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What's your memory of the future?


  • Social brain
  • Communities
  • Drug & alcohol recovery

Where do you see yourself in five years? Married? Divorced? New job? Children? Promoted? New home? Moved to another country?

You have options and you can visualise them. But some people can’t imagine their future and what you can’t imagine you can’t do – right? Ask the question of people who have used drugs and alcohol problematically for a long time and the answers are very different. Many of the responses will be ‘dead’ and for most others, it is simply a ridiculous question as they can’t see beyond the next couple of days.

This was the reality for many of the people we spoke to as part of the User Centred Drug Services Project.  Even though we conducted the survey a year ago, these responses are fresh in my mind mainly as they contrast so vividly to the hopefulness that pervades our more recent discussions around recovery.

Last week I had lunch with RSA Fellow Tony Hodgson who has been working with us on the project. Tony introduced me to ‘memory of the future’ which was developed by D. Ingvar in the 1980’s and which, Tony suggested, might offer an explanation for the answers given above. Memory of the future is explained:

“Evidence is summarized that the frontal / prefrontal cortex [of the brain] handles the temporal organization of behaviour and cognition, and that the same structures house the action programs or plans for future behaviour and cognition. As these programs can be retained and recalled, they might be termed ‘memories of the future’ It is suggested that they form the basis for anticipation and expectation as well as for the short and long term planning of a goal-directed behavioural and cognitive repertoire.”

So basically, there are parts of the brain that controls how we plan for the future and in many ways imagine our future based on past and present experience.

When you’re presented with new options or opportunities your brain will kick into gear. It will begin to think through the various impacts of different decisions or choices all at amazing speed and largely without you realising that you’re doing it [see the Steer Report to learn more about this]. You may not even realise that you have been presented with an option or an opportunity but your brain has taken account of what is around you, what you know, who you know, what you want to achieve in life, how to get things done, and who can help you. This is done with the added knowledge that you have support networks around you; parents to offer guidance, role models to demonstrate possible pathways, friends to help you, services that will support you.

What’s interesting about memory of the future (especially for the RSA’s work) is that it relies on those parts of the brain that have been shown to be negatively affected by abuse of drugs and alcohol:

“Lesions or dysfunctions of the frontal / prefrontal cortex give rise to states characterized by ‘loss of future’, with consequent indifference, inactivity, lack of ambition, and inability to foresee the consequences of one’s future behaviour.”

This means that for those people who have a long history of problematic drug or alcohol use, imagining a positive future beyond their present is far more difficult then we may have thought. Especially if they are also experiencing many of the problems often related to problematic drug and alcohol use i.e. homelessness, debt, health problems, stigma, and poor family relationships.

The good news is that these parts of the brain can be repaired. I assume – because I’m no expert and need to do some more digging - this will take time. It would follow then, that making recovery more obvious and realistic rather than something for the sub-conscious to imagine is the best possible way forward for practitioners and the growing number of recovery networks.

Thankfully, this seems to be the direction of travel for the recovery movement; putting a face and a voice to recovery, celebrating successes and sharing stories of hope. The RSA plans to continue this in our work in West Sussex but also to use it as a foundation for the Recovery Capital Project in Peterborough. Taking this further, we want to physically map out the possibilities and the options, providing the space and tools that will allow individuals to point the finger to real opportunities and visualise their own future.

(Source: Ingvar D.H. "Memory of the future": an essay on the temporal organization of conscious awareness. Hum Neurobiol. 1985; 4(3): 127-36)

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