Feb 8, 2023
Not sure about you, but it seems like I spend most of my time in the future. We're told to live in the present, of course—and I try. But at any opportunity my mind just races ahead, like an eager puppy. I'm planning my next meal, dwelling on that looming deadline, imagining the possibilities that lie ahead. In one sense, all this time spent puttering around tomorrow-land is kind of regrettable. But in another sense it's really quite extraordinary. When we think ahead, when we cast our thoughts into the future, we're exercising an ability that some consider uniquely human.
My guest today is Dr. Adam Bulley. Adam is a psychologist and Postdoctoral Fellow affiliated with the University of Sydney and Harvard. Along with his co-authors Thomas Suddendorf & Jonathan Redshaw, Adam recently published a book titled, The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight.
In this conversation, Adam and I talk about two constructs central to the book—"mental time travel" and foresight. We discuss how these constructs relate to memory and to imagination. We dig into the question of whether our abilities to think ahead are really uniquely human. We review the archeological evidence for the emergence of foresight in our species’ evolution. And we also touch on—among other topics and tidbits— hoarding behavior in squirrels, tool use in chimpanzees, the Bischof-Köhler hypothesis, the control of fire, Incan quipus, hand axes, and longtermism.
Foresight is one of those especially tentacly topics. It connects to so many different other abilities and to so many questions about minds, culture, evolution. Both in the book and here in this conversation, Adam proves to be quite a skilled guide to all these connections.
There's also something else notable about Adam: he's an alum of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI). In fact, he was a participant in the first iteration of the program, back in 2018. So if you too aspire to do cool research, write cool books, and be interviewed on the coolest podcasts around, you might consider applying. Just note that review of applications begins soon: Feb 13. More info at: disi.org
Alright, friends, on to my chat with Adam Bulley. Enjoy!
A transcript of this episode is available here!
Notes and links
3:30 – A paper comparing performance on the “forked tube task” in human children and great apes.
6:30 – A now-classic article by Dr. Suddendorf and Michael Corballis on “mental time travel” and the evolution of foresight.
22:00 – A recent paper by Johannes Mahr on the functions of episodic memory.
32:00 – For an earlier discussion of animal caching behavior, see our episode with Dr. Nicky Clayton.
35:00 – An examination of the Bischof–Köhler hypothesis in rhesus monkeys.
40:00 – A recent chapter by Adam and Dr. Redshaw reviewing the evidence for future thinking in animals.
41:00 – For a brief discussion of delayed gratification in cephalopods, see our episode with Dr. Alex Schnell. See also a recent research paper on the question in fish, and a recent paper by Adam and colleagues looking at the psychology of delayed rewards in humans.
45:00 – For an extended foray into (allegedly) uniquely human traits—aka “human autapomorphies” or “human uniquals”—see our earlier essay on the topic.
47:30 – The exchange in Trends in Cognitive Sciences between Dr. Suddendorf and Dr. Corballis on the question of foresight in animals.
54:00 – An episode of the Tides of History podcast about Ötzi the Iceman.
59:00 – For our earlier discussion of bags with Dr. Michelle Langley, see here.
1:03:00 – A book on the Incan quipus.
1:13:00 – The classic treatment of “displacement” in human language, by Charles Hockett, is here.
Dr. Bulley recommends:
The Gap, by Thomas Suddendorf
The Optimism Bias, by Tali Sharot
Know Thyself, by Stephen Fleming
Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (https://disi.org), which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte and with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd (https://www.mayhilldesigns.co.uk/). Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (https://sarahdopierala.wordpress.com/).
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