Above all else, evolution has programmed us for survival. One basic survival mechanism, hardwired into the most primitive part of our brain, is our instinctive surveillance for, and recognition of, immediate threats. However, perhaps evolution’s greatest achievement, the neocortex, our thinking brain, “is not equally hardwired to respond to dangers that require forethought.”
Kristof gives wonderful examples such as our intense fear of snakes verses our nonchalant response to global climactic change with the potential catastrophic consequence of ending life on the planet as we know it.
This short circuit in our brains explains why so many of us fail to plan for our futures, especially in terms of our long-term health. The evidence for this abounds.
A mother scolds her obese four year old for running into the street, seeing the immediate threat to her child’s life, but not the long-term health consequences of obesity.
Food poisoning at a fast food chain claims eight lives nationally, forcing a government re-call and plant shut-down, while the public continues to eat massive quantities of the untainted, but none-the-less, lethal fast foods that are killing them slowly and by the millions.
Swine flu claims a total of 127 lives in one year, creating a national panic and a run on the Tamiflu vaccine. Meanwhile, the largely preventable lifestyle-related chronic degenerative diseases of heart attack, diabetes, obesity and stroke kill an estimated 2.5 million lives each year yet we reject known and simple preventive and curative measures such as exercising more and eating natural, healthy foods.
The pharmaceutical industry capitalizes on our fears of disease and death with the false promise of drugs that further derail our personal responsibility to commit to a lifetime, lifestyle for health.
And on and on.
The miracle of humans is that we are so much more than the hardwiring of the primitive parts of our brains. Our neocortex, or new brain, gives us the ability to think, reason, learn and remember to further increase our chance for survival. Sadly, while the brain is hardwired for instinctual adaptation mechanisms for survival, there is no natural instinct to protect us from our own stupidity.
However, do not despair. Ultimately, the only deterrent for long-term risks is thinking.