8 minutes

Human Brain and a Hamster Wheel

Several times on the blog, I have emphasized the importance of understanding how our brain functions and the thoughts it generates. The human brain is now the main driving force behind what happens on Earth. While natural forces were the driving forces before the industrial revolution, humans now have the greatest influence on the state of the Earth and the processes occurring within it. This is confirmed by the rarely mentioned fact that at the beginning of the 19th century, the surface of the Earth used for human purposes (cultivation, cities, roads, etc.) accounted for less than 8% of the total, but currently approaches 50%.

We usually fail to realize the enormous creative (but unfortunately also destructive) power we possess. This is accompanied by a lack of full understanding or willingness to take full responsibility for what happens on Earth. A classic example of this is related to climate change and environmental degradation. The scale of commitments and efforts made in this regard is clearly insufficient, and as a result, it is almost certain that we will not be able to slow down the rate of temperature rise to the desired extent. The ongoing process of biosphere impoverishment is also continuing. Unless we make changes, this will mean significant disruptions in the functioning of the Earth’s system.

In this situation, finding an answer to the question of why we are creating a “futureless” civilization may prove to be the key to ensuring the survival of human life. Interesting hypotheses in this regard are presented by Ann-Christine Duhaime, an author of “Minding the Climate: How Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis“, which is one of the three books nominated for the “2023 Sustainability Book Award.” According to Duhaime, the main reason lies in the… structure of our brain.

Priorities of the Human Brain

The brain is undoubtedly a remarkable organ, but it is not perfect. I have written about this a bit in “Don’t Be Like Artificial Intelligence!” Today, I will touch on a few additional aspects based on the aforementioned book.

Our evolutionary history has equipped us, through the workings of the brain, with the ability to perceive, prioritize, and find solutions to certain types of problems more easily than others. This is due to the fact that our brain evolved under specific conditions, resulting in its optimization for making decisions that helped us survive in an environment characterized by the need to primarily confront challenges that:

  • Are immediate and relate to specific individuals, families, and communities, allowing us to have a real impact through our actions,
  • Require “here and now” decisions/solutions,
  • Mainly pertain to nature (such as threats from animals, etc.).

It is different when it comes to challenges that have a global nature, with consequences that accumulate gradually and primarily affect the future. These include issues like climate change and ecosystem degradation. Our brain tends to downplay events that appear distant in time or in remote geographic locations, as well as those where it perceives a lack of agency (“What can I do about it?”) and/or the risk of free-riders (“Why should I do something, especially bear the costs, when others aren’t?”). In the case of the latter effects, it is not just the brain’s functioning, but also the social narratives embraced or imposed by opinion leaders (e.g., politicians).

These scientific hypotheses are supported by real-life observations and research. For example, it is much easier for us to mobilize and help people affected by a flood, which is a consequence of climate change, than to undertake investments that would mitigate climate change and partially prevent such floods. If it were to happen in our own country, motivation might be stronger. However, when floods (or even complete annihilation, as is the threat to many islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans) affect a distant place, the majority of us are completely indifferent.

International research, the results of which were published in Lancet Planetary Health in 2021, provides further confirmation. It indicates that climate change is a much more significant concern for individuals aged 16 to 25. As much as 60% of respondents in this age group—who will “feel climate change on their own skin”—described themselves as very concerned about climate issues, and almost half stated that this anxiety affects their daily functioning. I am confident that if people in this age group were responsible for socio-economic policies, climate and environmental issues would have a much higher priority. In reality, however, in most countries, the ruling class is aged 50 and above, and their attitude aligns well with the thinking patterns described above, particularly the notion of “it’s not my problem.”

Like hamsters on a wheel

Our willingness to take action for the (distant) future is also weakened by another mechanism that our brain operates on, namely the reward mechanism. It inclines us to choose immediate gratification, even if it has negative consequences in the future. For example, I may be aware that my excessive consumerism is not conducive to climate goals, but the attraction of the gratification I feel from a new acquisition is so strong that the vision of future problems quickly loses to it.

In Western societies, overconsumerism has become the primary form of “rewarding oneself” for the constant running—like hamsters—on the corporate wheel. Most people are not satisfied with what they do professionally, how they are treated at work, and what is expected of them. Therefore, they compensate for this with “doses of happiness” that come with making purchases. They experience a sense of power and control, accompanied by a physiological release of dopamine, one of the so-called “happiness hormones.” These conclusions can be further generalized: for many individuals, buying has become one of the few ways to escape the monotony and routine of daily life. As a result we seek out these dopamine triggers and simultaneously learn to repeat actions that lead to their attainment.

Plasticity of the Human Brain

As I mentioned earlier, humans are now the main cause of the changes occurring on Earth and the creators of the significant challenges we face. The good news is that the solution lies in our hands. To achieve this, it is necessary to make different decisions, taking into account new priorities, both at the individual level—in our personal and professional lives—and at the level of entire societies/nations.

To confront the challenges we have created, we need to direct our efforts toward actively addressing them rather than finding ways to circumvent them. Knowledge from neurobiology and psychology can help us develop strategies that take into account both our internal tendencies and external influences on our behavior. We must also change social norms to make pro-environmental behavior more accepted and rewarding.

Duhaime highlights that we have taught our brains that the key to survival is acquiring more resources, so we do it today whether it is necessary or not. We have become masters at creating ever-growing needs, neglecting the fact that it is detrimental to the surrounding biosphere and often to our own health (just consider the issue of widespread obesity). Fortunately, according to Duhaime, our brains are plastic and can be reprogrammed. In her view, the best way to change excessive consumption habits is not to completely stop buying; a better solution may be to replace old rewards with new ones. This concept is not new and has been used, for example, in overcoming addictions. We need the same substitution when it comes to consumerism. One possible approach is buying used items— you receive something that feels new to you (the reward effect, dopamine release), while at the same time, there has been no exploitation of Earth’s resources. Creativity in this regard—substituting rewards and translating it into a mass change of behavioral patterns—can be just as important for the preservation of our civilization as developing new technological solutions that support better resource utilization or renewable energy generation.

Break free from the hamster wheel

Following the path outlined by Duhaime’s research, we can identify another significant vehicle for change—massive breaking free from the hamster wheel. How? By stopping and reflecting, by asking ourselves the most fundamental questions: why do I think what I think?, why do I do what I do?” From such reflection, some may come to the realization that it is challenging to find fulfilment in life while following ingrained programs dictated by education, upbringing, advertising, etc., thus not pursuing their own mission and goals! (I elaborated on this in more detail in “Correct Your Course“).

By finding satisfaction in daily activities, being open to change, doing things with a sense of purpose, and eliminating routine from our lives, we can achieve a high level of reward in our brains without the need for substitutes. Of course, putting all of this into practice is much more challenging than just writing about it—usually, we have strongly identified with and accepted these “programs” as our own. Nevertheless, it is happening on an increasingly broader scale in the world. More and more people globally are stopping in their hamster wheel to ask themselves: why am I doing this, actually? The answers vary, but from my observations, for anyone who seriously asks themselves this question and dedicates time to find an answer, nothing remains the same anymore.

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