We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment
We are misnamed. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, the “wise man,” but that’s more of a boast than a description. What makes us wise? What sets us apart from other animals? Various answers have been proposed — language, tools, cooperation, culture, tasting bad to predators — but none is unique to humans.
What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future. Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to “commencement” speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.
A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered — rather belatedly, because for the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present.
Behaviorists thought of animal learning as the ingraining of habit by repetition. Psychoanalysts believed that treating patients was a matter of unearthing and confronting the past. Even when cognitive psychology emerged, it focused on the past and present — on memory and perception.
Continue reading the main story
But it is increasingly clear that the mind is mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past. Behavior, memory and perception can’t be understood without appreciating the central role of prospection. We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities. Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected.
Our emotions are less reactions to the present than guides to future behavior. Therapists are exploring new ways to treat depression now that they see it as primarily not because of past traumas and present stresses but because of skewed visions of what lies ahead.
Prospection enables us to become wise not just from our own experiences but also by learning from others. We are social animals like no others, living and working in very large groups of strangers, because we have jointly constructed the future. Human culture — our language, our division of labor, our knowledge, our laws and technology — is possible only because we can anticipate what fellow humans will do in the distant future. We make sacrifices today to earn rewards tomorrow, whether in this life or in the afterlife promised by so many religions.
Some of our unconscious powers of prospection are shared by animals, but hardly any other creatures are capable of thinking more than a few minutes ahead. Squirrels bury nuts by instinct, not because they know winter is coming. Ants cooperate to build dwellings because they’re genetically programmed to do so, not because they’ve agreed on a blueprint. Chimpanzees have sometimes been known to exercise short-term foresight, like the surly male at a Swedish zoo who was observed stockpiling rocks to throw at gawking humans, but they are nothing like Homo prospectus.
If you’re a chimp, you spend much of the day searching for your next meal. If you’re a human, you can usually rely on the foresight of your supermarket’s manager, or you can make a restaurant reservation for Saturday evening thanks to a remarkably complicated feat of collaborative prospection. You and the restaurateur both imagine a future time — “Saturday” exists only as a collective fantasy — and anticipate each other’s actions. You trust the restaurateur to acquire food and cook it for you. She trusts you to show up and give her money, which she will accept only because she expects her landlord to accept it in exchange for occupying his building.
The central role of prospection has emerged in recent studies of both conscious and unconscious mental processes, like one in Chicago that pinged nearly 500 adults during the day to record their immediate thoughts and moods. If traditional psychological theory had been correct, these people would have spent a lot of time ruminating. But they actually thought about the future three times more often than the past, and even those few thoughts about a past event typically involved consideration of its future implications.
When making plans, they reported higher levels of happiness and lower levels of stress than at other times, presumably because planning turns a chaotic mass of concerns into an organized sequence. Although they sometimes feared what might go wrong, on average there were twice as many thoughts of what they hoped would happen.
While most people tend to be optimistic, those suffering from depression and anxiety have a bleak view of the future — and that in fact seems to be the chief cause of their problems, not their past traumas nor their view of the present. While traumas do have a lasting impact, most people actually emerge stronger afterward. Others continue struggling because they over-predict failure and rejection. Studies have shown depressed people are distinguished from the norm by their tendency to imagine fewer positive scenarios while overestimating future risks.
They withdraw socially and become paralyzed by exaggerated self-doubt. A bright and accomplished student imagines: If I flunk the next test, then I’ll let everyone down and show what a failure I really am. Researchers have begun successfully testing therapies designed to break this pattern by training sufferers to envision positive outcomes (imagine passing the test) and to see future risks more realistically (think of the possibilities remaining even if you flunk the test).