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Homo Prospectus: What Makes Us Human

By Shlomo Maital

   Martin Seligman is one of America’s leading psychologists, and inventor of the ‘learned helplessness’ theory, which explains why we sink into despair and apathy.   That theory, it turns out, is more than a little negative.   So Seligman took the opposite tack, and helped invent positive psychology, which is about how to be efficacious optimistic and happy.

     Seligman and a journalist, John Tierney, wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times magazine, excerpted in the global New York Times. In it they make an interesting point. Homo sapiens (wise human) is a misnomer, they say. Because – well, we humans are not that wise… Just look around the world at what we do to each other.  

     Instead, call us homo prospectus (future looking human). Because we, unlike animals, are able to imagine distant futures and things that do not yet exist.   This makes us creative.   When we make decisions, we weigh consequences, and in fractions of a second, envision future consequences of our decision and then choose or decide.   Seligman and Tierney say that “the main purpose of emotions is to guide future behavior and moral judgment.” Why?   You judge how you and others feel, when you ponder a behavior, and decide on that basis.

     Moreover, they cite brain imaging research, showing that when we recall a past event, we combine 3 pieces of information from 3 different parts of the brain:   what happened, when it happened and where it happened. Apparently, we use the same circuitry when we imagine a future event. Our hippocampus (a part of the brain) assembles these three pieces of prospective guessing, to create something new.   And even when we are relaxing, our brain constantly works “to recombine information and imagine the future”.

     My ‘take’ on this?   We have become a myopic society, focused on present gratification and present consumption, and far less on saving and delay of gratification. Are we degrading “homo prospectus”?   Are we degrading what truly makes us human, and in doing so, damaging our future and that of our children?  

 

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Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2019
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