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Rewinding & Rewriting: The Alternate Universes In Our Heads

Laura Ogden, Jack Hannan, and Dr. Jones the dog.
Courtesy of Laura Ogden
Laura Ogden, Jack Hannan, and Dr. Jones the dog.

There's a moment from nearly a decade ago that's still on loop in Laura Ogden's mind. When Laura plays back this mental video, she imagines an alternate ending. A happier ending.

There's a technical name for this kind of thinking: A counterfactual.

A counterfactual is a mental simulation where you think about something that happened, and then imagine an alternate ending.

Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota, says we come up with counterfactuals all the time.

"If you drive home from work today, and you get into a car accident, that would be terrible," she says. "And you may start thinking about why that happened. If you took a new route home from work, one of the counterfactuals may be, 'Now if only I had stuck to my usual way of going home, this wouldn't have happened.'"

Northwestern University Professor Neal Roese says there's real value to wondering "if only."

"Counterfactual thoughts are generally useful for us in terms of providing a set of options that we might act upon in the future," he says. "And this can lead to improvement. It can lead to learning from experience."

But counterfactual thinking isn't always so constructive. Counterfactuals sometimes appear when they're not needed; they can also fail to appear when they would be most useful.

This week on Hidden Brain, we look at why some events prompt these "What if?" questions, while others do not.

This episode was produced by Rhaina Cohen and Parth Shah and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team also includes Jenny Schmidt, Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
Parth Shah is an associate producer at Hidden Brain. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.