Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Your Mind Is a Private Time Machine

Foresight is a powerful tool, even if we frequently get things horribly wrong.

Key points

  • Human foresight is a powerful tool but it can fail spectacularly.
  • Even when people have a clear view of what lies ahead, they can fail to act accordingly.
  • Paradoxically, much of the power of foresight derives from the very awareness of its limits.

The human mind is a virtual time machine. With it, we can relive past events and imagine future situations, even if we have never experienced similar situations before. Humans do this incessantly, daydreaming about summer vacations, savoring the thought of dinner dates, and brooding over test results. Because humans are mental time travelers, we can prepare for opportunities and threats well in advance, trying to shape the future to our own design.

Foresight and its limits

Foresight, our ability to anticipate events and act accordingly, is perhaps the most powerful tool at our disposal. This ability, while often overlooked, is key to the human story. Of course, just because we can imagine the future does not mean we actually know what will happen.

Much of what comes to pass we do not anticipate, and much of what we anticipate does not come to pass.

Human foresight can fail spectacularly. Even professionals specializing in prediction, such as stockbrokers and meteorologists, often struggle to forecast the price of gold next quarter or whether it will rain next Tuesday. You may have heard of backyard engineers attaching helium balloons or rockets to their chairs in eager anticipation of flight or speed but without adequate contemplation of how they might suddenly drop or stop. And history is littered with anecdotes of poor planning with catastrophic consequences, such as when Queensland government officials brought cane toads to Australia to kill the pesky cane beetle, only for the toads to reproduce out of control and ravage the local ecosystems.

To help them peer ahead in time, humans have long searched for clues in nature. While the future cannot be found in entrails or tea leaves, some natural patterns can help us predict and prepare. The ancient Greeks, though they would routinely consult the oracle before embarking on a major venture, also created remarkably effective forecasting tools. A room in the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens is dedicated to one particularly enigmatic artifact used for this purpose. Pulled from the Aegean Sea in 1901 by sponge divers off the island of Antikythera, the unassuming lump of mangled wood and corroded metal would only many decades later be identified as the world’s earliest-known analog computer. It is more than 2,000 years old.

Exterior photo courtesy of Flickr user Tilemahos Efthimiadis, CC BY 2.0
Exterior photo courtesy of Flickr user Tilemahos Efthimiadis, CC BY 2.0

The Antikythera mechanism is a relic of astonishing technological complexity, featuring dozens of interlocking bronze gears and faded, arcane inscriptions. By turning a hand crank, its operator could select a calendar day on a front dial and predict the future of celestial bodies: the movement of the planets, phases of the moon and eclipses of the sun. The Roman statesman Cicero enthused that by contemplating the predictable regularities of the heavens, “the mind extracts the knowledge of the Gods.”

courtesy of Freeth et al., 2021, Scientific Reports, CC BY 4.0
courtesy of Freeth et al., 2021, Scientific Reports, CC BY 4.0

Modern humans have extracted ever more knowledge about nature and how to predict its course. Though we might struggle to conduct any of the required calculations ourselves, today we can precisely forecast the time of high tide or the passage of celestial events by consulting devices that fit into our pockets. Venus will transit the sun on March 27—and Mercury will do the same a day later—in the year 224,508. Closer to home, our everyday lives are increasingly built on shared schedules and models of the future that guide human co-operation. We clock into our nine-to-fives, meet for weekly book clubs and toil toward important deadlines.

Even when we know better

Nonetheless, it is painfully obvious that even when we have a clear view of what lies ahead, we can fail to act accordingly. On Christmas Eve in 2019, New York politician Brian Kolb published a newspaper column warning the public about the dangers of drunk driving—advising that by “thinking ahead and coming up with a plan before imbibing, many regrettable situations can be avoided”—only to be himself found inebriated at the wheel of his car in a ditch a week later.

Though it is easy to laugh at such hypocrisy, it may not be hard to come up with your own personal examples of imprudent decisions in spite of unambiguous forecasts and best intentions. When waking up with a terrible hangover, have you ever sworn never to touch a drop again—only to find yourself beer in hand before long? Have you ever ordered a greasy hamburger or an extra-large sundae despite knowing you would regret it—and then duly regretted it? Or have you ever set a New Year’s resolution and discarded it weeks later, resolving to try again next year? Most of us are far from consistent in our actions, coherent in our plans or reliably guided by rational analysis and resolve.

The power of knowing your shortcomings

Humans have a remarkable capacity to traverse the spans of ages in the mind’s eye, but perhaps our greatest powers come from a humbler source. We understand we can’t know for sure what the future holds, and realize we’d better do something about it. Paradoxically, much of the power of foresight derives from our very awareness of its limits. Anticipating that we might not remember what we have to do on particular days or at particular times, we use lists, calendars and alarms. Knowing our best intentions for self-control are no guarantee, we hide our cookies, throw out our cigarettes, and transfer our money into savings accounts.

Even before humans were building machines like the Antikythera mechanism to help them predict and coordinate, they reflected on future challenges and devised ways to compensate for their limitations. Foreseeing that they might not be able to plot their way back home, people sketched lines in the sand to plan a route and memorized stories about notable landmarks. Predicting that they might not have the skills they would need, they deliberately practised to be better prepared. Realizing that they might lose track of who owed what to whom, they developed accounting systems to do the work for them. Across the board, they also used social means to overcome their future shortcomings, discussing their plans, seeking advice, asking to be reminded or letting wiser people lead the way forward.

Coming to grips with the strengths and weaknesses of our foresight may be more important now than ever before.

Adapted from The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight by Thomas Suddendorf, Jonathan Redshaw, and Adam Bulley.

More from Thomas Suddendorf Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Thomas Suddendorf Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today