How Our Neanderthal Brains Stifle Our Longings

Here’s the crazy but totally true thing about acting on our desires: When there’s a scary bit to them, we perceive the risks to be bigger than they actually are, and the rewards smaller. Result? We get nowhere.

Thinking up a plan to avoid disaster.

Thinking up a plan to avoid disaster.

That’s our inner caveman at work. Our Neanderthal forebears survived by being good at avoiding disaster, so it’s no wonder we’ve got that hard-wired into our brains.

There are only two possible kinds of errors: false positives and false negatives. (Yes, only two, even if it feels as though you’ve experienced a hundred.)

The caveman’s false positive goes like this: You think that’s a sabretooth tiger hiding in the grass over there. You go with a friend, spears raised, to investigate. Turns out it’s just a rock. Whew. You survive, you procreate.

The false negative goes like this: You don’t see anything amiss in the grass over there. You wander over by yourself, spear lowered, while picking at your fingernails. Turns out there is actually a sabretooth tiger there, although he closely resembled a rock just moments ago. You get eaten. You don’t procreate.

It’s easy to see why we’ve been carefully crafted by nature to assume the worst when it comes to our personal wellbeing.

But avoiding disaster is not the same as avoiding risk. Risk-avoidance is the lazy person’s way of staying out of trouble. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have invented fire or airplanes or electricity if we’d just spent all our time staying safe.  And I’m pretty sure you’re not getting everything you want out of life, either, if you’re avidly avoiding risk.

Ok, you might be thinking, that’s great for getting it wrong, but what about the guys who thought there was a tiger and were right about it? They survived and procreated, too. Good catch. What was their trick? It wasn’t staying inside the cave. They survived by recognizing the potential risk and planning for it.

Preparation is the adventuresome person’s way to staying out of trouble. Or at least surviving it – while escaping the cave.

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