Our Changing Brains and the Consequences

The point of polling and market research is to probe human perceptions, but it’s worth taking stock for a moment about the changing ways humans use their brains that hold those perceptions.

The point of polling and market research is to probe human perceptions, but it’s worth taking stock for a moment about the changing ways humans use their brains that hold those perceptions.

The human mind evolved as it coped with natural forces. Now the human mind may be evolving to manage natural forces.

Less mental energy is needed today to survive the dangers and predators surrounding us. We spend more mental energy on reshaping – or at least trying to reshape – our environment. A key difference is that human selection is replacing natural selection.

Humans, like other living things, still adapt to their circumstances. And they evolve as a result of random mutations. But increasingly, says John Hawks, an anthropologist and geneticist at the University of Wisconsin, humans have the ability to exert more control over our own evolution. We are on the verge of picking out genes like we would jeans.

Natural selection brought us to where we are now, so where will human-guided selection takes us over time? It is a good question, and not a question that should be pushed off into the future. The tools to influence our genetic future are already at hand.

Human-guided selection isn’t reserved to genetics. We are using our brains now very differently than our primitive forebears. When man hunted and gathered for subsistence, brain power was focused on finding dinner. Contemporary humans devote a lot of their mental capacity to sifting through data, words and visual content. Think of how many different scenes you see in a typical TV ad versus the slower-paced ads of yesteryear. Our minds are trained to cycle through material faster, and we get bored quickly if the pace slows.

Invention has been an important part of human adaptation. The discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel undoubtedly involved chance and observation. Modern man has evolved from invention to innovation. We imagine unforeseen possibilities, such as a driverless car or voice-activated in-home helpers.

Not that long ago, if your father was a shoemaker, you became a shoemaker – usually in the same village. Now humans constantly re-invent themselves, skipping from one career to another and moving from town to city.

Not all of our innovation and re-invention has turned out great. Mankind is haunted by the destructive capacity of the weapons of war we have created. Instead of mass epidemics of infectious diseases that kill millions of people around the globe, we have created substances like opioids that can if abused cause epidemics.

While this blog is dedicated to the art and science of measuring human perceptions and viewpoints through disciplined research, it is worthwhile to take a moment to think about the brains where those perceptions and viewpoints abide. It could genuinely be said that people think differently now than they did millennia ago. As the pace of change and adaptation continue to accelerate, people in the future may be thinking differently sooner than we can imagine.

The process of selection doesn’t have a pause button. But there has been a monumental and probably irreversible shift on what and who influences that selection process. Whether preordained or coincidental, the human capacity to think, reason and dominate means the earth’s future is more in our hands than ever before. How we use our hands and our brains could well decide our own fate far beyond the boundaries of evolution.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.