Finding recovery from addiction by visualizing future events
Inside the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion, a small room with bar stools, liquor bottles, and glasses filled with ice is meant to look and feel like a real bar. Here, researchers like Warren Bickel are trying to better understand how to help people who struggle with addiction.
“Relationships, employment, health are the things people give up when they sort of become super short-term focused,” said Bickel, who directs the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s Addiction Recovery Research Center. His team has found that, for most of us, our ability to think of time can stretch more than four years in the future. But for some people who struggle with drug addiction, it can be difficult to imagine a future beyond just seven days.
Bickel’s team is working on two studies to explore whether encouraging people with drug and alcohol addiction to think of events in their future could help them be more effective in their recovery, teaching them to learn to build a regular habit of imagining a future event, a week, month, or years away.
“We found that among individuals in recovery from addiction that if they have a short-term perspective, they’re more likely to relapse,” Bickel said.
Even thinking of something as simple as a nephew’s birthday could have profound results, said Bickel. “It actually whisks people into the future, and they can see beyond the immediacy of the moment. The effect that we see on their thinking about the future increases, just like you’ve exercised a muscle,” Bickel said.
He said this research could open the door to other studies to explore how our perceptions of time, and our ability to visualize our future, changes our behavior. It could also open the door to learning whether it’s possible to teach these skills to kids, to reduce their chances of making risky decisions.