May 21, 2017

THERE ARE NO DARWINISTS...NOR FREUDIANS,,,NOR ATHEISTS...:

We Aren't Built to Live in the Moment (MARTIN E. P. SELIGMAN and JOHN TIERNEYMAY 19, 2017, NY Times)

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.

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. [...]


If Homo prospectus takes the really long view, does he become morbid? That was a longstanding assumption in psychologists' "terror management theory," which held that humans avoid thinking about the future because they fear death. The theory was explored in hundreds of experiments assigning people to think about their own deaths. One common response was to become more assertive about one's cultural values, like becoming more patriotic.

But there's precious little evidence that people actually spend much time outside the lab thinking about their deaths or managing their terror of mortality. It's certainly not what psychologists found in the study tracking Chicagoans' daily thoughts. Less than 1 percent of their thoughts involved death, and even those were typically about other people's deaths.

Homo prospectus is too pragmatic to obsess on death for the same reason that he doesn't dwell on the past: There's nothing he can do about it. He became Homo sapiens by learning to see and shape his future, and he is wise enough to keep looking straight ahead.

Effectively refuting an awful lot of the silliest books ever written.



Posted by at May 21, 2017 7:46 AM

  

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