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The human mind is a virtual time machine. With it we can relive past events and imagine future situations, even if we have never experienced similar situations before

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Tourists look at the Dolmen of Guadalperal in Spain this past August. Europe's historic drought dried up the reservoir that normally covers the stones, erected up to 7,000 years ago. For many, the drought was a glimpse of climate-change scenarios that scientists had long foreseen – and of ancient sites like this.PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images

Thomas Suddendorf is a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Jonathan Redshaw is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Queensland. Adam Bulley is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sydney and at Harvard University. They are the authors of The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight, from which parts of this essay were adapted.

More than 5,000 years ago, a man braced himself against the bitter cold as he ascended a mountain in the Alps. He was badly hurt. An attack in the valley below had left him with a deep stab wound between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. Now he was far from home, at least one or two days’ walk through the ice and forest. This was not a journey for the faint of heart – or for the unprepared.

The man wore a coat, leggings, hat, shoes, backpack and other attire that had been stitched together from the skins of several different animals. In a pouch on his belt, he held stone tools for cutting, scraping and boring, as well as chunks of pyrite he could strike to make fire. Threaded onto a leather strap were two chewy lumps of anti-parasitic birch fungus fruit – useful when you’re suffering from whipworm. He had a copper axe, bow and arrows and a dagger made of chert. The dagger had been painstakingly sharpened many times. He might need it. Was he being followed, even up here in the snow at the top of the mountain?

In 1991, the man’s frozen, mummified corpse was found preserved in an Alpine glacier, surrounded by his extensive equipment. He came to be known as Otzi, after the Otztal Alps where he was found, or simply as “the Iceman.” Otzi’s preparations illustrate the power of our species’ universal capacity to remember what worked in the past and think ahead to what might be needed tomorrow.

The human mind is a virtual time machine. With it we can relive past events and imagine future situations, even if we have never experienced similar situations before. Humans do this incessantly, daydreaming about summer vacations, savouring the thought of dinner dates and brooding over test results. Because humans are mental time travellers, we can prepare for opportunities and threats well in advance, as Otzi did, trying to shape the future to our own design.

Foresight, our ability to anticipate events and act accordingly, is perhaps the most powerful tool at our disposal. This ability, while often overlooked, is key to the human story.

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A specially designed ice capsule preserves the remains of Otzi for display in Bolzano, Italy, in 2018. The Neolithic man is believed to have died more than 5,000 years ago.AFP / Getty Images

The alpine ice that mummified Otzi’s body has been gradually vanishing, thanks in large part to climate change. That's exposed more recent artifacts like this old can and broken ski, found in Chamonix in 2019. Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

Of course, just because we can imagine the future does not mean we actually know what will happen. In the end, Otzi probably didn’t foresee the arrow that hit him in the back and put him on ice for 5,000 years. Much of what comes to pass we do not anticipate, and much of what we anticipate does not come to pass.

Human foresight can fail spectacularly. Even professionals specializing in prediction, such as stockbrokers and meteorologists, often struggle to forecast the price of gold next quarter or whether it will rain next Tuesday. You may have heard of backyard engineers attaching helium balloons or rockets to their chairs in eager anticipation of flight or speed, but without adequate contemplation of how they might suddenly drop or stop. And history is littered with anecdotes of poor planning with catastrophic consequences, such as when Queensland government officials brought cane toads to Australia to kill the pesky cane beetle, only for the toads to reproduce out of control and ravage the local ecosystems.

To help them peer ahead in time, humans have long searched for clues in nature. While the future cannot be found in entrails or tea leaves, some natural patterns can help us predict and prepare. The ancient Greeks, though they would routinely consult the oracle before embarking on a major venture, also created remarkably effective forecasting tools. A room in the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens is dedicated to one particularly enigmatic artifact used for this purpose. Pulled from the Aegean Sea in 1901 by sponge divers off the island of Antikythera, the unassuming lump of mangled wood and corroded metal would only many decades later be identified as the world’s earliest-known analog computer. It is more than 2,000 years old.

The Antikythera mechanism is a relic of astonishing technological complexity, featuring dozens of interlocking bronze gears and faded, arcane inscriptions. By turning a hand crank, its operator could select a calendar day on a front dial and predict the future of celestial bodies: the movement of the planets, phases of the moon and eclipses of the sun. The Roman statesman Cicero enthused that by contemplating the predictable regularities of the heavens, “the mind extracts the knowledge of the Gods.”

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The Antikythera mechanism, an ancient computing device, on display in Athens in 2016.Petros Giannakouris/AP

Modern humans have extracted ever more knowledge about nature and how to predict its course. Though we might struggle to conduct any of the required calculations ourselves, today we can precisely forecast the time of high tide or the passage of celestial events by consulting devices that fit into our pockets. A quick look at Wikipedia tells us that Venus will transit the sun on March 27 – and Mercury will do the same a day later – in the year 224,508. Closer to home, our everyday lives are increasingly built on shared schedules and models of the future that guide human co-operation. We clock into our nine-to-fives, meet for weekly book clubs and toil toward important deadlines.

Nonetheless, it is painfully obvious that even when we have a clear view of what lies ahead, we can fail to act accordingly. On Christmas Eve in 2019, New York politician Brian Kolb published a newspaper column warning the public about the dangers of drunk driving – advising that by “thinking ahead and coming up with a plan before imbibing, many regrettable situations can be avoided” – only to be himself found inebriated at the wheel of his car in a ditch a week later.

Though it is easy to laugh at such hypocrisy, it may not be hard to come up with your own personal examples of imprudent decisions in spite of unambiguous forecasts and best intentions. When waking up with a terrible hangover, have you ever sworn never to touch a drop again – only to find yourself beer in hand before long? Have you ever ordered a greasy hamburger or an extra-large sundae despite knowing you would regret it – and then duly regretted it? Or have you ever set a New Year’s resolution and discarded it weeks later, resolving to try again next year? Most of us are far from consistent in our actions, coherent in our plans or reliably guided by rational analysis and resolve.

Humans have a remarkable capacity to traverse the spans of ages in the mind’s eye, but perhaps our greatest powers come from a humbler source. We understand we can’t know for sure what the future holds, and realize we’d better do something about it. Paradoxically, much of the power of foresight derives from our very awareness of its limits. Anticipating that we might not remember what we have to do on particular days or at particular times, we use lists, calendars and alarms. Knowing our best intentions for self-control are no guarantee, we hide our cookies, throw out our cigarettes and transfer our money into savings accounts.

Even before humans were building machines like the Antikythera mechanism to help them predict and co-ordinate, they reflected on future challenges and devised ways to compensate for their limitations. Foreseeing that they might not be able to plot their way back home, people sketched lines in the sand to plan a route and memorized stories about notable landmarks. Predicting that they might not have the skills they would need, they deliberately practised to be better prepared. Realizing that they might lose track of who owed what to whom, they developed accounting systems to do the work for them. Across the board, they also used social means to overcome their future shortcomings, discussing their plans, seeking advice, asking to be reminded or letting wiser people lead the way forward.

Getting to grips with the strengths and weaknesses of our foresight may be more important now than ever before.

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Britons cross an old stone pack-horse bridge in Ripponden, Yorkshire, this past August. Normally covered by the Baitings reservoir, it was exposed by the European drought.Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

After hundreds of millennia living in small clans armed with stone tools, in the past 10,000 years humans have gone from turning silica stone into axes to turning it into computer chips. With better foresight and co-ordination, we have created more and more machines, artifacts and gadgets that are all around us, some of which are even speeding into interstellar space. This trend has been accelerating since humans discovered the scientific method: a systematic way to build knowledge with foresight at its core.

Experiments and observations give rise to theories, which lead to predictions that are then tested with further experiments and observations. If the predictions turn out to be wrong, scientists try to devise a better theory to explain the unexpected observations, which then leads to new predictions and tests. And so on. With this simple cycle – essentially an error-correction mechanism – the collaborative scientific endeavour has resulted in giant strides in our understanding of the world. In turn, it has made people ever more effective at forecasting and shaping the future.

Science has given us a new view of our place in the really big picture of time and space. Just consider that the daylight you see left the sun’s surface about eight minutes before it struck your retina. And when we look at the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, we see light that left that star more than 8½ years ago. Light from the centre of the Milky Way must travel more than 25,000 years to reach us, and when you spy through a telescope on the next closest galaxy, Andromeda, you see light that originated about 2.5 million years ago. Now, if there is intelligent life in that galaxy that happens to be looking back at us, it would see the Earth that much time ago, populated by multiple species of our long gone relatives – Australopithecines, Paranthropus and Homo habilis – before anyone had ever left Africa.

Though these bigger pictures may make us feel tiny and insignificant, they have also yielded a clearer sense of our species’ epic journey. We are the last of many upright-walking hominin species that once roamed the Earth, and we have come a long way.

Partly as a result of farsighted efforts to make the world a better place, many of us now enjoy comforts such as motorized transportation and telecommunication that our great-grandparents, let alone prehistoric hominins, could not have even dreamed up. The ebb and flow of the tides is no longer an unpredictable process but a well-understood pattern that seafarers consider to avoid running their ships into the ground. Even a tsunami is no longer a smite from the gods but a predictable consequence of a geological event that early-warning systems can detect, buying people precious minutes to seek higher ground.

Humans have created safety where we were hunted, cures where we were sick and entertainment where we were bored. We also created weapons where we were vengeful, chopped down forests where we needed timber and drained swamps where we wanted to farm. In the process, and with endless toil, humanity has remade the world.

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Trees burn on Sept. 17 in Lábrea, part of Brazil's Amazon region.MICHAEL DANTAS/AFP via Getty Images

Many people today consider the Earth gravely ill and see humanity as a shortsighted scourge. But far from being locked in the present, our species has come to deal with the future more than any other creature that has ever existed. And it is possible we are already on the right path forward. Even our biggest ecological challenges may be solved ultimately by farsighted human ingenuity.

Maybe we can clean up our mess, rapidly replace all the plastics with biodegradable materials and swap fossil fuels for renewables. Just as advances in information technology revolutionized our world over the past few decades, so, too, may advances in biotechnology over the next few decades. Perhaps we can protect diminishing habitats and revitalize endangered animals. We may even bring back species – Tasmanian tigers, moas and woolly mammoths – that have fallen victim to our successes. It is conceivable that we will be able to sustainably grow what we eat, repair with nanobots what we break and 3D print whatever else we need without destroying the environment.

And while artificial intelligence may pose some existential threat, it may also turn out to be extremely helpful in predicting and preventing catastrophes. Perhaps we can innovate technological solutions to all our problems. Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to think we could even plot our way to world peace.

But then again, perhaps such optimism is misplaced. Our new solutions may beget still greater problems. We will certainly continue to make mistakes, from minor deviations that linger within a thin margin of error to gross miscalculations that spell disaster. It is possible that positive trajectories will not continue, wish as we might, and no one will invent the critical transformative technologies we need in time.

Or perhaps we will fail to recognize the future utility of strategies and technologies fast enough even if someone does figure them out – or the lure of short-term profit, let alone the distraction of political conflicts, will stop us from implementing the requisite changes. What’s more, optimism may harbour the risk of fostering complacency. Why bring an umbrella when you’re sure it won’t rain?

Still, optimism – at least of the kind that involves envisioning positive possibilities even in dark times – may also shield us from fatalism and motivate us to actively create a better future. So even when we know that optimism is unlikely to be entirely warranted, we may nonetheless benefit from embracing it. By sharing our knowledge and optimistic predictions, we can encourage collaboration and drive positive change. Just as a placebo effect is worth harnessing, it may pay to keep those rose-tinted glasses nearby.

Thinking ahead permeates most of our actions and is essential to human affairs. This is not a new insight. In ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus, son of the Titan Iapetus, stole fire from heaven to give humans the powers that would distinguish them from other animals. He brought us culture, farming, mathematics, medicine, technology and writing. Prometheus means “foresight.”

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The Dolmen of Guadalperal megalithic site lies exposed in Spain.PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images

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