The Power of Prospection

By: Neil Mufson
What do most of us humans unconsciously and consciously spend the most time thinking about? It may surprise you. According to an important body of emerging research, the answer is the future. UPenn psychologist Martin Seligman and a growing group of researchers believe, in fact, that what most differentiates our species from others is our ability to consider our prospects. “The power of prospection is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is central to the function of our large brain… for most of the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present.”
In a New York Times article entitled “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment,” Seligman writes, “It is increasingly clear that the mind is mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past. Behavior, memory, and perception can’t be understood without appreciating the central role of prospection. We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities…. Our emotions are less reactions to the present than guides to future behavior.” He notes that psychology is starting to recast the classical Freudian notions of behavioral problems as stemming from problems with the past to emanating from problems with prospection and how people view the future and assess risks.
Seligman hints at some potential educational implications of prospection when he notes that “Once children develop the ability to recall personal experiences (usually between ages 3 and 5)” they are able to increasingly envision alternative outcomes. With guided discussion about alternatives and noting the emotions they evoke, children can become more empathetic and make more pro-social decisions that are more firmly grounded in moral reasoning.  
“The main purpose of emotions is to guide future behavior and moral judgments,” say researchers who are staking out a new field called prospective psychology. And “the point of memory is to improve our ability to face the present and the future. To exploit the past, we metabolize it by extracting and recombining relevant information to fit novel situations.”  
As you know, this year at school we are focusing on ways we can create greater empathy in our children, a bedrock skill that can be learned and seems to me to be one of the most positive and concrete ways we can apply our very human powers of prospection.

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