Curse of the Frontal Lobe: Happy, 3

Consider this: You spend a large part of your life and energy on behalf of someone else: the future self that you will become. Psychology professor Daniel Gilbert notes:
“We go easy on the lard and tobacco, smile dutifully at yet another of our supervisor's witless jokes, read books like this one when we could be wearing paper hats and eating pistachio macaroons in the bathtub, and we do each of these things in the charitable service of the people we will soon become. We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, – jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum grafts -- enduring dirty diapers and mind-numbing repetitions of “The Cat in the Hat” so that someday they will have fat-cheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps.” (Stumbling on Happiness, 2006, xiii-xiv)
No frontal lobe here . . . 
And even if you’ve reached that retirement, even if the fat-cheeked grandchildren are all grown, you’re still spending large portions of your day trying to take care of your future self – fretting and working for the sake of somebody else.

Why would you work so hard for someone else -- even if this taskmaster will have the same name as you (and maybe even the same mortgage)? You’d have to have some kind of large growth on the front of your brain.

And you do. It's the frontal lobe. Our brains are a lot like other primate brains -- and even like marsupial brains -- in most regards. The biggest difference is that massive frontal lobe we got. This lobe pushed the low, sloping brows of our ancestors forward to become our sharp vertical brows.

What does this frontal lobe do – besides keep our hats on? The frontal lobe is where we create our future in our imaginations, allowing us to act today on behalf of someone else: the future self we will become. Animals generally make predictions about the immediate, local, personal, future. For instance, they smell a predator and predict that they should run and hide. Humans, however, actually think about what they'll be doing tomorrow.

With this capacity to project the future, we go on to wonder about other future things:
“the annual rate of inflation, the intellectual impact of postmodernism, the heat death of the universe, or Madonna's next hair color.” (Gilbert 6)
People who have received injuries to their frontal lobes can appear and act indistinguishably normal. They can engage in pleasant conversation with you about the weather, or the drapes. They can reminisce with you about the great play at the end of the game last night. They express likes and dislikes, seem to have a coherent personality, they're socially amiable, and can solve logic problems. But ask them what they'll be doing tomorrow, and they simply cannot process the question.

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert tells the story of a patient who was in an automobile accident at age thirty and sustained extensive damage to his frontal lobe. Asked what he will be doing tomorrow, this patient doesn’t know. Asked to describe his state of mind when he tries to think about what he’ll do tomorrow, the patient says,
“Blank, I guess. It's like being asleep; like being in a room with nothing there; like swimming in the middle of a lake. There's nothing to hold you up or do anything with.” (Stumbling on Happiness 14-15)
* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Happy"
Next: Part 4: Prospects for the Nonlobotomized
Previous: Part 2: Savannahs to Socks
Beginning: Part 1: The 40 Percent
Photo by Meredith Garmon

No comments:

Post a Comment