Climate change is happening, and people in some world regions are affected and more vulnerable to its impacts than others. Climate scientists also project that climate change will worsen and severely affect future generations.
If many people acknowledge that there is an urgency to respond to climate change, how come we do not alter our behaviour or make the necessary lifestyle changes required to avert the threats of climate change?
Researchers have turned to the human brain to search for an answer. They have located the part of our brain that is in charge of sustainable behaviours and actions and explored what humans can do to stimulate this part of the brain to encourage more sustainable decision-making, especially those with long-term and future consequences.
The study published on Science Direct, “Mentalizing with the future: Electrical stimulation of the right TPJ increases sustainable decision-making”, examines and tries to understand the part of the brain that causes behaviour leading to intergenerational sustainability.
The study states that “intergenerational sustainability is different from normal social encounters with fellow members of one’s own generation, for example, because consequences of one’s behavior are temporally distant and future generations cannot reciprocate, leading some to even define the next generation as outgroup…intergenerational sustainability requires a special set of socio-cognitive processes that goes beyond what we know about the processes involved in social interactions with people in the present.”
Failure to act in intergenerational mentalising or thinking about the needs and values of others in the future could reduce the inclination for sustainable actions. According to the researchers, if we don’t think about future generations, why should we pay a cost for their sake?
To understand the reason that prevents people from acting sustainably, researcher Daria Knoch, Professor for Social Neuroscience at the University of Bern and her team conducted a neuroscientific study.
Knoch says that it is precisely our inability to mentalise with these strangers that discourages climate-friendly action (Brain Study on, 2021). Participants received stimulation to the part of the brain that works for when we take the perspective of others.
Researchers assessed intergenerationally sustainable decision-making in a well-controlled laboratory setting.
Participants engaged in an intergenerational social dilemma game wherein the decisions of the first group (present generation) will affect the second group (future generation).
The experiment allows each participant to extract a maximum of 20 fish from a common pool. Participants receive a monetary reward for each extracted fish, and their decisions will directly affect the second group of people to come to the lab.
If the collective extraction exceeds an inter-generational sustainability threshold of 36 fish, the next generation in the laboratory will not receive the full payoff from their extraction in the fishing game; their payoff will be reduced by 80%.
Thus, the situation mimics the actual life situation in which the overuse of a resource will negatively affect future generations.
While deciding how much fish to withdraw, which has a monetary equivalent, some participants that belonged to an experimental group received a brain stimulation – a non-invasive, harmless, mild electrical current applied to the skull to stimulate an area of the brain that is responsible for taking the perspective of others.
Researchers found that doing so changed the participants’ behaviour significantly – it allowed them to make more sustainable decisions (not withdrawing an unsustainable number of fish) than those who did not receive any stimulation (control group).
“Applying brain stimulation to the general public is out the question, of course,” explains Benedikt Langenbach, lead author of the study and a former PhD student at the Social Neuro Lab. But brain functioning can be enhanced through neurofeedback and meditation.
Langenbach adds “We know that people are more likely to empathise with someone — a victim of climate change, for example — if they are able to identify with them”.
“Our neuroscientific findings can therefore help to make communication on the climate crisis more effective, for instance by giving those affected a name and a face instead of talking about an anonymous ‘future generation'”, says Knoch.
Read the entire study by clicking the link below:
Langenback, B., Savic, B., Baumgartner, T., Wyss, A., & Knoch, D. (2022 January). Mentalizing with the future: Electrical stimulation of the right TPJ increases sustainable decision-making. Science Direct. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010945221003609?via%3Dihub
University of Bern. “Brain study on how to slow down climate change.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 December 2021. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/12/211215113240.htm.