Spontaneous and deliberate future thinking: A dual process account
In this article, we address an apparent paradox in the literature on mental time travel and mind-wandering: How is it possible that future thinking is both constructive, yet often experienced as occurring spontaneously? We identify and describe two ‘routes’ whereby episodic future thoughts are brought to consciousness, with each of the ‘routes’ being associated with separable cognitive processes and functions. Voluntary future thinking relies on controlled, deliberate and slow cognitive processing. The other, termed involuntary or spontaneous future thinking, relies on automatic processes that allows ‘fully-fledged’ episodic future thoughts to freely come to mind, often triggered by internal or external cues. To unravel the paradox, we propose that the majority of spontaneous future thoughts are ‘pre-made’ (i.e., each spontaneous future thought is a re-iteration of a previously constructed future event), and therefore based on simple, well-understood, memory processes. We also propose that the pre-made hypothesis explains why spontaneous future thoughts occur rapidly, are similar to involuntary memories, and predominantly about upcoming tasks and goals. We also raise the possibility that spontaneous future thinking is the default mode of imagining the future. This dual process approach complements and extends standard theoretical approaches that emphasise constructive simulation, and outlines novel opportunities for researchers examining voluntary and spontaneous forms of future thinking.