Thursday, January 13, 2011

David Brooks - Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life

New York Times editorialist David Brooks has an article in the current issue of The New Yorker. He is waxing optimistic about how geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and others are beginning to better understand the human mind, and offering:
a better grasp of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, predispositions, character traits, and social bonding, precisely those things about which our culture has least to say. Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.
Brooks has been writing about these topics off an on over the years - he has even interviewed Antonio Damasio (and others, I assume) about the ways neuroscience can enlighten our understanding of human beings.

It's a long article, so here is a lengthy taste.

Social Animal

How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life.

by David Brooks January 17, 2011

Researchers have made strides in understanding the human mind, filling the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.

Researchers have made strides in understanding the human mind, filling the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.

* * * * *

We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness. Over the past few decades, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and others have made great strides in understanding the inner working of the human mind. Far from being dryly materialistic, their work illuminates the rich underwater world where character is formed and wisdom grows. They are giving us a better grasp of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, predispositions, character traits, and social bonding, precisely those things about which our culture has least to say. Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.

A core finding of this work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. The conscious mind gives us one way of making sense of our environment. But the unconscious mind gives us other, more supple ways. The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years provides a different perspective on our lives, one that emphasizes the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over abstract logic, perceptiveness over I.Q. It allows us to tell a different sort of success story, an inner story to go along with the conventional surface one.

To give a sense of how this inner story goes, let’s consider a young member of the Composure Class, though of course the lessons apply to members of all classes. I’ll call him Harold. His inner-mind training began before birth. Even when he was in the womb, Harold was listening for his mother’s voice, and being molded by it. French babies cry differently from babies who’ve heard German in the womb, because they’ve absorbed French intonations before birth. Fetuses who have been read “The Cat in the Hat” while in the womb suck rhythmically when they hear it again after birth, because they recognize the rhythm of the poetry.

As a newborn, Harold, like all babies, was connecting with his mother. He gazed at her. He mimicked. His brain was wired by her love (the more a rat pup is licked and groomed by its mother, the more synaptic connections it has). Harold’s mother, in return, read his moods. A conversation developed between them, based on touch, gaze, smell, rhythm, and imitation. When Harold was about eleven months old, his mother realized that she knew him better than she’d ever known anybody, even though they’d never exchanged a word.

Harold soon developed models in his head of how to communicate with people and how to use others as tools for his own learning. Thanks to his mom’s attunement, he became confident that if he sent a signal it would be received. Later in life, his sense of security enabled him to go out and explore the world. Researchers at the University of Minnesota can look at attachment patterns of children at forty-two months, and predict with seventy-seven-per-cent accuracy who will graduate from high school. People who were securely attached as infants tend to have more friends at school and at summer camp. They tend to be more truthful through life, feeling less need to puff themselves up in others’ eyes. According to work by Pascal Vrticka, of the University of Geneva, people with what scientists call “avoidant attachment patterns” show less activation in the reward areas of the brain during social interaction. Men who had unhappy childhoods are three times as likely to be solitary at age seventy. Early experiences don’t determine a life, but they set pathways, which can be changed or reinforced by later experiences.

For several months when he was four, Harold insisted that he was a tiger who had been born on the sun. His parents tried to get him to concede that he was a little boy born in a hospital, but he would become grave and refuse. This formulation, “I’m a tiger,” may seem like an easy thing, but no computer could blend the complicated concept “I” with the complicated concept “tiger” into a single entity. As Harold grew, he was able to use his imagination to blend disparate ideas, in the same sort of way that Picasso, at the height of his creative powers, could combine the concept “Western portraiture” with the concept “African masks.”

Throughout his life, Harold had a superior ability to feel what others were feeling. He didn’t dazzle his teachers with academic brilliance, but, even in kindergarten, he could tell you who in his class was friends with whom; he was aware of social networks. Scientists used to think that we understand each other by observing each other and building hypotheses from the accumulated data. Now it seems more likely that we are, essentially, method actors who understand others by simulating the responses we see in them. When Harold was in high school, he could walk around the cafeteria and fall in with the unique social patterns that prevailed in each clique. He could tell which clique tolerated drug use or country-music listening and which didn’t. He could tell how many guys a girl could hook up with and not be stigmatized. In some groups, the number was three; in others seven. Most people assume that the groups they don’t belong to are more homogeneous than the groups they do belong to. Harold could see groups from the inside. When he sat down with, say, the Model U.N. kids, he could guess which one of them wanted to migrate from the Geeks and join the Honors/Athletes. He could sense who was the leader of any group, who was the jester, who played the role of peacemaker, daredevil, organizer, or self-effacing audience member.

One of Harold’s key skills in school was his ability to bond with teachers. We’ve spent a generation trying to reorganize schools to make them better, but the truth is that people learn from the people they love. In eleventh grade, Harold developed a crush on his history teacher, Ms. Taylor. What mattered most was not the substance of the course so much as the way she thought, the style of learning she fostered. For instance, Ms. Taylor constantly told the class how little she knew. Human beings are overconfidence machines. Paul J. H. Schoemaker and J. Edward Russo gave questionnaires to more than two thousand executives in order to measure how much they knew about their industries. Managers in the advertising industry gave answers that they were ninety-per-cent confident were correct. In fact, their answers were wrong sixty-one per cent of the time. People in the computer industry gave answers they thought had a ninety-five per cent chance of being right; in fact, eighty per cent of them were wrong. Ninety-nine per cent of the respondents overestimated their success.

Ms. Taylor was always reminding the class of how limited her grasp of any situation was. “Sorry, I get distracted easily,” she’d say, or, “Sorry, sometimes I jump to conclusions too quickly.” In this way, she communicated the distinction between mental strength (the processing power of the brain) and mental character (the mental virtues that lead to practical wisdom). She stressed the importance of collecting conflicting information before making up one’s mind, of calibrating one’s certainty level to the strength of the evidence, of enduring uncertainty for long stretches as an answer became clear, of correcting for one’s biases. As Keith E. Stanovich, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, writes in his book “What Intelligence Tests Miss” (2009), these “thinking dispositions” correlate weakly or not at all with I.Q. But, because Ms. Taylor put such emphasis on these virtues and because Harold admired her so much, he absorbed and copied her way of being.

By the time Harold was in his mid-twenties, he was well on his way toward a happy and fulfilling life, and the building blocks of his happiness had little to do with the lines on his résumé. There’s a debate in our culture about what really makes us happy, which is summarized by, on the one hand, the book “On the Road” and, on the other, the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The former celebrates the life of freedom and adventure. The latter celebrates roots and connections. Research over the past thirty years makes it clear that what the inner mind really wants is connection. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was right. Joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income. According to research by Daniel Kahneman, Alan B. Krueger, and others, the daily activities most closely associated with happiness are social—having sex, socializing after work, and having dinner with friends. Many of the professions that correlate most closely with happiness are also social—a corporate manager, a hairdresser.

Young American men are not exactly famous for being in touch with their emotions. But Harold sensed that he was a social animal, not a laboring animal or a rational animal, and one day he went on a blind date with the woman—let’s call her Erica—who would someday be his wife. Given the stakes, we might pause over this incident, to show in slightly more detail how the inner processes of the mind interact with the conscious ones.

Read the whole article.

No comments: