Monday, May 22, 2017

A Head for the Future

Oh, the endless thinking. The ruminating that never, ever, stops, even when we are asleep. We think and think about the past and the future and often, very often, it takes effort to focus on the present.

I've always considered this mind buzz an unwelcome consequence of having a big brain. In fact, I believe that self-consciousness, which seems like such a good idea, is actually a human curse that we have to endure because it came along with the much more important puzzle solving skills that evolved to help us survive.

A recent opinion piece in the NY Times takes this idea a bit further—into the future. Authors Martin Segilman (a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania) and John Tierney (a science journalist) suggest that what really separates humans from other animals is not tool use nor language, but our ability to think about the future and come up with all sorts of possible scenarios.

The evolutionary advantage of this skill is obvious—lying awake at night trying to map where a tasty antelope might be going, or projecting where some tree might be fruiting, must have been a good thing.

But these days all this evolved forethought is not so advantageous. The problem is that humans are unable to turn off that mental shuffling through a zillion ways that things can turn out and we often get stuck on the negative possibilities while ignoring the positive possibilities.

Imagined catastrophes can be paralyzing and they are root of depression. Depression is, after all, the loss of hope and thinking that nothing will ever get better. In other words, the future looks beak. But in reality, the future is unknown and things might actually turn out pretty well.

The trick is to include the good possibilities, not just the bad and depressing ones, when you let your mind wander on its own into the future.


  1. Interesting thoughts and thank you for sharing this article. I've used this to speculate on the difference between Intelligence and Imagination.

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