If we are going to tackle humanity’s biggest challenges, we will need to use our unrivaled ability to think long-term. Understanding how we developed this ability can help us use it to its full potential.
by Roman Krznaric
Human beings are quite capable of dealing with immediate crises. A devastating flood takes place and we send in the emergency relief. A pandemic occurs and we shut the borders and develop the vaccines. A war erupts and the refugees are found homes. More or less.
But when it comes to long-term crises, humanity’s record is less exemplary. Our response to the climate emergency — which is already here but whose greatest impacts are yet to come — has been painstakingly slow. We freely create technologies, from AI to bioweapons, that could pose devastating risks for our descendants. We fail to tackle deep problems like wealth inequality and racial injustice, which get passed on from generation to generation.
This temporal imbalance raises a question: is it even in the nature of our species to take the long view? Looking at the record so far, you would be right to be skeptical.
But there’s some unexpectedly good news: we are wired for long-term thinking like almost no other animals on the planet. As I argue in my recent book The Good Ancestor, grasping this scientific truth requires understanding the crucial difference between what I call the Marshmallow Brain and the Acorn Brain.
The Marshmallow Brain is an ancient part of our neuroanatomy, around 80 million years old, that focuses our minds on instant rewards and immediate gratification. This is the part exploited by social media platforms that give us dopamine hits by getting us to constantly click, scroll and swipe, as so brilliantly depicted in the film The Social Dilemma. It is named after the famous Marshmallow Test psychology experiment of the 01960s, where children who resisted eating a marshmallow for 15 minutes were rewarded with a second one: the majority failed.
There are well-known critiques of the test, for instance the fact that the ability to delay gratification is highly dependent on socioeconomic position: those from wealthier backgrounds find it easier to resist the treat, while a lack of trust and fear of scarcity can push kids towards gobbling it up.
A more fundamental critique, however, is that we are not simply driven by immediate rewards. Alongside the Marshmallow Brain we also possess a long-term Acorn Brain located in the frontal lobe just above our eyes, especially in an area known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This is a relatively new part of our neuroanatomy — a mere two million years old — giving us a rare ability to think, plan and strategize over long timeframes.
But don’t other creatures think and plan ahead? Sure, animals such as chimpanzees make plans, like when they strip leaves off a branch to make a tool to poke in a termite hole. But they will never make a dozen of these tools and set them aside for next week.
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