Your Brain contains almost 100 billion neurons, each of which, on average, is connected to about 10,000 other neurons. The 1.5 kg marvel we inherited from our ancestors has unparalleled computational power and analytic skills. These have been shaped over hundreds of millions of years by the forces of evolution to favor behaviors that, in the distant past, increased the chances of survival and reproduction.
But although these forces created a brain that can solve highly complex problems, create art, and feel compassion, our clever brains let us down in one key respect: greenhouse gases and other byproducts of our very living now pose an accelerating threat to the future of the planet and its diverse forms of interconnected life, including our own.
How has our amazing brain failed us, in this, perhaps our greatest challenge?
As you read this, thousands of scientists, engineers, policy makers, and advocates around the world are working with all the brainpower they can muster to try to solve this environmental crisis with technological and social approaches. But a number of scientists believe this same inherited neural equipment undermines these efforts because some basic aspects of our brains are designed for a different world than the one in which we find ourselves today. While many behavior experts have focused on our inability to perceive climate change as an immediate threat, others have begun to focus on the major consequences of our excessive consumption. One critical network that may be partly responsible for the latter is the brain’s Reward system.
Unlike what its name may connote, your brain’s reward system is not designed to make you feel good. Rather, it is designed to help you learn – specifically, to “wire in” associations that make behaviors more likely to occur that also promote survival and reproduction – or did in the world before climate change. Advances in neuroscience over the past several decades have pushed our understanding of how this amazing system works far beyond the old “reptilian” concept, when it was thought to deal primarily with “primitive” drives. Instead, the reward system is now recognized as a complex and finely engineered set of networks located right smack in the middle of your brain, with connections to nearly all other networks, thus affording a “finger on the pulse” of everything that happens to you second to second, filtered through the vast storeroom of your past experience. While the average neuron is connected to 10,000 other cells, parts of the reward system have cells that make 50 times as many connections each.
The reward system was shaped by what promoted survival during the vast eons of human evolutionary history. For instance, because in general our brains evolved during times when food was scarce, and having a desire to eat when food was available might mean the difference between survival or demise, most humans find food sufficiently rewarding that they easily consume more than their immediate, short-term caloric needs require – in case you might not eat again for two days. That’s why if you’re sitting in a conference room staring at a box of donuts, you may find it really hard to resist eating a donut. For most of us it takes a conscious effort to park the car far away from our destination, bypassing that brief surge of satisfaction when we find the closest empty space in the parking lot – because conserving energy meant survival.
Our brains also evolved to be rewarded by novelty, a tendency exploited by product designers and advertisers. This preference was preserved in our genetic heritage because it gave us a survival advantage; without it, we wouldn’t have explored new things or been able to invent novel solutions to the problems posed by constantly changing circumstances.
This helps explain why when we can consume, we do, even when we don’t need to. As one example, typical Americans throw away 40% of their food – over 10 million tons of it per year. We similarly discard immense volumes of all kinds of “stuff” that we use only transiently and replace. All of this consumption and waste contributes to Greenhouse Gas Emissions and climate change. Those of us living in the high income parts of the world contribute many times larger per capita volumes of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere compared to people living in lower income countries. Even people passionate about saving the environment struggle with this. Why don’t we just stop?
One answer may lie in how our reward system works. Decades of research in fields as diverse as single cell physiology, behavioral economics, and advanced imaging have shown that the mesolimbic reward network of humans, like that of crayfish and rats, responds most strongly to small, variable, intermittent, unpredictable rewards. Miniscule, constantly alerting pulses of dopamine – millions of times faster and more numerous than your tweets and Facebook feeds – help weight your actions in directions that helped with survival over millions of years of prehistory. Yes, we are all different, based on our genes and life experiences, and some people consume far less than others – Europeans, for example, waste less food than Americans – but we share the tendency to find certain choices more rewarding from the dopamine point of view.
For instance, for most of us, the short-term reward your brain provides for eating a piece of chocolate is stronger than the “I’m a person with great self-control” reward you get from passing it up. The great feeling you get from seeing your new living room furniture fades over time, and so in six months you’re ready for a new remodeling project. Throughout human history, it has been useful to have mental rewards that come and go so fleetingly, so that we can learn new associations – a key to our success in populating all corners of the world and adapting to myriad cultures. As a general rule, your brain tweaks you to want more, more, more – indeed, more than those around you – both of “stuff” and of stimulation and novelty – because that helped you survive in the distant past of brain evolution. But at its extreme, this leads to addiction – to substances, gambling, internet games, even shopping.
Although our brains have inherited tendencies that push our behaviors in certain directions, each brain is different – otherwise we would all react the same way to everything, and like and dislike the same things. It’s also true that your brain reward system is changeable, and that learned facts can alter the equation for something that was rewarding to becoming aversive – ex-smokers providing one example. But relying on information alone to tweak the reward system is a difficult process, slow, and unreliable (otherwise, losing weight would be a snap).
Instead, organizations and companies that want to promote more sustainable consumption have taken a different approach: rather than trying to change the reward system’s equation with factual information, which has been shown to have limited success, try working with the things we evolved to find rewarding, providing alternative choices to help draw people towards sustainable behavior. In essence, this approach uses the environmental side of the reward as “frosting,” but the choice is framed as a pitch to something most of us already find rewarding – the “cake” itself. Local food often does taste better – and it has a lower carbon footprint. Want new furniture? Making pre-owned furniture “chic” gets you the “something novel” reward, plus the satisfaction and creativity of the hunt, plus you did something better for the planet – triple reward! If the travel agent pitched the vacation spot in the next state as luxurious, relaxing, exclusive – and a great deal, plus you don’t have the expense (or environmental cost) of a long air flight, you might feel smug about getting such a terrific package – not because you’re a good person (smaller reward) but because you’re in the know about something really wonderful (bigger reward). Most people who are drawn to Teslas think they’re cool, sleek, and have great performance; the ecologic side is frosting.
Many of us want to make environmentally conscious choices or incorporate these into our organizational goals but struggle to do so. More success may be found by hitching the conservation benefit to something people’s reward system evolved to want – even if those people don’t necessarily prioritize sustainability. Things that work better, have social cachet, or make life more satisfying in some tangible way are more likely to find acceptance and a market.
The good news is that our brains also tend to find problem-solving gratifying; if people who embrace environmental goals treat our evolutionary desires as a puzzle to solve, perhaps we’ll get better at working with them to promote sustainability. It’s a goal worth pursuing; estimates are that 40% of our per capita greenhouse gas emissions come from choices under our individual control. Perhaps a bigger challenge is figuring out ways to make the rewards of work within businesses and institutions – praise, advancement, salary, satisfaction – also align with environmental goals – to start working on that other 60%.