Forget the future to reduce your fears

December 13, 2016

Our brain has the remarkable ability to imagine virtually any episode that we may experience in the future. This helps us planning and fosters farsighted decisions. However, we can sometimes get stuck in imagining situations that we fear may happen to us. In such cases, it may be beneficial to have brain mechanisms that stop persisting simulations. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) and the Medical Research Council, Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit (MRC CBSU) at the University of Cambridge have now demonstrated how the human brain can attenuate fears of the future by suppressing the building blocks of our imagination.

The human brain can attenuate fears of the future by suppressing the building blocks of our imagination.

“When we imagine the future, we take bits and pieces of our memories and recombine them into novel episodes”, explains Roland Benoit, research group leader at the MPI CBS and first author of the underlying studies published in the renowned journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS). “In prior studies, we have provided evidence that people can suppress unwanted past experiences. Now we hypothesized that a similar mechanism may also be used to ‘forget the future’ by suppressing details that are the building blocks for imagining recurrently dreaded situations.”

In two studies, the researchers therefore had volunteers list concrete situations that they feared may happen to them in their real life. They then were prompted with reminders of those fears, and asked to pay attention to the reminders whilst blocking out any thought or image of the feared event.

And indeed, suppressing imagination in this manner caused the volunteers to forget some of the key details of the feared situation when asked to recall them.  And when participants were asked to freshly imagine those events later on and describe them to the experimenter, their imaginings were less detailed.

“Importantly, suppressing imagination also made participants less apprehensive about the suppressed events, suggesting that controlling imagination may reduce anxiety”, says Michael Anderson from the MRC CBSU “However, not every volunteer was equally capable of regulating their future fears. People who reported higher anxiety in everyday life were less efficient at reducing apprehensiveness.” These findings may therefore help explain why people can have problems controlling unwanted thoughts about the future, as seen in anxiety disorders.

With the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) the researchers could show that the neural mechanism supporting future suppression is similar to the one previously linked to memory suppression. This mechanism is based on a brain region called the right dorsolateral-prefrontal cortex which, in turn, stops activity in two other brain areas that are critical for memory retrieval and future imagining—the hippocampus and the ventromedial part of the prefrontal cortex. “It’s extremely interesting that similar brain mechanisms may help human beings to forget the past and the future”, Roland Benoit adds.

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