"We have become accustomed to a certain constricted way of describing our lives," writes David Brooks in the introduction to his new book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Following the course of two invented lives from infancy to old age, the author, widely known for his thoughtful commentaries on the political and cultural scene in his New York Times column and on his regular appearances on public radio and television, seeks to break that straitened habit of description, mining rich veins of neurological and psychological research—as well as literary intelligence from Aeschylus to Lydia Davis—to expand, and at times surprise, our understanding of why we behave the way we do.
The book's ambitious compass provides a sweeping perspective on learning, social dynamics, interpersonal relationships, the pursuit of accomplishment, the struggle for moral poise, and, not least, the search for love and meaning. In the foreground about recent advances in brain science, in the background Brooks's new volume is about the same large themes thinkers have been pondering since antiquity. And, just as it is surely about the person writing it, no one who samples even a chapter will have any doubt that it is very much about the person reading it as well.
In January I sat down with David Brooks for a spirited conversation about The Social Animal and the themes it explores. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. —James Mustich
James Mustich: You've written a very curious book, in both senses of that word. You're clearly curious about recent neurological insights, and also, somewhat more expectedly, in what those insights add to our thinking about civil society. Which leads, of course, to the other meaning of "curious": The Social Animal is an odd hybrid. How did it take shape?
David Brooks: I was sort of dragged into the subject by my day job, covering politics and policy. In the course of my career, there have been a number of times when policymakers in my world have just got human nature wrong. The first time it involved Russia; I covered the fall of the Soviet Union. We sent in a bunch of economists, and what we didn't understand was that in Russia they didn't have any social trust. We missed the fact that neighbors there didn't trust one another, which meant that as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, everyone was going to try to steal everything—which is what happened.
Then Iraq came along. We didn't understand Iraqi culture, or the relationships between Iraqis. We thought if we sent in an army and changed the rulers, we could change the society. Incredibly naive.
The biggest thing, though, was education policy. I've been covering education policy since 1983. We've tried every bureaucratic reform imaginable—big schools, little schools, school choice, vouchers—and none of them has had a big effect. There, again, we got human nature wrong, because what matters in education is the love between an individual teacher and an individual student.
In my world, we're really good at talking about money and really bad at talking about emotions and relationships. So I made a conscious decision to start trying to understand why so many kids drop out of high school when all the rational incentives go the other way. That led me into a consideration of the early childhood period, when a lot of these sort of perceptions are formed; that, in turn, led me into brain research. Once I got into that field, I saw a revolution going on—one that is shaping a deeper view of human nature. And I thought, "This is where the action is; it's giving me a different way to see myself, my life, and how people achieve. I want to write about this stuff, because it influences everything else."
JM: There's a wonderful chapter in the book in which Harold—one of the two protagonists whose lives you trace from childhood to old age—is in high school, trying to write a paper on ancient Greece. You describe a young man being exposed to the culture of antiquity—reading several books, then re-reading the books, his head swimming with stimulating notions—and trying to recognize in all the ideas thus generated something that resonated with his own sensibility. Reading this, I couldn't help but wonder whether that was an apt description of your own process in writing this book. Was your head swimming in the deep waters of neurological discovery, looking for an intellectual purchase that would allow you to articulate what it might suggest about how we live our lives? And if that's true, how did you finally find that purchase?
DB: Oh, that is definitely true. There's a great social science experiment I mention in the book, in which a bunch of chess grandmasters are presented with a chessboard, and given a 5-second glimpse of the board; these men and women can remember the whole board from that 5-second glimpse. But then they're given a chessboard where the pieces are not arranged in any way that could happen in a chess match, and their memories are no better than anybody else's. What you learn from this experiment is that you have to master a field; then you begin to see it differently, you can remember it more powerfully.
One of the things that happens in the Harold chapter you mention is that the character goes through the process of learning. It's a multi-stage process; first he masters the material—he goes through a phase of just reading and mastering the facts. But that is not enough in itself, because while you're consciously mastering the facts, your brain is unconsciously making connections. So Harold also goes through a process of journal-writing—trying to loosen up his thinking and make connections. Then there's another step, another process, really: revising. When you read something a second time, you see it with fresh eyes. Finally, there's the last stage: the process of writing this paper, of trying to make everything coherent, to give it all a point. That, of course, is something we all face in many different contexts, trying to work out for ourselves what everything means, and how it all fits together.
One thing we learn from all this is that it's important to take a lot of showers. [LAUGHS] Showers relax you, and insights come. It's also important to sleep a lot; while you're sleeping, your mind is working. You can't rush it. You have to go in and out, in and out. That's more or less my process; I was halfway done with the book before I knew the core point. You just have to labor through it.
The other challenge for me was deciding how to structure the story.
JM: Yes. The book has a very interesting structure: it essentially takes two characters (Harold and his future wife, Erica) and follows them through their lives—Harold from birth (from conception, actually) and Erica from childhood. How did you hit upon this organizing principle? And did you do so with any trepidation? Because it's an interesting experiment; it's not fiction, really, but shaping your narrative to fit these invented life cycles does give you a specific context in which all the information you want to talk about fits together, in a way it wouldn't otherwise.
DB: I did choose this route with a great deal of trepidation, because it's an unusual way to tell a story. But I had read a guide to New York City, written in the 1870s, which was told as a novel, and it made a big impression; the protagonist was a woman traveling through New York, and her touring provided the narrative structure. There is one scene in particular that struck me, in which the woman is walking down Columbus Avenue and sees a cop speaking to a guy with a beer in his hand. The cop says, "If you want to drink that beer, go over to Amsterdam Avenue; you can drink on Amsterdam, but you can't drink on Columbus." I thought that was a very effective way to tell the story—through a narrative lens—so I used this technique myself. First of all because I think it's just more fun to read, but second because it allowed me to show the real-life implications of the things I was talking about. Scientists do things in their laboratories and, of course, compile their findings in papers and reports, but by creating characters, and explaining scientific discoveries in the context of these characters' experience, you can show the impact scientific findings have on real life. You can show how the brain stuff interacts with the human stuff in real time—how people actually make decisions.
In the first draft of the book, the characters were very much stick figures, because I didn't want to try to be a novelist. But as I showed the manuscript to people, at each step they always wanted to know more about the characters—so I added more. Our minds think naturally about stories and characters; in response to the reader feedback I created slightly richer characters, whom—I hope—it's easier to care about.
JM: The reader does end up caring about them, and that's important. But the structure also gives you the opportunity to comment on the political climate, or on business culture, say, simply by moving the characters into particular situations. For example, there's a wonderful chapter in which Erica goes to work for a cable company; that chapter allows you to work in a lot of material that might otherwise not sit so easily next to some of the earlier matter, such as your discussion of the developing brain.
JM: You also made another interesting decision in choosing to make every moment now.
JM: So that even though Harold and Erica live long lives, each stage—childhood, mid-life, old age—is presented as if contemporary to us today. It doesn't seem like much until you ponder it, then you realize how much thought must have gone into this choice.
DB: This was something else I struggled with. Part of the book is a social comedy of manners. So I wanted to describe what it's like to be in Aspen, Colorado, with the rich old guys who decide not to die, and pop Cialis like breath mints. I wanted to make fun of that. I wanted to show how politics really is right now—to discuss the characters that I actually cover in my day job. And, in the education sphere, I wanted to show how KIPP academies and other charter schools operate today.
I also wanted to show what a college student is like, and what's it like in the phase when you're out of college, but not quite settled down—what that phase is like for young people now. Essentially, I wanted to show how the ideas I was discussing apply to the society we live in. I don't think it's too jarring.
JM: No, it's pretty seamless—until, as I say, you really start to think about it. It also makes the thread of commentary and observation more persuasive, because the events being discussed are so clearly contemporary. It works very well.
DB: It also just makes the jokes better. There's a line in the first chapter, where a woman doesn't want to marry a guy who wears sports jewelry because she doesn't want her husband to love Derek Jeter more than he loves her. That only works if the narrative is contemporary. It doesn't work if she doesn't want him to love Joe DiMaggio, for instance.
JM: The way you've told the story also allows you to avoid being reductive in sharing the brain science you discuss. That, in fact, is one of the themes—a kind of anti-reductionism. You say, in the book, that the problem with reductionism, which has really been the dominant mode of thought for much of the last century, is that it has trouble expressing dynamic complexity—which is the essential feature of a culture, or a society. Or a human being, for that matter. The way you've told the story lets you take all these atoms of information and tie them together in a way that provides a satisfying reading experience, but also helps you shape a larger message.
DB: Sometimes with the brain research, you can get the idea that we're all just physical things, just a bunch of neurons, and that we don't control ourselves—that it's entirely brain chemistry controlling us. But that's not quite right; we do have a significant amount of control. In reductionist arguments, A leads to B; everything is very linear. But if you think about the way things really are, at least in the brain, that's not very accurate. The idea of a coffee cup, for instance, does not exist only in one part of the brain. It emerges out of a network of neural firings. The same thing is true of a culture: there's no one person who exemplifies American culture, for instance, but there's a set of arrangements that, together, merge to create it.
This also applies, by the way, to poverty—which I also treat in the book. We all know elements of poverty. Obviously, there's unemployment, but there's also social breakdown, there's family breakdown. But what creates poverty or the culture of poverty? It's no one thing. It's many things feeding together; to understand the big picture, you have to understand the complexity, and you have to understand the relationships. This research helps you see things, not in a linear, reductionist way, but in what's called an "emergent" way. It's just a more realistic way of seeing the world. Sometimes—especially when policy makers are in problem-solving mode—we view life as if it can be operated by a system of levers; if we push button A, lever B will go. But life isn't like that. We try to over-simplify it, and we've done that for hundreds of years. This book, I hope, reminds us of life's complexity.
JM: In that chapter about Harold in high school writing his paper on ancient Greece, there's a passage which struck me as kind of a turning point—in Harold's life, clearly, but also in the book. Partly because of his age, you stop focusing so much on neurological development and so on, and move more into the social world—as happens in high school, of course.
JM: You write, "In the modern world in which he lived, the common assumption is that all human beings are attached at the earliest and lowest level. All human beings are descended from common ancestors and share certain primitive traits. But the Greeks tended to assume the opposite, that human beings were united at the highest level: There are certain ideal essences, and the closer one is to taking possession of the eternal excellence, the closer one is to this common humanity."
There is something very telling about that; it reminds us why the case of this one kid, and the way his brain developed, has implications for the rest of us. But at the same time, the central force behind it—the concept of "the common humanity"—is not something that has much political or cultural traction these days.
DB: Throughout the book, I kept running into the problem that we don't have all the words we need. We have good words for logic and reason, but if you think about the opposite, we only have words like "sentiments," and that word has a slightly negative connotation. We don't have a good word for intelligent emotions. We also don't have a good word for something that motivates us deeply. Say a kid grows up dreaming of hitting a home run to win the World Series; or that when he's in high school, he dreams about his football team winning a championship. What is he really dreaming about? We don't really have a word for that. "Fame" maybe, but that's not quite right. The Greeks, on the other hand, did have a word for it, and the word was thumos. It means a desire for glory—and the desire to be worthy of glory. The founders of the United States were aware of that vocabulary, and thought that it denoted the noble sort of ambition, not the mean sort of ambition. They had words for it.
Research is not only about neurons and synapses; it's about all the ideas that occupy our brain and shape how we see the world. Right now we have an impoverished set of social vocabularies, and that leads us to see the world in an impoverished way. But if you go back through history—which Harold does repeatedly in the book—you can borrow other vocabularies, which might provide you with a more uplifted way to see the world. The Greeks, as I suggest, had a way of looking at the world that was very different from ours. Not only did they keep thumos, or the desire for glory, in mind, but also arête, the desire for excellence.
I think those ideas provide a good antidote to a lot of our culture, and even to a lot of this research, because much of it is evolutionary. There are certainly powerful evolutionary forces at work in our lives, but it demeans everything to look at things strictly in that way. The fact that we are passing on our genes, so often cited in explanations, does explain a lot, but it doesn't explain everything. We're sitting here in New York City. The desire to pass along genes doesn't explain the Chrysler Building or the Metropolitan Museum of Art; there are other things going on. So in that chapter, Harold discovers the higher realms, and imagines trying to live by them.
JM: Did your research ultimately confirm the view of civil society you had had before? Did it amplify it, or shake up some assumptions you had previously made?
DB: It confirmed one thing, which is that I don't think we know much about the world. [LAUGHS] The world is far more complicated than we can know. For example, when you see a picture on a wall, you think you're seeing the color straight, whereas your mind is doing incredibly complicated somersaults to give you the illusion that you're seeing a color.
You know, I'm a typical middle-aged American guy, and I'm not that comfortable talking about emotion. When you get into the research work the book covers, you see the importance of emotion and passion; it forces you to become conversant with what's going on inside. So now, after the years of writing this book, I think I see the world more emotionally, and I think I've become more emotional myself, and much better at expressing emotion—or, at least, understanding other people's emotions—than I was before. That's been a huge change.
As has seeing the world from a deeper perspective, not just the perspective of economics but also the perspective of psychology, what's going on in people's heads. That has changed my view of everything: what I write about, my friendships. It's had a big effect.
JM: You have kids, right?
DB: Yes, I have three kids.
JM: How did this work affect the way you understand them? And what about your marriage? Was working on this book a rich experience in terms of those relationships?
DB: It absolutely was. I have one kid who's 19, one who's 16, and one who's almost 12, and I must say that writing this book made me much more relaxed about the grades and the college thing. [LAUGHS] You begin to realize that the things that are truly going to determine whether or not your children will lead good lives have nothing to do with grades or SAT scores, but involve how deeply they understand friendships and social networks. That's really what's going to matter. All the hyper stuff about getting into this college or that college becomes less and less important. My wife may dispute this, but I think I've become a better husband and father, because I've been thinking about these things so much.
JM: To stick with education for a moment: what did you learn about learning in writing this book? And what does that suggest to you about educational policy?
DB: As I mentioned before, people learn from people they love. And while the substance of what you learn in the classroom is important, the most important thing you learn is how to think. One thing we do unconsciously, and constantly, is to mimic each other—just in simple ways, with our gestures, our speech, how quickly we talk. We tend to do this very naturally. But if you're around a teacher you really admire, you'll also learn to think the way he or she thinks. In the book, for example, there's a character, when Erica goes into the business world, who is very modest about himself.
DB: Yes. And Erica learns to think the way he thinks. It's often not the substance, but the mode of being in the world, that matters a great deal.
Another thing to consider is that we have a very socially divided society. The society that an affluent kid experiences is likely to be very different from that experienced by a kid who has grown up in a very disorganized household. Erica comes from a home that's more disorganized than Harold's, and she needs to go to an academy that will teach her how to walk down a hallway in a straight line; how to look at people when she talks to them; how to envision her future differently. All the things that middle class kids pick up sort of automatically are things that she needs special instruction to master. So that's not the normal curriculum—history, math, etc.—but it's critical preparation for learning. It's learning how to identify and develop tools for learning in the way we watch and interact with others.
Writing this book has certainly made me appreciate the value of all that—especially the value of the cafeteria. If I think back to my own high school experience, I remember my friends more than the classes; I think one is just naturally more intellectually engaged in that process of finding one's place in society than one is in navigating one's way through the classroom.
JM: You write about that in your column today, which is a commentary on the great "Tiger Mother" debate spawned by Amy Chua's book. You say that the cognitive engagement necessary to navigate the lunchroom is far greater than that necessary to sit down for a two-hour piano lesson. Can you talk a little about that—about learning how to navigate the social context, and how that is actually an intellectual activity of a very high order?
DB: More often than not, we just don't think about it, because it comes unconsciously and naturally to us. But the book is called The Social Animal because we are social animals, not rational animals. We are built to connect with each other, and most of what we do inside is about understanding those connections.
Think about a kid going through a cafeteria (I have a scene in the book where Harold does just that). First, there are the jocks, and they have one set of social norms. Can you listen to country music in that clique, or can you not? How many guys can a girl hook up with before she's regarded as sort of sleazy? Then you might go to the nerds, and the theater people, and the hippies, and so on. All these different cliques. If you can mix with each of these groups and sort of understand them, you're far better off than someone who can't move between them. Most of us, when we see a group that's different from our own, immediately tag it as homogeneous. But Harold has a skill that lets him size up a clique; he can see who's the leader, who wants to get out, who the joker is—he can pick up the subtleties quite easily.
In life, that's way more important than academic prowess. If you want to go to a school and figure out who's going to do well in life, ask the kids, "Who in your classroom is friends with whom?" Some people will be able to say, "Well, Mary is friends with Todd, and Todd is friends with Joe." Some people can't do that. The people who are aware of those social networks are going to do fine, because they'll be able to look at the landscape of reality when they're adults and see the shape of it—see where they fit in, what the networks are. The kids who can't do that will have more trouble. The skill itself is not inborn; it's something you develop. You develop it through the practice of social trauma.
Amy Chua, whose book I wrote about today, doesn't let her kids go on sleepovers. But think about being a 14-year-old girl on a sleepover. Teenagers on sleepovers gossip about each other, and spread knowledge about how to behave and how not to behave. They're doing a little backbiting, and it can get a little nasty at times—you've got to learn how to negotiate that. You've got to learn what to wear and what not to wear, what's on-trend, what's behind the trend, who's stealing whose friends. These are all incredibly complicated things. Each of us is amazingly complicated. When you get ten people in a room, that's ten times the complication. Understanding those kinds of complications physically takes up more mental space than learning chess or learning the piano. But again, we're not so aware of it, because we're built naturally to do this. We're not built to read and write.
JM: Early in the book, you talk about the formation of neural networks in the brain. In a way, one might say, everything we know about the world is emergent, based on our neurological processes. When you're physically in the world, walking through that cafeteria as you just described it, you are creating a similar kind of network, a social network that is somehow an analogue of the neural network. And that social world is emergent rather than fixed. I think too often in education we train people for fixed worlds, rather than preparing them for the fluid realities they will in fact face. The fixed world model lacks what you call "epistemological modesty."
JM: Where our hubris is such that we think we can master reality, although we're not even close to doing so.
DB: We're still living with a legacy of the blank slate ideology, which suggests that a kid enters a classroom like an empty vessel, and you just pump information into him like a balloon. But the kid is phenomenally complicated, and comes in with all sorts of preconceptions. He may be feeling alienated or alone. He may be spending the whole time in the classroom thinking about sex. I mean, there are a million different things going on in his mind. As one of the scientists said, when you put a piece of information into the brain, imagine that you're putting it into a blender with the lid off, and it's just getting splattered all over the place. That's a good reminder of how complicated kids are. [LAUGHS]
One of the themes of the book is that we have this very mechanical—even, as you say, reductionist—way of seeing the world, but we are beginning to realize that's wrong, that the world is actually much more fluid. So you have to adjust your thinking for a fluid world that's affected by invisible forces and ideas. And education really has to adjust, because, in some very fundamental ways, we are still stuck with the factory model.
JM: At one point, Ms. Taylor, Harold's high school English teacher, gives him a copy of Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way, with a perfectly drawn bit of teacherly drama. "This will lift you to greatness!" she tells him. The effect on him is quite wonderful, as we've discussed. As an aside, you mention that Harold will later come to recognize that scholars may not think very much of Hamilton's book. But still, the effect it has on shaping his character is enormous. I'm always struck, when I see interviews with writers and thinkers, by the fact that the books that inspired them as kids are more likely to be things like Nancy Drew stories than Pride and Prejudice. We often treat the mind as something that should only be fed perfected material, but this approach probably gets in the way of kids making their own maps of the world, based on whatever turns out to be useful to them.
DB: That's a good point.
JM: You draw it very well. When you have the teacher tell Harold, "You've read these books, now go back and re-read them," you can hear his groan. He thinks, "I've already read them; why do I have to re-read them?" But because they have laid tracks through his mind the first time around, when he makes the return trip he is able to look up and see all kinds of different things, things he never noticed the first time.
DB: That certainly happens with me. You know, we talk about the power of ideas, and we think it must mean only complicated, sophisticated ideas. But sometimes very simple ideas can be powerful. Edith Hamilton didn't have the academic sophistication that some later scholars have—the ability to detail what Aeschylus meant, what Sophocles meant. But she was ambitious, and she drew out broad themes. For people of action, that really matters. For Harold, it matters.
Edith Hamilton's book, by the way, was a huge influence on Robert Kennedy. After John F. Kennedy was killed, Robert Kennedy was handed that book, I think by Jackie, and he carried it around with him for the rest of his life, and he would quote from it. There's a section that says life is about suffering, that we're educated by suffering, and that life is also about combat. A lot of these things rang true to Kennedy's experience. Actually, on the day Martin Luther King was killed, Kennedy gave an impromptu speech quoting from this book—quoting from Aeschylus, actually. It may not represent the best in scholarship, but that doesn't mean it's not a very important book for a lot of people, because it gets at the big themes. Sometimes, when we narrow a field to academic professional scholarship, we get too detailed, too pedantic, and we miss the big passions—which are what most people want out of literature.
JM: There's a terrific passage in which Harold reads Pericles's funeral oration, from Thucydides's Peloponnesian Wars. You write: "Harold was moved and uplifted. It wasn't even so much the substance, but the lofty cadences and the heroic tone. The spirit of the speech entered his mind, and his mood changed."
In my experience, much of learning is driven by sensations like that. There's a kind of ineffable yearning for more—a yearning to be better, to engage higher ideals, whether or not you understand them. In our public life, and in our classrooms, too, there's such an impoverishment of language; people are embarrassed by any suggestion of eloquence. I am glad you struck on the aspirations eloquence can inspire.
DB: There's a phrase by a French writer, Denis de Rougemont, who says, "We take whatever is lower to be more real." For some reason, we assume that something grubby and self-interested must be more authentic than something lofty and admirable. But equally, we have this urge to rise upward and to feel a oneness with great things. So for Harold, that speech—as, for other people, Churchill's speeches do—speaks to something deep inside. There's a poetry that provides a lift. That's in human nature, and we have trouble explaining that through economics or through self-interest. But people do dedicate their lives to that feeling.
I have a word in the book which I have borrowed, and which I try to use to get at what we're talking about. It's called "limerence," and it denotes a feeling that applies in many contexts; it applies when you feel a oneness with another person, or when you feel a oneness with others. I have a quote from the historian William McNeill, about marching in boot camp, and suddenly feeling that he's marching as part of a unit. He feels this incredible sense of elevation.
You also get it historically, whenever you feel a oneness with something that happened centuries ago. You're able to transcend the details of your life and connect with feelings in a human being 500 years ago; 1,000 years ago; 5,000 years ago. Harold gets a sense of that reading the funeral oration, and it sort of changes his life, because he wants to get that sensation again. He becomes a historian to try to get that again.
JM: There's a lack of such lofty cadences—even a disparagement of such eloquence—in much of our public life. It goes beyond the reduction of communication to sound bites. Maybe it's an American thing—the triumph of the Humphrey Bogart school of tough guy reticence. [LAUGHS] It leads, inevitably, to a depletion of public discourse that's deeply troubling. Kids go through much of their lives without ever hearing those lofty cadences.
DB: They're watching Jersey Shore instead.
JM: [LAUGHS] They're being taught by their media-saturated experience that those cadences are something to make fun of, and that the aspirations such lofty language invokes are also suspect. I wonder, in terms of education, what can be done to address that.
DB: I guess I'd say there has to be a reclamation project. Because in the 19th century, these were very much emphasized, and education was basically conducted through McGuffey Readers and other things—exemplars showing excellence to give you models to copy, and words like "truth," "glory," "honor," "courage." I think what happened was that World War I came along and delegitimized a lot of those words. Hemingway has a great passage, I think in A Farewell To Arms (but I'm not sure), where he has been disillusioned. He has seen the carnage of World War I and the lofty rhetoric that glorified it, and he realizes that words like "honor" no longer have any meaning for him. I think Bogart comes out of that mold, that same disillusionment.
But then, the disillusionment has its own problems; it can lead to cynicism and chronic doubt. I think there's a hunger to get over that cynicism, now, and achieve a balance. John F. Kennedy was a response to that hunger, and people did respond to him. Martin Luther King, too. And, I think, Barack Obama. His success in 2008 came because his speeches were very lofty—and unapologetically so. You saw what happened. People really responded to it.
JM: There's a similar "reclamation" impulse, I think, hidden—although not completely invisible—in your book. I kept thinking of Plutarch as I was reading, because the book really presents exemplary lives for readers to draw lessons from—an idea that lives at a great distance in time and substance from our culture today. Because of that, it's a very brave thing you're doing here in this book. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about that.
DB: Well, I think it flows from modesty. We're trained now to think we're the bee's knees, and we're the smartest people ever, and we can see through everybody else. But if you start with the attitude that what you know about the world is limited, and that you're flawed in significant ways, then when you see people do things that are remarkable you're all the more amazed. You realize you have to model your life on them. The way to do that is by inhabiting their world. I describe this concept of mirror neurons, that we have things in our heads that don't just observe other people, but re-enact in our own minds what we see. So if you're around admirable people, you'll behave more admirably. That's the role that mentors play—they're admirable people—and historical figures can play the same role, too. There's a Greek teacher I quote in the book—I think he's anonymous. He says something like, "I'm a teacher. What do I do? I make excellent things admirable to children."
JM: That's wonderful.
DB: That's what Plutarch is all about. He's saying, "This was a great life; be like this." And you can pick among all the models he presents. Now we have debunking books, saying, "You think this life is great, but it's not really great." We've gone to the other extreme. But I think Plutarch had it right.
JM: In the book, you talk about how modern conservatism, or conservatism at least as we know it in today's press, shall we say, is concerned with individual liberties of one sort, and liberalism today is concerned with individual rights of another sort.
JM: But both conservatism and liberalism, at their roots, were profoundly social visions.
JM: Both traditions, then, have lost contact with their origins.
DB: Yes. And I think the research I'm writing about, as it filters out into the culture, will go some way toward reversing that.
We had the '60s, when we had a very social libertarian vision—the belief that you should be able to do whatever you want with your life. Then in the '80s, there was an economically libertarian version: economically, you're a self-made man. But both those beliefs are false. We're deeply connected to each other. We don't create our own lives; our lives are interpenetrated with others. We emerge out of our relationships.
As this research spreads through society, I think we'll get a more communitarian vision, and society will be less about "How do I liberate the individual?" and more about "How do we create an environment where people can develop good relationships?" An environment that's orderly; where people have opportunities to rise; where when there is disorder you create things like early childhood programs to train people to have healthy relationships from an early age—a whole series of programs to create a sense of order and networks. I think we'll have a sort of communitarianism of the Right and a communitarianism of the Left.
The British Conservative Party is actually much more conscious about brain research than we are in the United States. In the U.K., they call the Conservative plan the "Big Society," and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, says: "We used to have economic problems, but now we have social problems, and we shouldn't put economics first—we've got to put sociology first." I think this is just the ebb and flow of politics, though; my book will hopefully move us towards seeing things more as collective problems, more as social problems, and less as problems that can best be solved by the liberation of individuals.
JM: You write interestingly about the British Enlightenment. I suppose many people know Adam Smith for The Wealth of Nations, which is in a sense the sourcebook of capitalism, but his other great work was The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Would you talk a bit about the distinction between the French Enlightenment and the British Enlightenment, and how the interest of the British Enlightenment philosophers in sentiment set the stage for some of the thinking you present in The Social Animal?
DB: We're mostly heirs to the French Enlightenment, which was a celebration of reason. What Descartes tried to do was tear down the prejudices of the Middle Ages and construct a system of truths based on logic. The philosophers of the French Enlightenment said reason needed to tame and control the passions.
The British Enlightenment, led by people like David Hume and Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, argued that reason is simply not that strong—reason can be slave to the passions. So, they said, we have to work on educating the emotions, and if we can educate the emotions, that will make people better.
The other difference is that the French viewed people as individual thinkers. Think of Rodin's sculpture, The Thinker—the guy hunched over with his head on his fist. The British Enlightenment philosophers, like Adam Smith, recognized that we're very social creatures. In that book you just mentioned, Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith actually anticipates mirror neurons. He says something like: "When I see someone get their leg pricked by a pin, I not only observe their pain, I feel their pain. I jerk up, like it's happening to me." He was observing a phenomenon that we now know to be neurologically true; it's how the brain works. He wrote (I'm paraphrasing, of course): "Why are we virtuous? It's because we want to be admired in other people's eyes, and we not only want to be admired in their eyes, but we want to be admired by an impartial observer who would see us honestly." He put sentiments, emotions, and social connections at the core of his thought.
It seems me that the research I write about makes Adam Smith's vision of humanity seem much more accurate than the French Enlightenment vision. But unfortunately, especially in the policy world, we're heirs to the French vision, still trying to reduce everything to a method, thus also reducing human behavior to a science, as if we could create models and then map out how people are going to behave. We do this in economics; we do it in marketing and business; we do it in all sorts of spheres. But it rarely works out well, as the financial crisis, among other things, has demonstrated. We thought, "Oh, we've got this figured out; we've got these sophisticated risk assessment models." But people are very emotional, and they get swept up in emotional contagions, and then—calamity.
JM: We've talked about the high school cafeteria, and much of our public life is like a high school cafeteria now. Because of your position and the platform that you have, and also because of the nature of the ideas you present in The Social Animal and the way you've chosen to present them, it occurs to me that there might be a lot of critics sitting in the cafeteria who will like nothing better than shooting spitballs at you.
DB: [LAUGHS] Well, we'll see. The other thing, by the way, that's going to materialize, is some resentment. I happen to work at the New York Times, a major newspaper. I'm on TV a couple of times a week. I have the platform at Random House. So I get to take work that people have spent years on, and summarize it in about a sentence—and I get broadcast all over the place. That is bound, naturally, to create resentment. When I simplify a lifetime's work in a sentence, I am definitely going to miss some of the nuances that people treasure; they're going to be upset, and I understand that. To counteract their arguments, I try to defer to the scholars, and always give them credit by name, saying, "They're doing this work—it's not me." But nonetheless, I understand the reaction.
JM: Let's point our discussion toward your day job. Near the end of the book, you write: "Whether they mean to or not, legislators encourage certain ways of living and discourage other ways. Statecraft is inevitably soulcraft." As you survey the current political scene, do you see any players who seem to understand this, either consciously or intuitively?
DB: I must say, I don't think they're well-versed in a lot of this stuff. Obama is an exception. In the book, I mention that one of the foundation experiments in the research I survey is the Walter Mischel marshmallow experiment, which is about how kids learn to control their impulses. I was actually at lunch in the White House with Obama, and apropos of nothing (and he obviously hasn't read the book), he started talking about the marshmallow experiment. I was very impressed that he was aware of it, and that he understands its importance—because this particular experiment shows that kids who can control their impulses at age four are going to do better in life. We were talking about education policy, and he was clearly aware of the relevant examples.
But I think most politicians think in terms of appropriations and money—specifically where the money goes—and they're slow to see the relationships. I was at a lunch, hosted by Mayor Bloomberg, with Larry Summers, who then went on to work with Obama. It was about poverty. There were about ten scholars and me around the table. It was all about how you redistribute wealth. That's important, of course, but, to me, it's not the most important thing. I tried to introduce some of the work I deal with in the book into their discussion, but it was a completely different vocabulary. It was frustrating. How do you say to these hard-headed economists, who are talking about money, "We've got to create neighborhoods where kids are enmeshed in relationships"? I always think if you went into a Congressional hearing and used the word "love" they'd say, "Who the hell are you? What kind of mushhead are you?" When you try (and I've tried), they sort of nod their heads patronizingly, and then they want to get back to talking about their defense budgets.
JM: On the education front, at least, it seems to me that some of the charter schools are taking a more comprehensive approach to kids' lives—you describe this in the book. Much of the federal and state policy seems to be, "Let's get these test scores up," or "Let's evaluate teachers on how those test scores are doing," but as you say, kids learn the most from teachers they love, whatever the test scores may be. It seems like we've taken a business model, and we've made test scores the stock price; we've decided, against the evidence, that as long as we drive that up, we're going to be OK. But if some investors buy a company that makes beautiful chairs, and say, "We can make the operation bigger, and more efficient, and cut waste," they may well drive up the stock price and get a very positive economic return—but you may not get better chairs. When you deal with kids, you have to remember how complicated and malleable and, frankly, impossible to measure the end product is.
DB: That's right. One of the themes of our conversation is that there's a giant cultural bias in favor of reason and the conscious mind; many people try to ignore everything else. I think we need the tests, because kids do have to know how to read and write and do math. But when that becomes all there is—and when you squeeze out art, music, recess—you're actually squeezing out stuff that, at the end of the day, is more important than all the rest of it. I think we've gone a little hog-wild with the tests and with the uniformity—because another thing that comes along with the tests is the desire to tell each teacher how to do his or her job, which leads inevitably to the depersonalization of education. To me, that's a terrible mistake. You'll just get a bunch of bored kids, and bored kids will not be better students, even on those tests.
JM: You write at one point, "You are the spiritual entity that emerges out of the material networks in your head." This is after a very lucid and eloquent description of what goes on with neural networking. As I read that passage, I was thinking of Proust, when he takes his cookie and his cup of tea, and then maps his own spiritual being from these material things.
That leads me to two questions. First, how comfortable are you using scientific research to arrive at a "spiritual" conclusion?
Second, it seems to me that much of what we're now learning or "proving" in the research you treat in the book was actually discovered—at least in the past, if not now—by people when they read novels. It's why readers delved into Stendhal and Balzac and Edith Wharton. Stories would convey some of the lessons you deliver in The Social Animal with no "scientific" basis whatsoever. You could probably illustrate the neurological development of people, and their neural networking, with scenes from Dickens or George Eliot. Am I off-base here?
DB: I'll start with your first question. There was an experiment done years ago tracking the IQ of a group of mentally disabled children living in an orphanage. Some were adopted, and they ended up having IQ scores 50 points higher than the ones who were not adopted. The eventual disparity in scores didn't come about because their adoptive mothers had tutored them, because the moms themselves were mentally disabled; the mothers had just loved the children. The truth of this has been demonstrated in rat experiments, too—that somehow love creates more connections in the brain. An emotion creates a material change—and, of course, every day you have the material in the brain creating emotions. In fact, this leap from the material to the emotional is the ultimate problem of brain science. It's a problem of consciousness—how do you get consciousness out of matter? We have no idea how that works. I don't even think we're close. I don't really write too much about God, but if there is a God, I think his divine creativity lies in taking matter and creating emotion out of it. That is just an inherently spiritual thing, and we know it's going on; we just have no idea how it happens.
JM: Nicely said.
DB: Thanks. To address your second point: my view is that neuroscience doesn't give you new philosophies; it just reminds you who was right and who was wrong. I think that Adam Smith was right and Descartes was wrong.
Scientists are pretty literate, and it's interesting to see that they gravitate towards certain novelists. They love Proust, for obvious reasons: because he deals in memory and the fluidity of memory, and we know from countless researchers that when we remember something it's not like we're picking up information from a disk: we're reweaving it and recreating it. They also love George Eliot. Somewhere, Eliot wrote something like this: "Imagine you're playing chess, but each individual chess piece is making its own moves, and you can barely control any of them—that's what life is like." Scientists like that a lot. They like Jane Austen and Henry James—and especially his brother, William James. A lot of them are very good at going back to the literature and saying, "See, they're describing this behavior; now we have some clue of where it originated."
JM: It seems as if scientists, at least those working in this field, are drawn particularly to social novelists—writers who are creating the contexts in which all these connections can be made.
JM: There's a wonderful book—I don't know if you know it—by a woman named Shirley Letwin.
DB: I know her work as a political theorist.
JM: She wrote a book called The Gentleman in Trollope, which is very similar in spirit to what you're doing in The Social Animal. She takes the world of Trollope and deals with the idea of the "gentleman," by which she really means people like those you've named Harold and Erica. But instead of using scientific evidence to explore realms of conduct and self-realization, she uses scenes from Trollope's novels. You don't have to know or even have read Trollope to get what she's doing.
DB: I love Trollope, and I like Letwin. But I didn't know about that book.
JM: I'll send you a copy, because it's hard to find (I have a stash in my basement). [LAUGHS] I think you'd be quite taken with it.
DB: I wrote the introduction to a Random House edition of The Way We Live Now.
One of the frustrations I encountered while writing this book came from the knowledge that, back then, they had a concept of a "gentleman"—a concept of how one should behave. I couldn't find a contemporary word for the same sort of thing. How do we describe a person that we think is admirable? We don't have an exact word, and without the word, we don't have a code; we don't have a way of being. Trollope had that. I do love Trollope's novels, but I must say, it bugs me that he himself was so mechanical. He would write something like 3,500 words a day, and if he finished a novel in the middle of the 3,500, he'd just start another one, because he had to get his 3,500 words. He just seems like a robot. But, at the same time, the worlds he creates are very complicated and rich and imaginative.
JM: You must read a lot. In the book, you reference volumes from Aeschylus to Lydia Davis.
DB: I do. I went to the University of Chicago, and they taught us to read a lot; my parents were professors, so I read a lot even before college. With this subject, I just became inflamed with curiosity, so I wanted to read everything I could. Then I would call the authors, because I was just so curious about what they were finding. Many of the people who publish on this subject are very good writers. Antonio Damasio writes beautifully. I did wonder, at certain points, whether I was simply being seduced by the ones who happened to write well. I had to be a little cautious of that. But this is a subject that's about us—it's about who we are—so it's always interesting.
--January 18, 2011
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