Imagining Your Future Self Can Help You Be Healthier Now

imagining-your-future-self-can-help-you-be-healthier-nowDid you know that visualizing yourself differently can help you make health changes now? Depending on what you’re trying to change, either imagining a better future you or a worse one could provide the psychological and physiological fuel for transformation. For people looking to lose weight and improve lifestyle behaviors, picturing a worst place scenario future self might help. If you’re struggling instead with chronic pain, your solution may be to envision a better future you.

How does this work? Well, I’ve pointed out before that people are not always kind to their future selves. We’re not very good at affective forecasting, understanding how we’re likely to feel at a future point in time. We’re also endlessly optimistic, and will agree to activities in the expectation that our future selves will be prepared, motivated, and able. A set of new technologies is helping people to better understand their future selves in a realistic way, and to change their current day behavior as a result.

These virtual reality technologies hinge on helping people to visualize their physical appearance in a future state. In some cases, it’s if they continue on the same dietary and physical activity pathways they currently follow. In others, it’s if injuries were healed or missing limbs restored. These technologies help people either pursue the visualized future or work to avoid it.

The first one, from Medical Avatar, is colloquially known as the “Healthy Selfie” (not to be confused with the app of the same name; watch co-founder Virgil Wong’s TED Talk here). The Healthy Selfie generates a three-dimensional representation of you, and then can age it realistically using inputs from your health data trackers. The technology makes it possible for you to see how your skin might wrinkle if you continue smoking, or how your waist might thicken if you don’t begin moving more often. Preliminary research suggests that the approach works; for example, one study with Kaiser Permanente found significant weight loss among people whose intervention plan included a Healthy Selfie.

A related future viz technology currently in prototype in Copenhagen is the Future Self Mirror. The Future Self Mirror works by collecting your health data, spotting trends, and extrapolating those trends to help you see a potential future self. You can see some demo videos at PSFK’s website. Because the Future Self Mirror is still in a research phase, there aren’t any outcomes associated with its use yet.

The Future Self Mirror in action.
The Future Self Mirror in action.

In a different area of health, there is future visualization to help alleviate pain. A second technology that uses future visualization to influence health behaviors comes from Deepstream VR. Deepstream focuses on chronic pain management; in fact, I heard Alex Cahana from their team speak as part of a program about the opioid crisis in Massachusetts. Their technology helps people visualize themselves in a snowy environment and play a virtual reality game, called Cool!, there. The game includes biofeedback mechanisms and biosensors to help control the intensity of the experience. Not only do pain patients who play self-report a drop in pain levels, but fMRI scans show a decrease in pain perception in the brain among players.

One of the otter characters in DeepstreamVR's Cool! virtual reality game.
One of the otter characters in DeepstreamVR’s Cool! virtual reality game.

A related visualization that’s been shown to help people with amputations is setting up a mirror box that reflects the remaining limb. If the person using the mirror box looks down, they appear to have bilateral limbs, as if the missing one were replaced. Using this type of box and having the person exercise the missing limb by moving the remaining one has been shown to reduce phantom limb pain. This is the research that inspired Deepstream VR to develop a more sophisticated virtual world to help pain patients visualize themselves in a less painful form.

As these examples suggest, the specific types of health goals you have and your current situation determine whether it is better to visualize future worst case or best case scenarios. Different future visualization techniques might work for different goals and types of behavior change.

There is some research showing that visualizing those worst case future self scenarios are better for people needing to lose weight. In the context of a behavior change framework like the Health Belief Model, that makes sense. That model predicts that as risks seem more real and more personal, people are more likely to take action to mitigate them. When virtual reality shows possible effects of different lifestyle choices on physical appearance, it can lead people to make better choices because consequences seem more real.

However, it seems like reducing pain levels works better with positive visualizations, imagining that injuries are healed or limbs restored. This also makes sense. Although we don’t fully understand how chronic pain works, we do know that visualizations can help reroute neural pathways. By vividly visualizing future selves, pain patients may be able to revise their neural networks to reduce the experience of pain.

One thing is for sure: Keeping your future self in mind today can help present-day you become a happier, healthier future you.