Monday, October 24, 2022

Thomas Suddendorf, Jonathan Redshaw, & Adam Bulley's "The Invention of Tomorrow"

Thomas Suddendorf is a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book The Gap: The Science Of What Separates Us From Other Animals. Suddendorf is an award-winning researcher who pioneered the study of “mental time travel.” His work has been featured in leading scientific journals including Science and Trends in Cognitive Sciences and in popular outlets including Scientific American and New Scientist.

Jonathan Redshaw is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Queensland. He has published extensively on the development and evolution of mental time travel, focusing on how children and animals think about uncertain future events. He was named a 2021 Rising Star by the Association for Psychological Science.

Adam Bulley is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sydney and at Harvard University, where he researches the cognitive science of foresight and decision-making. He has won numerous honors and awards for his research and teaching.

Suddendorf applied the Page 99 Test to their new book, The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight, and reported the following:
Page 99 is part of a chapter on the question of whether or not other animals are stuck in the present. It shows how many species do in fact form expectations, for instance, about what actions are likely to lead to what rewards. But it also points to limits: “although prediction and expectations are essential to associative learning, this does not necessarily entail that animals are aware of causal relationships. Nor does it imply that they ponder remote future events. A delay of only minutes typically makes the learning of associations between events impossible…”

This time the Page 99 Test fails. I do not think that reading this page is going to give readers a good idea about the rest of the book. While the question of what capacities humans and animals share was central to my previous book (The Gap – The Science of What Separates Us From Other Animals), it is only a small part of this new book.

In The Invention of Tomorrow—A Natural History of Foresight Jonathan Redshaw, Adam Bulley and I examine the human capacity to think about the future; where it comes from, how it works and how it makes us who we are. Our minds work like time machines, allowing us to re-experience past events and imagine potential futures. With such mental time travel, we can prepare for opportunities and threats well in advance, and can set out to shape the future to our own design.

But clearly we are not clairvoyants. Much of what comes to pass we do not anticipate, and much of what we anticipate does not come to pass. And even when we foresee what is coming, we often act imprudently. When waking up with a terrible hangover, have you ever sworn never to touch a drop again—only to find yourself beer in hand before long? Have you ever ordered a greasy hamburger or an extra-large sundae despite knowing you would regret it? And then duly regretted it?

The book shows how the emergence of foresight led to a radical transformation of our ancestors from unremarkable primates confined to the tropics of Africa to creatures that hold the destiny of an entire planet in their hands. But the book is not simply an ode to our successes of prediction (or a lament for our failures). While humans have a remarkable capacity to traverse the spans of ages in the mind’s eye, perhaps our greatest powers come from a humbler source. We understand we can’t know for sure what the future holds, and realize we’d better do something about it. Paradoxically, much of the power of foresight derives from our very awareness of its limits.

It's high time to find out more about these mental time machines of ours – we may need them more than ever to navigate through our current era and secure a better future.
Visit Thomas Suddendorf's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals by Thomas Suddendorf.

--Marshal Zeringue