We are the only future-facing species on the planet.
The ability to orient itself towards a better future is a defining trait of homo-sapiens. This is thanks to our frontal lobes, which are unique to our brains. To test this out, Dan Gilbert proposes a thought experiment – if we were told that about four children were killed in Haifa or Beirut two days ago, we would feel bad. If we were told that four children will be killed the next day, we would feel miserable.
The function of the pre-frontal cortex is to simulate experiences. Our present selves behave like custodians to our future selves – planning our finances, putting money away for our retirement and exercising to remain fit. All of this future orientation is central to what caused humans to hijack the food chain and become the dominant species 70,000 years ago. Leaning forward is our evolutionary forte. It is our unique blessing.
But what are some of its hidden costs?
Leaning forward forces us to make bets on how the future would turn out. These bets gradually turn into our expectations. Expectations lead to happiness or disappointment depending on whether they are satisfied. Increasingly, it is becoming harder for human beings to predict futures in a world that changes at a blinding pace. Chronic depression of free people in developed economies, is also unique to our species. It is our unique curse.
The alternative is to have a grounding in the present moment. This is what mindfulness seeks to achieve – to appreciate the present moment for what it is, and not for how we expected it to be. To eliminate expectation is to be truly free.
Besides, a truer understanding of our present, sets us up for a better future.