The Joy of Next
Taken from Stumbling on Happiness
By Daniel Gilbert
If you were asked to name the human brain’s greatest achievement , you might think first of the impressive artifacts it has produced-the Great Wall of China, the Borobudur of Indonesia, the shuttling back and forth to the moon, or perhaps the London bridge. These are great achievements indeed, and the human brain deserves their praises for producing them. But they are not the greatest. A sophisticated machine could design and build any one of these things because designing and building require knowledge, logic, and patience, of which sophisticated machines have plenty. In fact, there’s really only one achievement so remarkable that even the most sophisticated machine cannot pretend to have accomplished it, and that achievement is conscious experience.
Seeing the Borobudur or remembering the Great Wall or imagining the moon earth shuttling are far more remarkable acts than is building any one of them. What’s more, one of these remarkable acts is even more remarkable than the others. To see is to experience the world as it is, to remember is to experience the world as it was, but to imagine—ah, to imagine is to experience the world as it isn’t and has never been, but as it might be. The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future. As one philosopher noted, the human brain is an “anticipation machine,” and “making future” is the most important thing it does.
But what exactly does “making future” mean? There are at least two ways in which brains might be said to make future, one of which we share with many other animals, the others of which we share with none. All brain – human brain, chimpanzee brain, even regular food burying squirrel brains—make predictions about the immediate, local, personal, future. They do this by using an information about current events (“I smell something”) and past events (“Last time I smelled this smell, a big thing tried to eat me”) to anticipate the event that is most likely to happen to them next (“A big thing is about to ——-“). But notice two features of this so – called prediction. First, despite the comic quips inside the parentheses, predictions such as these do not require the brain making them to have anything even remotely resembling a conscious thought. With just a little bit of training, the giant sea slug known as Aplysia parvula can learn to predict and avoid an electric shock to its gill, and as anyone with scalpel can easily demonstrate, sea slugs are inarguably brainless. Computers are also brainless, but they are use precisely the same trick the sea slugs does when they turn down your credit card because you were trying to buy dinner in Paris after buying lunch in Hoboken. In short, machines and invertebrates prove that it doesn’t take a smart, self a-ware, conscious brain to make simple predictions about the future.
The second thing to notice is that predictions such as these are not particularly far-reaching. They are not predictions in the same sense that we might predict the annual rate of inflation, the intellectual impact of postmodernism, the heat death of the universe, or Madonna’s next hair color. Rather, these are predictions about what will happen in precisely this spot, precisely next, to precisely me, and we call them predictions only because there is no better word for them in the English language. Rather than saying that such brains are predicting, let’s say that they are nexting.
Yours is nexting right now. For example, at this moment you may be consciously thinking about the sentence you just read, or about the key ring in your pocket that is jammed uncomfortably against your thigh, or about whether the war of 1812 really deserves its own overture. Whatever you are thinking, your thoughts are surely about something other than the word with which this sentence will end. But even as you hear these very words echoing in your very head, and think whatever thoughts they inspire, your brain is using the word it is reading right now and the words it read just before to make a reasonable guess about the identity of the word it will read next. This is what allows you to read so fluently. As long as your brain’s guess about the next word turns out to be right, you cruise along happily, left to right, left to right, turning back squiggles into ideas, scenes, characters, and concepts, blissfully unaware that your nexting brain is predicting the future of the sentence at a fantastic rate. It is only when your brain predicts badly that you suddenly falls into disequilibrium.
Our brains were made for nexting, and that’s just what they’ll do. When we stroll on the beach, our brains predict how to stable the sand will be when our foot hits it, and then adjust the tension in our knee accordingly. When we leap to catch a Frisbee, our brains predict where the disc will be when cross its flight path, and then bring our hand to precisely that point. When we see a sand crab scurry behind a bit of driftwood on its way to the water, our brains predict when and where the critter will reappear, and then direct our eyes to the precise point of its reemergence. These predictions are remarkable in both the speed and accuracy with which they are made, and it is difficult to imagine what our lives would be like if our brains quit making them, leaving us completely “in the moment” and unable to take our next step.