Religion and Your Future Self

Jonathan Morgan

Woman looking to the futureConsider yourself in ten years.  What’ll you be like?  Will you be as funny, kind, or wise as you are now?  Now, as you’re thinking about yourself in 2024, consider one more thing- how connected do you feel to this version of yourself?  How real does she or he feel?

I know, it’s hard enough to imagine 2024, especially considering that in 2004 Lance Armstrong was winning his 6th Tour de France, a gallon of gas cost around $2, Colin Powell was resigning from his position as Secretary of State, and was just being launched.  Who knows what 2024 will look like, but regardless of how sci-fi it might be- how strong does your connection to your future self feel?

It’s a weird question.  The obvious answer is very connected- “it’s me after all, how could I be anything but connected to myself?”  But think about how hard it is to keep new year’s resolutions or how easy it is to procrastinate.  These issues, which we all face, have lead psychologists and neuroscientists to explore the relationship between our present and future selves.  The converging opinion is that this connection is more tenuous than we initially assume.  But, it’s also widely agreed that we can do things to strengthen the connection.  And perhaps religion is one of those things.  But before speculating about how to fix the connection, it’s worth reviewing the research that says it’s in need of fixing in the first place.

Psychologists have been some of the first to look into the disconnect between our current and future selves.  For example, if you were asked by a researcher to drink a mixture of soy-sauce and ketchup today or commit to drink some in the future- you’d likely drink less today than you’d agree to drink in the future.*  At least that’s what the psychologist Emily Pronin found in her research.  That sort of finding’s open to all sorts of interpretations, but it should cause us to at least wonder why there’s a difference.  After all, that drink’s gonna be just as nasty for our future-self when it comes time to fulfill the commitment.

Evidence that the cause of the difference comes from a disconnect between our present and future self has recently come from neurological research.  Hal Herschfield, a researcher at NYU, has used neuroimaging to see what’s happening in our brains when we consider our current self versus our future self.  The experiment Herschfield and colleagues designed is pretty simple- they gave participants an adjective, like Honorable or Funny, and asked “Does this word describe yourself now?”  They repeated this process, asking participants to rank how well different adjectives describe: yourself, yourself in the future, Matt Damon, and Matt Damon in the future.  All of this was done while taking an fMRI.

Herschfield and colleagues found that the rostral Anterior Cingulate Cortex was very active when people were considering their current selves, but not active when considering their future self or Matt Damon (sorry buddy).  Herschfield takes this to be significant because there’s a growing body of research that says these neural circuits are involved in processing information about ourselves.  In other words, the part of the brain that’s active when we’re thinking about ourselves isn’t as active when we’re thinking about our future self.  As you’d probably expect, the level of activation varied across the group.

These differences in brain activity are a bit weird, but alone they don’t tell us much.  Things became more interesting when Herschfield had participants come into the lab a week later and complete a survey that tracks how they perceive value over time.  This survey asked participants whether they’d rather have $1.50 at the end of the experiment or $10 in a week.  They’re asked again but the delay increases to a month and then two months and then to a year.  At some point people end up preferring the $1.50 now.  As they say- a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

By honing in on that point where people switch, this survey provides a rough measure for someone’s sense of value over time.  Importantly, people vary- some always prefer to wait for the $10, while others would rather have a $1.50 now if it meant not having to wait two months.

Herschfield’s team found that you can predict someone’s sense of value over time based on how active their rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) was during the previous experiment.  The more active their rACC was during their consideration of their future self, the more likely they were to choose the $10, regardless of delay. In other words, if someone has a more cohesive sense of self, they’re also likely to see value as persisting over time.

Now this conclusion is dependent on a lot of interpretation.  Most critically it rests on the assumption that activation differences in this particular region of the brain reflect different experiences of self.  But even if you find this assumption troubling, you’ve got to find some way to account for the pattern they’ve found.  Rather than explore other interpretations, I’m going to move to the other purpose at hand, cause by now you should be asking- “what does all of this have to do with religion?”

The connection to religion is speculative- I suppose it’s about as tenuous as our connection to our future selves.  But I think there are good reasons to think that religion might have something to do with how we perceive ourselves over time.

For one- researchers have shown that religiosity is also correlated with how people perceive value over time.  Using a similar task to the one Herschfield used above, a research team out of the University of Miami found that religious commitment was associated with the tendency to forego immediate rewards for larger returns later.  This research is part of a large body of research which has supported the positive relationship of religiosity with self-control, delay of gratification, and other health behaviors.

No doubt there are a multitude of causes for these connections.  But the research by Herschfield and others has begun to make me wonder whether religion cultivates a cohesive sense of self that might help foster each of these connections.

Consider how important a coherent sense of self is within the Abrahamic religions.  If there’s no continuous self, then any doctrine of the afterlife becomes irrelevant.  Regardless of the afterlife, the concern over one’s relationship with the divine is a prominent theme across a wide range of religions.  And this relationship, what the philosopher Martin Buber called I and Thou, takes a cohesive self for granted.  The nature of this relationship between the self and the divine is taken to amazing metaphysical heights by the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy.  The theory that there’s no self, proposed by buddhist philosophers like Nagarjuna, could undermine this connection.  But even though these philosophies undermine a cohesive, single, continuous self, they nevertheless emphasize the interconnectedness of all beings and current action and future consequences.

My point in all this speculation is that religion may present a powerful cultural technology for enhancing our sense of connection to our future selves.  Herschfield is primarily a marketing researcher; beyond the study I reviewed above, he’s found that people are more likely to save for retirement when they’re shown a digitally altered picture of what they might look like in old age.  The underlying point is that it matters if we feel connected to our future selves- that connection may not only be important for opening an IRA, it may also be important for a wide range of prosocial behaviors that are essential for living in community.  So I’m left wondering- has religion partially evolved as a way to help us take the future more seriously?  After all, whether we feel connected to it or not, we’re all going to be living there some day.


*In a future post I’ll have to consider psychologist’s strange obsession with making participants drink gross things!

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