Gilbert and Wilson offer a concise review of our unique human ability to simulate the future, covering brain regions involved and stereotyped errors that occur (PDF here). (I did a series of posts in June, 2006 abstracting Gilberts book "Stumbling on Happiness." You can use the blog search box to find them by entering the word "stumbling.") Here are some clips:
Their conclusion makes a nice summary of how modern and ancient brain systems interact in imagining possible future feelings:
Prefeelings will be reliable predictors of subsequent hedonic experiences when two conditions are met. As the figure shows, when we are in the present (T1) attempting to predict our hedonic reaction to an event in the future (H2), our present hedonic experience (H1) is influenced by our simulation of the future event (e1) as well as by contextual factors (1), such as the events that are occurring in the present, the thoughts we are having in the present, our present bodily states, and so on. We feel better when we imagine going to the theater than to the dentist, but we feel better imagining either event on a sunny day than on a rainy day, or when we are well rather than ill. Similarly, our future hedonic experience (H2) will be influenced both by our perception of the event (e2) and by contextual factors (2). Because our hedonic experiences are influenced both by our mental representation of the event and by contextual factors, our present hedonic experience will be a reliable predictor of our future hedonic experience if and only if (i) our simulation of the event at T1 exerts the same influence on our hedonic experience at T1 as our perception of the event at T2 exerts on our hedonic experience at T2, and (ii) contextual factors at T1 exert the same influence on our hedonic experience at T1 as contextual factors at T2 exert on our hedonic experience at T2. In other words, H1 = H2 if and only if e1 = e2 and 1 = 2. Errors in prospection arise from the fact that people use their prefeelings to make hedonic predictions even when one or both of these conditions is not met. These errors are of four kinds.
Simulations are unrepresentative. We naturally imagine our next dental appointment by remembering our last one.... research suggests that people often use unrepresentative memories as a basis for simulation. For example, when people who have missed trains in the past are asked to imagine missing a train in the future, they tend to remember their worst train-missing experience rather than their typical train-missing experience.
Simulations are essentialized. When we imagine "going to the theater next week," we don't imagine every detail of the event, but rather, we imagine the essential features that define it. We imagine seeing a stage filled with actors but we do not imagine parking the car, checking our coat, or finding our seat. The problem with omitting inessential features from simulations is that such features can profoundly influence our subsequent hedonic experience... Because simulations omit inessential features, people tend to predict that good events will be better and bad events will be worse than they actually turn out to be. The young couple who simulate the joys of parenthood but fail to simulate the drudgery of diapers are unlikely to have the hedonic experience they imagined.
Simulations are abbreviated. If we imagined each and every moment of the events we were simulating, our simulations would take as long as the events themselves. Simulations are naturally abbreviated and represent just a few, select moments of a future event. The moments they select tend to be the early ones. When people imagine what their lives would be like if they won the lottery or became paraplegic, they are more likely to imagine the first day than the two-hundred-and-ninety-seventh. The problem with imagining only the early moments of an event is that hedonic reactions to events typically dissipate over time, which means that mental simulations tend to the moments that evoke the most intense pleasure or pain.
Simulations are decontextualized. Research shows that people often do not consider the potentially significant differences between contextual factors at T1 and T2 when using their present hedonic state to predict their future hedonic state. For example, hungry people mistakenly expect to like eating spaghetti for breakfast the next day, and sated people mistakenly expect to dislike eating it for dinner the next day. People who have just exercised mistakenly expect to enjoy drinking water the next day more than do people who are about to exercise (53). In both cases, people do not seem to realize that their present hunger and thirst are influencing their hedonic reactions to simulated future consumption. They ignore the fact that the contextual factors that are presently exerting an influence at T1 (i.e., hunger and thirst) will not exert the same influence at T2.
Mental simulation is the means by which the brain discovers what it already knows. When faced with decisions about future events, the cortex generates simulations, briefly tricking subcortical systems into believing that those events are unfolding in the present and then taking note of the feelings these systems produce. The cortex is interested in feelings because they encode the wisdom that our species has acquired over millennia about the adaptive significance of the events we are perceiving. Alas, actually perceiving a bear is a potentially expensive way to learn about its adaptive significance, and thus evolution has provided us with a method for getting this information in advance of the encounter. When we preview the future and prefeel its consequences, we are soliciting advice from our ancestors.
This method is ingenious but imperfect. The cortex attempts to trick the rest of the brain by impersonating a sensory system. It simulates future events to find out what subcortical structures know, but try as it might, the cortex cannot generate simulations that have all the richness and reality of genuine perceptions. Its simulations are deficient because they are based on a small number of memories, they omit large numbers of features, they do not sustain themselves over time, and they lack context. Compared to sensory perceptions, mental simulations are mere cardboard cut-outs of reality. They are convincing enough to elicit brief hedonic reactions from subcortical systems, but because they differ from perceptions in such fundamental ways, the reactions they elicit may differ as well. Although prospection allows us to navigate time in a way that no other animal can, we still see more than we foresaw.