Foresight: The mental talent that shaped the world

23 May 2023

Professor Thomas Suddendorf and Dr Jon Redshaw from UQ's School of Psychology featured in a BBC article about the remarkable skill of foresight and how it transformed the world for better and worse. 

At the start of 2020, a mother and her two daughters in Krefeld, Germany, wrote New Year's wishes on six paper lanterns and let them fly. The sight of slowly-ascending sky lanterns, lit by candles inside, has beguiled people through the ages. Yet when this family were imagining their future, they did not anticipate what would happen later that night.

The lanterns drifted away, and eventually reached the ape house of the Krefeld Zoo. The flames inside the lanterns set the buildings alight – leaving dozens of primates, including two gorillas, five orangutans, and one chimpanzee, to die in the ensuing blaze.

Human foresight will never be 20:20. But this does not mean that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of yesterday. We know we cannot foresee where our sky lanterns will land, and so it is for good reason they have been made illegal in so many countries.

Our minds can also recognise that many apparent human advances, motivated by our wishes for a brighter future, come with not-so-harmless consequences: forests are burningglaciers are melting, and biodiversity is in decline. We are extracting what we want from the planet and leaving mountains of trash in return. Our litter can be found in the deepest sea trenches and the outer reaches of the atmosphere. Human activity, propelled by plots and plans, has impacted the planet so dramatically that scientists have declared a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

How did our capacity to think ahead (and its failings) get us to this point, and how might it show the way out of our troubles? Recently, we published a book called The Invention of Tomorrow  that seeks answers to these questions, and more. It's about the remarkable skill of foresight in human beings, and all the ways it transformed the world for better and worse. When our hominin ancestors learnt to think about the future, it would prove to be a game-changer – and not just for us, but the planet too.

,"Read the full article