A Brain that Denies Climate Change

I recall walking with my uncle, on my way back home from school, on the streets of a mofussil cantonment town in Bengal, India. I remember enormous trees on the sides of the street that kissed each other above us. While we walked, he would tell me stories about these banyan trees. He would tell me that they are so beautiful above because their roots are strong. He would repeat the last bit – because their roots are strong. A hungry kid after school, I hardly had any intention to take note of the implicit philosophy subtext there. Instead, I eagerly looked forward to a tempting snack that my aunt might have made at home. Twenty years since then, each return to my home takes me back there, to these streets; most of those trees are still there in spite of the extension of the armed forces barracks. As I walk beneath their arches, I remember my uncle and somehow that memory is incomplete without these trees. They are, indeed, my roots. 

In the past fifteen years that I grew up without my uncle and away from those trees towards the end, India has seen a massive and rampant urbanization of the small towns around the big cities and, undoubtedly, that has happened at the cost of the green. Thanks to the Armed Forces campus, my beloved banyan trees were kept out of the reach of some lurking capitalist real estate. Not all kids that grew up in India in the 90s and beneath some trees that they connected their memories to, are that lucky.  

I moved to the United States earlier this year after a PhD in Paris, France. In this dry terrain of California, unlike the tropical mofussil town back home, I see less green. Instead, I see portable single-use plastic coffee cups. A lot of them. I see them being served by the American manufacturers of single-use coffee cups, now unfortunately worldwide; who incidentally, in addition to selling plastic cups, also seldom serve a few microliters of coffee diluted in a gallon of sugary liquid! Regrettably, in spite of the wonderful California weather, nobody has the time to sit and drink that ‘heavenly’ liquid; it is as if the Chinese did not invent porcelain at all. Everybody is running to their destinations with these cups in their hands. Well, the verb ‘run’ can’t be taken literally though. Most people have their private cars. Metro is a concept that is foreign and the buses are repulsively sparse. Since I moved to the United States, I have often felt that, perhaps, the American highways were not created to serve the people but rather inhabitations were strategically placed to serve the highways. 

Oh no, don’t get my badgering immigrant soul wrong. I have also seen massive climate change protests at the universities here. People, and not only the young ones, gathered in camaraderie with their shared resolution of finding a solution to the single most important global problem, the severity of which might someday obliterate countries like Maldives and Bangladesh under the rising levels of water. I see a massive sense of awareness among the people here, I must admit. But in addition to seeing that admirable collective conscience, I have also noticed those divine-liquid-carrying cups, in the hands of the globally charged Americans, while they are on the streets marching for a solution to a global crisis. It is probably too implicit to point out that most of these protestors came to these events in their own cars without having to make use of a means of public transport which, frankly speaking, almost does not exist in San Diego. And mind you, these cars, invariably and intentionally, ditch the timelessly pleasant San Diego weather outside and plank down the interior temperature to an extent that would make your thermo-sensation cringe. I have been to places here which are not hospitals but in February, a super-chilled library made me feel that a bottle of saline was coming my way soon. 

One might try to logically explain the above by suggesting that awareness does not necessarily compel action. Awareness is a prerequisite towards constructive action but it is not entirely sufficient to initiate one. People might not realize the importance of taking an action in response to a crisis until and unless it hits them personally and right now. Is there something in our brain that is evolutionarily equipped in order for us to be self-involved, particularly with the current self and being rather dismissive of the future? I must, of course, admit here that I am aware of the fact that the issue of apathy towards climate crisis can’t only be a question of neuroscience or human psychology and it definitely demands explanations from political science, sociology, economics and culture. For example, the significant differences between different societies (EU countries versus USA) and different political ideologies (left-liberal versus right-conservative) in handling climate crisis could not possibly be untangled only through the lens of neuroscience. But what studying the brain could tell us about are the innate, instinctive and fundamental underpinnings of our behavior towards tackling a crisis. Our behavior, inevitably, on top of these underpinnings in the brain, gets flavored by politics and culture. The climate crisis is quite unique in terms of crises where, overall, the global feeling around it is that, most of its damaging effect is destined for a future that is to be lived by generations to follow rather than our current selves.

Brain-imaging studies have identified the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) in our brain that is specifically associated with self-reflection, which is to say that this region is active when we reflect on ourselves. With the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it is now possible to ‘see’ what goes on in our brain when we think about ourselves versus when we think about others. In such studies, participants are normally asked a few questions and fMRI images corresponding to their answers are created. One such study (1), published way back in 2002, asked its participants questions related to self, others or related to a particular case concerning neither self nor other humans. What they found was the representation of the self in our brain depended on the specific recruitment of mPFC in addition to other brain regions which are normally implicated for general semantic processing. So, our brain involves specific additional resources for self-reflection. 

Follow up studies show that this mPFC actually could respond distinctly to another human depending on how similar or dissimilar this other person in question is to ourselves. A 2006 study (2) described that when questions were asked of another person whose political inclinations (liberal other versus conservative other) overlapped more with the subject being interrogated, their ventral mPFC showed greater activation compared to when the other person’s ideologies were different. Differential response of mPFC, the part of the brain associated with self-reflection, probably tells us that we consider somebody close to ourselves if they are similar to us in some way. 

At this point, you might wonder, what all of this has anything to do with the climate crisis and the perception around it. The idea that this crisis might hit us in the future doesn’t strike us as strongly as if it were now because we perhaps consider our future self as another person, dissimilar from our current selves. This might have something to say for our apathy to do something for the future as opposed to if it were for the moment that we are living. 

Can you imagine us 

Years from today

Sharing a park bench quietly 

How terribly strange

To be seventy

A straight (albeit, rude) answer to this poetic question is no, we cannot. And the reason for this inability to imagine the future is probably embedded in the word ‘strange’ – the outlandish and inexplicable nature of the future that is distant. Studies have actually demonstrated that, indeed, our brain processes the idea of our future selves as if it is processing the idea of someone else. This is almost equivalent to thinking in third person when it comes to thinking about ourselves in the future. The mPFC, to be precise, responds to our future selves as if we are reflecting on another human being (3). 

Now, of course, like any biological finding, these mPFC responses in the brain had some individual-to-individual variations. These variations, in fact, could tell us the story even better. Some individuals showed greater differences than others in their mPFC responses between reflecting on their present selves and their future selves. Interestingly, these individuals with highly different mPFC responses between present and future also discounted the ‘future rewards more steeply’ than individuals with less differences in their present and future mPFC responses. This implies that the more distant and unrelated one thinks their future selves to be from their current existence, the less they care about their future.

Venice, November, 2019 (Getty Images)

But the disaster is probably not, after all, saved for the future. The urgency is now and we have already started to experience the impact. Today, Venice is going through a very high tide flooding parts of the city to an extent that is perhaps beyond repair.  

We might look at those pictures and wonder how beautiful Venice is, even under the flood, while enjoying slices of bananas, peeled and packaged in a plastic box.

  1. Kelley WM and others, J Cogn Neurosci, 2002.
  2. Mitchell JP and others, Neuron, 2006.
  3. Hershfield HE, Ann N Y Acad Sci, 2011.