We All Make Sense Before the Future – My reading of Homo prospectus

Homo Prospectus

Homo Prospectus (2016)

In the same vein as evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973) famously concluded, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, Martin Seligman and his colleagues (2016), self-proclaimed as “four horsemen” (Preface, xiii), ambitiously propose that nothing in human nature makes sense except in the light of our capacity in making prospection[1] as a treatise laid down in their Homo Propectus.

Martin Seligman being regarded as Father of Positive Psychology is no stranger to readers of self-help books while Roy Baumeister, one of the co-authors, has been known for his research in masculinity and the science of will power. The other pair on the reins are Peter Railton, a philosopher who has thought hard on moral realism, and Chandra Sripada, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist by training and a philosopher by profession. Despite the diversity of their respective areas of research, the four scholars have reached the same conclusion on the significance of prospection on humans’ survival and thriving as informed by decades of their research. Our extraordinary capacity in simulating the future, they argue, has distinguished us from other species by enabling us to trust others for reciprocity in the future which is a necessary condition that gave rise to human civilization and societies. The idea also fits well into Robin Dunbar’s (2012) social brain theory and other theories relating to altruism (e.g., Pfaff, 2015) and empathy (e.g., Baren-Cohen, 2011).

Hence, the true origin of Homo sapiens is the distinctive combination of an unprecedented capacity for anticipatory guidance and an unprecedented capacity to live and learn with others – capacities definitive of our ultimate subject matter in this book Homo prospectus socialis; more simply, Homo prospectus.” (Seligmen et al., 2016, pp.6-7)

The beauty of the hypothesis that our forward-looking ability is essential in securing success professionally, socially, and even psychologically lies in its explanatory and predictive power to help us make sense of puzzling human behavior that has haunted us for ages. For examples, the malleability of our memory is no longer a defect or shortcoming at all if it serves the purpose of learning to cope with multiple possibilities in our future. Its very flexibility and the constructive nature are, therefore, what the value of human memory is due. This idea somehow resonates with Bayesian model:

“Memory must be active and constructive, not passive and fixed – it must metabolize information into forms that are efficient and effective for the forward guidance of thought and action.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.15)


Robert Cialdini’s Pre-suasion (2016)

Other interesting examples raised in the book on how our default settings of making prospection constantly may have helped us learn and cope with challenges in our lives include the functions of our seemingly irrational intuition and impulsive emotional reaction. Of course, this is nothing new as many evolutionary psychologists and behavioural economists have been investigating the subject and exploring their role played in our decision-making (e.g., Cialdini, 2016; Kenrick & Griskevicius, 2013). Yet, what Railton and Baumeister revealed is an overlooked and underappreciated fact that the neurological pathways it takes to form an intuitive decision which is always intertwined closely with our emotional circuits are far more sophisticated and complex as well as much faster than we can ever imagine. In short, our intuition that our intuition is effortless is plain wrong. Neither has our intuition and impulsive reaction failed to consume our cognitive resources as exercising our rationality. We are not conscious of the formation process of intuition only because our brain runs in a model that is so “effective” and “efficient” that it saves us the trouble by presenting our intuitive mind in an “automatic mode” or “unmanned” state.

What strikes me as more interesting is Sripada’s insight into the purpose of learning served by “mind wandering”. Contrary to the bias skewed against our ever “wandering mind” which has been considered a subject to be harnessed, hence “心猿意馬” (“one’s heart is running amok like monkeys while one’s mind is galloping like horses”) in Chinese, Sripida cast away the spell and uncovered how mind wandering may help us learn with the support of neuroscientific evidence[2]:

Neural evidence tells a complementary story. Mind-wandering has been tied to the default mode network, a set of brain regions that are involved in episodic memory and imagination… This network was identified from observations of brain activation during prolonged functional imaging tasks. These tasks often provide for intermittent rest intervals, and it was noticed that during these rests, a network of midline and medial temporal lobe structures reliably turn on … These regions were dubbed the default network because their ongoing operation appears to be the brain’s default state of activity…It was subsequently shown that this network subserves mind-wandering activity…The overall picture, then, is that when nothing else is going on, people don’t simply ‘power down’ and let their minds go idle. Rather, they engage a network of brain regions specialized for a distinctive activity: churning out discursive trains of episodes from the past and prospections into the future. The question is: Why?” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.104)


“[W]e advance the view that mind-wandering is not (directly) for planning but rather plays a pivotal role in learning; it contributes to building a highly general ‘map’ of the world that can later be queried for whatever specific purposes a person happens to have. More specifically, our view sees mind-wandering as involving in a highly interesting and widely underappreciated process for facilitating certain kinds of learning: the process of repeated presentation of learning examples. We will argue that in the right sort of learning contexts, presenting discursive ongoing streams of learning examples can facilitate identification of the deeper hidden patterns. We call this the ‘deep learning’ account of min-wandering.” (Seligman et al., 2016, pp.105-6)


In short…consistent with the CLS [Complementary Learning System] model, the neurobiological evidence supports specialization in the hippocampus and neocortex: The hippocampus is optimized for the separation of representations and retention of detail while the neocortex is optimized for integration of representations and forming abstractions from the details.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.108)


“[T]he hippocampus repeatedly presents high-fidelity records of experience toe the cortical deep learning system.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.108)


A third line of evidence for the CLS model comes from human lesion studies. It has long been known that lesions to the hippocampus produce retrograde amnesia for declarative memories, especially for memory of autobiographical episodes. Interestingly, amnesia is often time-limited with memories from the more remote past spared…The CLS framework nicely explains this pattern. The neocortical system stores generalizations and statistical regularities from hippocampal inputs, resulting in partial redundancy and overlap in the mnemonic contents of the two systems. The formation of neocortical memory traces, however, is slow and iterative, and thus requires extensive time for consolidation. This explains why there is preferential sparing of remote memories with hippocampal damage; only those memories that have had sufficient time for neocortical stabilization and consolidation are spared. If the neocortex has not had time to extract patterns from hippocampal memories of relatively recent events, then there will be complete amnesia for these events.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.109)


Our extended CLS architecture…propose that episodic memory examples generated by the hippocampal system are consumed by a variety of neocortical deep learning systems. This requires widespread dissemination of these memory states; only if these episodic memory-based learning examples are widely disseminated can they be consumed by multiple disparate neocortical systems. This brings consciousness into the picture.

On the global workspace model, consciousness is a mechanism for accomplishing widespread dissemination of information to multiple consumer systems…Informational states that enter the global workspace are amplified and ‘broadcast’ rapidly across long-range recurrent cortico-cortico and cortico-thalamic connections…Such broadcast, it is claimed by defenders of workspace theory, is necessary for a state’s being consciously experienced, and according to some theorists, also sufficient. Because the extended CLS model proposes that episode memory examples from the hippocampal surface system are typically consumed by multiple, disparate cortical deep learning systems, we assume these hippocampal memory states use the mechanisms of global broadcast to be disseminated widely, and thus they are conscious.

After these refinements, we are now in a position to locate mind-wandering. To recap a bit, the extended model proposes that there’s a hippocampal surface system that stores sensorily rich and detailed episodic memories. There is also a neocortical deep system, which itself consists of a number of disparate conceptual learning systems, and the neocortical system requires an ongoing stream of learning examples. Using the mechanism of conscious broadcast, the hippocampal surface system delivers these examples to the neocortical system thereby driving deep learning (including generalization, explanation, abstraction, gist-finding, and social interpretation). Because the deep system requires interleaved inputs, the stream of examples from the surface system must vary in content and be drawn from the domain of interest in a semi-random way – it must meander in order to work. Mind-wandering is located within this architecture as the ongoing discursive series of episodic memory examples from the hippocampal surface system that are consciously broadcast to, and consumed by the neocortical deep system.

Why is mind-wandering so ubiquitous; why does it occupy nearly half of our waking lives? We theorize in the extended CLS model that the neocortical deep learning system is slow and that it learns only incrementally. If it is to extract useful generalizations, explanations, abstractions, gists, and interpretations, the hippocampal surface system must deliver a massive number of meandering memories. Thus, there must be an abundance of mind-wandering activity.

Notice, however, that though neocortical deep learning is ultimately valuable, engaging in it is rarely pressing. So the mind-wandering activity that drives neocortical deep learning should operate as a default activity. That is, it is an activity that should be conducted throughout ‘rest’ periods and when engagement with a demanding task is required, mid-wandering should be suspended, with an immediate resumption of mind-wandering as soon as the resting state resumes. The fMRI findings we discussed earlier, in which mind-wandering is subserved by the (appropriately named) default mode network, provides strong support that mind-wandering follows precisely his predicted on-and-off pattern.” (Seligman et al., 2016, pp.113-5)

No matter Spridida is correct or not, his view on mind-wandering has alleviated the burden of my guilt for always letting my mind drift away. Thank you!

Another “Big Question” addressed by Siripada and was brilliantly argued in terms of prospection is free will. Instead of following mainstream philosophical enquiries which focus on metaphysical existence of “free will” or confining the subject to a deterministic framework, Siripada has offered to address the question by considering our day-to-day psychological experience of “free will”. Two concepts, namely construction of options and latitude, were introduced as guiding posts in the subsequent study. How we create a sense that we really have options and can make our choices according to our preference matters, hence construction of options; so does the diversity of the choices we can make, hence latitude[3]:

We will argue that the distinctive mark of human freedom is latitude. Latitude refers to what agents have when the ‘size’ of their option set is large. For now, we can say an agent has more latitude when the number of distinct options in the option set is larger. A bit later, we will provide a more refined account of how to understand the ‘size’ of an option set.

Simple animals have sharply limited latitude. The candidate options they can mentally represent, and from which they can in turn select, are few and relatively fixed. At the other extreme, human agents have a truly colossal amount of latitude. Because humans are deeply prospective creatures with powerful imagined abilities, they can build option sets that are truly vast. As a result, humans can express themselves in countless ways. This latitude for self-expression is, we argue, the best answer to the comparative question of free will. It is the distinctive psychological feature that explains why humans, but not simpler animals, are free.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.193)


Our focus has…been on an important comparative question about free will that hardly ever gets addressed: What are the distinctive psychological factors that explain why humans are free but simpler animals are not? The answer, we claim, is latitude. Humans are deeply prospective creatures who have powerful abilities for option construction. Humans can, thus, build option sets that contain numerous and diverse opportunities for self-expression. It is because humans are unique in being able to roam far and wide in a vast space of options that humans are unique in being free.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.205)

In details, Siripada posited three distinctive features in human agents’ power of constructing options in the followings:

  1. Sequential plan:

Humans have the ability to form sequential plans, chains of actions linked in a coordinated way to achieve a goal. Plans are characteristically decomposable into parts, each of which achieves a proximal goal...” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.194)

  1. Extended time horizon:

The existing evidence suggests that nonhuman animals cannot represent goings on at points in time in the distant future. Some studies place the time horizon of nonhuman animals at just a few minutes; others allow that in some contexts, some animals might prospect as far as day…Humans, in contrast, can readily mentally represent events and episodes that are days, years, decades, and indeed millennia in the future, long after they as individuals, or even as a species, will have perished. The time horizon of humans appears to be essentially boundless.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.195)

  1. Metarepresentation:

[T]he ability to mentally represent one’s own psychological states.” (Seligmen et al., 2016, p.195)

The preceding two factors – sequential planning and extended time horizon – are enabled by a suite of other sophisticated capacities. Central among these are powerful abilities for prospective imaginal simulation; we can mentally project ourselves into temporally distant hypothetical situations. Indeed, there appears to be a set of interconnected brain regions, called the default network, specialized for this purpose…This is a network of regions in the brain’s midline and posterior lateral areas that have reliably been implicated in prospective thinking…as well as other cognitive tasks that involve projecting oneself into different times, places, situations, or perspectives…Areas of the default network have undergone extensive elaboration in the transition from mammalian ancestors to modern humans… The expanded abilities for prospective simulation thus enabled likely plays a key role in explaining why capacities for sequential planning are more powerful and our time horizon more distant.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.195)


Think of options as lying in a multidimensional space. Each of one’s cares establishes a new axis. The position of an option along that axis is determined by whether the option satisfies, hinders, or is neutral with respect to the satisfaction of that care. The notion of divergence can be understood as distance between two options in this high-dimensional space…A diverse option set is one in which the options within it ar spread out and cover the space. That is, there is sufficient divergence between individual options that they are not all clustered within a tiny region.

We have proposed that the size of option set is based on the number and diversity of opportunities for self-expression that are contained within. Now we are in a position to say what latitude is. Latitude is not the size of the option set itself. Rather, it is something agents enjoy in virtue of the size of their option sets. Let us suppose a person’s selective processes are functioning properly. Given an option set that has already been constructed, these processes appropriately assign evaluative weight to the options and select for implementation those that are evaluated as best. Holding fixed this fact, suppose now we enlarge the option set over which these selective processes operate, either by increasing the number of options or increasing the diversity of options.  Even though the selective processes themselves have not change, the person’s latitude has changed. Latitude consists in the opportunities for self-expression that have grown due to the expansion of the option set.

Because of our uniquely powerful constructive powers, we humans build option sets of unravelled size. We correspondingly have unmatched latitude of self-expression. The view we are proposing mark of free will. That is, free will consists of having the latitude to express one’s self in numerous and diverse ways.

We have focused on powers to construct options as the distinctive basis for free will. Humans, however, also have uniquely powerful selective processes. That is, the processes that underlie our ability to assign evaluative weights to actions and implement those actions evaluated as best are also more advanced than those possessed by other creatures. One might object to the latitude view of free will by being too narrowly focused on the psychological processes that underlie option construction. Why not say that gains in sophistication of all the processes that subserve decision and action – the processes that subserve option construction as well as the processes that subserve option selection – contribute to freedom?

Our response to this objection takes note that agency is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Because of this, we have a rich and nuanced vocabulary for separately describing distinct ‘achievements’ of agency. For example, agents can be free, responsible, prudent, moral, virtuous, and so forth, and each of these terms picks out a distinct way that agency can go well. One important achievement of agency specifically concerns the functioning of selective processes. When these processes are made to function better (i.e., when evaluative weights are assigned to options in a way that better reflects their actual worth), we don’t say the agent is thereby more free; rather we say the agent is thereby more rational.

We agree with the objector, then, that humans uniquely possess advanced powers of option construction as well as option selection. We contend, however, that the greater sophistication of selective processes, and the more careful and nuanced assignment of evaluative weights hat this thereby enabled, is connected with a very specific achievement of agency: rationality. But if we want to know how humans differ from simpler animals in terms of freedom, it is not the selective processes that matter for this. Rather it is the constructive processes. The greater sophistication of human constructive processes and the greater latitude of self-expression that is thereby conferred are what distinguish humans from other animals in terms of freedom.” (Seligman et al., 2016, pp.200-1)

Given the importance of our future-oriented vision, Seligman is not unaware of problems that the malfunction of our prospection may bring. An example, which is of clinical relevance, is depression. As Seligman argued, contrary to Freud’s attribution of depression to individual’s past experience, the disorder may also manifest itself when our over-prospection backfires:

First and foremost we build upon Beck’s (1974) negative cognitive triad, which marked major theoretical progress in the study of depression. Beck postulated a negative view of the world, of the self, and of the future as the hallmark symptoms of depression, and suggested they were more than mere symptoms; they actually caused depression. We agree with this, and we further suggest that the negative view of the future is the first among equals in the triad.

Much research and therapy focuses on negative views of the …but negative views of the future may matter even more; we hypothesize that the entire cognitive triad may actually boil down to negative future-thinking. Certainly, it is depressing for people to believe that the world is no good, but that this will change dramatically for the better tomorrow, this is not nearly as disheartening. Sadness and dejection are understandable reactions to the belief that things will always be bad. The emotional reaction is not faulty here, but rather the representation of the future is. Beck posited that by helping clients to spot and change dysfunctional if-then simulations of the future, therapists can promote recovery and resilience. Targeting this part of the cognitive triad might be one of the most important interventions and the single most important target for further development.

This prospective framework also extends and enriches Abramson, Metalsky, and Alloy’s (1989) hopelessness theory of depression, which posits that hopelessness is sufficient for causing a subtype of depression, as well as MacLeod et al. (2005) and those of Miloyan, Pachana, and Suddendorf (2014), which point to the specific maladaptive problems in mental simulation that characterize hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior.

We see faulty prospection as a core underlying process that drives depression (and potentially contributes to a range of other comorbid disorders). We believe that prospection is not a mere symptom or correlate of depression, but rather the process that belongs front and center in the study of depression.” (Seligman et al., 2016, pp.282-3)

Despite his belief that human’s fault in prospection lies in the core of depression, Seligman knew better than giving any conviction that would close the case once and for all. He also pointed out that “poor prospection” would not account for all symptoms displayed by the depressed (Seligman et al., 2016). Like all good scientists, the authors the Homo Prospectus has only proposed, albeit ambitiously, a new paradigm for making sense of human nature and uniqueness. Whether their proposals will become a game changer in psychology and philosophy is yet to be seen. What is certain, though, is a lot more research will be initiated along the direction departed from Homo Prospectus in the future.

As far as my prediction would go,  I will keep track on what is going to come out from those subsequent researches and continue to write about it.



[1] The phrase is mine.

[2] Though a bit long, the reproduction of the text is justified by the completeness of idea it presents.

[3] Again, I cannot help copying a great portion from the book as to capture the totality of Sripida’s argument.


Baren-Cohen, S. (2011). The Science of Evil. Basic Books.

Cialdini, R. (2016). Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade . Simon & Schuster.

Dobzhansky, T. G. (1973). Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. American Biology Teacher, 35(3), 125-129.

Dunbar, R. (2012). The Science of Love and Betrayal. Faber & Faber.

Kenrick, D. T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013). The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think. Basic Books.

Pfaff, D. (2015). The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good. Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E., Railton, P., Roy, B. F., & Sripada, C. (2016). Homo Prospectus. Oxford University Press.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s