Rewriting History to Create a Better Future: Positive Prospection in Practice
Lydia Ievleva, PhD
Lydia has over 25 years experience in practice and teaching in the areas of: sport and performance psychology, positive psychology (PP), and psychology of health and wellness. Lydia developed and taught among the first courses on PP in Australia (at the Australian College of Applied Psychology); and has been the coordinator for the Happiness and Positive Psychology online course at RMIT University (Melbourne, Australia) for the past decade. She was also adjunct professor of PP at St Paul University in Ottawa in 2016. Lydia served as former president of the Australian College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists; and is the author of the book Imagine: Using mental imagery to reach your full potential (Big Sky Publishing), and associated guided imagery recordings.
Please see http://www.soulinmotion.ca/bio_pdf_version/ for more detailed bio.
This article is based on a presentation to the 2017 World Congress on Positive Psychology (Montreal) as a finalist in the IPPA Avant Garde Intervention. It also forms the basis for an upcoming book that expands on underlying processes, potential issues, and wider applications.
Imagine your life was a movie. What would be your highlights? What past experiences have served you well in your present life or have lifted your sense of self and others? What scenes would you rather forget? Those that have dimmed your sense of self and others? What scenes would you like to do over and replace with a new and better version?
It is no secret that past experiences shape who we are today, the choices we make, and how we perceive and react to opportunities and challenges. But what if you could virtually rewrite your history? While actual historical events cannot be changed, with the practice of mental imagery, the default mechanism generated in your memory bank can be. Initial research suggests individuals can reset the impact of their history to their advantage – thus altering subsequent attitudes and focus of attention towards creating a more auspicious life going forward. This can range from revising the impact of traumatic events to regrets over missed opportunities, and anything in between.
Support for the Rewriting History imagery strategy is based on recent advances in neuroscience that have revealed the benefits of what is referred to as Mental Time Travel (MTT), that involves reflecting on one’s past with a view to imagining a better future by applying Future Oriented Mental Time Travel (FOMTT; or otherwise referred to as Prospection; Klein, 2016; Michaelian, Klein, & Szpunar, 2016; Van Hoeck et al., 2013). Prospection “has become an important research topic” of late amongst neuroscientists (Van Hoeck et al., 2013, p. 561), and as evidenced by a recent 2016 theme issue (#2) of The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Memory in the Driver’s Seat of Future Prospects?
The function of memory is thought to have evolved as an adaptive mechanism to be better oriented toward, and prepared for, the future (Klein, 2016) to better anticipate dangers (e.g., where predators lurk) and opportunities (e.g., where berries grow). Memory is argued to have developed as a basis for directing thought and behaviour to the future rather than looking back upon the past (Klein, 2016). Prospection is therefore underwritten by memories of the past. This default mechanism has evolved to operate without conscious control to become automatic and reflexive. It is advantageous by increasing efficiency of function, but is a disadvantage when it keeps people stuck. Without conscious control over this process, individuals may be limited by their past (Klein, 2016). This may explain resistance to change, regardless of one’s best interests.
This is compounded by how the brain tends to store negative events more vividly than positive events (Barrett, Lewis, & Haviland-Jones, 2016). As Hanson (2013) poignantly explains: the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, and Teflon for positive ones. This may have helped our ancestors survive, but increases the challenge of shaking off the impact of the past.
While this default mechanism may have evolved for brain efficiency, there are inherent flaws if limited by such a database with which to improve prospects. The flaw may not even necessarily be due to negative experiences, but merely flaws in perception (and misperceptions) that become one’s experience and thereby form memory. As the old saying goes: Perception is 9/10 reality. This creates a default neural network that leads to self-perpetuating repertoire of perception, behavior and emotional reactivity.
Mental Imagery to the Rescue!
Functional MRI studies have confirmed that images of the future overlap with the same neural structure as memory. The default network for future images therefore automatically draw from what is stored in memory (Klein, 2016; Schacter et al., 2012), thus dictating perspectives and perceptions affecting future prospects. Therein also lies the opportunity – by taking more conscious proactive control over the images stored in memory.
Neuroscientists are beginning to establish how imaginal faculties can adjust memories, which can be used and projected to a more favourable future (DeBrigard, Szpunar, & Schacter, 2013; Klein, 2016; Michaelian, Klein, & Szpunar, 2016). This enables shaking off the impact of, and even erasing memories, thereby freeing people from limitations of past negative experiences and boosting the scope for expanding and building on options going forward (Clark & Mackay, 2015; Reinecke, Hoyer, Rinck, & Becker, 2013). Imagination can light the way, as De Brigard (2015) stated, to “…help us plan for a better future and ease the burden of our personal past” (p. 35).
In many cases it is enough to focus on future images alone to disable the impact of the past. Engaging in future oriented MTT (FOMTT; i.e., future imagery) with significant departures from past experience can change recollection of past experience. It is argued to essentially induce an ‘erase’ function of past memory that can enable positive change. “Episodic future thinking can serve as a memory modifier by changing the extent to which memories from our past can be subsequently retrieved” (Ditta & Storm, 2016, p. 339). That is, the future projection overrides the past that previously limited future images (Ditta & Storm, 2016). This process suggests that we can rewrite personal history in terms of changing stored memories upon which future perspectives and prospection are based.
Imagination and Psychological Well-Being
The role of imagination is only recently being explored and recognized in Positive Psychology as a central process involved in wellbeing and mental health. Imagination is also a major component in the concept and practice of prospection that is explored in the book Homo Prospectus by Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, and Sripada (2016) following their article (2013). It involves the ability to forecast [based on memory bank] and project to the future [generating images]; a process that is suggested key to human evolution (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, & Sripada, 2013; 2016).
It is proposed that mental illness is possibly due more to faulty prospection (based on aversive memories), and that psychopathology arises when prospection goes awry (Seligman et al., 2016). Three general problems of prospection, taken together, could drive depression: Poor generation of possible futures, poor evaluation of possible futures, and negative beliefs about the future and seeming hopelessness to change any of it (Roepke & Seligman, 2016; Seligman et al., 2016). This will be reflected in perception of present experience through the prism of past memories, and negative prospection that results in low energy and will. This line of study heralds activating treatment strategies, such as mental imagery, to augment positive prospection and thereby promote greater psychological wellbeing.
Preliminary research supports positive future imagery as a cognitive marker for promoting wellbeing (and associated factors such as optimism, confidence, problem-solving ability, decision-making; Blackwell et al., 2013; Ji, Holmes, & Blackwell, 2017). “Boosting positive future imagery could provide a cognitive target for treatment innovations to promote optimism, with implications for mental health and even physical well-being” (Blackwell et al., 2013, p. 56). Because mental imagery is a skill that can be strengthened and developed, it can be a useful psychotherapeutic tool for boosting confidence and optimism; thereby reducing negative rumination associated with dysfunction (Busseri & Choma, 2016; Malouf & Schutte, 2016). The Best Possible Self activity is an example of positive prospective imagery that has been found to generate greater optimism, confidence and emotional capacity for future events and becoming one’s best self (Layous, Nelson, & Lyubomirsky, 2013; Peters, Flink, Boersma, & Linton, 2010; Pictet, Coughtrey, Mathews, & Holmes, 2011; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006).
Rewriting History Imagery Intervention
Rewriting History imagery involves reimagining an event from the past as one would have preferred looking back, and then especially going forward — to reset the default mechanism. It affords the chance to extinguish learning that has impaired one’s wellbeing in favour of a new way of being (Hackman, Bennett-Levy, & Holmes, 2012).
Generally, the Rewriting History strategy is designed for overcoming fight or flight or freeze tendencies that are hardwired due to past experiences that now interfere with reaching goals, towards becoming more in flow with potential. For example, it can be applied to rewire tendencies to over-react emotionally (e.g., with rage and hostility at perceived threats/offence), or under-react (e.g., with shyness and avoidance), as well as to extinguish negative patterns of behavior and replace them with new, more adaptive tendencies. In general the Rewriting History strategy can be used for:
- Counteracting negative conditioning/programming (e.g., PTS/D) and expanding repertoire aligned with best interests.
- Changing negative patterns of behavior and lifestyles, and/or patterns towards preferred ways of being.
- Recalibrating emotional reactivity (for over or under-reactivity) to a more optimal range.
- Improving interpersonal patterns of relating and communicating (e.g., couples; workplace interactions).
- Leaning in more versus shrinking from opportunities/challenges/potential.
- Cultivating intuition and improving decision-making to becoming more aligned with one’s best self and interests.
The Rewriting History strategy is designed to recreate memories as one would have preferred to unfold; thereby creating a better template for future challenges and opportunities. Such practice increases the likelihood of thinking, acting and feeling that is more aligned with personal or professional goals versus falling back on negative patterns of behaviour and reflexive emotional reactivity (Van Hoeck et al., 2013). By engaging in such imagery it may be possible to disable the hold the past has and enable expanded possibilities and repertoire for a better future.
The Rewriting History intervention is not about dismissing the past, but adjusting the negative impact from the past. It is also recommended to: capitalize more upon best memories, accentuate the positives, draw out valuable lessons and insights from negative experiences, and identify strengths that have emerged as a result. Further, following this intervention, one may experience the re-integration and consolidation towards creating images more aligned with best possible selves, thus improving future prospects.
The process is not without challenges. Simply engaging in positive prospective imagery can be enough to propel forward. However, in many cases it requires a good look back to clear the way. As the saying goes – if we do not learn from history, we are destined to repeat it. Breaking free from what holds people back typically entails deeper exploration and understanding of how one got to their current state– before embarking on where to go next. Breaking through defenses and resistance can be a painful process, and often such exploration can feel worse before getting better – not unlike cleaning out a closet that has been stuffed full for decades. However this process presents a huge relief upon unburdening psychological junk clogging the way forward, not to mention the joy of (re)discovering and activating strengths. Such a journey takes commitment and courage, that is often best shared with a professional who is trained and experienced in navigating such waters.
Basic Steps For Rewriting History Imagery:
- Begin with a relaxation/meditation induction.
- Draw from relevant positive memory/database (e.g., peak experience recall; Ievleva, 2014; 2013; 1996) to get the positive vibe (igniting existing positive memory link to positive emotions) that may then be injected into imagery going forward.
- Revisit the time and place to do over.
- Replay as would have been preferred—acting and feeling better.
- Then project to a future situation where encountering a similar challenge is likely and imagine it going well (e.g., making positive choices; responding well; feeling at ease, confident and optimistic).
- Include consolidating self-suggestions going forward and for remaining engaged with best possible self.
- Reflect on how it feels to have successfully imagined the desired changes or note where still feeling stuck to be addressed with further exploration.
Rewriting History Imagery Tips
What is central to effectiveness in any mental imagery intervention is engaging in what is referred to as the autonoesis process, which is essentially linked to self-image and goal intentions (with best interests in mind). “Autonoetic consciousness…provides the neurocognitive scaffolding necessary to navigate one’s future” (Klein, 2016, p. 392). It is the “mode of consciousness associated…with retrieval that [is] most relevant to future prospection” (p. 390). Autonoetic imagery (which is autobiographical/1st person/self-referenced with associated subjective feelings) is directly linked to emotions that are critical in effectiveness of ‘re-experiencing’ and ‘pre-experiencing’, as well as the level at which psychotherapeutic change can occur. This is in contrast with noetic (which is known/learned/semantic/3rd person/without subjective feeling), that does not directly link to emotions, and is thereby limited in scope and therapeutic effectiveness. The implication is that written/semantic tasks are argued to lack therapeutic value (Klein, 2016).
Therefore, it is recommended by the author that images should be: (a) self-referenced (i.e., 1st person vs. video view [3rd person]); (b) episodic/sensory vs.semantic; (c) drawn from relevant positive memories (e.g., peak experience recall) to generate the positivity vibe; (d) kept reasonably plausible (to avoid dissonance in the brain; can stretch for future scenario); (e) focused on what is within control and one’s potential (e.g., lifestyle goals, emotional reactivity, and expression; (f) aligned with clearly established goals/aspirations for preferred way of being; and (g) projected to a future opportunity (i.e., positive prospection).
It is further recommended to catch any opportunities as soon as possible following any occasion when old habits or patterns kick in and responding as one would have preferred. This could displace any negative rumination, and replace the negative memory with the preferred, thereby boosting positive repertoire for future prospects. This may be more fruitful even in cases of PTSD, rather than revisiting the original incident. This may more effectively dislodge the original memory by focusing on the more recent and malleable along with the future projection, as well as avoid any residual negativity that may arise from going all the way back.
To have greater control over future prospects, more conscious intention is necessary to override the brain’s default mechanism that dwells in the past, and reset according to one’s preferences going forward. With practice, it will not necessarily take extra effort, just bringing more conscious awareness to the process and adjusting accordingly, once the chosen direction is well established. By engaging the rewriting history mechanism one may be in a better position for creating a flourishing future.