06/16/2013 09:54 EDT | Updated 08/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Is Your Brain Blocking Climate Action?

The American minds seem to be changing as swiftly as the weather patterns according to a recent report titled "Climate Change in the American Mind Series," released by George Mason University. According to the latest national survey, the percentage of Americans who believe global warming is real has dropped 7 points to 63% since Fall 2012, "likely influenced by the relatively cold winter of 2012-13 and an unusually cold March just before the survey was conducted." This in contrast to the 66% who believed global warming was happening in the March 2012 survey, apparently swayed by the unusually warm winter.

Although the research relates to the U.S., it may well hold true for most nations, because when you really think about it, for the past three decades, credible climate scientists and global bodies such as the United Nations have been issuing dire warnings. And being entrenched in a science-based culture, you'd think political and corporate leaders across the planet would join forces with global citizens to act swiftly in mitigating climate change. But apparently this isn't happening.

Just months after catastrophic Hurricane Sandy claimed the lives of more than 100 people and billions of dollars in property damage, over 65% Americans are saying "they would like at least a 'little more' information about the subject." It makes you wonder, what more information is needed, and how much more devastation it would take to convince people that climate change is indeed happening. There seems to be a deeper issue concealed beneath the layers.

"The modern world remains mired in the swamp of cognitive dissonance and collective denial, seemingly dedicated to maintaining the status quo," says William Rees in his article "What's blocking sustainability? Human nature, cognition, and denial."

Rees traces back this conundrum to our adaptive genetic predisposition to expand, which is further reinforced by the economic narrative of limitless material wealth and consumerism. He explains that, like all species, Homo sapiens have inherent evolutionary traits that drive them to expand into all accessible habitats and use up all available resources. In the end, though:

"[O]nly the fittest end up surviving, as they tend to focus on satisfying short-term needs, giving individuals predisposed to instant gratification the selective advantage over those who are less aggressive in expressing their material demand."

To be sure, the yearning for food, material wealth and power is never-ending; and the truth is, humans don't have a built-in "off switch" that will automatically track sufficiency. Rees argues this poses a bigger issue, because as we make technological advancement at such a rapid pace, nature is losing its regenerative capacity. For instance, overfishing, wildlife poaching, climate change etc., are not only causing species extinction, but also bringing human civilization closer to the brink of collapse, even as social unrest spreads like wildfire in the underdeveloped world.

"There's remarkable consistency in the history of resource exploitation: resources are inevitably over-exploited, often to the point of collapse or extinction."

So, if humans have the brilliance and creativity for technological innovations, would they not have enough foresight to do what it takes to avoid a potential collapse of their own civilization?

Well, apparently not! "It would be foolish to believe that individuals of society, especially global society, will deal rationally with evidence for accelerating global ecological change," according to Paul MacLean, an American neuroscientist who made significant contributions in the fields of psychiatry and brain research through his work at Yale Medical School and National Institute of Mental Health.

In his popular article "The Triune Brain", MacLean goes into great depths to explain how human behaviours are influenced, not by one brain but by three, that are embedded within our brain structure -- the reptilian, ancient mammalian, and cortical (or neocortex) brains.

The reptilian brain is mainly concerned with the body's physical survival, as it influences instinctive social behaviour, executes fight or flight responses, and controls hardwired ritualistic or instinctive behaviours. The ancient mammalian brain is the seat of emotions, personal identity, and related behavioral response (sexual behaviour, play, bonding etc.), and it stores emotionally charged memories from the past.

MacLean concludes that although our cortical brain has been showing signs of evolution, emotions and passions stored from our ancestral brains still continue to dominate in responding to life-threatening and basic survival situations, which may be overriding the rational thought processes. Essentially although we would like to believe we are sophisticated and much superior to other animals, the reality is, homo sapiens still carry and exhibit ancient reptilian and mammalian traits. "Perhaps in our rush to advancement humans are ignoring the inherent animal instincts that are not only dominant, but also destructive, and acting as though our entire intelligence depends on the cortical brain," he says.

He bemoans that our scientific emphasis on controlling nature has separated humans from nature to the extent that we think we can control it. But what if in fact we are nature's experiments?

"Humanity is a deeply conflicted species. We are torn, on the one hand between what reason and moral judgments say we should do and pure emotions and basic instincts compel us to do, particularly in stressful circumstances," says Maclean.

So, what if we humbly accepted that we are conscious beings in the making, and looked for ways to tap into our evolving brain or the neocortex? After all, moral judgments are made in our neocortex, which makes up two thirds of our brain structure, and is the seat of consciousness and higher cognitive functions. Of equal importance is integrating our three brains, so we can become more aware of our emotions, and align our thoughts and actions in order to function at our best.

In this state we will not tolerate the suffering of other living beings, and in fact will find greatest satisfaction in relieving suffering. In the meantime, recalling the words altruism and empathy, we can gain intimations that the humanitarian movement is still in its evolutionary stages. We can take comfort in knowing that nature will ensure the survival of the fittest -- conscious human beings who can co-exist with other species and abide by the laws of nature. This is why there is reason for hope that in the future evolution of man, human love and enlightenment will prevail over the forces of violence and destruction.

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