Future thinking

Published: Tuesday 17th June 2014

If you couldn’t look ahead and consider the outcome of your choices, what kind of decisions would you make? ACU’s Three Minute Thesis winner, PhD student Kimberly Mercuri, looks at the ramifications for one particular group – illicit drug users.

“Future thinking refers to the ability to mentally time travel into the future and pre experience an event. It is a uniquely human characteristic and a fundamental function of the human brain. However it’s largely taken for granted.

Research has suggested that nearly 30 per cent of our daily functioning requires oriented thoughts. Being able to mentally time travel into the future allows an individual to work between hypothetical scenarios to eventually reach the best outcome. For example, anticipating what will happen on a first date – will he pay? Won’t he pay? What happens if he doesn’t pay? Maybe I’ll bring my wallet just in case.

Leading neuroscientists such as Daniel Schachter from Harvard University have argued that the structure of the brain is orchestrated to support the human ability to imagine future events, this allowing us to see beyond the day to day.

Now the illicit drug using population is a particular interest of mine, because through their behaviour, it suggests that they don’t think beyond the day to day. Research demonstrates that various drug using populations today have impairments in cognitive processes that overlap with future thinking, such as decision making, planning and memory. As a result it is logical to anticipate that drug users will also demonstrate an impairment in future thinking. However there is no published study, yet, on future thinking in substance users.

The initial study of my PhD assessed a group of short-term cannabis users on future thinking ability, and made comparisons to a group that had never used drugs before. The method that I used is referred to as an autobiographical interview, it is considered a gold standard measure, and it is used widely within psychology and neuroscience literature.

The first bar of the graph shows that there is no significant difference between the cannabis users and the comparison group on the future thinking task. However for my second study I’m testing a group of long term heroin users, and you can see from the second bar on the graph that preliminary results indicate that this drug using population has a significant in future thinking.

In clinical practice, many popular relapse prevention strategies place a significant demand on this population to think about and work through future scenarios which could pose a threat to their abstinence. The impairment in future thinking in long-term users may help to explain why these individuals appear so resistant to treatment. Or, it could also explain why relapse prevention strategies report relatively low success rates.

So, if we want to improve the effectiveness of these interventions, we must factor in the future thinking limitations of this group, because future thinking limitations shouldn’t mean that long term drug users can’t have a better future.”