The Frontal Cortex

Thinking About Tomorrow

The lure of instant gratification is hard to resist: when we want something, we want it right now. Of course, maturity and reality demand that we learn to wait, that we postpone our pleasures until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. And so we stash money in our savings account, and forgo the SUV for the sake of climate change and don’t eat the entire pint of ice cream. We resist the tug of immediate delight for the sake of even more delight in the future.

That, at least, is how we’re supposed to behave. The problems arise with a mental process known as delay discounting, which refers to our tendency to discount the value of a future reward as a function of its temporal distance. (Rewards that are farther away are discounted more heavily.) Consider this experiment led by Samuel McClure and Jonathan Cohen, which involved putting people in an fMRI machine and making them decide between a small Amazon gift certificate that they could have right away, or a slightly larger gift certificate that they’d receive in 2 to 4 weeks. Cohen discovered that these two options activated very different neural systems. When subjects contemplated gift certificates in the distant future, brain areas associated with rational planning, like the medial prefrontal cortex, were more active. These cortical regions urge us to be patient, to wait a few extra weeks for the bigger gain.

On the other hand, when subjects started thinking about getting a gift certificate right away, brain areas associated with emotion⎯like the midbrain dopamine system and nucleus accumbens⎯were turned on. These are the cells that tell us to take out a mortgage we can’t afford, or run up credit card debt when we should be saving for retirement. All they want is a reward, and they want it now.

By manipulating the amount of money on offer in each situation, Cohen and his collaborators could watch this neural tug of war unfold. Our ultimate decision – to save for the future or to indulge in the present – was largely determined by whichever region showed greater activation. The people who couldn’t wait for the bigger gift certificate were led astray by their feelings. More emotions meant more impulsivity. (This also helps explain why showing men revealing pictures of attractive women, or what scientists refer to as “reproductively salient stimuli,” makes men even more impulsive: the photos potentiate their emotional circuits.) On the other hand, subjects who chose the larger Amazon gift certificate showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which allowed them to do the math and select the “rational” option.

A brand new study by neuroscientists at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf helped extend these results, revealing the brain systems that allow us to forgo instant gratification at a much more precise level. The experiment was straightforward: subject were given a variety of different reward magnitude, from 20 to 35 euros, and a reward delivery time (immediately, 30 days, or 45 days). So far, so predictable: this is a standard delay discounting paradigm. But here’s where this experiment gets interesting: in half of these trials, the reward option was presented along with an ”episodic cue” derived from a previous “prescan” interview. The scientists asked the subjects about their future plans, focusing on events that coincided with the arrival of the reward. (In other words, they wanted to know what people were doing 30-45 days in the future.) Here’s where the results get interesting: when people were cued to think about personal future events, they were less likely to engage in delay discounting when making decisions about the monetary rewards. In other words, they exerted more self-control, with a reduction in reward discounting paralleling the vividness of their imagined future events.

Because all this future thinking was taking place in an fMRI machine, the scientists were able to glimpse the anatomy underling our ability to think about the future. When people imagined future events, there was an intricate “functional coupling” between parts of the prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus. The unexpected result here is the consistent activation of the hippocampus, a brain area synonymous with the formation of long-term memory. Why, then, is it also active when we’re thinking about the future? Moshe Bar, in an illuminating commentary in Neuron, speculates:

Is the hippocampus directly involved in future-oriented processes, or is it instead active in such processes because foresight relies on memory? The conclusion may be that none of these networks–decision making, predictions, and memory–is truly independent and their function cannot be distinguished from each other’s: memory provides the basis for predictions, and predictions provide the basis for decision making.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the brain is the ultimate category buster. It takes all of our familiar distinctions – such as the clear divide between past and present, memory and foresight – and breaks down the divide. The end result is that a cortical fold specialized for the storing of the past is also recruited when we imagine an event 45 days in the future.

Needless to say, this data has many practical implications. For starters, it provides us with yet another tool in our cognitive kit when it comes to delaying gratification. While most techniques for fighting off errant impulses focus on reducing our emotional attraction to the reward – that’s why, for instance, Walter Mischel teaches kids to draw a picture frame around the marshmallow – this new research suggests that an even more effective approach involves activating vivid, episodic associations about future events. In other words, before we decide whether or not to make a big purchase, or take out a mortgage, or make a donation to a 401(k), or contemplate a policy devoted to climate change, we should spend a few minutes thinking about what we’re doing tomorrow. Interestingly, these associations don’t need to have any connection to the decision in question – it’s enough to simply contemplate the future. One possible explanation for this effect is that activating our “future-oriented processing” helps make the future seem more tangible and real. As a result, we’re better able to shrug off the visceral emotional pull of immediate rewards. We can’t always get what we want, but if we think about the future first, sometimes we can get what we need.

Comments

  1. #1 Alexis Madrigal
    April 19, 2010

    Great post. I like that the cue was episodic. It wasn’t just, “Think about the future,” but “Think about something distinct that may happen in the future.”

  2. #2 Cesar Torres
    April 19, 2010

    Jonah, your post never cease to make me turn my head and go “hmm” (in the best way possible). This article was particularly insightful. Good stuff!

  3. #3 royniles
    April 19, 2010

    The brain makes assessments based on a continuum scale from present to future – short term to long term as to goals and the chances of reaching them. Brains have learned in a metaphorical sense that they will die, and sooner than later. There are no fixed lines between the meaningful elements of the continuum – no abrupt switch from the short to the long term analysis, just a “cooperative” transition in use and emphasis.

  4. #4 Ryan Fox
    April 19, 2010

    I guess that’s related to why (stereotypically, anyway) when people are confronted with imminent death, they do very impulsive things, like having sex with the closest person.

  5. #5 Was Once
    April 19, 2010

    Thinking about the future is also is postponing your happiness…not allowing you to live in the present, right now. Enjoying life with all that is good and bad. With all positives that come with planning your future…it really only exists solely in your imagination. We can’t taste it until it is no longer our future.

  6. #6 royniles
    April 19, 2010

    True that.

  7. #7 Alice
    April 20, 2010

    So how do we get the big Wall Street types to think ahead to juicy headlines and embarrassing interviews before journalists and, perhaps, Congress instead of big numbers with lots of commas at the bottom of their assets list?

  8. #8 Niels
    April 20, 2010

    Very interesting. Another big question is, how much pleasure to fore go for future pleasure. A balance that not easy to master.

  9. #9 Suzie Heumann
    April 20, 2010

    Niels, don’t fore go ‘now’ sexual pleasure for future sexual please. Truth is that the more you engage in sensual and sexual pleasure the bigger your capacity for it becomes. Plasticity. We each have a ‘set point’ for receiving pleasurable stimuli but that set point is movable. The pathways expand ever greater and thus you can, especially through adding certain techniques, open up your neural gateways far greater than you might have been born with. Though I am speaking of techniques more like neo-tantric ones we’ve all read about the other direction ‘pleasure’ can go in. Be careful what you intend to expand!

  10. #10 Suzie Heumann
    April 20, 2010

    Thank you Jonah. I love this kind of article; facts, figures and great writing. And I love any speculation that you might want to throw in too!

  11. #11 Alan
    April 20, 2010

    Delaying gratification may serve an instrumental purpose, but the act of delay can itself be intrinsically gratifying, i.e., a form of gratification. Let me explain. If the brain abhors uncertainty, then it can experience a measure of contentment in considering an imagined *certain* enjoyment of some postponed benefits in the future–via self-mastery. Conversely, once the state of immediate gratification has passed, the brain wanders back to searching for the next source of gratification.

  12. #12 royniles
    April 20, 2010

    Suzie, sounds like you’re a fun person to be with. Not so much those later comers.

  13. #13 Vaughan
    April 20, 2010

    Hi Jonah, thanks for the heads-up on a great study. I’m reminded of the study that found that patients with hippocampal damage couldn’t imagine future experiences. Theories of future imagining (e.g. see this recent Dan Schacter paper) now suggest that the ability to visualise the future is heavily based on episodic memory.

  14. #14 jb
    April 21, 2010

    Have you ever wondered how animals are trained to jump through hoops, ride tricycles, etc.? It is on the basis of the future reward. You start by rewarding a related behavior in the present. The animal will then start offering this behavior as a way to get a reward. You can then shape the behavior and put it on cue. (See dolphin trainer Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog” for details.)A lot of these ‘tricks’ are impossible to do and eat a reward at the same time, so trainers substitute a whistle blast for the food reward. They also sound the whistle when the animal is being fed so an association is made. So the animal ends up hearing the whistle when the trick behavior is happening and is rewarded then, plus knows that it will get the ‘real’ reward when the act is over.

    This can also be used in a classroom of humans. If you want Juan to ask more questions in class you can’t throw him a fish when he raises his hand but you can make an obvious mark on a wall chart say, with Juan already knowing that 5 checks a week gets him extra ???? time (= the real reward) at the end of the week.

  15. #15 Joe Ornato
    April 21, 2010

    I see this everyday when it comes to mortgage financing for my clients. Most homes are bought and mortgaged based on instant gratification, but if the client had envisioned the future what would have changed? A nice practice that I have find that supports your blog post is simply giving clients a budget sheet BEFORE they buy and ask them to complete it based on how their future will look AFTER the purchase. This has helped my clients spend wisely when it comes to homes, but has made some enemies in the real estate industry! LOL

  16. #16 retriever
    April 21, 2010

    Great post. Fortunately for me, my spouse is extremely good at thinking of the future. Much to our kids’ sorrow, I have become far more rational about purchases and indulgences as a result: the kids groan when I say “Now annualize that…so the Iphone you want is only $70 a month, that is $840 a year plus the surcharges and overages…”

    I do think, tho, that there are times when one can be excessively future oriented. Just as careful investors mix their portfolios to balance risk and reward, there are times when impulsive going for the gusto can hit the jackpot. Think, for example, of the split second decisions that often meant the difference between meeting and/or first going out with the person who one marries. .

    Likewise, most of us nowadays cherish the prideful conceit that we will live to be a 100 (either because of good genes or faith in medical technology or hubris about our own “healthy” lifestyles). So we fret and worry about saving enough money to live on and get medical care all those years. In point of fact, if we scrimp and are stingy about experiences and taking care of our loved ones, we may well end up miserable, alone and/or dying early.

    I was a total disapproving jerk about some relatives for splurging on foreign trips and domestic junkets when he retired very young (ie: at 65) and thought that they should have stayed home to take care of their grandchild who had to go to day care while they gallivanted. In fact, it was fortunate that they did what they wanted. In only a few years, he was stricken with a bizarre brain infection, became a helpless invalid and she spent the next few years nursing him. Thank God they had had some wonderful experiences to enjoy together before that…

  17. #17 CSS
    April 21, 2010

    I had the privilege of working with William Hoffman on some of his work with fMRI and delayed discounting in methamphetamine users. It should come as no surprise that meth users are much more inclined to choose the smaller more immediate rewards over larger delayed rewards. The next big question is…how much of this is pre-meth behavior patterns and how much is the meth altering brain structure and function?

  18. #18 jb
    April 22, 2010

    “Mind In the Making” by Ellen Galinsky was featured on the CBS Evening News 4/21/10 and Katie Couric showed pics of kids doing the marshmallow test in discussing the importance of delayed gratification.

  19. #19 royniles
    April 23, 2010

    “memory provides the basis for predictions, and predictions provide the basis for decision making.”
    Except that it’s not the memory that makes the predictions, it’s the calculative processes that add in the future time factor and use different assessment algorithms for short versus long term expectations. And the marshmallow test was really not about delaying satisfaction for the long term, just for a bit longer in what was still the short term scenario.

    The kids that delayed gratification for later in the same day were just better strategists. How do we know that they weren’t also among the types who fell for the mortgage payment schemes that delayed the expected payoff pain for some of the same reasons we delay some expected pleasures. Both forms of delay can please strategists just through their activation of the strategies.

  20. #20 Valerie
    April 26, 2010

    I’d like to comment that the hippocampus is not just a ‘brain area synonym with long-term memory’, it has been shown to be engaged in both memory encoding and retrieval, novelty detection, and relational processing.. which makes it a bit less surprising that it was activated in the task described.

    There is actually a lot of evidence for the role of the hippocampus in both remembering the past and imagining the future: see Addis, Wong & Schacter (2007) and Schacter & Addis (2007) for good overviews.

    As for it’s role in foresight (e.g. planning) or ‘mental time travel’ (i.e. switching between thinking about the past and future) see Suddendorf & Corballis, 2008 for an excellent article.

  21. #21 axa
    April 30, 2010

    great closing! you quoted the philosoper mick jagger =)

  22. #22 Colleen McCaffery
    May 3, 2010

    I think it’s safe to say in my case that my midbrain dopamine system and nucleus accumbens are running the show much of the time (honey do forgive me for pushing for that farm in Ottawa—my nucleus accumbens made me do it…. prefrontal cortex said I told you so after we moved there and learned that farm life wasn’t quite as idyllic as we had imaged it during the 40 seconds it took us to sign the offer to purchase).

    In any case interesting that contemplating some aspect of the future helps to put the prefrontal cortex back in the driver’s seat—this brought to mind something I read in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (I believe!) to the effect that once you start to fill in the mundane day-to-day details of some future time then that changes things. Reality check. Certainly when I am daydreaming about grand things aloud to my husband and he intercepts with some small detail (like that we don’t have $754,989 for the house by the lake) I get annoyed because it immediately deflates the possibility and thus the “reward.”

    Interesting stuff! Now if you will excuse I’m off to eat a whole pint of ice cream.

  23. #23 Noel Coburn
    May 18, 2010

    Very comprehensive post Jonah. The benefits of thinking about the future first are central to Nadler and Hibino’s Breakthrough Thinking, which promotes purpose directed problem solving and first working on an ideal future solution before deciding on immediate or short term action.

  24. #24 ÿþN
    July 14, 2011

    solidpoints there. I did my own search on