19th April 2017: Workshop in York on Spontaneous Future Thoughts this July

At an international conference of Memory (ICOM 2016), I realised that spontaneous thoughts about the future was something quite a few researchers were interested in. People who typically study event memory, cognitive control and voluntary future thinking are turning their attention to prospective thoughts that ‘pop’ into one’s head seemingly out of the blue.

Just after this conference, our University had some funding for workshops so I decided to strike while the iron was hot. After emailing round different labs (mainly around Europe but also across the Pacific), we had assembled an international line-up of seven speakers, all of whom have completely new data to present this July (cue my very own spontaneous future thoughts of the workshop – both gloriously positive and horrendously catastrophic versions!). The workshop is called ‘Spontaneous Future Projections in Healthy Individuals and in Psychological Disorders’, and a full list of speakers and a summary of the day program can be found on the workshop website: https://www.yorksj.ac.uk/events-calendar/events/health/spontaneous-future-projections-in-healthy-individuals-and-in-psychological-disorders.html 

We are also showcasing some new clinical research from a lab in Denmark (CON AMORE), which examines spontaneous future thinking in individuals with social anxiety. This will be followed by discussions by speakers and attendees alike on the clinical applications of spontaneous future thinking research. I (probably naively) tried to reflect the different emotional tones one experiences when envisioning the future, especially when this occurs spontaneously, in the photograph above. In this I attempted (extremely naively) to capture the idea that one can have a vision of the future, but these can differ dramatically in predictability and emotional tone. However, I think I’ll stick to my day-job and prepare my talk for the workshop now.

If you are interested in attending please do not hesitate to contact me at s.cole1@yorksj.ac.uk . There is a fee to register, but students will get a 10% discount on this (lunch and drinks included).





20th October 2015: New Article: A Methodology to Elicit Involuntary Mental Time Travel in the Laboratory

So, after several months being reveiwed for Memory & Cognition, our article on using a laboratory paradigm to elicit involuntary memories and “flash-forwards” (see post above) has been accepted for publication. Interestingly and neatly, it will be published in the same Journal as Schlagman & Kvavilashvili’s influential paper published in 2008. In their study, they used a vigilance task combined with constantly changing word cues, to measure the speed at which involuntary memories come to mind, and some important subjective qualities. They compared involuntary memories with those retrieved wilfully (voluntary memories) in the same paradigm.

In our study, conducted at the Center on Autobiographical Memory in Denmark, as well as measuring involuntary and voluntary memories, we adapted this paradigm to examine two other types of mental time travel – involuntary future and voluntary future mental time travel. Our results confirmed much we have learnt from flash-forwards elicited in diary studies: They tend to be emotional, elicit a mood change, and appear in consciousness as a reaction to some cue – whether internal or external. What we were also able to do was use the many word cues presented in the vigilance task (600 to be exact), to calculate the time between when an involuntary future thought happened, and its preceding cue. Results showed that flash-forwards occured approximately 3 and a half seconds after the word cues. This shows that, like involuntary memories, involuntary thoughts about one’s future occur very rapidly, and are caused largely by external cues (at least using this laboratory paradigm).

An intriguing question arose when trying to explain the phenomena of flash forwards. Where do they originate from? One explanation we considered, and one which is largely still open to debate and investigation, is whether they were ‘memories of future thoughts’. In other words, had these momentary visions of the future been the subject of some previous night’s thought -could these be traced back to a memory trace? Although this is a plausible explanation, my very own personal experience suggested otherwise. I can certainly think of future thoughts that come to mind I had never consciously considered before (at least I can remember having!). A common example might be someone who has an anxiety future thought in which they spontaneously “see” some embarrasing situation unfolding (perhaps you forget your pen for an important exam, or the name of your potential employer when going for an interview). Dorthe Berntsen, a co-author on the paper, had argued in a previous paper that these were caused by spreading activation across autobiographical memory networks. Therefore, memory may be involved but not in the way previously described. Consistent with this view, we also found some flash-forwards – novel projections – that participants indicated they had never thought about previously. I am sure these explanations will be moulded and clrified by further experimentation. It is an interesting question and one which we wouldn’t have produced had we not conducted this experiment.

Another aspect worth mentioning is emotion. These imagined future scenarios were not anodyne and emotionally colourless – indeed they varied in terms of negative and positive emotion. In general, what we found was that involuntary future thoughts are predominantly positive and can change one’s mood in that direction. Involuntary memories, in contrast, were less positive. This is again an interesting area and one that clinicians may want to broach: It may reveal crucial things about the involuntary thoughts experienced in anxiety and mood disorders.

The paper is accessible on my Researchgate page (http://www.researchgate.net/publication/283013888_Inducing_Involuntary_and_Voluntary_Mental_Time_Travel_using_a_Laboratory_Paradigm) and will be online on Memory & Cognition’s website soon.

The full reference for this paper is:

Cole, S. N., Staugaard, S., & Berntsen, D. (2015). Inducing Involuntary and Voluntary Mental Time Travel using a laboratory paradigm. Memory and Cognition. Accepted, doi: 10.3758/s13421-015-0564-9

21st May 2015: How Do Involuntary and Voluntary Future Thoughts Reflect Personal Goals?

Have you ever been on your way to an event that means something to you, like a birthday party of a close friend, and out of the blue comes an emotional image of you making a social faux pas. In the reverie of the night, perhaps you mention a long-forgotten secret a friend has kept from his wife. Or, perhaps something positive: Perhaps the image is of being propositioned by an attractive party-goer. Whether these “flash-forwards” are inherently negative or positive, it is clear that they are related to our broader goals – who we want to love, where we want to live, what we want to do. In our latest study, Dorthe Berntsen explored how both flash-forwards (or involuntary future representations as we refer to them) and future events constructed in response to specific questions, are related to personal, self-generated goals. In another group of participants, involuntary memories and those generated in response to questions about one’s past were examined, and their relation to personal goals assessed. We included a memory group as although we know that the personal memories we recall are related to current personal goals, we wanted to see whether this was more exaggerated for personal future events.

In the study, carried out at the Center on Autobiographical Memory in Denmark, participants in both groups were given a monotonous task in which involuntary past/future events were recorded. Thereafter, they were asked to either recall past events or imagine future ones in response to 12 cue phrases. After a short break, participants were asked to provide 5 goals that were currently active (i.e., that they had not disregarded or completed). Then they had to go back and assess which past/future events was related to one or more of their personal goals. In line with previous research, we found that a sizeable percentage of memories, retrieved in an involuntary and voluntary way, were related to one or more goals. However, in line with our expectations, the group who were asked to report involuntary and voluntary future events were more likely to be goal-related. In fact, 65% of involuntary and 47% of voluntary thoughts about the future were goal-related. On both counts, this was at least 15% more goal-related than memories were. These findings are in line with recent arguments made by Psychologists such as Professor Martin Seligman suggesting that constructed and spontaneous thoughts about the future have a larger role than is recognised in goal-oriented cognition and behaviour.

To find out more, please follow the link to the article below:

Cole, S. N. & Berntsen, D. (2015). Do Future Thoughts Reflect Personal Goals? Current Concerns and Mental Time Travel into the Past and Future. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, [IF=1.73, 5 year IF =2.591] Special Issue on Episodic Future Thinking. Accepted. doi: 10.1080/17470218.2015.1044542

22nd March 2015 :  International Convention of Psychological Science   

As the organisers mentioned at the opening of this International meeting of Psychologists, the idea was this was an un-conventional conference. The rationale being that this conference should integrate people from different sub-disciplines, working at different levels of analysis and from different theoretical perspectives; a goal not often attempted in such a scale as this. I think that the keynote speakers and topics of the Workshops and main symposia represented such an ideal. The research presented in these was truly interdisciplinary work. One such example was Tania Singer of the Max Plank Institute, who was able to show that empathy and mindfulness training not only improved performance on cognitive tests associated with those mental skills, but also changed the underlying connections in the resting brain. She also assessed biopsychological and genetic characteristics. In this way, the main speakers really showed all psychologists what is possible – albeit with input and backing of large International funders.

Our symposium on Functions of Future Thoughts was scheduled at the end of the conference, just before the last poster sessions at 8pm! Luckily, we had an active audience who asked plenty of questions of the four speakers. First, Dorthe Berntsen of Aarhus University gave a short introduction asking ‘Why and how future thinking could be functional in our daily lives’. Could our speakers answer this question? How far can the data take us? The first talk was entitled ‘Situational Predictors of Mental Contrasting’ in which Timur Sevencir reported on an impressive number of studies with Gabrielle Oettingen exploring the goal function of contrasting a wish with how that will be implemented. By coding peoples narratives, he was able to show that people spontaneously use mental contrasting, and this aids energisation toward future goals. The second talk took us in a slightly different direction, as Brendan Gaesser of Harvard University and more recently Boston College, reported how imagining oneself and a close other performing tasks improves intentions to perform actions that may be classed as empathic or prosocial. His research thereby leads to the question of whether his detailed manipulations can cause significant effects when assessing behaviour in real world scenarios. My talk followed, which reported the findings of a recent study in which both involuntary and voluntary future projections were elciited, and were associated with personal goals. Our results showed that in many cases both types of future thought were tightly related to personal goals, and goal-related thoughts were rated as being more vivid, important and emotionally positive. Perhaps these positive future thoughts incorporated the wishes spontaneously recorded in Timur Sevencir’s studies. Last but not least was Rachel Anderson of the University of Hull (UK), who took us in a somewhat more clinical direction, reporting on a study of dysphoria and future thinking. Depression is interesting when studying future thinking as severeal studies have consistently shown reduced positive future thinking in people with low mood. A recent study by Rachel and PhD student Jennifer Boland showed that, after repeating positive future thoughts, those with dysphoria rated several positive scenarios as being more likely to occur. Could this open the door for interventions that target the very thing that is affected by depression – future outlook?

I think this symposium, and the parallel symposium on Prospection at the ICPS with Arnaud D’Argembeau, Anett Kretschmer, Katharina Schnitzspahn and Judith A. Ellis, showed that researchers are beginning to tackle the question of function related to future thought. Previously, the goal-related function had been assumed. It was the recieved wisdom in the field. However, what is now being played out in labs all over the world is detailed work investigating if, how, when future thinking can improve our lives – whether that is in an emotional sense, or in the sense of achieving goals that we set for ourselves, but fail to carry through on. I welcome such rigorous exploration.

You may think that:

“The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions”

But you could also say:

“Our intention creates our reality”. (quote from Wayne Dyer).

Both could be true but the second quote offers hope. Intention is probably the first step we take on a long staircase up to our dreams and life goals that may lead nowhere; but without following up the stairs, and assessing the stumbling blocks along the way, how are we to know?

Scott, UK

Endings and Beginnings. February, 2015

So, after a year and a half, my time at CON AMORE has finished, marking the end of my time at Aarhus. I am now back in the familiar territory of the UK re-joining an active network of researchers which has already involved giving talks (University of Hull), and attending conferences (Experimental Psychology Society meetings) and interest groups (The Greater Yorkshire Memory Meeting at Leeds). As ever, my eyes remain fixed forward, looking for the next challenge, probably within the UK but possibly abroad. But, now I have moved back to my home country, and while the memories are still available, it’s a good time to retrospect. What have been the highlights of my ‘Danish experience’ as a ‘foreign’ Postdoc? And how has my research changed as a result? Is there anything that I will miss about Denmark? Was the move to the land of Denmark worth it? Time for reflection.

Well, I have to say it has been great to do research at such a vibrant and International centre. As do many members of CON AMORE, I have definitely benefited from the many visitors, that have come from around Europe, USA and China amongst others to update us on their exciting new findings and their views. For an early career academic, such conversations can be the genesis of a unique idea, the idea for a grant proposal or simply a good excuse to continue a dialogue with researchers who you respect. Also, since arriving in early 2013, the centre seems to be really expanding its scope; from naturalistic studies to experimental studies of involuntary memories and research into clinical disorders such as into PTSD and depression. These areas have undoubtedly shaped my research on mental time travel and future thinking.

Has the trajectory of my research truly changed as a result of my experience at CON AMORE? Well, although I was already researching how we remember the past and imagine the future at Leeds, my line of research has definitely expanded. One good example is our latest studies (with Dorthe Berntsen and Soren Staugaard) which focus upon a curious mental experience, “flash-forwards”; images of the personal future that occur seemingly ‘out of the blue’. Research shows that we all have them. But… What are their emotional characteristics? Are they similar to involuntary memories in how they are mentally represented? How fast do they come to mind? We have started to tackle these questions, but also realise there’s a long way to go to develop a comprehensive understanding. To aid this research, I was helped by a group of efficient research assistants and student assistants. I was especially impressed by the level of dedication shown by research students (many of whom were still studying for the Undergraduate or Masters degree). It could be something to do with their payments for getting involved, something that is usually out of the question on economical grounds here in the UK. Nonetheless, the care they took over their work was truly impressive, even if they did not have aspurations for an academic career. There is probably a lot the UK system can learn from the Danish education system in this regard – student attitude was really excellent, and each strived for a high level of their work whatever the job. I was also helped along the way, and motivated, by the endless amounts of interesting ‘coffee-machine’ moments, which allowed dialogue to extend beyond the usual medium for academia – email and academic papers that is.

Based on the research I conducted in Denmark, I will present a paper at a symposium at the large-scale International Convention of Psychological Science conference organised by the Association for Psychological Science this March (2015). I decided to organise this symposium on the ‘Functions of Future Thoughts’ to provide a dialogue platform for researchers essentially examining the same phenomena but using often very different approaches and research techniques. It will also be a great opportunity to meet the excellent researchers examining future thinking. Dr. Rachel Anderson will be talking about mood and future thinking; Prof. Garbrielle Oettingen will be talking about situational predictors of goal attainment; Dr. Brendan Gaesser will be talking about prosocial function of future thought and its brain correlates. I am looking forward to this conference, and I’m sure it’ll be a truly interdisciplinary experience!

Things I will miss from Denmark?  In no particular order, I will miss having discussions with people in the Centre (see ‘coffee-machine’ moments above), the great weekly seminar talks by leading researchers (and the associated evenings out around Aarhus), the internal seminars, being one of the ‘Aarhus Internationals’, the beautiful clear-blue-sky summer days (see the Pictures on this page) and finally the great pastries (not good for the physique but great for the pallet!) and amazing coffee (this is taken seriously in Denmark!).

So, as a Postdoctoral researcher, working at CON AMORE has not only been a unique cultural experience, it has led me into areas I had not previously considered, as all good postdocs should. It has also been productive as at least two studies are being reviewed and will hopefully be published this year. The next blog post will explain a bit about the why, what and how of these studies. Back soon!

Leeds, United Kingdom

May 1st 2013: Impressions of the Danish Way of Life

Maybe its the bright weather were having at the moment, or the sunny and friendly people who surround me at the university department. Maybe its a sugar high from too many cakes. Anyhoo, I am convinced that Denmark has it right. Companies and Government emphasise and support family, relaxation and comfort (i.e. Quality of life). Some may think this would breed a culture of lazy feckless oiks. You couldn’t be more wrong. To start, the quality of education is so high that people appreciate issues of art, politics and society. When this happens people naturally raise their own game to contribute to society in a meaningful way. When Danes reach working age, their emphasis (again) is on quality not quantity. The quality of ones craft whatever it may be, should be high.

My guess is that most Danes do not and will not shout about these national highlights (probably for good reason) but I feel I need to express how wonderful a peaceful and caring society is. Lest I remind you that Danish people are often shown to have the highest life satisfaction levels in multinational questionnaires (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisfaction_with_Life_Index). When you compare this with the dominant British values of enterprise and opportunism and look across the pond to the more extreme individualist American culture one can only sit back and wonder why we don’t all live a Danish Life.

denmark1sunnu aarhus

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me in aarhus

April 26th: First Impressions of CON AMORE

So, I’ve been in Denmark for 2 weeks now and have had a range of experiences; largely positive. I’ve met all my colleagues and they are extremely friendly with a quite English dry sense of humour. I also have a very nice office in which I can arrange meetings or close myself off from the world and concentrate on writing up papers. As my main reason for moving was to join an international group of researchers with the same passions and interests as me (autobiographical memory that is), the importance of a vibrant yet flexible working environment was utmost in my mind. It turns out any worries I might have had were of little truth or consequence: The lab (http://conamore.au.dk/en/) is something quite special. People seem to have a healthy exchange of ideas and are interested in merging fields to initiate new projects. I believe this is very important in any research environment – the best ideas often grow from such exchanges. The first meeting with my lab leader, Dorthe Berntsen, led me to conclude that this was the right job and the right person to work with. Dorthe has the ambition and crucially resources to develop really exciting and cutting-edge research (these phrases are often banded about in psychology departments, however in this case it seems that the mixture of ideas fuels the genesis of really novel research). In apparent contrast, the atmosphere in the centre is quite relaxed giving people the right amount of space to develop their ideas. I therefore hope I can have a positive contribution in what is, and I hope will continue to be, a truly unique place to work.

Aarhus, Denmark.