Humans are typically considered the only species on Earth that can think ahead and make complex plans for the future. Thinking about the future has a lot of benefits, including helping us with decision-making, motivating us to reach goals, and allowing us to plan for emergencies. You think about the future constantly. You schedule time to do homework. You practice so you’re ready for the game. You make a family plan in case of a fire. It’s a skill you’ll use your whole life.
Airplane pilots, for example, have to know how to handle certain situations. What if a bird hits the plane? What if an engine fails? What if lightning strikes the plane? When learning, pilots don’t just read a book and take a written test. They actually get into a flight simulator and face dangerous situations to see what they’ll do. The pilots practice how to react to future challenges.
Your brain does the same thing. It has a simulation feature that thinks about all of the possible futures and asks what-if questions to practice what to do in challenging situations. Your brain asks the questions, hoping to get a response like this: “If that challenge comes up, then I’ll do this.” Your brain is making plans. It’s almost like practicing life before it happens!
We know from scientists that worrying makes it harder for the logical part of your brain to think clearly—the part responsible for planning, organization, and decision-making. So, your brain still tries to simulate the future and asks what-if questions. But if you’re worrying instead of creating plans, your brain can get stuck in a long loop of what-if questions. As we said earlier, we call this What-iffing.