Richard G. Petty, MD

How We Plan the Future

One of our most remarkable abilities is our capacity for creating a mental picture of events that have not yet happened. It certainly appears that many animals can do something similar, but the human ability to wait and to plan seems to be almost unique. Though with all the recent advances in our understanding about the emotional and cognitive skills of many animal species, I am wary about making too many claims about human specialness.

There is some fascinating research in today’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

Investigators from Washington University in St. Louis, have performed a set of experiments that will not only help us better understand what goes wrong in some diseases, but may ultimately help all of us to become better at visualizing.

They compared the functional MRI scans of 21 healthy volunteers when they were asked either to vividly imagine future events or to recollect past memories.

The images showed clear differences between imagining a birthday already experienced and a birthday yet to come.

In particular, when looking ahead, there were three particular areas of the brain that became activated – the left lateral premotor cortex, the left precuneus and the right posterior cerebellum. These areas of the brain are already known to be involved when we imagine executing body movements, suggesting that when the brain is thinking about the future, it does so in terms of distinct movements and actions that will happen at that point.

The research provides powerful support for the idea that memory and thought about the future are highly interrelated and may help explain why future thought may be impossible without memories.

Other research has shown that when volunteers are asked to think about playing baseball they activate the part of the brain involved in swinging the arm. You will now see the link with the item that I posted yesterday about learning to tango!

These findings are consistent with observations on people who have sustained damage to these regions of the brain: they lose the ability to think ahead. There is a small amout of data to suggest that some of these same regions do not function properly in some people diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, most of whom have a reckless disregard for the consequences of their actions.

People with depressive disorders often find it very difficult to generate a positive image of the future, in part  because their memory is impaired by the depression.

In classes we have also found that if people maintain complete stillness while visualizing it is quite different from moving and doing the physical actions as you visualize.

Try it for yourself and see what I mean.

“Man can only become what he is able to consciously imagine or to “image forth.”
–Dane Rudhyar (a.k.a. Daniel Chenneviere, French-born American Composer, Theosophist and Astrologer, 1895-1985)

“I am thought. I can see what the eyes cannot see. I can hear what the ears cannot hear. I can feel what the heart does not feel.”
— Peter Nivio Zarlenga

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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