Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Tuesday, May 6, 2008day link 

 Why can't we stick to our goals?
picture L.A. Times: "Does your brain have a mind of its own?" - Why can't we stick to our goals? Blame the sloppy engineering of evolution.
How many times has this happened to you? You leave work, decide that you need to get groceries on the way home, take a cellphone 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; you need to eat less, eat better and exercise more. But by the first of May, your New Year's resolutions are a distant memory.

Human beings are, to put it gently, in a unique position in the animal world. We're 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. ("Did I say I was on a diet? Mmm, but three-layer chocolate mousse is my favorite. Maybe I'll start my diet tomorrow.")...
I thought it was just me. It seems surprisingly hard to make my mentally conceived plans stick. If once in a while I really feel what needs to happen in my bones, or in my gut, it happens. But if it is merely a good idea, however logical, coherent and important I conclude it is, it usually gets overridden by whatever distraction that shows up that feels more compelling in the moment. And my plans are easily forgotten.

The article blames it on faulty evolutionary engineering. I'm not sure I believe in such a thing, i.e. I don't quite believe that evolution is so dumb and blind, but he does have a point. Our animal instincts are well developed. A danger appears and we'll know how to jump aside, without thinking about it. Something delicious appears in front of our nose and we'll be munching on it it no time. Our abstractly thinking mental faculties are much more sophisticated, but at the same time they seem like an after-thought, not entirely wired into the machinery. We can make great plans, based on the processing of abstract information, aimed at desirable long term objectives. But a single piece of chocolate cake or a random interesting website might get us off track.

I suppose some people have something called discipline, which involves subordinating what one actually feels to one's mental plans and ideals. But that just seems so .. brutal. It would of course be better if one's instincts, emotions and physical desires actually were synchronized with the mental planning. Not subordinated to it, as the mental ideas aren't necessarily the ones that are right. But coordinated at least. Maybe I should work on that. Or maybe I'll see what's on TV.
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