Guest Reviewer: Walter Isaacson on The Social Animal
Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and of Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter.
David Brooks has written an absolutely fascinating book about how we form our emotions and character. Standing at the intersection of brain science and sociology, and writing with the wry wit of a James Thurber, he explores the unconscious mind and how it shapes the way we eat, love, live, vacation, and relate to other people. In The Social Animal, he makes the recent revolution in neuroscience understandable, and he applies it to those things we have the most trouble knowing how to teach: What is the best way to build true relationships? How do we instill imaginative thinking? How do we develop our moral intuitions and wisdom and character? Brooks has always been a keen observer of the way we live. Now he takes us one layer down, to why we live that way.
An Amazon Interview with David Brooks
We talked with David Brooks about, among other things, Jonathan Franzen, Freud, and Brooks's own unfamiliar emotions, just before the publication of The Social Animal. You can read the full interview on Omnivoracious, the Amazon books blog, including this exchange:
Amazon.com: Speaking of Tolstoy, I bet a lot of people are going to quoting the first line of Anna Karenina to you: "Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Is there a consistency between what makes a family happy, the way that this family turns out to be?
Brooks: You know, I never bought Tolstoy's line.
Amazon.com: I didn't either.
Brooks: I didn't know many happy families that were alike. One of the things you learn is that we're all so much more complex. We all contain multitudes, so someone who might be a bully in one circumstance is incredibly compassionate in other circumstances. We have multiple selves, and the idea that we can have a very simple view of who we are, what our character is, that's actually not right.
One of the things all this research shows you is how humble you have to be in the face of the complexity of human nature. We've got a 100 billion neurons in the brain, and it's just phenomenally complicated. You take a little child who says, "I'm a tiger," and pretends to be a tiger. Well that act of imagination--conflating this thing "I" with this thing "tiger"--is phenomenally complicated. No computer could ever do that, but it's happening below the level of awareness. It seems so easy to us. And so one of the things these people learn is they contain these hidden strengths, but at the same time they have to be consciously aware of how modest they can be in understanding themselves and proceed on that basis.
A Letter from Author David Brooks
© Josh Haner, The New York Times
Several years ago I did some reporting on why so many kids drop out of high school, despite all rational incentives. That took me quickly to studies of early childhood and research on brain formation. Once I started poking around that realm, I found that people who study the mind are giving us an entirely new perspective on who we are and what it takes to flourish.
We’re used to a certain story of success, one that emphasizes getting good grades, getting the right job skills and making the right decisions. But these scientists were peering into the innermost mind and shedding light on the process one level down, in the realm of emotions, intuitions, perceptions, genetic dispositions and unconscious longings.
I’ve spent several years with their work now, and it’s changed my perspective on everything. In this book, I try to take their various findings and weave them together into one story.
This is not a science book. I don’t answer how the brain does things. I try to answer what it all means. I try to explain how these findings about the deepest recesses of our minds should change the way we see ourselves, raise our kids, conduct business, teach, manage our relationships and practice politics. This story is based on scientific research, but it is really about emotion, character, virtue and love. We’re not rational animals, or laboring animals; we’re social animals. We emerge out of relationships and live to bond with each other and connect to larger ideas.
New York Times columnist Brooks (Bobos in Paradise) raids Malcolm Gladwell's pop psychology turf in a wobbly treatise on brain science, human nature, and public policy. Essentially a satirical novel interleaved with disquisitions on mirror neurons and behavioral economics, the narrative chronicles the life cycle of a fictional couple—Harold, a historian working at a think tank, and Erica, a Chinese-Chicana cable-TV executive—as a case study of the nonrational roots of social behaviors, from mating and shopping to voting. Their story lets Brooks mock the affluent and trendy while advancing soft neoconservative themes: that genetically ingrained emotions and biases trump reason; that social problems require cultural remedies (charter schools, not welfare payments); that the class divide is about intelligence, deportment, and taste, not money or power. Brooks is an engaging guide to the "cognitive revolution" in psychology, but what he shows us amounts mainly to restating platitudes. (Women like men with money, we learn, while men like women with breasts.) His attempt to inflate recent research on neural mechanisms into a grand worldview yields little except buzz concepts—"society is a layering of networks"—no more persuasive than the rationalist dogmas he derides. (Mar.)
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