The End is Always Near (It’s just how we’re wired)


(The following was triggered by an article on the human affection for doomsday scenarios in the upcoming issue of Scientific American. Excerpt follows at end of post)

As a futurist, I’m interested in tracking what doesn’t change as much as what does. The way I see it: understanding the differences and relationship between the two is what saves us from making short-sighted, reactive decisions in favor (hopefully) of more reasoned, far-sighted choices.

More than anything else, what remains constant is human nature. Lifestyles and conditions change — but humans? Not so much.

Our basic wiring is for survival, efficiency, procreation, pleasure, compassion, power, security, belonging, and such. These drives color our reactions to our environment and the decisions we make. So, when change comes knocking  – whether a charging wildebeast, a shrinking ice cap, invasive species (be it animal, vegetable, or political), or a falling stock market — we rely on the three basic mechanisms to make sense of it:

  1. A neurological preference for efficiency (i.e. familiar) and instinctive drive for security and comfort;
  2. Knowledge sets we’ve inherited (“facts” about the world, cultural norms, worldview, generational zeitgeist…); and
  3. Inventing new ways of seeing/thinking about change (visionaries, crazies, innovators, scientists, artists…).

Mechanisms #1 and #2 — Nature and nurture (I’d argue that the “nurture” is an expression of biological design, but that’s another matter) — conspire to maintain the status quo, and generally regard “new” as a threat. Staying open-minded and exercising the mechanism for invention, #3, therefore, often goes against instinct. It’s just not natural.

So, how should we regard the doomsday scenarios we’re constantly fed (and generate)? We can take a wide look at what we know about the human experience through history for a clue and find that no matter the generation or epoch in which one was born, the threat of an apocalypse has always felt near.

It must have felt that way during the Ice Age; at the fall of the Roman Empire; the Ottoman Empire; the Black Plague; Civil War, WW I, WW II, H-bomb, Vietnam/Civil Rights/JFK, MLK, RFK assassinations, Y2K, 9.11, 2012… (and that’s just a U.S.-centric point of view!). Today we’re confronted by limitations in food and water, global warming, recessions, wars, revolutions…

Perhaps the real problem lies with how we perceive change: as a threat.

I subscribe to the belief that all “facts” are theories, so here are mine on this matter:

Definition* #1: If we think of the brain as a computer (a contemporary metaphor that is, after all, just a theory), then memories are analogous to data stored on a hard drive, organized in contextual folders, and tagged with identifiers such as “man” “dinner” “Minneapolis” “college” etc. Learning is additive, building on established information stores, giving us all the more to pull from when we need to solve any kind of problem.

Definition #2: A problem is anything that we can’t easily categorize. It is New, not Known. Our brains quickly scan the database, looking for similarities, then immediately output a bunch of assumptions. If the new person/thing/experience/place is close enough to information we’ve already gathered, we quickly file it away as “similar” and move our attention back to the task at hand. However, if it isn’t a smooth fit, the brain becomes hyper-alert and a little frantic. We recognize this state as anxiety.

Definition #3: The brain rejects ambiguity. It will gravitate to Known over New every time, and when we can’t convert New to Known, we fear the worst. Our world, as we know it, is in jeopardy.

Definition #4: Crisis = insufficient knowledge. Not only did we not see it coming, we don’t know what to do with it. The result is a feeling that our world is ending. But, maybe it’s just that our system of logic (if/then relationships among Known) can’t adapt…

Question: What if we countered fear of the unknown with a discipline of curiosity?

We do face very real, very critical challenges to our safety and security on many fronts. Yet, the greatest challenge of all, in my opinion, is how we regard them; it takes a good amount of discipline to override the fear instinct, and to draw on our creative and inventive capacities instead (naturally, I see that discipline as the practice of strategic foresight and innovation). As stated before, it’s not natural but, boy-oh-boy, is it needed.

*I prefer the term “definition” to “fact” since it implies a working knowledge vs. an immutable truth. – I make it a point to steer clear of immutable truths whenever possible

The impulse is partially a consequence of our pattern-seeking nature—we are, after all, creatures of the savanna, programmed to uncover trends in the natural world. It is in our nature to weave a simple story from a complex set of data points. (In recent years this tendency has been amplified by news media that are very good at turning complex events into cartoon crises.) The desire to treat terrible events as the harbinger of the end of civilization itself also has roots in another human trait: vanity.

We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species. Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet—with potentially dire consequences. This attitude may stem from nothing more than our desire to place ourselves at the center of the universe. “It’s part of the fundamental limited perspective of our species to believe that this moment is the critical one and critical in every way—for good, for bad, for the final end of humanity,” says Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego. Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special.