Person reaching into the sky.
Why have we evolved with the acute capacity to remember so much of what occurred in the past? At times, we even sacralize our recollections, elevating them to a place of supreme importance in our lives. But do memories of past actions and feelings perform a more significant existential function? Given that most evolutionary changes serve some broad attempt by our species to fit our environment better, it’s difficult to see how spending time reminiscing benefits us. To this end, an exciting area of research has focused on the ways our anticipation of future events substantively affects the ways we remember past ones. Schacter and Addisi call this the constructive episodic simulation hypothesis. Simply put, that means that “…past and future events draw on similar information stored in memory (episodic memory in particular) and rely on similar underlying processes.”ii As it turns out, the areas of the brain that record memories—the medial temporal lobe (including the hippocampus) and the medial prefrontal cortex—are also the areas of the brain we use to imagine the future. How interesting.
Could it be that our ability to remember is merely a by-product of the evolution of our facility to see into the future, to plan, and to anticipate events to stay alive? Cautionary tales are an excellent example of this phenomenon. On the face of things, a friend telling me a story about a tiger who has been lurking at my favorite watering hole in the early morning hours is retrospective. Why should I care? The more profound truth is that it’s preparing me to make alternate plans, take another route, and consider different actions. In this way, the past’s sole function in the form of a story is to serve our future self, ensuring that we will live to see another day.
Acts of retrospection are then really serving our prospective needs. They are a form of rehearsal for future challenges. Just as pilots spend time rehearsing in flight simulators to perfect their next performance, telling stories about past problems can prepare us to perform on upcoming tasks better. In this sense, storytelling is a life simulator.
There is another wrinkle to this. The better our memories, the better our envisioning. From this perspective, if you’re in charge of strategic planning for your organization, spending time reconstructing past failures and successes might be your most important first step. The better you can see the past, the more you stimulate your medial temporal lobe and medial prefrontal cortex. The more you activate these regions of your brain, the better job you’ll do of imagining a better tomorrow for your company.
Next Week: The Push and Pull of Correspondence and Coherence in Meaning Making
i Schacter DL., Addis DR. The cognitive neuroscience of constructive memory: Remembering the past and imagining the future. Phil Trans R Soc LondB. 2007; 362:773–786
ii Schacter DL , Dialogues Clin Neurosci. Constructive Memory: Past and Future, 2012 Mar; 14(1): 7–18.