Just for a moment, forget the present and contemplate the future. Think about where you might be or what you might do tomorrow, next week, next year.
Let yourself daydream. Consider all the possibilities. Try to imagine your approaching future, and see into it. Wander through all of those potential future scenarios you’ve entertained before, as well as a few new ones, and let your mind indulge itself for a while. Ask yourself: What could I be? How could I grow and develop? What could my future possibly produce?
Got it? You just engaged in one of the most basic and yet unique capacities of the human mind and soul, using an ability that no other species possesses.
We human beings, the researchers and scientists say, are the only species that thinks prospectively. We can actively imagine and mentally simulate our futures, unlike any other being. Humans have foresight. We plan, we predict, we constantly evaluate possible future events. As far as we know, we’re unique in that respect.
Animals, of course, can follow their instincts when they look for and store food, when they migrate, when they reproduce and when they seek to survive—but they can’t reason abstractly or see far forward into the realms of time like we can:
The ability for prospective thought is a fundamental psychological faculty akin to other basic endowments such as language and reasoning. Thus, prospective abilities–how much and how well a person is able to bring mental representations and evaluations of possible futures to bear on the selection of action–should be recognized as a basic explanatory variable in the psychological sciences. – The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Prospective Psychology
The science of human psychology has just begun to focus on this unique human ability. Before now, we’ve spent most of our time and energy trying to figure out how the past affected the present. Psychoanalysts delved into a person’s past history for clues about how to understand and confront their present behavior. Historians evaluated past events for predictive patterns that would allow them to assess present trends. Economists tried to forecast the present and the near-future by carefully studying past data.
But now we’ve started to realize that it might be wise to look forward rather than backward:
We are misnamed. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, the “wise man,” but that’s more of a boast than a description …
A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered — rather belatedly, because for the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present. – We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment, by Martin Seligman and John Tierney, The New York Times, May 19, 2017.
Give it some thought: normally our minds spend much more time thinking about our futures than ruminating on our pasts. Which makes sense, since the past can’t be changed, and the future can. We can visualize alternative futures for ourselves, and we can act on those inner visions:
The central role of prospection has emerged in recent studies of both conscious and unconscious mental processes, like one in Chicago that pinged nearly 500 adults during the day to record their immediate thoughts and moods. If traditional psychological theory had been correct, these people would have spent a lot of time ruminating. But they actually thought about the future three times more often than the past, and even those few thoughts about a past event typically involved consideration of its future implications.
When making plans, they reported higher levels of happiness and lower levels of stress than at other times, presumably because planning turns a chaotic mass of concerns into an organized sequence. Although they sometimes feared what might go wrong, on average there were twice as many thoughts of what they hoped would happen. – Ibid.
Spiritually, the Baha’i teachings say, this constant human ability to contemplate, visualize and dream about the future proves we have souls:
Furthermore, this immortal human soul is endowed with two means of perception: One is effected through instrumentality; the other, independently. For instance, the soul sees through the instrumentality of the eye, hears with the ear, smells through the nostrils and grasps objects with the hands. These are the actions or operations of the soul through instruments. But in the world of dreams the soul sees when the eyes are closed. The man is seemingly dead, lies there as dead; the ears do not hear, yet he hears. The body lies there, but he—that is, the soul—travels, sees, observes. All the instruments of the body are inactive, all the functions seemingly useless. Notwithstanding this, there is an immediate and vivid perception by the soul. Exhilaration is experienced. The soul journeys, perceives, senses. It often happens that a man in a state of wakefulness has not been able to accomplish the solution of a problem, and when he goes to sleep, he will reach that solution in a dream. How often it has happened that he has dreamed, even as the prophets have dreamed, of the future; and events which have thus been foreshadowed have come to pass literally. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 416.