The Dumbest Story Ever Told: On David Brooks
Ever since his days at the University of Chicago, David Brooks has had, as he puts it, a “sidelight.” It’s not stamp collecting or fantasy football or square-dancing. Instead, when he is not occupied by his twice-weekly column in America’s leading newspaper and his talking-head appearances on NPR, PBS and whatever other outlets happen to call, and when he is not tending to a family with three children and all the sociopolitical necessities of Beltway life, the favorite conservative of American liberals is nurturing an interest in neuroscience and cognitive psychology. It’s a pastime he might have been content to pursue at leisure, he tells us in The Social Animal, but “as the years went by, the same thought kept recurring. The people studying the mind and brain are producing amazing insights about who we are, and yet these insights aren’t having a sufficient impact on the wider culture.” His new book is, Brooks adds, an attempt to make sure that we are no longer blind to what the best and brightest scientists of the mind have to say about us.
It is easy to wish, upon reading The Social Animal, that Brooks had stayed in his basement with his collection of books and scientific journals, occasionally sprinkling anecdotes about the latest amazing neuroscientific finding into his columns and lectures and Beltway chitchat. Not for our sake—after all, the book is no less genial, and no more infuriating, than his day-job commentary—but for his. The Social Animal is a deep and public embarrassment, a lumpy hybrid of fiction and science that fails at both, and so miserably that at least for a moment you feel bad for the guy. Because it is clear that he means every word, that this loose baggy monster, the bastard offspring of Malcolm Gladwell and Kilgore Trout, is a true love child. And when a man, especially one who confesses that he is “naturally bad” at expressing his emotions, and whose previous books have been gentle and geeky self-effacing satire, opens his heart to you; when he writes effusively and earnestly and often of “soulcraft” and “soul mates” and “the neverending interpenetration of souls,” of love and God and the meaning of life; when he lays himself bare like this and it just doesn’t work out—well, you want to avert your eyes and spare him the shame of being seen at less than his best. You want, despite yourself, to throw a warm coat around him and whisper reassurance in his ear.
This response, it turns out, isn’t despite myself at all. It’s exactly how my brain wants me to react—so badly, in fact, that it took a mere 200 to 250 milliseconds to fashion the response. At least that’s what, according to Brooks, the researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics have discovered. Before I could even think about it, I just felt bad for the guy—a reaction for which I evidently have something called mirror neurons to thank. The brains of primates, Brooks reports, are wired for empathy because they reflexively re-create the goings-on in the brains around us. Pop a peanut in your mouth in front of a macaque monkey, and the monkey’s brain will do the same thing it does when the monkey eats a peanut. Put people into an MRI scanner and feed them some porn, and not only will they get hard or soft, depending on their gender and orientation, but their brains will react as if they themselves are having sex. Show them a chase scene and…well, you get the idea. This wired-in imitative capacity, according to the scientists who have been enthusing about it since it was discovered in monkeys in 1992, is evidently what forces me to imagine another writer’s shame about an ill-advised project as my own, and then to wish away our shared exposure. Mirror neurons, Brooks writes, are “a building block of empathy, and through that emotion, morality.” In turn, morality isn’t the outcome of deliberation, or something we dreamed up to make life less nasty and brutish, or to make ourselves believe that we are better than we really are. It’s a hard-wired reaction in your brain, which is to say in your essence, that makes the “skull line” break down, and mingles your soul with the soul of another.
Our mirror neurons apparently do more than make us cringe in sympathy when a man seems to have disgraced himself. Brooks tells us about a Duke professor who has found that the more a child plays “imitation games” (which presumably activate and strengthen those networks of mirror neurons), the earlier he or she might learn to talk, thus setting the stage for cognitive development. Mirror neurons don’t do this alone. The brain teems with neurons and networks that shape us from behind the scenes. It is primed to recognize patterns, to evaluate emotional stimuli and screen out the negative ones, to decode in an instant the subtleties of nonverbal communication, to pick a potential mate out of the billions of candidates, to give our raw experience emotion and thus meaning, to grasp the sacred—and to do so without our knowing it, and while helping us fool ourselves into thinking that we’re in charge of ourselves. Like the faithful manservant who secretly keeps the rich man from going off the rails, my brain silently organizes my mental life. In a matter of milliseconds, scorn is tempered with mercy and I find myself feeling sympathy and exercising restraint—and thinking that I’m a decent human being because of it. What a piece of work is my brain!
And that is how The Social Animal works. Brooks cobbles together a handful of characters, tells their life stories and then, in frequent, lengthy aperçus, offers neuroscientific explanations of their behavior. Erica is a Latina-Chinese spitfire who escapes from a housing project in a nameless city with heart and chutzpah alone. Harold is the phlegmatic, well-educated son of affluent brainworkers who met on a blind date at Barnes & Noble and went on to become charter members of what Brooks, in one of his classic coinages, calls the Composure Class. Harold and Erica grow up, meet, fall in love, have sex and marry. They start a company or two, succeed and fail and succeed again, make a lot of money, forget to have children, have a flirtation with depression and alcoholism (Harold) and adultery (Erica), retire and, not a moment too soon for this reader, die (Harold). It’s a typical American trajectory, except maybe the part where Erica becomes the campaign manager and then White House deputy chief of staff to a president named Grace who bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain recently elected silver-tongued commander in chief. And, in part because the action unfolds in a bizarre timeless present, as if history doesn’t exist, it’s utterly devoid of any convincing drama, melo- or otherwise. But it’s almost unfair to point this out (there my mirror neurons go again!), because Brooks’s purpose in writing fiction is not to offer readers a moving aesthetic experience, or even to entertain them (although his trademark observational skills and satiric tone do prove entertaining in places), but to edify. Erica and Harold’s story is fashioned as an opportunity for Brooks to open his cabinet of curiosities, haul out some amazing insights and dazzle us with claims about the magnificence housed between our ears.
Here’s one. Harold is in second grade. He’s come home from school, his backpack—weighing “slightly less than a Volkswagen”—filled with homework and boyish miscellany. How, wonders his mother, Julia, can she get him to do his schoolwork? She considers abandoning the fight on the grounds that “Harold’s freedom was being crushed by the absurd strictures of civilization,” but knowing that “freedom without structure is its own slavery,” she tries to help. Harold, she has determined, is the “victim of the remnants of his own lantern consciousness, distracted by every stray prompt, unable to regulate his responses.” It may be up to her to help him turn that lantern into a spotlight, but short of the “bribery and cajolery” she tries every night, she doesn’t know how. Or she thinks she doesn’t. Then, “without thinking about it,” she finds herself telling Harold a story about a cross-country trip she had taken with friends after college. As Julia talks, she tidies up the house. Drawn into “the hidden zone of his mother’s life that had existed before his birth,” Harold listens raptly. Soon, “like a miracle,” he is plugging away at his homework.
But it’s not a miracle. Harold’s turnabout has a scientific explanation, Brooks says. “With her story, Julia had triggered something—an implicit memory of what it was like to be calm and in control.” In one fell swoop she had “engaged him in the sort of extended conversation that he was still incapable of performing on his own,” established “secure emotional bonds” that Harold could “fall back upon in the face of stress” and provided “living examples of how to cope with the problems of the world so that [he could] develop unconscious models” in his head. There’s no one right way to do this—it all depends on your ability to “fall in tune” with your kids’ needs. But this attunement is crucial, as it triggers a “rush of oxytocin,” a hormone that, Brooks tells us, is “nature’s way of weaving people together.” A childhood filled with these rushes will yield a “securely attached” person, and attachment, the scientists say, “correlates reasonably well with how people will do in school, how they will fare in life.”
So, Brooks tells us, Julia was, perhaps unwittingly (the best brains operate smoothly and silently), not just telling Harold a story or discovering another strategy for the homework problem but also handing Harold “the key to a well-lived life”: a well-tempered mind, one trained “to send the right signals and to be sensitive to their subtle calls.” These signals come largely from the unconscious, the seat of our emotions along with our passions and perceptions. The unconscious is the larger part of our mind; indeed, Brooks thinks that cognitive neuroscience constitutes an “intellectual revolution” precisely because it “removes the conscious mind from its privileged place at the center of human behavior.”
As Brooks well knows, Freud, and before him Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, to name but a few, had downplayed the role of the conscious mind in mental life long before people started watching porn in MRI machines. The difference is that whereas those men thought the unconscious was inscrutable and unruly and even dangerous, Brooks’s scientists have not only quantified the disproportion between the conscious and the unconscious—did you know the unconscious has 200,000 times the “processing capacity” of the conscious?—but have also determined that the unconscious is not such a wild thing after all. Far from being Freud’s “dark caverns of repressed sexual urges,” it is “an emotional and an enchanted place.” In it are not merely “primitive vestiges that need to be conquered in order to make wise decisions” but also “the seedbeds of accomplishment.” It doesn’t raven with lust and violence, but “hungers for harmony and connection.” It may misdirect us at times, but if we only understood this “inner soulsphere, where brain matter produces emotion, where love rewires the neurons,” it would be what evolution, and maybe even God, intended the unconscious to be: an Emotional Positioning System that “coats each person, place, or circumstance with an emotion” and “an implied reaction…that helps us navigate our days.”
This is all extremely good news, Brooks says, at least for those of us who have grown up in the shadow of Freud and Darwin and concluded that our timber has been twisted without regard for our happiness, and that much as we might yearn to straighten ourselves out, tragedy is our lot, and all our balms mere comic relief. But it’s bad news too, at least for people who make social policy. The sociopolitical infrastructure they have built, and the programs based upon it, don’t mesh with our neuropsychological infrastructure, which is why their attempts to narrow income inequality, stabilize the economy, spread democracy and reduce political polarization have failed. The people in charge of the liberal state have hitched their EPSes to the wrong star—a crabbed and dour view of human nature—“and they will continue to fail unless the new knowledge about our true makeup is integrated more fully into the world of public policy.” Their unconscious minds may predispose them to wish for justice and equality, Brooks says, but their conscious minds aren’t equipped to fathom human nature. If they want their policies to bear fruit, they must abandon their long-cherished shibboleths and turn to cognitive psychology and neuroscience for guidance.