Memories of the Future

This is an extract from “Two Speed World” which I wrote with Terry Lloyd and looks at the science of storytelling.

The late Professor David Ingvar a Swedish neurobiologist examined the scientific basis for storytelling. He found that a specific area of the brain, the frontal/prefrontal cortex, handled behaviour and knowledge along a timeline and it also handled action plans for future behaviour. Ingvar’s research demonstrated that damage in that area of the brain is found to result in an inability to foresee the consequences of one’s future behaviour. He concluded that the brain is ‘hardwired’ to do this and that plans are created instinctively every moment of our lives; planning for the immediate future, that day, that week and even years ahead. As these plans can be retained and recalled, Ingvar called them ‘memories of the future ‘.
We can illustrate this with a simple example of personal experience which we have all come across. Imagine you are taking up a new interest or perhaps sport, let’s say skiing. Before the new interest our minds had no particular focus or thoughts on the topic – but now suddenly we find there seems to be lots of magazine articles, perhaps special sales offers on ski equipment, and we notice more and more people seem to be talking about skiing! A coincidence or something weird is going on? In fact it’s neither, for as Ingvar’s research demonstrated we are now tuning our minds to potential future pathways and outcomes – in this case skiing. As a result we are building a memory of the future that centres around future skiing trips and adventures.
This activity is crucial – if we don’t open our minds to such pathways and planning we simply will not retain information on a given topic. Our brains are continually bombarded with a vast number of unordered stimuli such as sights, sounds and smells which cannot all be assimilated. All the input the brain receives is compared with previously constructed future memories and if there is no match it is discarded. In other words an unforeseen event cannot be seen. It goes straight over your head, or perhaps more literally doesn’t stick in the brain.
At the group or corporate level where there is obviously more than one brain involved, it is far harder to create a shared library of memories of the future. However the importance of rehearsing all likely possible futures is clearly a powerful tool, and this was recognised in the 1980s by Royal/Dutch Shell who use it as the technical basis for their planning technique of scenarios , as will be discussed later in this chapter.
In Chapter One we recounted the story of the Rainhill trials for the selection of the locomotive for the Liverpool & Manchester railway – curiously there is a coda to this story that fits in with Ingvar’s research. At the opening ceremony of the railway, which was the first in the world to have double tracks, the local Liverpool MP and former cabinet Minister William Huskisson was killed by one of the locos as he had left his carriage and was unaware of another train coming in the opposite direction. It was if he had no previous thoughts or memories of how railways would operate, and so had no intuitive understanding of the risks posed.

Two Speed World – Ashley & Lloyd