Are We Capable Of Tackling Future — Not Just Present — Dangers?

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote that evidence from brain research shows “…that the human brain systematically misjudges certain kinds of risks. In effect, evolution has programmed us to be alert for snakes and enemies with clubs, but we aren’t well prepared to respond to dangers that require forethought.”

“If you come across a garter snake, nearly all of your brain will light up with activity as you process the “threat.” Yet if somebody tells you that carbon emissions will eventually destroy Earth as we know it, only the small part of the brain that focuses on the future — a portion of the prefrontal cortex — will glimmer.”

In other words, we will tend to acknowledge a threat and react to it when we experience it as more immediate.  But if it appears to lie in the distance somewhere, it doesn’t have the same impact.  In effect, our brain circuitry, from early in our evolution, makes us cavalier about future dangers, even if those dangers are horrendous in their consequences if not headed off by action that begins in the present.  And even if the dangers we’re programmed to react to were relevant in an ancient environment, but minimally present in today’s world.

Kristoff points out that “…all is not lost, particularly if we understand and acknowledge our neurological shortcomings — and try to compensate with rational analysis. When we work at it, we are indeed capable of foresight: If we can floss today to prevent tooth decay in later years, then perhaps we can also drive less to save the planet.”

I think there is even more encouraging evidence, beyond applying “rational analysis.”  In additions – and perhaps more importantly – is the capacity to grow consciousness about our impact on the world, through our actions; and deliberately use our empathy – which is also hard-wired, as brain research shows – to initiate actions that support desired outcomes.  Whether for our own lives or future generations.

For example, part of our early ancestry propels us to seek out multiple partners, because of evolutionary need to reproduce. (Of course, some of us continue to do that, repeatedly!)  But acting contrary to that – or any other impulse that may benefit your own self but hurt others – well, that’s a choice you can make, as your consciousness grows. The latter enables you to define what you value, why, and engage in actions based on conscious values that promoting and supporting life, not just your own.

The more our consciousness grows within us as a species, that, in turn, drives continued emotional, mental, and behavioral evolution.  It leads to thinking about what your “life impact” is; or what you want it to be.  I’m reminded of something Samantha Power said in a college commencement address last year, “Become a good ancestor

Now there’s a good principle to live by.