A Lesson on Prudence from an Impetuous, Reckless, and Irrational Optimist

Dumb Warning Sign

We build nest eggs, make hay while the sun shines, wear seat belts, stock emergency packs, back-up our hard drives, and squirrel away.

Most people, that is.

But we also smoke, drink and eat too much, drive like maniacs or morons, buy lottery tickets, have illicit sexual affairs, and, apparently, hold chainsaws by the wrong end.

We are prudent and foolhardy, gullible and suspicious, diffident and confident, calculating and impulsive, inveterate optimists and prophets of doom. “What a piece of work is man!” said Hamlet.

Indeed.

The human being is an astounding contradiction. “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” (Winston Churchill).

Since I am writing a book for boys meant to help them develop the character strengths necessary to lead good and purposeful lives, I better get to the bottom of this dichotomy.

But here’s the rub…

Prudence, a.k.a. wise caution – one of the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity – has been conspicuously absent throughout my life.

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” ― William Shakespeare, ‘As You Like It’ 

I’ve been a fool, many times, and know it. So who better to teach young boys about prudence than one whose life has been tossed and tumbled by the weltering seas of his own imprudence?

The Evolutionary Origins of Prudence

Prudence is the product of experience and foresight – a singular hominid trait that emerged in the Middle Pleistocene epoch from 780,000 to 120,000 years ago.

Our great-great-great-great… aunt Prudence was the one who thought it sensible to carry our stone tools in case we’d need them on our next stop during our wandering days as hunter-gatherers.

Similarly, our great-great-great-great… uncle Prometheus had the wise idea to maintain and transport fire tucked inside his loincloth just in case lightning would not be striking near our next campsite. Prometheus, in Greek mythology, was a trickster who stole fire from heaven to give humans the power of the gods. His name, prometheia, in ancient Greek, means foresight.

The immense flexibility foresight provides allowed us to successfully adapt and colonize the planet.

Once early hominins obtained a certain level of ecological dominance, they faced increased competition from their own species which resulted in a runaway social contest between (and within) groups leading to greater intelligence and enhanced abilities for both cooperation and deception. These included the ability to communicate through spoken language, read others’ minds, and entertain alternative future scenarios, i.e. mental time travel, or foresight.

The beginnings of culture created complex moral systems that judged actions as right or wrong partly based on what the actor could or could not have reasonably foreseen to be the future consequences of the act. Law, education, religion, and other fundamental aspects of human culture are deeply dependent on our shared ability to reconstruct past and imagine future events.

To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel. But, while mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits.

Ajit Varki, a biologist at UC San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism.

A growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain. People hugely underestimate their chances of getting divorced, losing their job or being diagnosed with cancer, expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted, envision themselves achieving more than their peers, and overestimate their likely lifespan.

Using and MRI scanner, two neuroscientists at the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London recorded brain activity in volunteers as they imagined specific events that might occur to them in the future. Some of the events they asked them to imagine were desirable (a great date or winning a large sum of money), and some were undesirable (losing a wallet, ending a romantic relationship). The volunteers reported that their images of sought-after events were richer and more vivid than those of unwanted events.

I’m sure many of you have painted vivid pictures in your head of the things you’d do if you ever won the lottery but have never imagined yourself in a comma as you were driving like a maniac on a busy highway.

What Was I Thinking?

Is a question that must be running through the minds of many who voted for Trump.

The fact is, you weren’t. You were simply guided by emotion.

The human brain is made up of a collection of many modules that work in parallel, with complex interactions, most of which operate outside of our consciousness. As a consequence, the real reasons behind our judgments, feelings, and behavior can surprise us.

Visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of a threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought.

Within this two-tier system, it is the unconscious tier that is the more fundamental. It developed early in our evolution to deal with the basic necessities of function and survival, sensing and safely responding to the external world. It is the standard infrastructure in all vertebrate brains, while the conscious can be considered an optional feature.

In a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, cognitive neuroscience researchers in Australia were able to predict choices made by participants 11 seconds before they consciously declared their decisions. Lead author Joel Pearson said that the study suggests traces of thoughts exist unconsciously before they become conscious.

“When we are faced with the choice between two or more options of what to think about,” Pearson says, “non-conscious traces of the thoughts are there already, a bit like unconscious hallucinations. As the decision of what to think about is made, executive areas of the brain choose the thought-trace which is stronger. In, other words, if any pre-existing brain activity matches one of your choices, then your brain will be more likely to pick that option as it gets boosted by the pre-existing brain activity.”

My brain, no doubt, was fogged-up with unconscious hallucinations the day I quit my job, gave up the lion’s share of a generous lifetime pension, rid myself of most of my possessions, and plunged into unchartered waters to reinvent myself as a writer at the tender age of 54. Right now, with little income, piling debts, and a seemingly endless torrent of rejections to my writings, my reckless decision doesn’t seem to have been all that conscious, much less prudent.

My story, however, pales in comparison to Fred Smith’s, the Founder of FedEx, who, early on, gambled his last remaining $5,000 in Las Vegas hoping to win big and pay a $24,000 jet fuel bill to keep his company afloat. He won $27,000. FedEx is now worth over $40 Billion.

When Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico in 1519, he order his 600 soldiers to destroy their ships leaving them no other option but to forge ahead and conquer. While I despise what he did, I admire his guts.

In January 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon precipitating a civil war which ultimately led to Caesar becoming dictator and ushered-in the imperial era of Rome.

All or Nothing!” “Burn the Ships!” “Cross the Rubicon!”

Recklessness does seem to pay off big, some of the time.

A Neuro-Social Perspective on Risk-Taking

Had our early ancestors not been great risk-takers, our gene pool would have probably ended with great-aunt Prudence and great-uncle Prometheus.

A recent paper published in Trends in Neuroscience argues that risk-taking behaviors pervade across humans and monkeys, suggesting that being reckless has advantages that have allowed the behavior to persist. “For this pattern to have endured millions of years of evolution,” the lead author proposed, “it must confer some benefit.”

Risky behavior ramps up in middle adolescence because their inhibitory-control system is not yet fully operational. This period of high impulsivity allows them to experience new things. Once their full inhibition circuitry is online, they can use those experiences to make better choices.

Adolescent expert and Professor of Psychology Laurence Steinberg says that risk-taking increases between childhood and adolescence as a result of changes in the brain’s socio-emotional system, leading to increased reward-seeking, especially in the presence of peers, fueled mainly by a dramatic remodeling of the brain’s dopaminergic system. Risk-taking declines between adolescence and adulthood because of changes in the brain’s cognitive control system – changes which improve individuals’ capacity for self-regulation. These changes occur across adolescence and young adulthood and are seen in structural and functional changes within the prefrontal cortex and its connections to other brain regions. The differing timetables of these changes make mid-adolescence a time of heightened vulnerability to risky and reckless behavior.

Squaring the Circle

So here’s the rub.

If both prudence and risk-taking allowed our species to survive and thrive, how can I confer to boys the value of prudent behavior without inhibiting their wild intrepidness?

By introducing them to the concept of purposeful audacity.

Snorting condoms or ingesting pods of Tide detergent in response to Internet dares is not only imprudent but a reckless waste of their innate audacity.

Contrariwise, skipping school and risking imprisonment like 16 year-old Greta Thunberg did to call for urgent action on climate change is imprudently audacious and might pull us from the brink of disaster.

Seeking a dopamine rush from tee-peeing their neighbor’s front yard is not only a profligate waste of toilet paper, but, more importantly, a pathetic expression of their inner warrior.

Scavenging a scrap yard for stuff with which to build a windmill like 15 year-old William Kamkwamba did to save his village from starvation – now that – is the truest expression of a man’s fierce boldness.

I tell boys to dare, and dare greatly in life, but that a crucial difference exists between being daring and just plain stupid.

I tell them that youth is the time for irrational optimism. Of the undaunted idealism which builds castles in the air as a prerequisite to building them on solid ground.

That prudence, while undeniably an essential life force, if taken to an extreme, quickly turns into diffidence and saps our courage to dare cross the Rubicon.

Ships are safe at harbor, I tell them, but that’s not what ships were made for.

Ship in Storm
Image credit: Lorenzo Lanfranconi

O to sail to sea in a ship!

To leave this steady unendurable land,

To leave the tiresome sameness of the streets, the sidewalks and the houses,

To leave you, O you solid motionless land, and entering a ship,

To sail and sail and sail!

O to have life henceforth a poem of new joys!

To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, roll on, float on!

To be a sailor of the world bound for all ports,

A ship itself, (see indeed these sails I spread to the sun and air),

A swift and swelling ship full of rich words, full of joys. – From ‘A Song of Joys’ by Walt Whitman

As I prepared to cross the point of no return and journey on the edge of uncertainty three years ago, rather than dwelling on what I was about to lose, I focused on everything I stood to gain – freedom, liveliness, bliss, and now, the glimmer of the ultimate reward: the possibility of seeing all my struggles culminate in the publication of a book that will guide boys to become joyful men of heroic purpose.

Despite the heavy price I’ve paid in life for my impetuousness, my inner boy is still alive and exultant!

Joined in a spirited dance between his audacity and my hard-won wisdom, he and I now share the helm of our ship.

He throws caution to the wind, while I prudently point to the reefs.

 

Author: returntothetree

www.thefourthsaros.com/about

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