October 07, 2013

Time Travel For Fun and Profit


Sorry, this is not about "time travel" in the technologically sexy sense, telling you how to dial up a year and be physically transported there right this minute.

Nah, this is the more boring kind: psychological time travel.  This just allows you to use your imagination to communicate with your future self, potentially allowing you to optimize, or at least not totally screw up, your coming years.

However, there are, even now, some virtual "time machines" out there that actually facilitate this process, if you care to go all Marty McFly and try to tinker with the fourth dimension.

Wait, this movie came out nearly 30 years ago?
Clearly someone must have messed with the space/time continuum. 


NeuroEconomic Research Says: Use Your Imagination


Recent neuroeconomic studies suggest that if you are easily able to imagine your future self, and feel all warm and fuzzy about that self, you will be way more likely to make sensible decisions in the present.

Whereas if you're all distant and "whatever, dude," you are more likely to be spending your way into debt, screwing up your health, and paving the way for a grimmer future.  Which is fine if you're not worried about some hypothetical old fart spending his or her golden years in a refrigerator box by the railroad tracks, dumpster diving for Twinkies and Thunderbird.

Hal Hershfield, an NYU professor, found that the more subjects are able to imagine themselves in the future, the better they are at saving for retirement today.  He calls this “self-continuity.” In order to encourage planning for the future, he uses computer simulations to show people versions of themselves 20 or 30 years down the road.

So the good news is: the more bonded with your "future self" you are, the less likely you will make dumbass live-for-the-moment decisions that could bite you in the butt later.

Sometimes Current Self Can't Resist Being an Asshole

And another clever neuroeconomist, Joe Kable from the University of Pennsylvania, discovered that there's high correlation between "imagination" brain activity and skill at discounting: the ability to refuse a smaller current reward and hold out for a larger delayed reward.  Turns out, "the richness or vividness of the scene" can make a big difference. According to Kable, people who rock the future imagination thing and choose delayed rewards "are less likely to use drugs. They are likely to be lower weight, and make better diet choices...and have other positive health outcomes. They don't smoke," he said. "There is an association with school performance...even things like they are less likely to get divorced, even less likely to be under water on their mortgage."

While some of this futuristic thinking ability may be genetic, the neuroeconomic geeks say you can get way better at it if you make an effort at it.  They suggest picturing how your future self will feel before making a big purchase now, exposing yourself to a visual simulation of your future face, or writing a letter from your future self to your present self or vice versa.

Low Tech Time Machines


Photo Aging

There are apparently phone free apps and PC software out there that will take your current picture and age it for you so you can get to know your future self and start chatting her up. (Just hope she's not gonna go on and on about her bowel habits or whine about how kids today have it way too easy and don't understand the importance of self-discipline and hard work).

However, the first few links I randomly clicked on for my PC were no longer free, darn it, and I didn't feel like hunting down my reading glasses to go install a phone app.  Apparently I must not give much of a crap about poor future Crabby!

Or wait, actually I'm pretty sure I do care about my future self.  I'm just not all that motivated to see how wrinkled and droopy and saggy she's gonna look.  I think I can like her just fine and care pretty deeply about her fate without going there. But thanks!

However, if you guys are more intrepid, it looks like there's an app called photobooth, and you could probably google up some more.

Future Email

This is not so much for super long-term future thinking, 'cause who knows if we'll even use email in a few decades or just beam our thoughts directly to others without pesky keyboards or garbled voice recognition?

(Oh, but speaking of voice recognition, a quick digression:  My Droid is generally pretty good at it, but the other day I was trying to find out some nutritional info on shiitake mushrooms, and over and over again it kept giving me search results for "shit-talking mushrooms." Which wasn't all that helpful for calorie counting. But it was at least nice to know that there are fungi as foul mouthed as I am!)

Anyway.  Where was I?  Oh yeah, future email!

This is a great tool for initiating new habits and lifestyle changes, because you can take that initial "fired up" energy you have at the beginning of a new quest and send it some of it down the road for later.

(Unless you are the sort of person who never ever starts off with a goal and then starts to slip and slide and slack and stumble. In which case, how the heck did you ever end up here at Cranky Fitness?)

For example, lets say you are trying to start doing some stress management or get more exercise or are trying to eat more healthy stuff and stop snorfing up so many cookies and chips.

On Day 1, you may have many helpful thoughts and ideas and positive visualizations! You may feel totally connected to the shiny picture of ultimate success, or, equally effective, quite panicked about the dire consequences of continuing to blow off change and screw over your future self.

But will you feel the same way on Day 8? On Day 37? On Day 283? On day 622?

A future email program lets you customize messages to yourself, composing them when you're inspired, and delivering them later, perhaps in a recurring fashion.

You might, for example, have a goal of eventually producing 30 different messages that target different motivational strategies, and have them recur monthly, so that every day you get an email from your past self reminding you of why this change is important, why you shouldn't give up if you are feeling discouraged, etc. You can tweak and change and add and subtract over time, as you discover that some supposedly "motivational" messages just make you want to sob, and others are so awesome you want to create 47 new variations. Whatever.

Note:  I am currently experimenting with this myself, but am still in the "yay I'm mostly on track!" phase. So stay tuned for when the inevitable "crap, this is a pain in the ass" phase arrives.  Will these messages from current me help gear supply extra motivation, or will it just convince me that I was being a sappy over-optimistic dork?  Time will tell!

Alas, most email programs like gmail don't have this built in, you gotta go scrounge up another program, but there are a number of free ones out there. (Though if you want to send a lot of 'em or get fancy, you start having to pay.)

I'm trying out the free version of Letter Me Later, which has some annoyances in the user interface, but lets you send quite a bit for free.  It's very picky about the order you do things in--for example, if you want to set up a recurring email and you forget to select "recurring" before you choose the start and end dates, it will erase all the dates and make you start over.  There are about 5 other dumb user interface issues that make it frustrating the first few times, but even the technology-challenged Crab eventually figured it out eventually.

So, does anyone care much about what you might be up to a week, month, year, or a few decades from now? Or do you prefer to live more for the moment?

Photos:
Opera Night and "Fair Use" Please-Don't-Sue-Me-Movie Poster: wikipedia; Bitey cat: Malingering; "As Is" Time Machine: Alexander

37 comments:

  1. Okay, "shit-talking mushrooms" cracked me up so much I want to feature one in a story someday.
    As to future self stuff, I've done something similar with hypnosis and found it worthwhile. But you've given me a great idea for an exercise wherein I ask future self stuff through writing. I'm awfully curious what I'm about to get up to.

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  2. What an excellent idea Leah, adding the self-hypnosis aspect to future visualization! Could definitely amp up the "vivid" aspect. And can't wait to read your shit-talking mushroom story. :)

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  3. The only 2 things that I have laid done as fact for my future - 1. I want to retire on a beach. 2. Do not put me in a nursing home ever!! For the most part I'm at a time where I'm content with the now and don't really want to look too far ahead. (10 years ago was a completely different story - I would have taken every app available, which wasn't really an option then.)

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    1. Interesting Kim, that you are not a big plan-for-the-future type, woulda thought otherwise. But with your motivation I have no trouble seeing you happily retired on the beach!

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    2. I have a question: where will you go if you don't go in a nursing home ever? Like when you're 95 years old?

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    3. well, my great-uncle's neighbor, Mr. H, was still living at home when he died at 104, though he had stopped doing ALL his own cooking and allowed the ladies from church to bring him a hot lunch. He still mopped his kitchen floor every day until the day he didn't wake up.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

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    4. I'm with you Kim and have solid plans to make sure that doesn't happen, if I still have the intellectual and physical capacity to control that aspect of my life. In fact, that is just about my only cemented plan for the future.

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  4. Oh fun, I talk to my Future Self all the time! Seriously. All. The. Time. My dad taught me to visualize during one of his meditative phases when I was a kid, and it just really stuck for some reason. Probably because of my horrendously vivid imagination, and it helped with the nightmares.

    I can see where they're coming from when they say it helps you make better decisions in the now. My brain wrestles with this sometimes, usually when wanting chocolate or to buy something stupid, then Future Self swoops in and says, "Quit it, goober." Works every dang time, because I know Future Self has a lot more money than I do. As happy as I am now, which is very, Future Self is even happier. It's a moving goal, but it works for me.

    Good post, Crabby! But now I have Rikki Don't Lose That Number stuck in my head, and I blame you. "Send it off in a letter to yooooooourseeeeeeelf..." :-P

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    1. Wow, Heather, it's so great to hear someone uses this technique with such success! I gotta get my future self a bit more on board with the "quit it goober" bit, especially when reaching in for my 86th handful of trail mix (my personal nemesis).

      And dang, that song was already problematic a few posts ago when someone named Rikki commented on not remembering phone numbers, now I'll NEVER get it out of my head! :)

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    2. I definitely need to thank my dad for that bit of advice, yes. :-)

      Oh jeez, trail mix... until "one serving" equals a pound and a half, I have to not buy it. Those tiny little handfuls just won't do! Oven roasted almonds rolled in dark chocolate fill in pretty well, though.

      Regarding songs stuck in head, I used to work with a lady who, when someone complained of having a song on repeat, would begin to sing the chorus to Escape (The Pina Colada Song). It was super effective.

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  5. That stuff at the beginning of this post was fascinating! I think it shows how important it is for young people to come in contact with older people in a positive way, instead of just as authority figures (teachers, bosses, parents). There probably are very few people who really have visualized themselves as old.

    And of course, like everything else in life, it's a balance. You want to prepare for the future but you want to carpe your diem too. I mean, really, would you want to invite the people described by Joe Kable up there to your next party? Life's an adventure! And it's the biggest mistakes that make the best stories.

    Personally, I was born a one-marshmallow kind of a gal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment), and most of my long-term goals have been addressed through the time-honoured method of parental nagging, which I hope to pass along to my own children. So the pension, insurance, wills, etc. are there, but I had to hit bottom before figuring out that I should be taking care of my body. Shoulda done more visualization before I got fat and arthritic, maybe.

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    1. Good point, Trabb's Boy, I think I'd rather party with the One Marshmallow fun kids!

      I was SO a wait-for-the-2-marshmallows kinda kid, but somewhere along the line I started snarfing up more "in the moment" opportunities. Now for me it's a question of balance... still workin' on that one.

      So in your case parental nagging actually worked? Your parents must have been quite talented at it!

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    2. Every time I hear of that study I wonder if they asked the subjects whether they liked marshmallows. I wouldn't have wanted either one or two. I'd have sat there daydreaming about chocolate.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

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    3. Good point mary anne! Unless the marshmallows were roasted... AND put on top of chocolate.

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  6. Shit-talking mushrooms. I love your phone. Still giggling...

    I don't think about the future very much...maybe I like surprises? I don't know. I think part of me just assumes that it's all going to turn out OK.

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    1. Well Shelley, seems like you do a pretty good job of optimizing the present with making sensible choices that will result in good health etc down the road... so your approach seems like a smart one. Hope there are nothing but AWESOME surprises ahead!

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  7. That is really cool!

    When I was a child I made a promise to myself that I would never grow up to find children uninteresting, or to be impatient with them (I could see some adults like that around me, and thought it was sad). I have held that promise to myself, and I still happily spend a lot of time around children.

    I also promised to myself that I would never think about my past in derogatory terms. I would always honor who I had been before, even if I had made mistakes.

    Finally, I did write letters to my future self, in a sealed envelope that said "To open when you're 18" (then 25 or 30, can't remember). It's amazing to receive a message from your past self!!!

    I don't think I have one such letter waiting for me right now. Time to write!

    I also wrote a letter to my past self one time. It made me realize that the one thing I regret in life is to have been a worrywart for so many years.

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    1. You are awesome! I love what you said about kids. I remember most of my childhood interactions with adults as defined my me getting on their nerves, and it really sucked. I'd like to think I'm kinder to kids, but I never thought to make it a principle to live by. Serious kudos.

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    2. You guys are so awesome with your attitude towards kids! I have to plead guilty to being one of those grownups who doesn't appreciate them as fully as I should. Not that I'm mean or don't at least TRY, but I find it an effort to be around them, and I'm sure they're hip to that, at least at an unconscious level. Fortunately, I'm not around any often enough to do any unintentional psychological damage!

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  8. I must be the exception to research. I've never looked that far into the future. Once when we got a new chairman at the University he had us all write our one, five, and ten year plans. WTF? My ten was to "have your job." Well he still has that job, and I don't, lol! He's also had a couple of heart attacks.

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  9. After reading Julie's comment I must honestly add that as a child I vowed not to grow up and be like the adults I saw! Mission accomplished there, lol!

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    1. Too funny Dr. J!

      Actually, that's one thing I've done pretty well at too: never growing up!

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  10. Time travel, fun and profit are a power-trio of wonderful, yet I've just been duped by your headline. I WANT MY (imaginary) MONEY BACK!!! This blog does come with a guarantee, doesn't it?

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    1. I GAVE you your money back 20 years from now Yum Yucky, just ask your future self to check her bank account! :)

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  11. Yes, i'm concerned, and so i've worked to stay healthy. As for the savings part, i'm a saver, and i have to drag my spender spouse along kicking and screaming.

    The idea of thinking of "how will i like the decision i made when i am 80" is a good one, and i've done it off and on for years. It helps.

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    1. Excellent Messymimi, sounds like your future 80 year old self is pretty wise and I bet she's gonna rock those "Golden" years!

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  12. I have wavered thru this thought process depending on life events & life in general. Right now with the predicament we are in, I am concerned about the future yet it worries me too.. then I don't want to think about it! ;)

    I have crazy imaginative dreams but super boring in real life. I wish I could figure out how to get my dream thinking into real life but have not got that down yet. If I did, I would be rich writing crazy books! :)

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    1. Well, having met you I can say you are most definitely NOT boring in real life, but I know what you mean about dream life being more imaginative. (On the other hand, I haven't once gone to a formal event in real life and realized I'd forgotten to wear anything but my underwear, so the dream life does have some serious annoyances...)

      And hope you figure out your way out of current predicaments, you are one resourceful and flexible gal so I'm guessing you'll be doing ok!

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  13. I think I was pretty well acquainted with my future self from an early age. To know what I'd look like I only had to look at my father's relatives. As far as what I'd be like, I'm pretty much what I expected, only somehow I'm not a teacher after all. And I think keeping a journal, which I have done in a not-daily way since I was eleven, is very much like writing a letter to myself. Motivational messages, even from me, would annoy me, though.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

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    1. Wow Mary Anne, you've been keeping a journal since you were eleven? WHAT an amazing resource in terms of perspective on life. Yay you!!

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  14. I've seen that photobooth ap and it's scary. Who in their right mind wants to see themselves looking aged in advance of that time? Did I mention that I might not be in my right mind?

    The shit talking mushrooms reminded me of when my friend and I went grocery shopping together and had her still-learning-to-read son along with us. She had him reading produce signs to practice. Of course we got to the mushrooms and in his loudest voice he said "SHIT TAKE MUSHROOMS? WHAT KIND OF A MUSHROOM HAS TO TAKE A SHIT?" He's 18 now and I'll still refer to him as Mushy.

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    1. Hilary, I'd rather my shiitake mushrooms just TALK dirty! Love that story and Mushy is an awesome nickname!

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  15. You always come up with the most interesting psychological research!! This whole idea of bonding with my future self is admittedly kind of scary for me. I mean I hope I'll be a better person than I am now but I feel like I can't be sure of that and I don't want to get my hopes up if I'm going to end up a loser. Which sounds totally ridiculous when I type that out... so thank you?

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  16. I have proposed marriage to my SIRI.
    I used the voice dictation for EVERYTHING from emails to lists to attempting to blog.

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  17. I need to think about this one a bit more. I mulled it over for a couple of days and didn't like looking too far forward as there are a lot of people I know who will most likely not be around anymore. That gave me a sad face, so I stopped thinking about it.

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  18. Seeing myself old and saggy definitely would not make me happy, more likely would drive me to the fridge in search of comfort. I'd rather just smile to a happy sounding not-so-clear face wearing nice tight pants, who appreciates the effort I'm making today.

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