A mind of its own

Why can't we stick to our goals? Blame your brain, and the sloppy engineering of evolution

May 06, 2008|By Gary Marcus

How many times has this happened to you? You leave work, decide that you need to get groceries on the way home, take a cell phone call and forget all about your plan. Next thing you know, you've driven home and forgotten all about the groceries.

Or this: You decide, perhaps circa Jan. 1, that it's time to lose weight. But by the first of May, your New Year's resolutions are a distant memory.

Human beings are the only species smart enough to plan systematically for the future - yet we remain dumb enough to ditch even our most carefully made plans in favor of short-term gratification.

Toddlers often melt in the face of temptation, but they're certainly not the only ones. Teenagers often drive at speeds that would be unsafe even on an autobahn, and people of all ages have been known to engage in unprotected sex with strangers, even when they are perfectly aware of the risks. (To say nothing of the daily uncontrollable choices of alcoholics, drug addicts and compulsive gamblers.)

What gives? Why are we as a species so often so desperately poor at achieving our goals? If we are, as the selfish-gene theory would have it, organisms that exist only to serve the interests of our genes, why do we waste so much of our time doing things that are not, in any obvious way, remotely in the interest of our genes?

The answer is that evolution is entirely blind, unable to look forward, backward or to the side. As Charles Darwin observed, Mother Nature never starts from scratch, no matter how useful an overhaul might be. Everything that evolves necessarily builds on that which came before.

In practical terms, that means that evolution's products aren't always particularly sound. Truly dismal solutions are quickly weeded out; if someone has a genetic condition that brings him into the world without a functioning heart, he doesn't live long enough to reproduce. But merely adequate solutions (what engineers call "kluges") - such as the awkward, injury-prone human spine, good enough but far from perfect - can stick around indefinitely if better solutions are too far away on the evolutionary landscape.

In the mental machinery that governs our everyday decisions, kluges abound. Take, for example, the fellow who forgets his errand on the way home. His problem is clearly not in finding his way to the grocery store; it's in remembering to go in the first place.

The problem is that evolution failed to realize that remembering goals is not like recognizing objects. When your brain sees a lion, the thing to do is to decide, lickety-split, to get out of the way. Run first; ask questions later. We're programmed for just that kind of split-second decision; just about every creature on the planet is built so that it can identify things such as predators and prey very rapidly. We're not programmed to remember precise episodes from the past. Why not? Because remembering the exact date on which you last saw a lion is not particularly helpful when you're trying to get out of the way.

Alas, evolution didn't have the foresight to realize that different kinds of tasks require different kinds of memory, and it used the same basic sort of memory for everything, not just for remembering what lions and tigers look like (in which general tendencies suffice) but also for cases - such as tracking our goals - where a bit more precision would have been helpful. As a result, trying to remember what to do next can be a little like trying to remember what you had for breakfast yesterday: There are too many breakfasts and too many yesterdays for our biological memories to keep track of.

The same thing can happen with our goals. When you sit in your car late in the day and ask yourself, "What am I supposed to do next?" and all of a sudden the phone rings, your brain can easily lose track of which "next step" is the right one. Instead of zeroing in on the specific memory it needs, it may well settle for remembering whatever you've done in the car most often - and that's drive home.

Our attempts to pursue our goals are often thwarted by the fact that evolution has built our most sophisticated technologies on top of older technologies, without working out how to integrate the two. We can plan in advance, using our modern deliberative reasoning systems, but our ancestral reflexive mechanisms, which evolved first, still basically control the steering wheel. Our brains frequently wind up relying on machinery that is all about acting first and asking questions later.

No sensible engineer would have designed things this way. Why design fancy machinery for making long-term goals if you're not going to use it? Yet the brain is structured such that the more tired, stressed or distracted we are, the less likely we are to use our forebrains and the more likely to lean back on the time-tested but shortsighted machinery we've inherited from our ancestors.

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