Oliver W. Markley

American Behavioral Scientist, 42(3), pp 522-530, Nov/Dec. 1998. 

(A special issue of ABS on “Futures Studies in Higher Education” edited by Dr. James Dator)



            Guided cognitive imagery is described as an appropriate technology of choice for intuition-based exploring, learning and teaching about alternative futures—especially suitable for futures involving cultural transformation.   Two methodological approaches with case examples are described: (a) a virtual time travel method for visionary futures exploration and for experiencing the needs of future generations and (b) a set of depth- intuition methods for need finding, transforming perceived needs into opportunities, choosing between policy options, and transcendental exploration.

            Although these “visionary futures” methods extend well beyond the conventional paradigm of the behavioral sciences, they are consistent with the cannons of science in that they are trainable and can be replicated.  Moreover, they can readily be used to help integrate the methodologies of social action research, futures research and political activism—a task which urgently needs to be done.



Alternative futures, education, teaching, learning, guided cognitive imagery,  virtual time travel, global consciousness, intuition; creativity, innovation, forecasting, visioning, strategic planning


The overall thrust of my teaching and professional writing has been equally focused on:

(a) general futures research methodology (i.e., how to discern formative trends, issues and alternative futures, and how to use them for various types of clients); and (b) normative forecasting (i.e., the visualization of futures that are highly preferable,  even if not highly probable).  A position paper summarizing the first focus is “Explaining and Implementing Futures Research” (Markley, 1989); and one summarizing the second is “Global Consciousness: An Alternative Future of Choice” (Markley, 1996), an expanded version of which is the working paper, “The Fourth Wave: A Normative Future for Gaia/SpaceShip Earth” (available: ).   


But probably my most important contribution as an educator has been in the use of creativity, visualization, and guided cognitive imagery. This came about due to a pivotal event early in my career as a futurist, when as a fresh postdoctoral student hired by Willis Harman to lead methodology development at the new futures research think tank we were creating at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International),  I got my first taste of professional paradigm change.


The pivotal event was this: In 1970, after about 18 months of intensive research to generate as many internally and sequentially plausible alternative future histories as we could derive from the existing literature of utopias, dystopias, science fiction scenarios, etc. and from our own unique qualitative modeling method (Harman, Markley and Rhyne, 1973), our first major results indicated that of some fifty of the most highly plausible alternative future histories for society, only a handful were by any stretch of the imagination desirable, and most of them involved deep-seated transformations of underlying attitudes, images and policies in response to problems involving over-population, resource depletion, pollution, dangerous weapons build-ups, etc.  All of which Harman (1969; 1979) dubbed, “The World Macroproblem.”


With my methodological responsibilities in mind, I in turn, reasoned that research methods based on rational/analytic modes of thinking are, in principle, not suitable for creative exploration of transformational alternative futures because such thinking modes are more or less simply mechanistic extrapolations of what has gone on before.  Instead, we needed to develop methods that would rely on intuition  -- both as a way to discern how various alternative futures might  “work” even though based on a different cultural paradigm than the one now dominant; and as a way to guide exploration of preferable future possibilities.


A search of the literature and professional practices of cognitive, humanistic and transpersonal psychologists and workshop leaders, as well as those of other practitioners using tools and processes for accessing intuition led to the conclusion that the most appropriate technology for this purpose was that of visual thinking and guided cognitive imagery .  Early research studies at SRI actually using this approach as a formal technique include the pioneering SRI studies of “Contemporary Societal Problems” (Markley & Curry, 1971), and “Societal Consequences of Changing Images of Man” (Campbell, et al, 1974; Markley & Harman, , 1982 based on Campbell et al’s work),  the first known study to formally attempt the use of Kuhnian “paradigm” concepts in connection with the whole human society, not just scientific communities.[1]





Over the past 25 years I have used many different visioning and guided cognitive imagery exercises with audiences of all ages and sectors of society, but particularly with corporate managers and professionals,  and in a graduate level course at the University of Houston-Clear Lake called, “Visionary Futures.”  However I have thus far published only two approaches to the use of guided imagery methods, choosing to put forward only those that have proven to be the most robust for practical purposes, and ethically appropriate in that they are relatively unsusceptible to misuse either due to incompetence or manipulative intent.  Each of the approaches and methods described below are based on well-tested scripts that can be read “as-is” or adapted by reasonably skilled facilitators who wish to use them.


A Virtual Time Travel Method

for Visionary Futures Exploration

One approach is especially useful with audiences that have little or no background with either futures studies or visualization exercises.  It involves an imaginary time travel journey in which the participant envisions living in a number of scenes involving different culturally specific locations, both past and future. After being guided to experience the sensory inputs appropriate to each scene (as if actually living there), the participant considers one or more questions that trigger intuitive knowledge relating to a specific theme of interest.  For example, in the published versions of this exercise (Markley, 1994; Markley and Burchsted, 1997), the theme is “Experiencing the Needs of Future Generations,” and the sequence of scenes and illustrative questions is as follows.


The nomadic era.  The exercise begins with an imaginary journey back to the nomadic era in which a tribe is facing climate changes that are diminishing their food supply.  The participants are asked to imagine what it would feel like to be a member of the tribe faced with these types of challenges.  They are asked to explore such questions as: “How do people in your tribe deal with problems that threaten your future?”  “What do they do to find the answers they need?”


Transition to industrialism and urbanization.  In the second scene of the exercise, the participants travel forward to a different historical era: when the impacts of colonialism are being felt in many parts of the world, and traditional indigenous village life is giving way to industrialized society.  They are to imagine themselves as village elders and from the perspective of what they, as elders, most deeply value, to search for answers to questions such as “What needs to happen in order that future generations will be able to live by the traditional values of our people, should they choose to do so?”


The short-range future.  The “daydream” then shifts one generation, or 20-30 years into the future.  Participants are asked to imagine having tuned into a “virtual reality” television show that summarized the big events of the year (25 years in the future) and to consider questions such as: “What progress has been made in dealing with problems such as growth in population, pollution and so forth?”  “What is now possible due to new technologies?” “What do people find important when they consider these types of problems?” 


The long-range future and very long range future.  The virtual time traveler next journeys 200 years, or about eight generations, and then very far ahead—to some 2,500 years or 100 generations into the future.  In each, participants are asked to consider some important questions.  For example, “How would you describe what the quality of life is like here?”  “What actions by previous generations caused things to turn out this way?”  “What do people in this time and place go about guiding the society?”


Scanning our history for patterns. The imagistic day dream concludes with a quick review of all the historical time periods—past and future—that had been visited during the journey.  As the participants scan across of them, they are asked to get a sense of what was common and what was different in each and to answer questions such as “What things stood out for you as most important?” Finally, given what they had seen about human history, both past and future, participants are asked “If you could send a message from the future back to the present, so as to communicate what future generations most urgently need from us, what would that message be?”


Discussion.   Depending on the purpose and nature of the audience, the filling out of a brief questionnaire and/or a period of loosely structured discussion follows the exercise, and this, of course, is where major learnings get crystallized.  Because the exercise is such a gripping experience  for many, however,  it is sometimes difficult to focus discussion on the learnings to be derived from the simulation, rather than on the “gee whiz” phenomena that were experienced.  Nevertheless, the approach is a profound way to increase one’s appreciation for the dynamics of history—past and future—and it is a particularly appropriate technology for visionary exploration of transformational futures by  “newbies” to futures studies.  As evidence of this, graduate students in business administration and in environmental management whose only exposure to futures thinking was this “Needs of Future Generations” exercise have frequently reported it as being a professionally life-changing event, due to the way it waked them up to the importance of reflecting very long-range ecological concerns into their professional lives.  Graduate students in studies of the future, on the other hand, tend to take their participation in the exercise much more in stride; it simply didn’t show them that much that was new!  For more on this, especially regarding results with adults and school children, please see Markley and Burchsted (1997, p. 717ff).  The complete script and accompanying questionnaire for participants is available on the Internet at as well as in Markley (1994).


Four Depth Intuition Methods

for Visionary Futures Exploration

A second approach to visionary futures exploration, learning and teaching that I have found quite useful is one that takes up where the above approach leaves off in terms of familiarity and skill required—both of the leader and of the participants.  This depth-intuition approach involves four discrete methods, each with detailed scripts for leaders. It was first published in the Journal of Creative Behavior  (Markley, 1988) and subsequently reprinted as a chapter in the Source Book for Creative Problem-Solving: A Fifty Year Digest of Proven Innovation Processes (Parnes, 1992).  Depending on how they are adapted and used, these methods can be used separately or as a set, and are particularly suitable for three broad classes of future-oriented applications: problem solving, policy analysis, and strategic planning—both personal and corporate.


Method 1. Focusing on Current Concerns:

A Procedure for Need Finding

This process is based on the focusing approach developed by  psychologist Eugene Gendlin (1981).   It employs a step-by-step approach for getting in touch with “What needs concern me right now?” or “What stands between me and feeling o.k. about ....?”  The method, when successful,  leads to a psycho-physical “felt shift” (as in the “A-Ha” moment, so emphasized in creative work), involving bodily-based feelings that precisely identify any focus of concern  needing to be realized.    Depending on how the method is used, it can help ascertain intrinsic values and motivations (i.e., “What I most deeply believe and care about”) as opposed to  extrinsic ones (“What I think I should  care about”), or it can be used to identify obstacles needing to be handled that stand in the way of attaining a desired objective (including both those that are held unconsciously).  But it is important to note that much precision by way of results may not be possible until the method has been practiced sufficiently, because the psycho-physical focusing skills it requires take practice to develop.


To illustrate how the method can be used,  if  a behavioral scientist desires to begin a personal/experiential inquiry into futures studies (the focus of this issue of American Behavioral Scientist ) were to use this method of need finding, let us suppose that the thing that comes into focus is a sense of challenge rooted in the unknown requirements for successfully investigating a new professional and intellectual territory, particularly one that is fundamentally interdisciplinary and may even involve a new “paradigm, ” as that term has come to be used.


 One way of using the results of this approach is to go immediately into action.  A preferred response is to use the results of Method One as input to Method Two. 


Method 2. Revisioning Current Concerns:

A Procedure for Transforming Perceived Problems into Opportunities

This process is adapted from suggestions in the provocative book, Inner Guide Meditation, by Edwin Steinbrecher (1978).  In a way that reflects the insight often attributed to Einstein, that “You cannot solve a problem at the level in which the problem is held,” this procedure involves intuiting and exploring the essential meaning of a given problem situation as expressed in an appropriate symbolic form (which may be an image, a phrase, a metaphor, etc.).   The “energy of higher consciousness,” is then used to transform the symbolic representation from what feels like a problem into that which feels more like an opportunity.   It is a most amazing process to experience, and one that not infrequently leads to creative solutions that were before beyond reach to conceive.


To continue the above example, our behavioral scientist might begin this method with  the problem focus obtained in Method One—a felt-sense of the challenge involved in learning to use new interdisciplinary concepts and tools of futures research.  The symbolic representation he or she initially gets might be the image of a skull and cross-bones, which upon investigation (using the exploratory questions asked by the guide that are part of the script), turns out to symbolize the fear of death of familiar, old discipline-based ways of working, which may have to give way if one is to expand and embrace new ways involving a different and unfamiliar “paradigm.”   The transformation process of the method leads to a second image, that of a phoenix bird rising from flames—a traditional symbol of rebirth.[2]  And the exploratory questions contained in the script to be asked by the guide about the new image lead to an experiencing of an invigorating sense of challenge at the thought of taking on something new and exciting, rather than feelings of dread at having to give up something old and dear.  This is an illustration of turning a problem into an opportunity.


As with Method One described above, one way of using the results of this approach is to go immediately into action.  A preferred response is to use the results of both Methods One and Two as input to Method Three.


Method 3. Experiencing Alternative Futures I:

A Virtual Time Travel Procedure for Assessment of Strategies

This procedure is based on a body of theory, that although highly relevant to the philosophy and practice of alternative futures research, is beyond the pale of what most futures researchers are willing to embrace because of its source: “channeled” material in the book Seth Speaks, by Jane Roberts (1972).  Although rather more complex than the simplistic summary given here, this process conceptually involves nothing more than first choosing two or more alternative policy options regarding some problem or opportunity of concern (e.g., the problem-oriented output from Method One and the opportunity-oriented output from Method Two) then holding the intention in consciousness (as in a simulation exercise) to implement one option rather than the other while in a guided imagery process not unlike the “virtual time travel” procedure described above, to experientially observe the short- and long-range impacts of choosing this particular policy option.  One then imagines “zeroing out” the simulated intention to pursue the first option; and to instead hold the imagined intention to implement the second policy option; then experientially traveling through the future that stems from it,  and so forth.  The results are usually very clear-cut which specific future feels more desirable, and why.  Thus, this is a most practical tool for strategically assessing various policy options of concern, whether they be personal or planetary in scope.


To continue our hypothetical behavioral scientist example, Method Three might be based on two policy options: (a) making the personal/professional choice of doing nothing further about futures research, on the one hand, or  (b) on the other hand, taking the plunge and begining to use futures-oriented concepts and tools in one’s professional work in order to make it more personally satisfying and useful to society. 


As to what the results might look like, consider the case of a clinical psychology student who protested that a “left-brain, rational/analytic” final exam was not appropriate in the author’s graduate course on “Visionary Futures.”  The author, in turn, challenged the student to use Method Three, and to let the results speak for themselves in making the choice whether or not to require the final exam.  The results?  In the version of the script used, the participant was to choose a vehicle through which to travel through the future, our student, always wanting to experience being a pilot, chose a T-33 jet trainer.  In the alternative future involving no final exam, the jet had a real hard time taking off the run-way, was relatively unstable in flight, and seemed always on the edge of lapsing into uncontrolled flight conditions.  In the alternative future in which there was a final exam, the jet took off strongly, and was soon doing aerial acrobatics, which were seen and admired from the ground by the student’s parents, family, and friends.  Needless to say, the experience quickened the student’s willingness to take the rational/analytic final exam, which the instructor, from the beginning, had recommended as a way better to integrate the cognitive concepts of the course, with the behavioral skills that had, by that time, been well-learned.


It is important to note that when appropriately  facilitated, this method works quite well in business as well as academic settings, and with newbies  as well as to those more experienced with  guided cognitive imagery methods for strategic visioning.  For example, the author recently led a team from a Fortune 50 corporation currently investigating planetary marketing strategies, used this approach to investigate the long-range implications of  Western corporate strategies to  embrace marketing to Third World nations versus Third World isolationist strategies for corporate America.  The results were, in the words of the corporate team leader, “breath-takingly clear” that the more inclusive policy option (for American corporations to seek  Third World markets rather than avoid them) is better for corporations as well being better for the Third World. “After all, we do all live in the same planetary ‘Spaceship,’ and increasingly, what ruins a whole region, threatens to ruin the whole world.”


Method 4.  Experiencing Alternative Futures II:

A Transcendental Procedure for Exploration of

Possible/Probable/Preferable Alternative Realities

This procedure differs in that its value tends to be intrinsic and idealistic, rather than extrinsic and practical.  But for some readers it will be the most valuable of the set, for it offers a fast, safe, and efficient way directly to experience the transcendental source of one’s being and from there, to explore one or more alternative probable and/or preferable realities that could emerge in the future (including the future that is intuited as one’s ideal expression.)  Based on ideas communicated to me by Dr. Caroline Myss (personal communication, December, 1979), this guided cognitive imagery procedure more or less simply involves the climbing of a very long, circular staircase in which, as you climb, you experientially unburden yourself (i.e., be aware, imagistically, of having, and then “let go”) of the following sequence: possessions... relationships... emotional reactions... judgmental evaluations...compulsive awareness of the physical body... the level or zone of probabilities... of  possibilities... of  creative emergence...and into the experiential awareness of source.   By reversing the direction, and skillfully navigating in consciousness into alternative possible/probable/preferable realities of interest (i.e., domains that match the explorational concerns of the student/client/participant), much of great value can be intuitively experienced and learned.


Obviously, a high degree of art is involved in guiding and in following this type of process with efficacy, and this type of procedure perhaps stretches to the limit what can be accomplished by of using visionary approaches to teaching and learning about the future in the setting of a university classroom.  But the procedure is a most powerful way to draw forth that which is latent within (the core meaning of educare, the Latin origin of the word, education),  and is one that not infrequently leads to a fundamental change in outlook and/or career direction for the participant—much like Willis Harman’s seminar in consciousness and the human potential at Stanford that altered the career direction and subsequent future of so many graduate students, including myself.


To conclude our behavioral science example, it is not unreasonable to hypothesize that if the participant had enough skill and interest to get this far in the sequence of methods, that he or she would, in this exercise, find that his or her vocational vision  for the future includes an expansion of personal/professional paradigm to be more interdisciplinary, more futures-oriented, and more open to exploring new concepts and hypotheses such as “global consciousness”[3] that offer  new paradigm possibilities for attaining the transition to a global society that is both sustainable and humane. But, on the other hand, the participant could discover that he or she has been a workaholic for too long, and that now is the time to relax and enjoy family and friends, hobbies and ___ (you fill in the blank) to a greater extent than before.



CONCLUSION: On the Need to

Couple Social Action Research with

Futures Research and Political Activism

Rather obviously, some of the premises underlying the methods presented in this exposition are not in keeping with key foundational assumptions about the nature of reality held by many behavioral scientists.  Nevertheless, these noetic technologies for visioning are based on trainable skills, can be replicated, and are consistent with the cannons of science –even though they would systemically extend the conventional paradigm of the behavioral sciences in certain key ways (Dunne & Jahn, 1987; Harman, 1988).[4]   But should behavioral scientists take the time and trouble to expand their paradigm in the directions indicated by this issue of the journal in general and this essay in particular?   As the final example of how I teach futures research, consider the following:


In the opening anecdote above about alternative futures research at SRI ca ~1970, a key piece of the story was left out:  The work was done under contract to the U.S. Office of Education which, as part of the War on Poverty had commissioned two research centers to study alternative future possibilities for the year 2000 and to derive policy implications for educating the youth in ways more relevant to the future in which they would be actually living.  The bottom-line policy implication we put forth was this: Develop an ecology-oriented curriculum for Grades K-12 as soon as possible, so as to prepare the citizenry more wisely to deal with the long-range ecological problems we saw ahead.  Our education clients returned a year later saying essentially, “Stop doing your very long-range research and focus on shorter-term policy topics (Emerging Education Technologies, Education for the Disadvantaged, etc.)—because in trying to implement your policy suggestions, we find that the planning horizon of the Office of Education is the four-year reelection cycle bringing in a new commissioner, and not having a Congressional mandate to develop a whole new ecology curriculum, we are unable to proceed with this important initiative.”  In fact, it was only after the famous Earth Day demonstration in 1972 that the Congress of the United States did enact enabling legislation for ecology-oriented educational policy—which taught me a great deal about the necessity of coupling alternative futures research with political activism in order to make headway in society with ideas whose time has not (yet) come. 


The action research tradition so honored by American Behavioral Scientist  is an ideal way to bridge the gap between visionary futures research and the realpolitik of society.  And as Walsh (1984) makes clear in his consciousness-raising monograph, Staying Alive: The Psychology of Human Survival, this line of development for the behavioral sciences is not only desirable, it is essential—both to planetary ecology and to the well-being of our children, our children’s children, and their children’s children.








Campbell, J., Elgin, D., Harman, W., Hastings, A., Markley, O.W., O’Regan, B., & Schneider, L. (1974).  Societal consequences of changing images of man (Report No. 4). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International, Center for Study of Social Policy.


Dunne, B. & R. Jahn (1987), Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World.  NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.


Gendlin, E. (1981), Focusing, 2nd ed. NY: Bantam Books.


Harman, W. (1969), “Alternative Futures and Educational Policy,” Menlo Park, Ca: Stanford Research Institute, Educational Policy Research Center, Policy Memorandum No. 6.


Harman, W. (1979),  An Incomplete Guide to the Future.  New York: W.W. Norton.


Harman, W. (1988), Global Mind Change: The New Age Revolution in the Way We Think.  NY: Warner.


Harman, W., O. Markley and R. Rhyne (1973),  “The Forecasting of Plausible Alternative Future Histories:  Methods, Results and Educational Policy Implications.”  In Long Range Policy Planning in Education.  Paris:  Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.


Kleiner, A. (1996), The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change. NY: Doubleday.


Markley, O. (1988), “Using Depth Intuition in Creative Problem-Solving and Strategic Innovation,” Journal of Creative Behavior, Vol. 22, No. 2, 330-340.


Markley, O. (1989), “Explaining and Implementing Futures Research,” in H. Didsbury (Ed.), The Future: Opportunity not Destiny  (a book of readings for the World Future Society’s Sixth General Assembly).  Bethesda, MD: World Future Society, 183-213.


Markley, O. (1994), “Experiencing the Needs of Future Generations: A Step Toward Global Consciousness.”  In  Thinking About Future Generations. Kyoto: Institute for the Integrated Study of Future Generations, 206-221.


Markley, O. (1996), “Global Consciousness: An Alternative Future of Choice,” FUTURES, Vol. 28, No. 6/7, 622-625.


Markley, O. and S. Burchsted (1997), “Experiencing the Needs of Future Generations with Adults and Children,” FUTURES, Vol. 29, No. 8, 715-722.


Markley, O. , D. Curry and D. Rink (1971),  Contemporary Societal Problems .  Menlo Park, Ca: Stanford Research Institute, Educational Policy Research Center,  Report No. EPRC-6747-2.


Markley, O. and W. Harman (1982), Changing Images of Man .  NY: Pergamon Press.


Parnes, S. (1992),  Source Book for Creative Problem-Solving: A Fifty Year Digest of Proven Innovation Processes.  Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation Press.


Roberts, J. (1972), Seth Speaks.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.


Steinbrecher, E. (1978), Inner Guide Meditation: A Spiritual Technology for the 21st Century.  Santa Fe: Blue Feather Press.


Walsh, R. (1984), Staying Alive: The Psychology of Human Survival.  Boulder: New Science Library.



            Oliver W. Markley, Ph.D., P.E.  is currently professor of Human Sciences and Studies of the Future at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and a founding principal of the management consulting firm,  Partnership Associates.  Formerly he was a senior policy analyst , principal investigator for futures research projects  and management consultant in the Management and Social Systems Group of SRI International, where he and Willis Harman co-led a pioneering research study  that was the first to employ the Kuhnian idea of “paradigm change” applied to whole societies, not just scientific communities.   His graduate training mentors included John Arnold (creativity in design engineering) and Willis Harman (human potentials and consciousness studies) at Stanford University; Donald Campbell (social psychology and methodology design) and Harold Guetzkow (simulation methods) at Northwestern University; Swami Bhashyananda (advaita [non-dual] yoga philosophy and practice) at the Vivekananda Vedanta Center of Chicago; and Carl Rogers (postdoctoral fellowship for work with groups) at the Western Behavioral Science Institute.   A Fellow of the World Futures Studies Federation, Markley is the co-author of four books and author of numerous papers  on various aspects of creativity,  futures research,  forecasting, planning, and change management. 



[1].  As a professional side note, it is perhaps now appropriate to point out that we chose not to  include an explicit mention of the more visionary methods in our statement of methodology because we considered them too far from the dominant paradigm of the social and behavioral sciences at that time to be credible as a formal research technique. Whether this omission was ethically appropriate is now posed as a question for both students and professionals in relevant disciplines.  For more on this, see Kleiner (1996).

[2]. The image of the skull and cross-bones and the phoenix were not just thought up. I actually experienced them as I simulated being a typical reader doing the methods described here when writing this essay.

[3]. Global consciousness  is a phrase meaning at least two kinds of things:

1) Expansion of consciousness beyond the confines of an ego-centric sense of self, thereby including transpersonal experiences and Self-identity that is transcendent in time and space and 2)  Functionally adequate awareness of ecology as a whole system of physical and non-physical interactions across time.

As shown by the emerging discipline of deep ecology, neither of these two requirements is really independent of the other. Rather, they are as two sides of the same coin. For more on this, see Markley (1996) or

[4]. The word noetic, as used by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, derives from the Greek, Nous (mind, consciousness, or transcendental ways of knowing).  It has become a preferred term for the author when speaking of the domains of consciousness traditionally referred to as “spiritual” when teaching in an open-enrollment, public university setting.  But the word spiritual also proves serviceable in this context as long as it is made clear that spiritual does not equate to religious.  Spiritual, used this way, is a technical term, as distinct from physical, and noetic is  term that inclusively integrates both.