Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume"

Tina Duhaime

A number of expressed views may converge some by considering that looking at behavior through a neuroscience lens does not require—and in fact rejects—an “either/or” perspective. Considering how and why evolution shaped the way our brains work is not denying the innumerable effects of social influences, economic circumstances, political movements, other types of rewards like problem-solving and altruism, and all the other factors that influence decision-making and consumption. These are all critical parts of constantly changing, fluid “input” as well as internally mediated “drive” sides of the equation. The individual brain is ultimately the final pathway through which all choices are made, whether individuals are acting on personal decisions or acting in corporate, governmental, or other influential positions on behalf of others.

Sterling does not appear to be saying that these external influences do not matter and do not have profound contextual and modulatory effects on how we behave. In fact, the brain is exquisitely designed for learning. We are the most effective “weed species” ever, precisely because we can adapt to so many circumstances—which depends on our ability to learn through all types of experiential events, based on their individual and relative and contextual affective values that “tag” them in the mix of factors one uses to decide things—whether we are “aware” of them or consciously remember them or not. Sterling is suggesting that the substrate of how the brain is designed to weigh a myriad of constantly changing, conscious and unconscious, old and recent, emotional and logical, and historical and state-dependent factors, and what it evolved to value for survival and reproduction shaped by eons of evolutionary pressure, are worth considering when considering behavior relevant to environmental decline. To do otherwise is to have an incomplete—and often frustrating—picture of why even well-meaning people who are not intent on planetary destruction sometimes have difficulty behaving in ways that do not make the problem worse.

Sterling is not saying that some kind of internal program for consuming drives the whole complicated equation of decision-making. No one would claim it is that simple. However, understanding the predispositions of the evolved neural equipment—along with all the ways it can be modified and modulated—helps to figure out which behaviors are potentially likely to be resistant to change, and which ones might be more amenable to modification.

Does this “trump” the psychologists and sociologists? There isn’t a field out there that is not needed to help move the needle, and each discipline brings its tools. This is one important perspective which can shed light on an otherwise murky part of the problem: why some of us—perhaps particularly those with plentiful resources in the developed world, whose per capita consumption is at the top of the pile—struggle to match our behavior to our intellectual understanding of the challenge.

Tina Duhaime
Ann-Christine (Tina) Duhaime is the Nicholas T. Zervas Professor of Neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School. Since 2015, she has a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University for a project on "Brain Rewards, Plasticity, and Consumption: The Neurobiology of Sustainable Behavior.”

Cite as Tina Duhaime, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume," Great Transition Initiative (February 2016),

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