Human beings, unlike most other animals (and to a far greater extent than any other) live in time. Of course all animals are subject to time: we all develop and grow, mature, become old, die and decay. But we experience our lives as temporal in a way that other animals do not. We, perhaps alone among animals, make sense of our lives in narrative terms. We understand our lives as stories. All going well, past struggles were obstacles that allowed us to develop into what we are now, and present endeavors are aimed at future ends. Characteristically human lives are not merely lives of biological survival: they are the lives of animals with goals and with plans to accomplish them. Even our biological lives are understood by us as events in a narrative. Marriage and children are themselves important parts of the stories of many people (think of how many movies and books end with a wedding), and one central goal for many people is ensuring that the next generation is capable of achieving the goals they will set for themselves. Without the capacity to structure our lives as narratives that aim at goals, most of us find that life would be a meaningless round of one damn thing after another.
Because we live in time, we need self-control far more than any other animal. We exercise self-control when we delay gratification: we forgo something we would like right now, for the sake of some future good. It takes self-control (for most of us) to get out of bed on a cold morning to go for a jog. We would prefer to sleep some more and stay warm. If we motivate ourselves to go jogging, we do so for the sake of future rewards: for the sake of our health or the sake of our figures. These rewards are delayed: we won’t look better right away and the deterioration in our health we aim to avoid is also in the future. We forgo immediate pleasure or satisfaction for the sake of something in the future.
The same can be said for almost every exercise of self-control. It might take self-control to turn down a drink: we do it for the sake of health or to avoid a hangover in the morning. It takes self-control to say ‘no’ to dessert; again health considerations may motivate us. It takes self-control to forgo movies tickets or a nice holiday, in order to save for a home or for retirement. In every case, we forgo a reward now, or soon, for the sake of another we value more, and with which the immediately available reward interferes.
Some philosophers think this capacity to pursue plans and projects across time makes those who have it especially valuable. The capacity to suffer is sufficient to make the infliction of pain a morally serious matter, whether the pain is that of a rat, a cow or a human, but only animals with this kind of capacity have lives they can value. Because they have lives they can value, killing them is much more serious a wrong than killing other kinds of animals. Because we live in time, we value our own lives: we want to see our plans through, beyond the next meal. Killing us, or at least killing us while we are still capable of pursuing and valuing plans and projects, deprives us of this essential capacity and thereby is an additional wrong, over and above any wrong involved in killing other animals (philosophers who have taken this view have sometimes suggested that some other animals may have this capacity too, though almost certainly to a lesser extent than we do: for these philosophers, killing, say, a chimp is a more serious matter than killing a cow because chimps have some capacity for living in time).
Whether or not our capacity for living in time makes us especially valuable, it is clear that we do value having this capacity. Our lives are meaningful to us, in very important part, because they are lives devoted to achieving goals: whether it building a business, doing research, or leaving something for our kids or making our neighborhoods better. These long-term projects require discipline and self-control, and we therefore value it. Moreover, we could all use more of it.
The evidence is all around us, in undersaving for retirement, in obesity and lifestyle-related disease, and in our experience of regret at having eaten more than we intended, drunk more than we wanted, or impulsively bought something we don’t need or really want. The great value of self-control for us is brought home by evidence suggesting that self-control predicts success in life better than intelligence. A lack of self-control predicts the likelihood of being charged with a crime, it predicts lack of academic success, it predicts drug use, and so on.
If we are to increase our self-control, we need to understand its psychological underpinnings. Psychologists sometimes talk of the capacity for mental time travel. Mental time travel is a bit more boring than the kind of time travel seen in movies like Back to the Future, but it still very, very interesting. It is only because it is so familiar that we lose sight of how special it is. The capacity for mental time travel is the capacity to project oneself, imaginatively, into the future and into the past. Projecting oneself imaginatively into the future is required for the formation of goals. You have to have some kind of sense what you’re working for when you enroll in college or start a family, even if only implicitly. There is some evidence that vividly imagining the goals we’re working for enables us better to stick to our plans, perhaps because we get some reward from picturing the goal. The capacity for vivid imagination of the future allows us to receive some reward right now, and therefore makes it a little easier to forgo the temptations that compete with the goal.
The capacity for mental time travel to the past is autobiographical memory–memory, not just that this or that happened, but memory of yourself doing something. This capacity is also essential to narrative agency: it allows us to think of our past actions as forming part of the story leading to the present and on into the future, culminating, we hope, in the achievement of goals important to us. Some psychologists have suggested that recall of our past successes at forgoing a reward for the sake of a more highly valued end plays a role in allowing us to achieve our goals, because knowledge of our past success gives us evidence that we can resist temptation right now. George Ainslie, in particular, has suggested that one way to succeed at achieving our goals is to recognize how our choices now predict our future choices: if we can look back and see that we exhibited strength of will, we will better be able to do so again.
It seems that the same network of brain regions is critical to both mental time travel to the future and autobiographical memory, and therefore impairment in one is associated with impairment in the other. Conversely, it may be that it is possible to improve our capacity to pursue our goals, by forgoing immediate rewards that conflict with them, by focusing on our capacity to imaginatively project ourselves into the past and the future. The network of brain regions involved in mental time travel is precisely the same one that is active in daydreaming–daydreaming seems to consist largely of engagement in mental time travel. If that’s right, we get the interesting result that right when people seem to be at their least productive, they may be developing capacities required for productivity. Another interesting implication is that if, as some people suggest, children are gradually having imaginative play and daydreaming displaced by electronic games, Facebook and other sources of entertainment, this may impact on the development of their capacity for self-control. Right now, these claims are speculative, but they deserve further research. We already know that our ability to imagine, and to imagine the future, is central for our capacity to engage in self-control. At stake is one of our most precious capacities; a capacity that plays an important part in giving our lives meaning and purpose.
Questions for Discussion:
1. There is little scientific evidence that social media and the easy availability of electronic games decreases either imagination or self-control.
Have you noticed these changes in yourself or in children? Should we be encouraging imagination in children (in particular)? How can we do this?
2. Is the capacity for mental time travel especially valuable?
3. Is the life of the person who does not use this capacity a lesser life?