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.