Latest developments in causes and treatments



How Daydreaming About the Future Can Improve Substance Abuse Resistance 

Politicians are famous for asking, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” It’s a clever psychological ploy because most people are dissatisfied with how their lives have progressed no matter how well they have done. The opposite question, “How do you see yourself four years from now,” can actually be therapeutic, because people tend to believe their lives will improve and their hardships will be overcome.

In the scientific literature, thinking about one’s future is called episodic future thinking and it’s a major indicator of whether someone is prone to having substance use disorders. The inability to see the consequences of one’s actions in the near future leads people to take inordinate risks. An example is not being able to see the cumulative damage of binge drinking and thus underestimating the risks and increasing the likelihood of addiction.

“Impaired episodic future thinking is associated with poor executive function and opioid use” say the authors of a mammoth survey, “A Neurobehavioral Approach to Addiction: Implications for the Opioid Epidemic and the Psychology of Addiction,” in the journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest. The good news is that episodic future thinking can be enhanced through exercises, and these exercises have shown benefits over a wide variety of compulsive behaviors:

[E]nhancement of episodic future thinking using a laboratory-based intervention designed to prompt individuals to generate detailed simulations of the future and vividly imagine these events has reliably been shown to reduce both delay discounting as well as addictive behavior and related phenomena, including overeating and valuation of high-energy-density fast foods in overweight and obese populations, cigarette smoking and valuation of cigarettes in smokers, and valuation of alcohol in problem drinkers.

Episodic future thinking stimulates the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is damaged by substance use disorders and other compulsive behaviors. Working memory exercises stimulate the prefrontal cortex and help strengthen the ability to resist urges. According to a study on episodic future thinking for Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, “episodic future thoughts occur frequently in everyday life and tend to be positively biased.”

Memory games such as Sudoku, Wordle and jigsaw puzzles stimulate the frontal cortex and the ability to see the consequences of present behavior in the future. The benefits of episodic future thinking are well-stated in Imaginable, the new book by game designer Jane McGonigal:

[F]utures thinking is an incredibly useful, practical tool to prepare your mind to adapt faster to new challenges, build hope and resilience, reduce anxiety and depression, and inspire you to take actions today that set yourself up for future happiness and success.

Today is a good day to dream about how you want to be in the New Year. Every day is a good day to spend a few moments dreaming about the future you. It will help balance out the natural tendency to feel disappointed with the past.

Written by Steve O’Keefe. First published December 29, 2023.


“A Neurobehavioral Approach to Addiction: Implications for the Opioid Epidemic and the Psychology of Addiction,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, October 2019.

“Why Success Doesn’t Lead to Satisfaction,” Harvard Business Review, January 2023.

“8 working memory boosters,” published by, retrieved December 2023.

“Mental time travel is a great decision-making tool — this is how to use it,”, March 2022.

Image Copyright: pongmoji.


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