Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Immediate Gratification: what is it?

Dr. McGonigal writes about "The Collapse of a Civilization" in The Willpower Instinct. She explains what happened to Easter Island natives when they sought immediate gratification over long term survival.  They cut down all the trees on the island and destroyed the ecosystem and this lead to their own deaths. The end result, a civilization exterminated itself.

This is odd.  Why have we evolved in such a fashion that we are able to destroy ourselves?  This is very different than any other species who are always looking to survive and nature is always presenting the best solution for said species.

She explains that our early primitive brain operates from the basis that we don't know where our next meal is coming from or where shelter is, etc.  Therefore immediate gratification is "what's best for us," to our primitive mind.

She also points out that we don't live in that world anymore.  You aren't going to starve if you skip a meal, but you're brain doesn't know that so it responds the same way it has for thousands of years. Fortunately humans developed this thing called foresight.  Also known as the Pre Frontal Cortex.

This rational area of our brain can put the kibosh on your "Lizard brain," aka your Limbic System, which is in charge of things like fight-or-flight and "OMG OMG OMG we're gonna die in the next 10 minutes."

At first, it looks as though our limbic system has a flawed design because nature designed us in such a fashion that we can harm ourselves.  However there are a couple of intricacies here that are beautiful.

1) Anytime anything disrupts the balance of nature, she corrects it  by over compensating the other way.  In this case a civilization went unchecked and broke the balance, to restore that balance nature extinguished them, thereby they can't do it again.

2) They became extinct precisely because they didn't evolve a larger PFC.  Had they used foresight and rational thought, they would have seen the errors in their ways and corrected before nature had to.  The survivors of our species are the ones who have evolved a larger PFC.

3) That doesn't mean we're out of the water yet.  That is Dr. McGonigal's  entire point, humans are still behaving like Easter Island residents, and the result will be the same if we don't check ourselves.