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  • What are you going to eat for lunch tomorrow?

  • What are your plans for this weekend?

  • Where do you see yourself in five years?

  • Answering these questions requires looking into the future.

  • But when you make these predictions, what you're actually doing is accessing your memories.

  • Being able to accurately predict the future gives humans an evolutionary advantage.

  • I'm not talking about a fortune cookie or a horoscope that says your true love will find you next Tuesday.

  • I'm talking about the practical ability to anticipate when crops will be ready to harvest or to prepare for a meeting with your boss.

  • Planning beyond the present moment and even years into the future is indispensable to human life in society.

  • But how do we do it?

  • Researchers believe that we rearrange our memories of the past to put together a vision of what the future might look like.

  • They've discovered that memories and predictions take place in the same regions of the brain and appear to use the same underlying processes.

  • Scientists first learned about this connection by observing amnesia patients.

  • Not only were these patients unable to access their memories, but they also didn't have any idea of what they might do in the future.

  • More recently fMRI studies have allowed researchers to see into the brains of healthy people while they remembered the past and predicted the future.

  • The psychologist Carl Spooner observed that the activity in the brain during both tasks was almost completely overlapping.

  • Researchers have also found that as people age and start to develop memory loss, their ability to imagine the future declines as well.

  • This ability to envision moments in both the past and the future is known as mental time travel.

  • Mental time travel is different from just remembering facts.

  • It's about reliving scenes in your mind.

  • If you think about the last time you went to the beach your brain reconstructs the setting.

  • You feel the sunshine on your skin and the sand between your toes and you can smell the salt on the breeze.

  • In a similar way, when you imagine an event in your future, you're essentially pre-living it.

  • You construct a similar scene using details from your memory.

  • So the next time you plan a beach trip, you can imagine the feel of the sun in the sand before you've even packed your sunscreen.

  • Likewise, if you're imagining your future wedding, you'll probably cherry-pick elements from weddings you've been to as well as weddings you've seen on TV and movies or in magazines.

  • But the ability to predict the future using your memories does have one big disadvantage.

  • People often expect the future to be too much like the present.

  • Studies back up the conventional wisdom that if you go to the grocery store when you're hungry, you'll buy too much food, not realizing you won't always be this hungry.

  • Similarly, if you try to predict how you'll feel in the future about something, you're likely to be blinded by your current emotions.

  • For a vivid example of how future predictions are affected by the present, just watch an old sci-fi movie.

  • Take Back to the Future 2, which was made in 1989 and set in 2015.

  • It successfully predicted things like videoconferencing, drones, and facial recognition, but it assumed people would be still be using fax machines and pay phones.

  • Two technologies integral to life in the '80s which the filmmakers seemingly couldn't imagine a future without.

  • The future is always going to be full of surprises we can't predict.

  • But one thing's for sure, without our memories, we'd be totally in the dark.

  • This is You Are Here, a series about the science behind everyday life.

  • Tell us what topics you'd like us to discuss in the comments.

  • I'm Julie Beck, thanks for watching.

What are you going to eat for lunch tomorrow?

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