Our brain is the most fantastic machine the world has ever known, but it has also set you up for failure. In today’s post, I tell you why and what you can do about it.
UPDATE 2013/10/29: In the comments, some have questioned the role of the limbic system in the role of decision making. I welcome the criticism and Carla very correctly points out that I didn’t provide any sources. I’m a science guy myself, so I can completely relate to Carla’s concerns and I appreciate her calling me out. Shame on me.
With that said, I do believe that we aren’t wired to think long term. Delay of gratification seems a concept that is lost on most.
In any case, feel free to provide links backing up what I say or telling me that I’m full of hot air.
I was listening to Jason Hull speak recently. Part of his excellent talk was about the limbic system in our brain. The limbic system is a group of brain components that influence our behavior. Jason mentioned that because of the limbic system, we are programmed to think only 30 minutes out.
Now, consider the human life span. The average first world person is living to be 80 these days. Consider this math:
60 minutes * 24 hours * 365 days * 80 years = 4,000,000 minutes
I’ve given you two important numbers, 30 and 4,000,000. On the surface, these numbers are difficult to reconcile. I’m telling you that you will live 4,000,000 minutes, but you are programmed to think only 30 minutes out. Stop and think about it for a moment. This is a very bad way to live. Take a look at the news and you see the direct results of this 30 minute wiring:
- We have an obesity crisis because we can’t pass up unhealthy food
- Criminals commit crimes for a couple hundred dollars
- People spend money on frivolous junk
The Big Mac we eat today may very well contribute to a heart attack in 20 years. Robbing the liquor store could get us a lengthy term in the lock up. Our 30 minute brain is condemning us to bad decisions.
The 30 minute brain was really good 10,000 years ago
So now, you’re probably wondering why our brain functions like this. Next time you’re out in nature, observe the life of any other animal. Animals primarily do one thing when they’re awake, look for food. Squirrels are trying to find nuts. In the Rocky Mountains that are close to us, the elk graze all day. Seagulls have decided to give up their seagoing lifestyle for a career at the trash dump or Walmart parking lot. (If gulls were honest, they’d rebrand themselves as trashgulls.)
Now consider humans. We have only been domesticating plants and animals for 10,000 years. However, we’ve been around much, much longer than that and prior to our farms, we were just like any other animal. Our waking hours were spent wandering the plains looking for food. Our ancestors didn’t care about tomorrow or next week. They cared about their next meal. We are wired to think 30 minutes ahead because it was necessary to survive.
To compound the issue, long life is a very new phenomenon. A person born in 1850 couldn’t even expect to live beyond 40. Life was basically grow up, reproduce and work, then die. Retirement? Yeah right!
What you can do about it
I’ve given you some important knowledge about a major problem with the brain. I’ve told you that despite the long life you know you’re going to live, your brain is programmed to only have you think about the next 30 minutes. Now that you have this knowledge, you can do something about it. That fast food may taste good and be convenient, but is it going to damage your heart in 25 years? Riding your motorcycle at 125mph* is a lot of fun, but may not bode well for your longevity. Think about everything you do today; just think in terms of years and not minutes.
**It was a long time ago…
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