How ‘mentalizing’ the future may be the key to slowing climate change

Climate change is the ever-looming reality which lies before us. Like a runaway train, its collision with our daily lives is inevitable. It’s a heavy load to carry, which is why it can likely be pushed out of the mind on a daily basis.

The fact is, there are no amounts of government regulations and daily changes that can stop climate change. Scientists are hoping, however, that we, meaning humanity, can work together to slow it. Even people who are well aware of the dangers of climate change are resistant to changing daily habits because the end is far from sight.

This is most likely due to the fact that the humans that are most impacted by global climate change are not yet born. We don’t know them, and so the ability to connect with their future problems with our own present lives feels unfathomable. We can empathize with those we can imagine, even people across the globe. How, though, do we empathize with humans that don’t yet exist? A study out of Switzerland shows that in order to slow climate change, humans need to learn not to empathize, but mentalize.

Stimulation of the Tempo-Parietal Junction brain area promotes sustainable behavior. © Graph provided by the authors / published by Elsevier Ltd. (2021)

“The fact that people aren’t acting in a more climate friendly way isn’t because we know too little about this critical situation, though.” explains Daria Knoch, Professor for Social Neuroscience at the University of Bern, in a statement. To find out more about the reasons that prevent us from acting sustainably, Daria Knoch and her team conducted a neuroscientific study.

Researchers created an experiment to stimulate the part of the brain which makes it easier to take the perspective of others. During the experiment, the participants were split into groups of four. Each group was given a shared pool of money and allowed to pay themselves as much as they wished. If the group overpaid themselves, however, then the following group will suffer the consequences by receiving a much lower payment. Thus, the experiment mimicked a real situation in which the overuse of a resource has negative consequences for other people in the future.

While deciding on the amount of money to withdraw, some participants received a brain stimulation (experimental group): a non-invasive, harmless, mild electrical current was applied to the skull to increase the function of the stimulated brain area. The researchers in Bern stimulated an area which plays a strong role in taking the perspective of others, and discovered that it had a considerable impact. The stimulated individuals made more sustainable decisions than the participants without the stimulation (control group), by deciding not to withdraw an excessive amount of money from the pool.

“Applying brain stimulation to the general public is out of the question, of course,” explains Benedikt Langenbach, lead author of the study. Researchers, however, say that the same area of the brain can be enhanced through meditation. By mentalizing the people of the future who will experience the most severe effects of climate change, we can begin to change our daily habits.

This study is published in the journal Cortex.

Article written by Rhonda Errabelli

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Steve Fink

Steve Fink is the Editor-in-Chief of BrainTomorrow.com, GutNews.com and StudyFinds.com. He is formerly the Vice President of News Engagement for CBS Television Stations’ websites, and spent 20 years with CBS.

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