Research carried out at the University of Pennsylvania has discovered that when imagining the future, the brain assumes two simultaneous and parallel functions: one draws what it will be like, the other assesses whether the prognosis is positive or negative. It uses the so-called default neural network (RND), responsible for much of the activity carried out while the mind is in apparent rest, to ask ourselves if we want what we are thinking to happen or not.
Practically every day we think about the future and about decisions that we will have to make. We generally do it when we are not focused on specific day-to-day activities, in those moments in which the hectic dynamics of everyday life slows down and gives us a break.
Now, scientists have discovered how this process unfolds through which we imagine the future and value different options.
As explained by neuroscientist Joseph Kable, lead author of the new study, the brain is “divided” into two areas of work when we think about the future. Although they act simultaneously, each of them performs different functions.
On the one hand, a sector is dedicated to the task constructive: design the future, imagine it and build it according to our wishes. At the same time, in another region the function is executed evaluative, through which the brain analyzes whether the future envisioned will be positive or negative.
The brain does not rest
According to a Press release, these processes are carried out in the so-called default neural network (RND). This network starts up when we are not carrying out specific or concrete activities, in those moments of supposed mental stillness the brain does not really rest.
Perhaps there are no external stimuli that motivate it, but the brain still does not stop working: it is believed that between 60% and 80% of all the energy used by the brain is used in circuits not related to external stimuli or events.
In other words, the brain has a “life of its own” that allows it to go beyond the everyday and obvious, as in this case imagining the future. And it is not always dedicated to issues that are too deep or existential: the default neural network can be activated when we need, for example, to decide where we will go on vacation next summer or when and how we will pay any outstanding invoice.
Construction and evaluation of the future
As part of the research, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers designed an experiment that allowed them to verify that the aforementioned functions, the “constructive” and the “evaluative”, take place in two different regions of the brain .
In principle, it is worth clarifying that the default neural network manifests itself mainly in different sectors of the cerebral cortex and in the hippocampus. But through the information obtained through brain images of different volunteers, the specialists verified the location of two subnets.
When people thought about the construction and design aspects of their future, a ventral subnet, which apparently would be specialized in the constructive function. On the other hand, when they tried to define whether the desired future would be positive or negative, a backbone subnet, in charge of the evaluative function.
Finally, scientists have already set themselves a new challenge: to determine by observing this brain network if it also influences the decisions made in the present, beyond the construction and evaluation of a future possible. In addition, it could be useful in unraveling the mysteries inherent in the processes that regulate imagination in the brain.
The ventral and dorsal default mode networks are dissociably modulated by the vividness and valence of imagined events. Sangil Lee, Trishala Parthasarathi and Joseph W. Kable. Journal of Neuroscience (2021).DOI:https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1273-20.2021
Photo: Priscilla Du Preez and Unsplash.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.