Sunday, August 14, 2011

Social Science and Neuroscience studies: Guideposts for our times

Personal reaction to David Brooks’ The Social Animal  The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement

Perhaps David Brooks has read too many books. He’s looked at too many studies –  in psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics and neuroscience  – and they have changed the way he thinks. They have helped shape his world view, contributed to who he is.
 He is, among other things, a reader, writer, thinker, current columnist for the New York Times, commentator for NPR and author.  In “The Social Animal, The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement,” he has weighed those studies, considering how the unconscious and social connections contribute to a successful life.  It’s a dazzling achievement, but I wonder how he lives with so many details, definitions and distinctions.

Loosely modeled on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile: An Education, in which Rousseau (author of The Social Contract) creates a tutor and student to illustrate his philosophy of education, Brooks’ creates Harold and Erica to illustrate a social science/neuroscience based version of two successful lives in the early 21st century. Along with the narratives of their paths, he weaves the studies. Here’s how he describes it:
“I use these characters to show how life actually develops. The story takes place perpetually in the current moment, the early twenty-first century, because I want to describe different features of the way we live now… . I use them to describe how genes shape our lives, how brain chemistry works in particular cases, how family structure and cultural patterns can influence development in specific terms.”
Brooks’ use  of the perpetual present means that though Harold and Erica age, time doesn’t pass, a weird device that takes some getting used to.
The plot
The narrative begins before Harold is a twinkle in his father’s  eye.  We see how his parents-to-be make decisions in choosing a mate, then how they meld their lives to co-exist compatibly.  Little Harold learns  and bonds -- and before we know it he’s in elementary school, creating  excuses to avoid homework and dragging a backpack  full of what contemporary little boys are made of.  While Harold is making the social rounds in his high school cafeteria and falling in love with his English teacher and the books she recommends, Erica, a Chinese-Chicana, raised by primarily by her mother, is demanding to improve her opportunities by opting out of the public school she is originally enrolled in and getting into a highly structured academy. The ever- ambitious Erica takes both pre-MBA and social science classes in college, making her a great catch for employers. Meanwhile Harold, a child of privilege, explores freedom and a group of friends in his Odyssey years. Erica is quickly hired at a consulting firm where intelligence is overrated, and Erika’s specialty culture, is underrated.  After a few years it’s time to go. Erica, the risk-taker, takes what she’s learned and starts her own firm. When she needs help, she hires Harold, her complement in skills and soon her partner in life. The business grows and then, like so many today, folds. Erica moves on to work for a cable company, while Harold finds work and pleasure as a curator and later a writer of history books.  The cable company also has its problems and Erica and a colleague lead an insurgency to cure it of its ills. She goes on to replace the CEO and life grows stable for Harold and Erica until each has a midlife crisis. Characteristically, he the  thinker/introvert,  turns inward and drinks, she,  the doer/extravert,  outward –  for a fling. Each finds a way to survive crisis.  Erica is brought in to work on the campaign of a candidate for president. She serves as deputy chief of staff when he is elected.  Harold takes a position as a research fellow at a public policy institute. They flourish in semi-retirement and succumb in old age.
The studies
Although the studies Brooks cites along the way are not prescriptive, some provide us with guidance. Others are interestingly odd examples of research. There are 25 pages of endnotes.
Some things we learn:
·        “Each inch of height corresponds to $6,000 of annual salary in contemporary America.”
·        “Women are attracted to men whose human leukocyte antigen code of their DNA are most different from their own.”
·        “Studies in strip clubs have found that dancers’ tips plunge 45 percent while they are menstruating, though the explanation for the drop is not clear.”
·        “French babies cry differently than babies who have heard German in the womb because they’ve absorbed the French lilt of their mother’s voices.”
·        “The activity of blending neural patterns is called imagination.”
·        “Oxytocin is the affiliative neuropeptide.”
·        “There is only a tenuous correlation between how much homework elementary students do and how well they do on tests of the material or other measures of achievement.”
·        “When shopping for clothes, middle aged people generally choose clothes that are too tight on the grounds that they’re about to lose a few pounds, even though the vast majority of people their age bracket get wider by each year.”
·        “Consumers frequently believe products placed on the right side of a display are of higher quality that those on the left.”
·        “At restaurants, people eat more depending on how many people they are dining with."
·        “Voters who went to polling stations in schools are more likely to support tax increases to fund education than voters who went to other polling stations.”

Some terms he explains:
Synaptogenisis; Mirror neurons;  gists;  blends;  paradigmatic  vs. narrative mode; strange situation test;  securely attached vs. avoidantly attached;  four steps of learning: Knowledge acquisition, automaticity, encoding, insight;  reductive reasoning; dynamic complexity; emergent systems;  Clocks vs. clouds, choice architecture,  neuromapping;  heuristics; vocabulary to define unconscious biases: priming, anchoring, framing, arousal;  status sonar; French Enlightenment vs. English Enlightenment; Keats’ negative capability; passionate love vs. companionate love.
For me the two most key and stunning ideas are given chapters all their own: limerence and métis.
Chapter 13 which also cites both Shakespeare and Mathew Arnold --  (thank you  for a little relief from social science) defines limerence as  a kind of harmony. “When we grasp some situation, or master some task, there’s a surge of pleasure. It’s not living in perpetual harmony that produces the surge. … It’s the moment when some tension is erased. So a happy life has its recurring set of rhythms; difficulty to harmony, difficulty to harmony. And it is all propelled by the desire for limerence, the desire for the moment when the inner and outer patterns mesh.”
Chapter 15 further defines and distinguishes between Level 1 cognition, the unconscious, and Level 2 cognition, the conscious.  Brooks describes métis as a kind of wisdom achieved after long experience wandering uncertain in a field or  area of expertise gathering insights until “a moment of calm, and disparate observations integrate into a coherent whole. The wanderer can begin to predict how people will finish their sentences. He now possesses maps in his mind. The contours of his brainscape harmonize with the contours of reality in this new place… this is a state  of wisdom that emerges from the conversation between Level 1 and Level 2.”
The form
Fortunately Brooks is too good a writer to deliver all these definitions and distinctions in dry prose.    Always clear, often clever, sometimes funny, he writes with métis, actively engaging both his unconscious and conscious. If the conscious as Brooks suggests, is a general who “deals with data and speaks in prose” and the unconscious are scouts who “crystallize with emotion and their work is best expressed in stories, poetry, music, image, prayer, and myth” the form he has chosen – this odd mélange of narrative, social science and philosophy models his point; method mirrors message.  But just what form is this?
Not really a novel.  A fable?  Sort of.  Allegory ? Sometimes it has the feel of two pilgrims’ progress slogging through the morass of modern life, replacing Bunyan’s religious morality and Rousseau’s Enlightenment  philosophy with the guideposts of contemporary research – the signs of our time.
What’s problematic for me is that science and social science are based on reason, reason on the workings of the conscious mind – level 2, and from the evidence in this book  -- all these studies -- we are living in very level 2 dominant times. We need level 2 (conscious) to get at level 1 (unconscious). Isn’t this a rather indirect route? The general is doing the scouting because he’s discovered the scouts have been calling the shots all along. Is this why our world feels so upside down?
(A chapter on “The Other Education” includes four pages directed to mindfulness and several more to Erica’s belated devotion to exercise, literature, music and art.)
The characters
At first Harold and Erica appear as caricatures, as if they are only occasions for commentary, their lives mere representations of life stories.  Still it’s clear they are not intended to be Everyman (or woman) like John Bunyan’s protagonist, just types we recognize.
There are many such types in this book as Brooks’ unconscious excels at generalizations and caricatures; he comically skewers many we know.
There is the Composure Class. Its handsome and beautiful members lunch at Aspen or Jackson Hole.  “Wealth had settled down upon them gradually like a gentle snow.”  As members of this class, Mr. Casual Elegance marries Ms. Sculpted Beauty.  There is Ms. Taylor, the artsy English teacher, who listens to Feist, Yael Naim and Arcade Fire, reads Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen, drinks diet cokes and uses lots of hand sanitizer.
There is the overconfident CEO who tells Erica that coming to work each day is  a pleasure like in “The Best and the Brightest” (without the Vietnam parts). There is Mr. Make-Believe, Erica’s paramour,  a  business man who operates on world-historical scale, “a perfect master-of-the universe, graying- at-the temples, polo-playing, charity-hosting, six-foot-one inch executive.”  And finally there are the Immortals, guys who “go on a fitness jihad in retirement.”  “You would be huffing and puffing on the mountainside, and this superbuff  Spandex senior would whiz by like a little iron Raisinette.”
But something more happens to Harold and Erica over the course of their stories. While they never become full-fledged three-dimensional fictional characters that we follow avidly at every turn,  they do manage to endear themselves to me. Like real people, they grow on us as we get to know them.  Harold finds his place in the world from reading and writing, from rubbing elbows with movers and shakers and sharing a life with a dear one. His place is a stance, a way to look at the world that he finds only a few agree with.  There was however, “a New York Times columnist whose views were remarkably similar to his own.” Harold’s sweetest moment is when he reflects that the happiest moment in his life was one he didn’t witness: a moment of pride and reward he’s heard his wife recall from when she was young.
I like these people.  And I like and admire Brooks too. He is blessed to have both a cohesive world view and the eloquence to express it.
Fluid and fuzzy
But I don’t quite trust this view as a way for me live in the world. If one’s personal métis could be a set point like a natural weight or temperature, my métis set point is considerably closer to favoring the unconscious – the fluid, fuzzy thinking he describes so well, rather than rational, data-driven thinking he is drawn to.
The English major in me rebels. Lonelier still, I often feel like a word person lost in a numbers world.  I too have read some books and studies, but my reading swerves from popular neuroscience and mental health to mysteries, novels, plays, poems and myths. I also need time getting out of my head and into my body – swimming, walking, practicing yoga.
I worry a little about what  all the dissecting, classifying, labeling and applying of the scientific method  does to the modern mind  in much the same way my husband worries about how my current  television viewing habits ----NCIS, Bones, Criminal Minds – shape mine. (Body parts laid out on autopsy tables gross him out. Yuck.)
 I am right to do so according to Brooks:
A brain is the record of a life. The networks of neural connections are the physical manifestation of your habits, personality, and predilections. You are the spiritual entity that emerges out of the material networks in your head.
 I take it a step further. I believe I am more than what’s in my head, though it’s one place to start. The brain does not work alone.  It’s part of the body. But that’s another story – and many more studies, many more books.

1 comment:

  1. Barbara, this reflects you at every turn. I love the way you can present a work clearly while at the same time wonder about it as you write. This is what I admired so from the TR theater reviews. Your work always digs a little deeper, explores a little more carefully, and is so beautifully written. Keep up this marvelous blog. What's next???? xo