As a boy, Daniel Gilbert loved poring over a book of optical illusions, such as the Necker cube, and the famous vase/faces picture. What amazed him was how easy it was for the eyes and the brain to be fooled.
When, many years later, Gilbert became a psychologist, he became interested in the regular mistakes and exercises of ‘filling in’ that our brains make in order to provide us with a quick picture of reality. This extended to how we perceive the past and the future. Just as we could make predictable mistakes with our eyesight, he found, we could also with our foresight. That is, we spend most of our time doing things that we hope will make us happy in the future, but our understanding of that future and how we will feel when we get there is far from reliable.
Though people have been puzzling over the question of foresight for thousands of years, Gilbert claims that his book is the first to bring together ideas from psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and behavioral economics to provide an answer. This is quite a complex area of psychology in which the author is pre-eminent, yet he spins the material into a fascinating and often fun read. With a style reminiscent of Bill Bryson, there are at least one or two chuckles per page, a skill no doubt honed after many years lecturing to his Harvard students.
Gilbert notes that most psychology books have somewhere in them the line, ‘Human beings are the only animals that…’. In his case, he fills in the sentence by saying that we are the only animals that are able to think about the future. Squirrels may seem like they can do this, in the way they put away acorns for the winter, but in fact it is just their brain’s recording of a reduction in hours of daylight that prompts them to do this. There is no awareness, only a biological instinct.
Humans, however, are not only aware of the future, we are a veritable ‘anticipation machine’ focused on what is to come almost as much as we are on what is now. How did this happen?
Millions of years ago the first type of humans experienced a massive increase in the size of their brains in a relatively short space of time. Homo sapiens ended up with a brain weighing almost three pounds, almost three times the size of Homo habilis. But not every part of the new brain had grown. Most growth was in the frontal lobe region, above the eyes, which partly accounts for why our ancestors had foreheads that dramatically sloped back, while ours are almost vertical – we needed the room for all those millions of new brain cells.
When brain science was young, it was thought that the frontal lobe had no particular function. There were famous cases such as that of Phineas Gage, a railway worker who, in an explosion, had a long iron rod driven through the front of his brain. The rod was removed and Gage, miraculously, survived, seemingly with his intelligence, language and memory intact. Before long he was back at work.
However, observation of others with frontal lobe damage soon revealed the cost – problems with planning, and also, strangely, a reduction in feelings of anxiety. What was the link between the two? Both planning and anxiety are related to thinking about the future. Frontal lobe damage leaves people living in a permanent present, and as a result they will not be bothering to make plans, so can’t be anxious about them.
The huge growth in the human frontal lobe gave humans a distinct survival advantage: the ability to imagine different futures, choose between them and thereby control their environment.
The ability to move forward and backward across time in our minds is perhaps humanity’s greatest evolutionary achievement, but at a practical level, how is it possible for the brain to cram in all of a person’s experiences, memories and knowledge across many decades?
It is possible, Gilbert says, because we do not remember everything in its entirety, but instead preserve a few threads of each experience. Only these are recalled, and the brain ‘fills in the rest’ to make the memory seem complete. We have the illusion that we are accessing the memory in full.
The brain also creates ingenious shortcuts when it comes to perception. German philosopher Immanuel Kant created a revolution by suggesting that in fact the system of human perception does not produce accurate ‘photographs’ or recordings of reality. Instead, perceptions are like portraits, which tell us as much about the hand of the artist (the perceiver) as they do about the subject. The brain creates an interpretation of reality, but it is so good that we do not grasp that it is an interpretation.
In the same way that our memories and our perceptions can be faulty, when it comes to imagining the future, the details that we imagine happening frequently do not give us the whole picture. It is not so much the things we do imagine happening that are incorrect, but more that we leave out things which do happen. As many psychological experiments have shown, the human mind is not well structure to note absences of things. But our brains do such a brilliant conjuring trick in making us believe that our interpretations are fact that we accept what it gives us without question.
Gilbert considers some of the amusingly wrong forecasts of what the future would be like from the 1950s. Although many, if not most, of the technological predictions have come true, what is more remarkable is all the things we did not forecast. No one envisioned the rise of spandex, latex, skateboards, smart drinks, Wal-Mart, Amex, FedEx and Gore-Tex, for instance, and if you look at pictures of ‘the future’ from the 1950s, you would have thought it wouldn’t contain anyone who was not white.
Our personal future forecasts are a mixture of what our brains have invented, based on past experience, and an absence of details that our brains have conveniently ignored. Is it any wonder, then, that our predictions of what is likely to make us happy in the future will be wrongly based?
Do we really know what makes us happy?
Gilbert’s chief point about happiness is that it is subjective. He tells of conjoined twins Lori and Reba, who have been joined at the head since birth and share a blood supply and part of their brain tissue. Despite this, they go about their lives and have said to anyone who asks that they are very happy. Most people hearing this will say, ‘they don’t know what happiness is’, a response which presumes that happiness can only come from being a ‘single’ person. In the same way, people overestimate how bad they would feel if they became blind. Because the sighted cannot imagine what it could be like not to see, they focus only on the blindness. But the blind still go on living and doing most of the things the sighted do, and in this life they can be as happy and satisfied as anyone.
What makes us happy colors all our perceptions of what happiness is, but even our own perceptions of what happiness will change at different times in our lives. A teenager, Gilbert observes, never considers that the tattoo he is getting, ‘DEATH ROCKS’, might not be so appreciated when he is older, lovers can never see that how they feel about each other may be different in ten years, and mothers can never imagine going back to work when they are in love with their newborn.
There is a neurological reason for these mistakes in perception. When we imagine things in the future, we use the same sensory parts of the brain that we use to experience real things in the present. We are generally not rational about future events, carefully weighing up the pros and cons, but run them through in our mind to see what emotional reaction we get. What we imagine happening is defined by what we are feeling now. How do we know what would make us happy in twenty years time, therefore, when we have not had the experiences that could give us a ‘prefeeling’ of what they might be?
Gilbert notes: “Just as objects that are near to us in space appear to be more detailed than those that are far away, so do events that are near to us in time. Whereas the near future is finely detailed, the far future is blurry and smooth.”
This accounts for how the distant future can always seem to be rosy, but we will have a much more realistic view of what tomorrow will bring because it is much more finely detailed in our minds. We happily commit to babysitting our nephews on some date weeks away, but when the date actually comes we may be less keen, knowing that it may be a demanding day which requires us to sacrifice something else.
In short, the human brain is set up to imagine the future quite well, but not perfectly, and this accounts for the gulfs we often experience between what we thought would make us happy, and what actually does. This means that we can spend all our lives making money, then decide it wasn’t worth it, but it also means we can be pleasantly surprised when people, situations or events which we were certain would make us miserable turn out not to be so.
Gilbert spends virtually the whole book identifying the problems we have in accurately predicting our future emotional states, but does he provide a solution which could make happiness more reliable?
His slightly anti-climactic answer is that the best way to find out how we will feel about a particular future course of action (a certain career, a move to a particular city, having children) is to ask people who have already done it how they felt. Given the human lust for control, this seems a bit unsatisfying - we feel we should make up our minds fully about our destinies, not ask other people. And yet, the best decisions may forever lay beyond our grasp if we are not willing to draw on the fabulous wealth of experience other members of the species can provide. As individuals we have enormous belief in our uniqueness, but it is also true that everything you consider doing has been done by someone else. Such a strategy, while not particularly exciting, is the best available to deliver us life satisfaction and well-being, whereas the happiness from relying purely on ourselves may only ever be stumbled upon.
Born in 1957, Gilbert studied psychology at the University of Colorado before taking his PhD in social psychology from Princeton University in 1985.
Gilbert is currently Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and is also the director of the Hedonic Psychology Laboratory at Harvard. He has written many influential articles in the social psychology field, and is the editor of The Handbook of Social Psychology.
Gilbert has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Philosophical Society, and received a distinguished scientific award for early career contribution from the American Psychological Association.