There are plenty of advice columns, self-help books, and loosely spiritual twenty-somethings devoted to extolling the virtues of living in the present. The advice is intended as an antidote to life spent scrolling absentmindedly through twitter or planning next weekend, while failing to appreciate each momentary experience.
While it’s certainly well meaning, the catchphrase alone offers limited guidance. After all, a life spent entirely dedicated to making sure the present moment was enjoyable would never go anywhere; no one would subject themselves to New York’s subway, for example. And neuroscience suggests that, while it may be unfashionable, humans’ ability to mentally transport ourselves into the future is one of the key distinguishing features of our species.
Dean Buonomano, behavioral neuroscience professor at UCLA and author of the recently-published Your Brain is a Time Machine, says that the human brain is an inherently temporal organ. “Not only does it tell the time, it also allows us to mentally project ourselves into the past and the future,” he says.
To a certain extent, all animals have a basic ability to predict and prepare for the future. Even worms have circadian rhythms and so instinctively know when it’s daylight and when predatory birds are more likely to be around. But humans have a far more sophisticated ability to conceive of the future—to “sculpt and create futures that we imagine,” says Buonomano.
“What’s fairly unique about humans is this aspect of mentally projecting ourselves into the past or the future—the degree to which humans can engage in what we call mental time travel,” he explains.
Not all future-orientated activities rely on this projection; humans have hardwired habits just like all other animals. Sex, for example, has potentially significant future consequences; as Buonomano says, we “engage in fairly complex behaviors without thinking about what will happen nine months from now.”
But our more elaborate ability to envisage the future is key to most human successes. Building houses, cultivating agriculture, studying, and saving for retirement are all done with an eye to the future.
“That’s a strange concept for anyone to plant the seed and come back years later. It uses our ability to link events that are separated by days, weeks, and months,” says Buonomano. Without this skill, he says, homo sapiens (Latin for “wise men”) simply wouldn’t be sapiens—“it’s what makes us wise.”
It’s not clear exactly which parts of the brain enable this distinctly human activity. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher-level cognitive function, is certainly involved. But the thought process is so complex—involving a conception of the past, imagining the future, and a sophisticated understanding of time—that it inevitably relies on many functions in the brain.
But while the ability to connect present activity with future outcomes is uniquely human, we’re not always good at this skill. “In the 20th century, 100 million people died due to cigarette related causes,” says Buonomano. “If cigarettes caused cancer a week after people start smoking then that never would have happened. It would have been easy for people to believe that connection.” The fallout from climate change is another major example of humans failing to adequately focus on the future.
Another downside, as those who focus on living in the present are well aware, is that our ability to mentally time travel can be draining. “Spending too much time reliving the past, focusing on slights or reasons we’re angry, is not productive,” says Buonomano.
The neuroscientist says there are certainly benefits to mindfulness (the meditative practice has a rich history that cannot be reduced to a simple slogan.) Living in the present, he says, can be a valuable call to focus on enjoying current activities, even when they’re done with an eye to future outcomes. And mindfulness should involve being mindful of our mental activities, so that we’re aware of when projecting ourselves into the future is productive and when it’s damaging.
In other words, it’s entirely healthy to focus on enjoying the present moment. But failing to invest in the future simply wouldn’t be human.
By Olivia Goldhill / Quartz