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Our Puny Human Brains Are Terrible at Thinking About the Future

Source | : By Jane McGonigal

Our future selves are strangers to us.

This isn’t some poetic metaphor; it’s a neurological fact. FMRI studiessuggest that when you imagine your future self, your brain does something weird: It stops acting as if you’re thinking about yourself. Instead, it starts acting as if you’re thinking about a completely different person.

Here’s how it works: Typically, when you think about yourself, a region of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, powers up. When you think about other people, it powers down. And if you feel like you don’t have anything in common with the people you’re thinking about? The MPFC activates even less.

More than 100 brain-imaging studies have reported this effect. (Here’s a helpful meta-analysis—while some fMRI studies have been called into questionrecently for statistical errors and false positives, this particular finding is robust.) But there’s one major exception to this rule: The further out in time you try to imagine your own life, the less activation you show in the MPFC. In other words, your brain acts as if your future self is someone you don’t know very well and, frankly, someone you don’t care about.

This glitchy brain behavior may make it harder for us to take actions that benefit our future selves both as individuals and as a society. Studies show that the more your brain treats your future self like a stranger, the less self-control you exhibittoday, and the less likely you are to make pro-social choices, choices that will probably help the world in the long run. You’re less able to resist temptations, you procrastinate more, you exercise less, you put away less money for your retirement, you give up sooner in the face of frustration or temporary pain, and you’re less likely to care about or try to prevent long-term challenges like climate change.

This makes sense. As UCLA researcher Hal Hirschfield put it: “Why would you save money for your future self when, to your brain, it feels like you’re just handing away your money to a complete stranger?”

Our current political climate in the United States reflects this same cognitive bias against the future. Recently, President Trump signed a sweeping executive order undoing a vast array of regulations designed to mitigate long-term climate change in favor of policies that provide much shorter-term economic benefits. And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently made headlineswhen he said publicly that he is “not worried at all” about the possibility automation could eliminate millions or even tens of millions of American jobs in the future. “It’s not even on our radar screen,” he said, adding that it won’t happen for “50 to 100 years or more.” But, as Daniel Gross wrote in Slate, he’s wrong. It probably will not take five decades or more for robots and artificial intelligence to significantly reduce the number of jobs available to Americans. Recent economic research from MIT suggests that 670,000 industrial jobs have already been lost to automation in the U.S.

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