Notes: From “Homo Prospectus” (Seligman et al.)

Cover for Homo Prospectus These are quotes from a New York Times article summarizing the book Homo Prospectus, by Martin E. P. Seligman, Peter Railton, Roy F. Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada, Oxford University Press, 2016. (Also see the critical review of Seligman’s work in Psychology Today.)

[People think] about the future three times more often than the past, and even those few thoughts about a past event typically [involve] consideration of its future implications.

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Most prospection occurs at the unconscious level as the brain sifts information to generate predictions.

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Perception is manageable because the brain generates its own scene, so that the world remains stable even though your eyes move three times a second. This frees the perceptual system to heed features it didn’t predict, which is why you’re not aware of a ticking clock unless it stops. It’s also why you don’t laugh when you tickle yourself: You already know what’s coming next.

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Even when you’re relaxing, your brain is continually recombining information to imagine the future, a process that researchers were surprised to discover when they scanned the brains of people doing specific tasks like mental arithmetic. Whenever there was a break in the task, there were sudden shifts to activity in the brain’s “default” circuit, which is used to imagine the future or retouch the past.

This discovery explains what happens when your mind wanders during a task: It’s simulating future possibilities. That’s how you can respond so quickly to unexpected developments. What may feel like a primitive intuition, a gut feeling, is made possible by those previous simulations.

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Google can instantly provide a million answers because it doesn’t start from scratch. It’s continually predicting what you might ask.

— Martin E. P. Seligman and John Tierney, in “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment,” New York Times, 19 May 2017

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