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3/10/11

David Brooks on The Brain & The Need For Companionship


The thesis of David Brooks' The Social Animal "can be stated simply: who we are is largely determined by the hidden workings of our unconscious minds. Everything we do in life—the careers we choose; even, on a deeper level, the way we experience and perceive the sensation of being alive—emerges from an infinitely complex neuronal network sending out signals (Brooks calls them 'scouts') that, largely unknown to us, assess and determine our behavior. Insights, information, responses to stimuli are governed by our emotions, a rich repository of thoughts and feelings that courses just beneath the surface of our conscious minds. They are 'mental sensations that happen to us.' . . .

. . . Brooks has written the book in the form of a novel, following an imaginary couple named Harold and Erica from womb to tomb. . . . It doesn’t quite work as fiction, but the plot is just scaffolding designed to elucidate Brooks’s real preoccupation: how Erica and Harold came to be who they are. . . .

In essence, The Social Animal is a book about the human need for connection, friendship, love. . . .

. . . You learn the importance of culture, of history—some of the deep knowledge that comes from Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy and theology are telling us less than they used to. Scientists and researchers are leaping in where these disciplines atrophy—they’re all drilling down into an explanation of what man is'.” More
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My comments: What man is? Hmmm. Explaining that would take more than Brooks and his neuroscientists. What man does? Yes. Why man does it? Sometimes, yes. What he is? No. For starters, they might try explaining what consciousness is, and without the usual dodges--an epiphenomenon of the brain, etc.

The book provides a wide audience an approach to a difficult discipline. I respect Brooks for his capable intelligence. He observes that the findings of modern science indicate 18th Century empiricist David Hume had it right as distinct from Descartes in the Frenchman's rationalist approach to mind. As a popularizer, Brooks makes a weighty subject accessible to the public. In an interview with Charlie Rose he stated he wanted to write a book about neuroscience and human behavior that avoided words such as "amygdala". Expect journalism, not scholarship. I do not mean anything pejorative by that.

Brooks does not insist that we are creatures of our neurons--things determined by matter. He believes in a bounded kind of free will in which we can choose environments that will determine us, be it enlistment in the Marines, or enrollment at University of California, Berkeley. As for changing ourselves, he likes an element of Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-Step Program--"fake it until you make it."

Brooks allows that he thinks in the concrete, not in the abstract, and for that reason he chose fictional characters Harold and Erica as an allegory for what he found in his studies. Contrary to reviewer descriptions, Brooks calls his book an allegory, and distinguishes it from a novel. Although not based on Rousseau's Emile, the book finds an influence there.

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