘i.e. humans’ really do narrow down or ideas and thoughts about the future or not and …well there’s a very a long list of other questions that we will hopefully come to later.

I’m wondering what attracts you to the science of psychology in general and MTT in particular? Perhaps you give a definition of Mental Time Travel as well?

Janie: Sure! I’m interested in the cognitive processes by which we recall our past and generate scenarios in our future – called Mental Time Travel. Essentially it’s a catchy name for a trick we humans use all the time, in which we construct a projection of ourselves in some other time, whether located in the past or the future. So what you’re describing as your ‘flash forwards’, I’d think of as you using a more general, generative ability to recombine different ‘bits’ of info to create a possible future scenario. To be clear, a certain type of memory, episodic memory, is conceptualised as working much the same way – recombining bits of information to reconstruct a past event you’ve experienced.

I’m intrigued as to how my approach could intersect with what it is you do. What exactly do you mean by ‘futures methods’? Does thinking of the process of thinking about the future and past sound similar meaningful to you?

Gareth: I should point out that in most cases futures work is done in a group setting, with the aim of making those implicit assumptions in the group explicit. Having said that many can be applied in personal settings too, Verne Wheelwright is a futurist who does exactly that.

In an organisational context, a typical futures process looks for signs of change with an emphasis on things that are outside of the organisation and its typical industrial segment, not only trends but groups who are experimenting with new ideas. Think strategic intelligence on steroids. Taking all of this and the group’s prior knowledge you might perform some analysis to try and make sense of it all and look for deeper underlying issues; generating systems maps and looking for tipping points would be an example of this. Afterwards this would be used to generate the kinds of forward views that were mentioned earlier, often in the form of 3-4 scenario stories about different futures which tip these assumptions in different ways.

Janie: Ok so in my terminology you’re talking about generating and then using semantic knowledge of the future here – information about what kinds of events, tools, problems etc. people might come across in the future. You’re then using this semantic knowledge gained from a whole range of sources to build specific episodic scenarios. It’s fascinating to hear you discuss this process so explicitly – in cognition research we’ve tended to think of this as an internal, individual and almost unconscious process (like the involuntary mini visualisations you discussed earlier).

Gareth: Each of these stories can be tracked back through the analysis and to the data collected. They make a nice expert “thud” as they hit the CEO’s desk which is important because often several of the scenarios will seem outlandish or scary. Scenarios are usually the thing that people have come across in terms of futures work. Traditionally it’s thought that it’s the ’journey’ that counts, i.e. participating in all of the steps rather than just looking at the end product, although I think a well-constructed scenario can be of use on its own. In terms of generating these forward views there are quite a variety of methods using rational thinking, metaphor and intuition.

Rational methods, like drawing up system maps and looking for tipping points, are probably a bit more mainstream. The metaphor or intuition based ones many have more interest for you.

A great metaphor based method is called “Causal Layered Analysis” and was developed by Sohail Inayatullah– here’s a link if you want more details as I’m going to simplify a lot! This is an analysis tool as well as a mechanism for generating scenarios. You start by looking at the problem from the point of view of the everyday discussion – what is being said around the water cooler, or if a tabloid article was writing about it what would the headlines say. The next stage goes a little deeper, the kinds of explanations you might find in good opinion pieces in broadsheets, looking for systemic causes. Below this is the world view which supports the style of commentary above. This is the layer of ‘isms’ and ‘ideologies’. Once you get here there is a final step to the metaphor which might be a fairy story, animal, car; by naming it, it reveals a deeper sense of the problem. In organisational settings when someone shouts out “goldilocks and the three bears” or “meerkats” or whatever the metaphor might be and everyone shouts “yes that’s it!” it can be quite profound moment. From here you can work back up changing the metaphor and asking what would arise at each layer based on the new metaphor.

As an example from a course I ran, I had a group use CLA to examine the immigration debate. So at the top level it’s all “stop the boats” and similar slogans. The next layer captured some of the arguments about refugee rights, economic migrants, means of travel, and so on. These are supported by things like the idea of nation states, international law, capitalism, humanitarianism and so on. The metaphor (or myth) from aspects of the current debate may be the notion of ‘invasion’ or ‘no room at the Inn.’ Taking new metaphors to generate new strategies the idea of ‘guest house’ and ‘migrating birds’ were used. Depending on which metaphor you use, the strategy or scenario developed is very different. My understanding is that perhaps some of the brain sites used in MMT are also used for storing these deeper stories /metaphors.

Another pioneer in the field, Oliver Markley, developed a method called Mental Time Travel (!) where participants, having done some research around the field of interest, would go into a near meditative state and visualise themselves in the future where a particular policy, technology or other aspect had been implemented. This might be repeated several times for different policy options or technologies. The participants would be asked to share what stood out for them and, most importantly in my view, what they would do differently now armed with this knowledge. At the end of the session everyone would share their experiences and insights. This is intended to tap into intuition, ‘supra-mental ways of knowing’ or transpersonal super-conscious. Here’s the man himself talking about this and other methods - prophetic foresight and some of the comments about the benefits from people who use the process.

I think there’s probably quite a bit of overlap between the method and the cognitive process. Whether tapping into the transpersonal or not there will be some involvement of grey matter along the way.

What there is in common across these methods is that there is a process for thinking about the future(!), they are all expansive in terms of considering alternatives and they ask of us what do we do that’s different based on these insights. I’ve taken the long way around to answer your questions….I’ve tried to give an overview which shows the range of methods and hopefully there will be some that intersect with your work that we can explore some more.

Janie: Wow, there’s a lot going on in what you’ve just covered! I’m interested particularly in the way these different approaches all focus on gaining and changing semantic information, then using this new general knowledge to build a range of possible future scenarios, and specifying different decision-making that would be relevant to those different scenarios. For instance (let me know if I’m off track or feel free to give me another example) a telco being shown data that indicates video calls are about to show a huge spike in usage over the next 10 years. This would lead to developing a number of episodic scenarios, including how individuals of different ages/backgrounds/conversation content might use video calls. This generation of episodes would provide a great deal of information about human behaviours are likely to occur, and hence feedback that would lead to specific decision-making around say handset design and auxiliary technology to support that. Is this roughly the process you are describing?

Gareth: In terms of thinking about the past there’s another long post about how the past gets used in futures, but I’m not sure that’s what you mean. The way I interpreted the cognitive process of mental time travel was that past and future as ‘left to their own devices’ were very similar, but that future thinking could include some extra information about the future, but it was still a singular experience rather than generating several alternatives at the one time? So your example of the telco will generate alternative futures, but from the same perspective. We may think we know our past really well, however unfounded this may be, but generally we don’t really know what our future holds but probably limit our thinking unless we use imagination or tools to deliberately broaden our views. The time and effort this takes it quite high though, we can’t do this for every decision, so we have to work out which ones count (but how can you tell…?)

Janie: As far as I know this is one aspect of thinking about the future that hasn’t been discussed much yet, that is, how different episodes of ourselves in the future sit alongside each other. My sense is that we all seem perfectly (cognitively) fine with creating a range of different and some times contrary possible scenarios of ourselves in the future, just substituting and changing elements as we please. I think delineating between a ‘realistic’ episodic future scenario and an unlikely or even impossible one is very difficult, and linking it to behaviour, you’re right, that the impact of this on decision-making is substantial. Whether it’s companies making poor decisions assuming their target markets will remain unchanged, or individuals unable to leave the house because they imagine they’ll be exposed to Ebola (whether this is realistic or not clearly depends on context!), our imaginings of our future clearly have a direct impact on behaviour and ‘fitness,’ to bring it back to the basic biological definition.

Gareth: Yes I didn’t see anything in what I read (although a small subset) that really looked at using MTT to explore multiple scenarios of the same time frame and – perhaps more importantly – I didn’t see anything that talked about this happening spontaneously; there maybe involuntary MTT but not involuntary MTT for very different flavours of that one future. So it seems to me that we have this wonderful tool that helps us imagine what the future maybe like and it can included new technologies or social practices based on some semantic information that we may not have had any experience of and yet it only generate one insight rather than exploring several. On the one hand it’s expansive at the same time it doesn’t reach out, unless we make a deliberate effort, to explore several alternatives.



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