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361 of 398 people found the following review helpful
on March 11, 2011
In this book, New York Times columnist David Brooks takes on the audacious endeavor of weaving together a unified picture of the human mind through various discoveries from the sciences. Oh ya, and it's all presented in the context of a story about two fictional characters, Harold and Erica.

You can get a good feel for the topics he covers from the chapter titles:

1 - Decision Making
2 - The Map Meld
3 - Mindsight
4 - Mapmaking
5 - Attachment
6 - Learning
7 - Norms
8 - Self-Control
9 - Culture
10 - Intelligence
11 - Choice Architecture
12 - Freedom and Commitment
13 - Limerence
14 - The Grand Narrative
15 - Metis
16 - The Insurgency
17 - Getting Older
18 - Morality
19 - The Leader
20 - The Soft Side
21 - The Other Education
22 - Meaning

If you think that's a lot of chapters, you're right on target. It's a pretty thick book at 450 pages, but it's easy to move through (not quite novel easy, but much more so than typical nonfiction).

Book's strengths:

- If you are familiar with Brook's social commentary (and like it) you won't be disappointed, but this isn't the real strength of this book.

- In a style that's reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell, Brooks offers a pop view of experimental psychology that is downright fascinating. The studies he explores are the real meat and merit of this book, and they expose many fallacies in the way we think that we think. Here are a few of the topics:
* The hidden role emotions play in making decisions.
* How mirror neurons in the brain are wired to mimic the person we're talking to.
* The massive role non-cognitive skills (aka, other than IQ) play in success, fulfillment, and achievement.

Book's weaknesses:

- My biggest criticism of this book is that the author created characters to personify the characteristics he wants us to understand. Allow me to explain. This is fine in theory but in practice (for him anyway) it falls flat compared to the entertaining and poignant explanations he writes when he isn't trying to explain through a character.

- As for the story itself, the narrative isn't as flat as your typical non-fiction fiction book (aka management fables and parables of other stripes), but a juicy, page-turning novel it is not. You'll get into the story enough at times that you'll want it to be a page turner, but it's too flat for that.

- I wish the book would show you how to use non-cognitive skills to your advantage. Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is a great book for this.
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362 of 426 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 8, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I wanted to enjoy this book -- a grand idea to integrate disparate threads of human research by a smart writer I enjoy reading in the New York Times, a book profiled over two pages in Newsweek and featured by the Scientific American Book Club -- but unfortunately I found it ultimately unsatisfying. For someone who hasn't read about modern psychology advances, this may be a good primer. But for most people the wide range and added space of a narrative device results in too shallow a depth to be fulfilling. It's not that Brooks has things wrong or couldn't go deeper if he tried; it's that there is not room.

In the introduction Brooks explains "I'm writing this story, first, because while researchers in a wide variety of fields have shone their flashlights into different parts of the cave of the unconscious, illuminating different corners and openings, much of their work is done in academic silos. I'm going to try and synthesize their findings into one narrative." This is exactly what he does, combining the wide expanses of psychology from neuroscience to social groups and behavioral economics, using a literary device used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1760 for the book "Emile". We follow two fictional characters through their life, seeing how recent scientific findings shape them and their inner life. Some of this fiction is witty and insightful, all of it is well-written, but as fiction it is not enough. It does not work as literature that shows not tells. The science is fascinating, and fully referenced, but the sketches are too fast and pass too quickly. The insights and implications of human connection, friendship and love are illuminating and sometimes exhilarating, but somehow it doesn't quite gel. Many of the studies mentioned are so new they haven't been replicated, plus they are more complex and interconnected than Brooks lets on. There is no resulting new big idea. It can't stand on its own as fiction, and the science studies start to seem self-selected, without enough critical review.

All of which is too bad, as it was a promising concept. But somewhere between the conceptual framework and the smooth prose, there is something missing. I can certainly recommend as a first introduction, but for anyone who has read Freakanomics or Malcolm Gladwell or the many recent books on how humans make decisions, this book is not going to sustain your interest for 350 pages. I hope you find this review useful.
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43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2011
I generally appreciate columns in the New York Times by Mr. Brooks. This book, however, was too much. He tries to use a pair of characters to illustrate a series of opinions about the social nature of humanity. I do not disagree with this approach, but the way it is executed in this piece is disjoint and provides little flow. As soon as you get comfortable with a line of reasoning and storytelling, he changes voice or direction that makes you lose all reading momentum. This, put simply, makes the book a chore.

I would characterize the book largely as ADD-ridden. He explores none of the ideas he covers completely, and leaves you feeling like you have been told what to think rather than led down a path of thoughtful discovery.

What makes it worse is the tone with which the book is written. I understand Mr. Brooks is an intelligent man. Indeed, he may be in the top 1% of intelligent people. That does not make it necessary to write a book like he is speaking to a room of 1st graders. His pedagogical methods are simplistic and assume that the reader is a donkey who must have basic tenets of logic explained to him at the expense of the actual philosophies that he proposes. His characters are flimsy and the lessons learned through his linked vignettes are poor, thin, disorganized, and cover such a broad range of topics (personal decisions like cheating on one's spouse all the way to broad political policy questions -- only Dante to my knowledge has ever covered such a broad range of topics effectively, and that required epic poetry). His parable system is simply ineffective in keeping him as an author on a central, narrow message and allows him to embark on whimsical flights of philosophical fancy into areas in which he has no background or authority.

I had high hopes for this book, but Mr. Brooks has disappointed. For only the second time in my life, I quit a book before finishing it (the other was Jurassic Park when I was 13 because the dino scenes were so vivid that I was literally frightened). I am deleting this work from my Kindle and never looking back. I am sorry to have spent $9.99 or whatever on it.

In short: Jesus was good at parables; David Brooks is not.
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184 of 220 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2011
I must be the ideal audience for this book because I found it to be a wonderful mix of great writing, new ideas, and interesting information.

The goals of Brooks' book are "to synthesize [recent scientific] findings into one narrative... to describe how this research influences the way we understand human nature... to draw out the social, political, and moral implications of these findings."

He achieves the goal of aggregating the research admirably. I don't consider myself well read on brain and cognitive sciences but I read several science blogs and had encountered many of the info-bites he introduces, many of which are extremely recent. A random sampling of research results he mentions:
"six-month-old babies can spot the different facial features of different monkeyse, even though, to adults, [the monkeys] all look the same."
"Anthropologists tell us that all cultures distinguish colors. When they do, all cultures begin with words for white and black. If the culture adds a word for a third color, it is always red."

Brookes uses a device of narrating the lives of 2 invented people, Erica and Harold. For example, to illustrate ideas on decision making, he introduces Erica's coworker Raymond whose "knowledge of his own shortcomings was encyclopedic. He knew he had trouble comparing more than two options at a time... so he would build brackets and move from one binary comparison to the next. He knew he liked hearing evidence that confirmed his opinions, so he asked Erica and others to give him the counterevidence first," etc. After describing a situation within the context of the narrative, Brooks jumps in to elaborate with more information. I feared this tactic would be too forced and would thereby fall on its face but he actually pulls it off! He binds up all the ideas in a cohesive story that has surprisingly sympathetic characters and a completely unexpectedly interesting character-driven plot.

Brooks uses his characters' lives and personalities to illustrate his ideas. One theme that arises is that rational thought is far from the dominant component of human reality: "Unaware of what is going on deep down inside, the conscious mind assigns itself the starring role... people are still blind to the way unconscious affections and aversions shape daily life." Underestimating the importance of culture in forming the subconscious and thus human behaviors causes the government to misdirect their energies, focusing on "money and guns" rather than community. Brooks argues for a more paternalistic government that shapes culture: "You can pump money into poor areas, but without cultures that foster self-control, you won't get social mobility... You can establish elections but without responsible citizens, democracy won't flourish... it was not enough to secure a village; they had to hold it so that people could feel safe, they had to build schools, medical facilites, courts, and irrigation ditches; they had to reconvene town councils... the hardest political activity- warfare- depended on the softest social skills- listening, understanding, and building trust."

Brooks' characteristic writing style is funny, engaging, and smart, but sometimes sarcastic and intentionally provokative/offensive. Example: "Like most upper- amd upper-middle-class children, these kids are really good at obscure sports. Centuries ago, members of the educated class discovered that they could no longer compete in football, baseball, and basketball, so they stole lacrosse from the American Indians to give them something to dominate." I'd seen this style of soft science writing before, most recently in a book called Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. Brooks manages to keep his punchiness sparse enough that I don't tire of it but if that style doesn't appeal to you, you may want to steer clear.

At times Brooks writes beautifully, surprising me with his poetic phrasing, so for me this book also holds artistic value. In writing about the human mind, he explores happiness and the meaning of life, pulling from sources ranging from Walt Whitman to Poincare. Describing Harold's impending death, he writes, "his wife and his nurses served him with a care, patience, and devotion that surpassed all expectation. Their efforts were more dear to him because he knew that he could never repay them... It was hard at first to simply fall backward into their love."

This book is great for someone who's interested in the human mind and wants an incomplete overview of recent developments in that area. It's also great for people who are interested in a unique perspective on how human nature relates to society and politics. Keep in mind Brooks is not a scientist- he's a journalist interested in culture and he uses various studies to inform his view but does not analyze the science. This book does not offer deep analysis of studies, nor does it come close to being exhaustive in its depiction of all the research done in this field.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 2011
I appreciate what the author was trying to accomplish, but it fell flat with me. It was incredibly dry and text book-like. I found it to be all over the place explaining all of the different psycho-theories that take place in the span of one's life. A lot of this is pop psychology and I would honestly just prefer to read the articles myself than have them summarized in a pseudo-story. For the first time in life I will not be finishing a book. I read 2/3 of it for my book club and planned to finish it, but I have absolutely no desire to pick it up again.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on May 26, 2011
The book is written in a style that is easy to read and enjoy, but it opens up the doorway to psychiatric and neuro-scientific findings that are part of the most important wealth of current contributions to an educated person. I am a physician and teach a course in neuro science, so I can look at the book as not really a major contribution to those of us in the profession, but, as noted above, an enjoyable and accurate beginning reading for non-professionals.
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46 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on June 13, 2011
I am a fan of David Brooks' NYT columns and News Hour commentary. He is smart, thoughtful, intellectually curious and extraordinarily well-read. But I found his book a mess.

First, the fictional character motif never works. It's very difficult to believably use made-up characters to demonstrate real-world concepts...there's just too much opportunity to create the characters' traits to justify your premise. Then there's Brooks' lack of fiction writing skill; I just never believed either of these characters to be representative of real people. And, we seemed to drop into their lives at widely separated intervals to be told all the non-characteristic turns their lives had taken since we last met them. I found it impossible to believe in either character, much less become emotionally involved in what happened to them.

Second, while a research and intellectual tour de force, the book races over, at a high level, such a vast universe of social and cognitive research that it reads more like a "look at how well-read I am" vanity project than a serious attempt to truly educate the reader about important current scientific thought. A brutal editor was needed to focus the author on the main points he wanted to express.

David, I remain a fan. But I think your book is terrible.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 2011
David Brooks tried to do way too much in this book. He cites countless theories without explaining them fully & mentions numerous "experts", often without giving their credentials. He also mentions God & religion many times, at one point going so far as to say that merely attending church means one has a better character than those who enjoy going to nightclubs. Despite Mr. Brooks' derisive (& often hilarious) attitude toward "bobos", his definition of a "successful" person seems to center more on high salaries & material things than acts of kindness & compassion or intellectual achievements. I found the world view in this book incredibly naive, retro in a bad way. At the very least, I wish he'd gone into fewer theories, but in more depth.
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 1, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Leave it to a journalist to take scientific research and blend it with a novel to explore how one succeeds.

In a sense the book attempts to explain how one succeeds regardless of environment. The premise is that success is based on character and street smarts. These two traits are established emotionally below the conscious level. It's the belief in the formation of subliminal scripts people follow that Brooks seeks to explain and justify.

The novel: Telling the stories of Harold and Erica (representative of everyone) is the vehicle for his social explanations of what happens and why it happens. Unfortunately it feels like trudging through a flat description of two-dimensional characters that are uninteresting.

The reader should be alert to the fact that some subject matter and language may be offensive or disturbing. Think of it this way, if you are offended by the language and sexual material of an "R" rated movie you will be offended with "The Social Animal."

The science: Brooks researches his supporting material well and quotes from diverse fields of study. To credit to his intellectual honesty, he freely admits that many of the ideas used to support his thesis is considered debatable, controversial, or simply tainted. The trouble is that he plows through with his handpicked research in support of his theory of success in a way that may make the reader forget the questionable basis.

One area in this book that is sure to hit a nerve will be the generalizations about poverty and poor people. Another flash-point, for some, might be the subtle inclusion of religious ideas (suggesting that God has a role in the luck/intangibles of life).
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2012
I wanted to love this book. It started very captivating but ended for me with a whimper, not a bang. I couldn't figure out why, until I realized that Brooks totally ignored children! In a book about finding "sources of love, character and achievement", Brooks goes to length to describe the impact parents have on children, including the 2 "characters" whose life story guides us through the book. However, he chooses to have the couple NOT have children, and therefore ignores the impact of your kids on you. In a discussion of rivers of consciousness and character, Brooks puts up a metaphorical one way dam, ignoring the amazing interplay and impact of a child on the life, brain, thinking and consciousness of the parent. I am guessing that either Mr. Brooks doesn't have children of his own or was in someway, either consciously or subconsciously avoiding a big piece of life. As a parent of 4, this is why at the end I felt totally empty, not fulfilled by the book.
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