One of the things I've become interested in in the last couple years is the relationship between reason, emotions, and long-term decision-making. Mainly this grows out of a belief that as it's been practiced, most futures and foresight has assumed that the audiences for our work are fundamentally rational actors who will do a better job of anticipating and reacting to future possibilities if they have better information. The whole field of behavioral economics, it seems to me, provides both a valuable critique of this assumption, and the information necessary to create new tools– nudges, choice architectures, and the like– better designed to work with the ways people actually act when thinking about the future and its implications.
The other reason I've been interested in this subject is more personal. Over the last couple years, I've lost just over 50 pounds (about 22.6 kg to non-American readers). Not only has the experience been physically transformative, it's been a good exercise in better understanding he complicated, and often oppositional, relationship between short-term desires and long-term goals. At one level, I've discovered, losing weight is astonishingly easy: all you do is eat less food. It's not exercise (I've put on more pounds than I've lost since I started working out), it's not pills, it's just… eat less food. Simple.
Except, of course, that it's not. Our relationship with food is immensely complex. Eating is at once a profoundly social activity, a very personal one, and is intensely physical in a way that makes rational decision-making about it very difficult. The gap between immediate gratification and long-term benefit is gigantic: the former is real and tangible, the latter is abstract and uncertain. And you can live without nicotine or heroin or alcohol, but you can't live without food: you can't escape the complexity.
So I was struck by a piece in Scientific American explaining how our stomachs have a "network of neurons lining our guts that is so extensive some scientists have nicknamed it our "second brain"."
A deeper understanding of this mass of neural tissue, filled with important neurotransmitters, is revealing that it does much more than merely handle digestion or inflict the occasional nervous pang. The little brain in our innards, in connection with the big one in our skulls, partly determines our mental state and plays key roles in certain diseases throughout the body….
Technically known as the enteric nervous system, the second brain consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the long tube of our gut, or alimentary canal, which measures about nine meters end to end from the esophagus to the anus. The second brain contains some 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system… This multitude of neurons in the enteric nervous system enables us to "feel" the inner world of our gut and its contents… [and enables] the second brain [to] control gut behavior independently of the brain.