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Why We Are Strangers to Ourselves

by Aaron Pace 2 months ago in humanity
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And what to do about it

Why We Are Strangers to Ourselves
Photo by Haut Risque on Unsplash

Imagine the future. Your future. Take a moment to imagine your future self in these specific ways. Give yourself permission to spend five or six minutes on this exercise; be detailed.

  • How are you different?
  • How are you the same?
  • Do you still live in the same place?
  • Do you still work at the same job?
  • Do you have the same friends?
  • How has your personal dynamic changed?

In October 2011, Hal E. Hershfield conducted an fMRI study of people’s brains and made an unexpected discovery. When the study participants imagined their future selves, their brains did something really weird: their brains stopped showing up as though the participants were thinking about themselves. Instead, their brains behaved as though participants were thinking about a completely different person; strangers to themselves.

Here’s a bit of nerdy neuroscience. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is a brain structure located at the front and top of the brain and is responsible for continuity of self. The mPFC makes sure you know who you are when you wake up in the morning. It’s really active when you think about yourself in your present circumstances. Interestingly, however, the more future-focused your thoughts, the less active the mPFC is.


According to Hershfield, it seems to revolve around the emotional disconnect we have with our future selves. The findings explain, at least in part, why:

  • we don’t save enough for unexpected expenses or retirement, but will give money away, sometimes to complete strangers
  • we so frequently engage in unhealthy behaviors, particularly those that are the direct cause of future disease (like smoking)
  • we make poor ethical choices, even when we are aware of probable future consequences
  • The further out you project, the greater the disconnect. The term given to the disconnect is “future discounting”. In financial terms, it’s the process of converting the value received at some future time to an equivalent value received immediately.

    Here’s a little example: I’m hungry and I’ve been stuck in traffic an hour due to an accident ahead with no good alternate route. I happen to be in front of a fast food restaurant. The line at the drive-through appears short so I pull in when the opportunity presents itself. I order something I know is going to make me sick later, but I want to satisfy a present craving for food.

    That’s perhaps a simplistic example but it highlights the principle: I valued feeding my body over waiting until I could eat something a bit healthier.

    How do we overcome it?

    In order to overcome future discounting, we have to develop what Jane McGonigal calls “hard empathy”. Here’s how she defines it:

    Hard empathy is. . .effortful and creative. It’s what we have to conjure up when we don’t have any personal experience with what someone else [including our future self] is going through but want to understand.

    Because we’re emotionally disconnected from our future selves, the key to that connection is empathy. To gain that empathy, when we think about the future, we have to really imagine ourselves in that future. We need to ask ourselves questions like:

    How do I feel after I’ve been doing x for 10 years? Take regular exercise as an example. Imagine yourself either engaging or not in regular, rigorous exercise. How do I feel now that I’ve been exercising regularly for 10 years? How do I feel even though I haven’t exercised regularly for 10 years?

    The way you phrase the question is important. Even though you’re thinking about the future, address yourself in more of a present tense way.

    Thinking that way requires a lot of practice because empathy for our future selves is, well, hard. That’s why it’s called hard empathy. For most people, it’s not a natural way of thinking, but is critical in future-proofing our own lives.

    Empathetic future thinking falls into a scientific categorization called “prospection”, and it helps us in a couple of ways:

    1. It helps us make prudent decisions. In a recently study done by UC Berkeley, researchers determined (perhaps not surprisingly) that “thinking about what the future likely holds helps us decide what course to take in the here-and-now.”
    2. If done right, it helps motivate us toward achieving goals. This one is a bit of a two-edged sword. If we think too positively about our future, we may get relaxed and not work as hard toward achieving our goals. Striking a balance is about making realistic goals then achieving progress on a regular basis.
    3. It makes us happier. This one may not be surprising either. If we’re empathetic toward our future selves, we’re less likely to be overly hard on our present selves.
    4. It can also make us more kind and generous, particularly toward ourselves. When we achieve future empathy, we’re less likely to make the wrong choice in ethical situations that cause us future problems.


    The next time you find yourself thinking into the future, remember to be kind to your future self. Put yourself in your own shoes and imagine, in as much detail as you can, how your future self will respond and what they would say to your present self if given the opportunity.


    Thanks for reading!


    About the author

    Aaron Pace

    Married to my best friend. Father to five exuberant children. Fledgling entrepreneur. Writer. Software developer. Inventory management expert.

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    Comments (7)

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    • test16 days ago

      I don't buy your "science" a bit. The future is your "father." Future means "father," which also means "nature" or "flag."

    • test21 days ago

      The title lured me in. This was well researched and easy to follow. Amazing job!

    • Donn K. Harrisabout a month ago

      Good choice of topic. I assume that when we think about the past, the mPFC is active and we are very aware of the past as ourselves. In a way, the ideal situation would be to shift the mPFC activity from past to future, because you can't do much about the past anyway, we tend to beat ourselves up over it, and that's the place where dissociative activity would be most helpful. But that's just wishful thinking. There are many points in your piece worth considering.

    • Maervel2 months ago

      I read it all. Self-compassion is something I find myself practicing a lot recently. Worth it!

    • Milijah Loving2 months ago

      The title lured me in. This was well researched and easy to follow. Amazing job!

    • Mark E. Cutter2 months ago

      Nice work. The title caught my attention.

    • Annie Edwards 2 months ago

      I thoroughly enjoyed reading this!! Well researched, well written, and very well explained!!!

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