“We have become accustomed to acertain constricted way of describing our lives,” writes David Brooks inthe introduction to his new book, TheSocial Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Followingthe course of two invented lives from infancy to old age, the author, widelyknown for his thoughtful commentaries on the political and cultural scene inhis New York Times column and on hisregular appearances on public radio and television, seeks to break thatstraitened habit of description, mining rich veins of neurological andpsychological research—as well as literary intelligence from Aeschylus to LydiaDavis—to expand, and at times surprise, our understanding of why we behave theway we do.
The book’s ambitious compass provides a sweepingperspective on learning, social dynamics, interpersonal relationships, thepursuit of accomplishment, the struggle for moral poise, and, not least, thesearch for love and meaning. In the foreground about recent advances in brainscience, in the background Brooks’s new volume is about the same large themesthinkers have been pondering since antiquity. And, just as it is surely aboutthe person writing it, no one who samples even a chapter will have any doubt thatit is very much about the person reading it as well.
In January I sat down with David Brooks for aspirited conversation about The SocialAnimal and the themes it explores. What follows is an edited transcript ofour conversation. —James Mustich
JamesMustich: You’ve writtena very curious book, in both senses of that word. You’re clearly curious aboutrecent neurological insights, and also, somewhat more expectedly, in what thoseinsights add to our thinking about civil society. Which leads, of course, tothe other meaning of “curious”: TheSocial Animal is an odd hybrid. How did it take shape?
DavidBrooks: I was sort ofdragged into the subject by my day job, covering politics and policy. In thecourse of my career, there have been a number of times when policymakers in my world have just gothuman nature wrong. The first time it involved Russia; I covered the fall ofthe Soviet Union. We sent in a bunch of economists, and what we didn’tunderstand was that in Russia they didn’t have any social trust. We missed thefact that neighbors there didn’t trust one another, which meant that as soon asthe Soviet Union collapsed, everyone was going to try to steal everything—whichis what happened.
Then Iraq came along. We didn’tunderstand Iraqi culture, or the relationships between Iraqis. We thought if wesent in an army and changed the rulers, we could change the society. Incrediblynaive.
The biggest thing, though, was educationpolicy. I’ve been covering education policy since 1983. We’ve tried everybureaucratic reform imaginable—big schools, little schools, school choice,vouchers—and none of them has had a big effect. There, again, we got humannature wrong, because what matters in education is the love between anindividual teacher and an individual student.
In my world, we’re really good at talkingabout money and really bad at talking about emotions and relationships. So Imade a conscious decision to start trying to understand why so many kids dropout of high school when all the rational incentives go the other way. That ledme into a consideration of the early childhood period, when a lot of these sortof perceptions are formed; that, in turn, led me into brain research. Once Igot into that field, I saw a revolution going on—one that is shaping a deeperview of human nature. And I thought, “This is where the action is; it’sgiving me a different way to see myself, my life, and how people achieve. Iwant to write about this stuff, because it influences everything else.”
JM: There’s a wonderful chapter in the bookin which Harold—one of the two protagonists whose lives you trace fromchildhood to old age—is in high school, trying to write a paper on ancientGreece. You describe a young man being exposed to the culture ofantiquity—reading several books, then re-reading the books, his head swimmingwith stimulating notions—and trying to recognize in all the ideas thusgenerated something that resonated with his own sensibility. Reading this, Icouldn’t help but wonder whether that was an apt description of your ownprocess in writing this book. Was your head swimming in the deep waters ofneurological discovery, looking for an intellectual purchase that would allowyou to articulate what it might suggest about how we live our lives? And ifthat’s true, how did you finally find that purchase?
DB:Oh, that is definitelytrue. There’s a great social science experiment I mention in the book, in whicha bunch of chess grandmasters are presented with a chessboard, and given a5-second glimpse of the board; these men and women can remember the whole boardfrom that 5-second glimpse. But then they’re given a chessboard where thepieces are not arranged in any way that could happen in a chess match, andtheir memories are no better than anybody else’s. What you learn from thisexperiment is that you have to master a field; then you begin to see itdifferently, you can remember it more powerfully.
One of the things that happens in theHarold chapter you mention is that the character goes through the process of learning. It’s a multi-stageprocess; first he masters the material—he goes through a phase of just readingand mastering the facts. But that is not enough in itself, because while you’reconsciously mastering the facts, your brain is unconsciously makingconnections. So Harold also goes through a process of journal-writing—trying toloosen up his thinking and make connections. Then there’s another step, anotherprocess, really: revising. When you read something a second time, you see itwith fresh eyes. Finally, there’s the last stage: the process of writing thispaper, of trying to make everything coherent, to give it all a point. That, ofcourse, is something we all face in many different contexts, trying to work outfor ourselves what everything means, and how it all fits together.
One thing we learn from all this is thatit’s important to take a lot of showers. [LAUGHS] Showers relax you, andinsights come. It’s also important to sleep a lot; while you’re sleeping, yourmind 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 knewthe core point. You just have to labor through it.
The other challenge for me was decidinghow to structure the story.
JM:Yes. The book has a veryinteresting structure: it essentially takes two characters (Harold and hisfuture wife, Erica) and follows them through their lives—Harold from birth(from conception, actually) and Erica from childhood. How did you hit upon thisorganizing principle? And did you do so with any trepidation? Because it’s aninteresting experiment; it’s not fiction, really, but shaping your narrative tofit these invented life cycles does give you a specific context in which allthe information you want to talk about fits together, in a way it wouldn’totherwise.
DB:I did choose this routewith 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 toldas a novel, and it made a big impression; the protagonist was a woman travelingthrough New York, and her touring provided the narrative structure. There isone scene in particular that struck me, in which the woman is walking downColumbus Avenue and sees a cop speaking to a guy with a beer in his hand. Thecop 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 thoughtthat was a very effective way to tell the story—through a narrative lens—so Iused this technique myself. First of all because I think it’s just more fun toread, but second because it allowed me to show the real-life implications ofthe 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. Youcan show how the brain stuff interacts with the human stuff in real time—howpeople actually make decisions.
In the first draft of the book, thecharacters were very much stick figures, because I didn’t want to try to be anovelist. But as I showed the manuscript to people, at each step they alwayswanted to know more about the characters—so I added more. Our minds thinknaturally about stories and characters; in response to the reader feedback Icreated slightly richer characters, whom—I hope—it’s easier to care about.
JM:The reader does end upcaring about them, and that’s important. But the structure also gives you theopportunity 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 notsit so easily next to some of the earlier matter, such as your discussion ofthe developing brain.
JM:You also made anotherinteresting decision in choosing to make every moment now.
JM:So that even thoughHarold and Erica live long lives, each stage—childhood, mid-life, old age—ispresented as if contemporary to us today. It doesn’t seem like much until youponder it, then you realize how much thought must have gone into this choice.
DB:This was something elseI struggled with. Part of the book is a social comedy of manners. So I wantedto describe what it’s like to be in Aspen, Colorado, with the rich old guys whodecide not to die, and pop Cialis like breath mints. I wanted to make fun ofthat. I wanted to show how politics really is right now—to discuss thecharacters that I actually cover in my day job. And, in the education sphere, Iwanted to show how KIPP academies and other charter schools operate today.
I also wanted to show what a collegestudent 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 societywe live in. I don’t think it’s too jarring.
JM:No, it’s prettyseamless—until, as I say, you really start to think about it. It also makes thethread of commentary and observation more persuasive, because the events beingdiscussed are so clearly contemporary. It works very well.
DB:It also just makes thejokes better. There’s a line in the first chapter, where a woman doesn’t wantto marry a guy who wears sports jewelry because she doesn’t want her husband tolove Derek Jeter more than he loves her. That only works if the narrative iscontemporary. It doesn’t work if she doesn’t want him to love Joe DiMaggio, forinstance.
JM:The way you’ve told thestory also allows you to avoid being reductive in sharing the brain science youdiscuss. That, in fact, is one of the themes—a kind of anti-reductionism. Yousay, in the book, that the problem with reductionism, which has really been thedominant mode of thought for much of the last century, is that it has troubleexpressing dynamic complexity—which is the essential feature of a culture, or asociety. Or a human being, for that matter. The way you’ve told the story letsyou take all these atoms of information and tie them together in a way thatprovides a satisfying reading experience, but also helps you shape a largermessage.
DB: Sometimes with the brain research, youcan 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 chemistrycontrolling us. But that’s not quite right; we do have a significant amount ofcontrol. 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’snot very accurate. The idea of a coffee cup, for instance, does not exist onlyin one part of the brain. It emerges out of a network of neural firings. Thesame thing is true of a culture: there’s no one person who exemplifies Americanculture, for instance, but there’s a set of arrangements that, together, mergeto create it.
This also applies, by the way, topoverty—which I also treat in the book. We all know elements of poverty. Obviously, there’s unemployment, but there’salso social breakdown, there’s family breakdown. But what creates poverty orthe 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 youhave to understand the relationships. This research helps you see things, notin a linear, reductionist way, but in what’s called an “emergent”way. It’s just a more realistic way of seeing the world. Sometimes—especiallywhen policy makers are in problem-solving mode—we view life as if it can be operated by asystem of levers; if we push button A, lever B will go. But life isn’t likethat. 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 aboutHarold in high school writing his paper on ancient Greece, there’s a passage whichstruck me as kind of a turning point—in Harold’s life, clearly, but also in thebook. Partly because of his age, you stop focusing so much on neurologicaldevelopment and so on, and move more into the social world—as happens in highschool, of course.
JM:You write, “In themodern world in which he lived, the common assumption is that all human beingsare attached at the earliest and lowest level. All human beings are descendedfrom common ancestors and share certain primitive traits. But the Greeks tendedto 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 ofthe eternal excellence, the closer one is to this common humanity.”
There is something very telling aboutthat; it reminds us why the case of this one kid, and the way his braindeveloped, has implications for the rest of us. But at the same time, thecentral force behind it—the concept of “the common humanity”—is notsomething that has much political or cultural traction these days.
DB:Throughout the book, Ikept running into the problem that we don’t have all the words we need. We havegood words for logic and reason, but if you think about the opposite, we onlyhave words like “sentiments,” and that word has a slightly negativeconnotation. We don’t have a good word for intelligent emotions. We also don’thave a good word for something that motivates us deeply. Say a kid grows updreaming of hitting a home run to win the World Series; or that when he’s inhigh school, he dreams about his football team winning a championship. What ishe 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 aword for it, and the word was thumos.It means a desire for glory—and the desire to be worthy of glory. The foundersof the United States were aware of that vocabulary, and thought that it denotedthe noble sort of ambition, not the mean sort of ambition. They had words forit.
Research is not only about neurons andsynapses; it’s about all the ideas that occupy our brain and shape how we seethe world. Right now we have an impoverished set of social vocabularies, andthat leads us to see the world in an impoverished way. But if you go backthrough history—which Harold does repeatedly in the book—you can borrow othervocabularies, which might provide you with a more uplifted way to see theworld. The Greeks, as I suggest, had a way of looking at the world that wasvery 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 goodantidote to a lot of our culture, and even to a lot of this research, becausemuch of it is evolutionary. There are certainly powerful evolutionary forces atwork in our lives, but it demeans everything to look at things strictly in thatway. 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 inNew York City. The desire to pass along genes doesn’t explain the ChryslerBuilding or the Metropolitan Museum of Art; there are other things going on. Soin that chapter, Harold discovers the higher realms, and imagines trying tolive by them.
JM:Did your researchultimately confirm the view of civil society you had had before? Did it amplifyit, 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 isfar more complicated than we can know. For example, when you see a picture on awall, you think you’re seeing the color straight, whereas your mind is doingincredibly complicated somersaults to give you the illusion that you’re seeinga color.
You know, I’m a typical middle-agedAmerican guy, and I’m not that comfortable talking about emotion. When you getinto the research work the book covers, you see the importance of emotion andpassion; it forces you to become conversant with what’s going on inside. Sonow, after the years of writing this book, I think I see the world moreemotionally, and I think I’ve become more emotional myself, and much better atexpressing emotion—or, at least, understanding other people’s emotions—than Iwas before. That’s been a huge change.
As has seeing the world from a deeperperspective, not just the perspective of economics but also the perspective ofpsychology, what’s going on in people’s heads. That has changed my view ofeverything: 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 affectthe way you understand them? And what about your marriage? Was working on thisbook a rich experience in terms of those relationships?
DB:It absolutely was. Ihave one kid who’s 19, one who’s 16, and one who’s almost 12, and I must saythat writing this book made me much more relaxed about the grades and thecollege thing. [LAUGHS] You begin to realize that the things that are trulygoing to determine whether or not your children will lead good lives havenothing to do with grades or SAT scores, but involve how deeply they understandfriendships and social networks. That’s really what’s going to matter. All thehyper stuff about getting into this college or that college becomes less andless important. My wife may dispute this, but I think I’ve become a betterhusband and father, because I’ve been thinking about these things so much.
JM:To stick with educationfor a moment: what did you learn about learning in writing this book? And whatdoes 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 learnin the classroom is important, the most important thing you learn is how tothink. One thing we do unconsciously, and constantly, is to mimic eachother—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 reallyadmire, you’ll also learn to think the way he or she thinks. In the book, forexample, there’s a character, when Erica goes into the business world, who isvery modest about himself.
DB:Yes. And Erica learns tothink the way he thinks. It’s often not the substance, but the mode of being inthe world, that matters a great deal.
Another thing to consider is that we havea very socially divided society. The society that an affluent kid experiencesis likely to be very different from that experienced by a kid who has grown upin a very disorganized household. Erica comes from a home that’s moredisorganized than Harold’s, and she needs to go to an academy that will teachher how to walk down a hallway in a straight line; how to look at people whenshe talks to them; how to envision her future differently. All the things thatmiddle class kids pick up sort of automatically are things that she needsspecial instruction to master. So that’s not the normal curriculum—history,math, etc.—but it’s critical preparation for learning. It’s learning how toidentify and develop tools forlearning in the way we watch and interact with others.
Writing this book has certainly made meappreciate the value of all that—especially the value of the cafeteria. If Ithink back to my own high school experience, I remember my friends more thanthe classes; I think one is just naturally more intellectually engaged in thatprocess of finding one’s place in society than one is in navigating one’s waythrough the classroom.
JM:You write about that inyour column today, which is a commentary on the great “Tiger Mother”debate spawned by Amy Chua’s book. You say that the cognitive engagementnecessary to navigate the lunchroom is far greater than that necessary to sitdown for a two-hour piano lesson. Can you talk a little about that—aboutlearning how to navigate the social context, and how that is actually anintellectual activity of a very high order?
DB:More often than not, wejust don’t think about it, because it comes unconsciously and naturally to us.But the book is called The Social Animalbecause we are social animals, not rational animals. We are built to connectwith each other, and most of what we do inside is about understanding thoseconnections.
Think about a kid going through acafeteria (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 tocountry music in that clique, or can you not? How many guys can a girl hook upwith 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 differentcliques. 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 ashomogeneous. But Harold has a skill that lets him size up a clique; he can seewho’s the leader, who wants to get out, who the joker is—he can pick up thesubtleties quite easily.
In life, that’s way more important thanacademic prowess. If you want to go to a school and figure out who’s going todo well in life, ask the kids, “Who in your classroom is friends withwhom?” Some people will be able to say, “Well, Mary is friends withTodd, and Todd is friends with Joe.” Some people can’t do that. The peoplewho are aware of those social networks are going to do fine, because they’ll beable to look at the landscape of reality when they’re adults and see the shapeof it—see where they fit in, what the networks are. The kids who can’t do thatwill have more trouble. The skill itself is not inborn; it’s something youdevelop. 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 girlon a sleepover. Teenagers on sleepovers gossip about each other, and spreadknowledge about how to behave and how not to behave. They’re doing a littlebackbiting, and it can get a little nasty at times—you’ve got to learn how tonegotiate that. You’ve got to learn what to wear and what not to wear, what’son-trend, what’s behind the trend, who’s stealing whose friends. These are allincredibly complicated things. Each of us is amazingly complicated. When youget ten people in a room, that’s ten times the complication. Understandingthose kinds of complications physically takes up more mental space thanlearning 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 theformation of neural networks in the brain. In a way, one might say, everythingwe know about the world is emergent, based on our neurological processes. Whenyou’re physically in the world, walking through that cafeteria as you justdescribed it, you are creating a similar kind of network, a social network thatis somehow an analogue of the neural network. And that social world is emergentrather than fixed. I think too often in education we train people for fixedworlds, rather than preparing them for the fluid realities they will in factface. The fixed world model lacks what you call “epistemologicalmodesty.”
JM:Where our hubris is suchthat we think we can master reality, although we’re not even close to doing so.
DB:We’re still living witha legacy of the blank slate ideology, which suggests that a kid enters aclassroom like an empty vessel, and you just pump information into him like aballoon. But the kid is phenomenally complicated, and comes in with all sortsof preconceptions. He may be feeling alienated or alone. He may be spending thewhole time in the classroom thinking about sex. I mean, there are a milliondifferent things going on in his mind. As one of the scientists said, when youput a piece of information into the brain, imagine that you’re putting it intoa blender with the lid off, and it’s just getting splattered all over theplace. That’s a good reminder of how complicated kids are. [LAUGHS]
One of the themes of the book is that wehave this very mechanical—even, as you say, reductionist—way of seeing theworld, but we are beginning to realize that’s wrong, that the world is actuallymuch more fluid. So you have to adjust your thinking for a fluid world that’saffected by invisible forces and ideas. And education really has to adjust, because, in some very fundamental ways, weare still stuck with the factory model.
JM:At one point, Ms.Taylor, Harold’s high school English teacher, gives him a copy of EdithHamilton’s The Greek Way, with a perfectlydrawn bit of teacherly drama. “This will lift you to greatness!” shetells him. The effect on him is quite wonderful, as we’ve discussed. As anaside, you mention that Harold will later come to recognize that scholars maynot think very much of Hamilton’s book. But still, the effect it has on shapinghis character is enormous. I’m always struck, when I see interviews withwriters and thinkers, by the fact that the books that inspired them as kids aremore likely to be things like Nancy Drew stories than Pride and Prejudice. We often treat the mind as something thatshould only be fed perfected material, but this approach probably gets in theway of kids making their own maps of the world, based on whatever turns out tobe 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 goback and re-read them,” you can hear his groan. He thinks, “I’vealready read them; why do I have to re-read them?” But because they havelaid tracks through his mind the first time around, when he makes the returntrip he is able to look up and see all kinds of different things, things henever noticed the first time.
DB:That certainly happenswith me. You know, we talk about the power of ideas, and we think it must meanonly complicated, sophisticated ideas. But sometimes very simple ideas can bepowerful. Edith Hamilton didn’t have the academic sophistication that somelater scholars have—the ability to detail what Aeschylus meant, what Sophoclesmeant. But she was ambitious, and she drew out broad themes. For people ofaction, that really matters. For Harold, it matters.
Edith Hamilton’s book, by the way, was ahuge influence on Robert Kennedy. After John F. Kennedy was killed, RobertKennedy was handed that book, I think by Jackie, and he carried it around withhim for the rest of his life, and he would quote from it. There’s a sectionthat says life is about suffering, that we’re educated by suffering, and thatlife is also about combat. A lot of these things rang true to Kennedy’sexperience. Actually, on the day Martin Luther King was killed, Kennedy gave animpromptu speech quoting from this book—quoting from Aeschylus, actually. Itmay not represent the best in scholarship, but that doesn’t mean it’s not avery 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 gettoo detailed, too pedantic, and we miss the big passions—which are what mostpeople want out of literature.
JM:There’s a terrificpassage 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, butthe lofty cadences and the heroic tone. The spirit of the speech entered hismind, and his mood changed.”
In my experience, much of learning isdriven by sensations like that. There’s a kind of ineffable yearning for more—ayearning to be better, to engage higher ideals, whether or not you understandthem. In our public life, and in our classrooms, too, there’s such animpoverishment of language; people are embarrassed by any suggestion ofeloquence. I am glad you struck on the aspirations eloquence can inspire.
DB:There’s a phrase by aFrench writer, Denis de Rougemont, who says, “We take whatever is lower tobe more real.” For some reason, we assume that something grubby andself-interested must be more authentic than something lofty and admirable. Butequally, we have this urge to rise upward and to feel a oneness with greatthings. So for Harold, that speech—as, for other people, Churchill’s speechesdo—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 economicsor through self-interest. But people do dedicate their lives to that feeling.
I have a word in the book which I haveborrowed, and which I try to use to get at what we’re talking about. It’scalled “limerence,” and it denotes a feeling that applies in manycontexts; it applies when you feel a oneness with another person, or when youfeel 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 ofa unit. He feels this incredible sense of elevation.
You also get it historically, wheneveryou feel a oneness with something that happened centuries ago. You’re able totranscend the details of your life and connect with feelings in a human being500 years ago; 1,000 years ago; 5,000 years ago. Harold gets a sense of thatreading the funeral oration, and it sort of changes his life, because he wantsto get that sensation again. He becomes a historian to try to get that again.
JM:There’s a lack of suchlofty cadences—even a disparagement of such eloquence—in much of our publiclife. It goes beyond the reduction of communication to sound bites. Maybe it’san American thing—the triumph of the Humphrey Bogart school of tough guyreticence. [LAUGHS] It leads, inevitably, to a depletion of public discoursethat’s deeply troubling. Kids go through much of their lives without everhearing those lofty cadences.
DB:They’re watching Jersey Shore instead.
JM:[LAUGHS] They’re beingtaught by their media-saturated experience that those cadences are something tomake fun of, and that the aspirations such lofty language invokes are alsosuspect. I wonder, in terms of education, what can be done to address that.
DB:I guess I’d say therehas to be a reclamation project. Because in the 19th century, thesewere very much emphasized, and education was basically conducted throughMcGuffey Readers and other things—exemplars showing excellence to give youmodels to copy, and words like “truth,” “glory,”"honor,” “courage.” I think what happened was that WorldWar I came along and delegitimized a lot of those words. Hemingway has a greatpassage, I think in A Farewell To Arms(but I’m not sure), where he has been disillusioned. He has seen the carnage ofWorld War I and the lofty rhetoric that glorified it, and he realizes thatwords like “honor” no longer have any meaning for him. I think Bogartcomes out of that mold, that same disillusionment.
But then, the disillusionment has its ownproblems; it can lead to cynicism and chronic doubt. I think there’s a hungerto get over that cynicism, now, and achieve a balance. John F. Kennedy was aresponse 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 speecheswere very lofty—and unapologetically so. You saw what happened. People reallyresponded to it.
JM:There’s a similar”reclamation” impulse, I think, hidden—although not completelyinvisible—in your book. I kept thinking of Plutarch as I was reading, becausethe book really presents exemplary lives for readers to draw lessons from—anidea that lives at a great distance in time and substance from our culturetoday. 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 flowsfrom modesty. We’re trained now to think we’re the bee’s knees, and we’re thesmartest people ever, and we can see through everybody else. But if you startwith the attitude that what you know about the world is limited, and thatyou’re flawed in significant ways, then when you see people do things that areremarkable you’re all the more amazed. You realize you have to model your lifeon them. The way to do that is by inhabiting their world. I describe thisconcept of mirror neurons, that we have things in our heads that don’t justobserve other people, but re-enact in our own minds what we see. So if you’rearound admirable people, you’ll behave more admirably. That’s the role thatmentors play—they’re admirable people—and historical figures can play the samerole, 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 excellentthings admirable to children.”
DB:That’s what Plutarch isall about. He’s saying, “This was a great life; be like this.” Andyou 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 talkabout how modern conservatism, or conservatism at least as we know it intoday’s press, shall we say, is concerned with individual liberties of onesort, and liberalism today is concerned with individual rights of another sort.
JM:But both conservatismand liberalism, at their roots, were profoundly social visions.
JM:Both traditions, then,have lost contact with their origins.
DB:Yes. And I think theresearch I’m writing about, as it filters out into the culture, will go someway toward reversing that.
We had the ’60s, when we had a verysocial libertarian vision—the belief that you should be able to do whatever youwant with your life. Then in the ’80s, there was an economically libertarianversion: economically, you’re a self-made man. But both those beliefs arefalse. We’re deeply connected to each other. We don’t create our own lives; ourlives 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 wecreate an environment where people can develop good relationships?” Anenvironment that’s orderly; where people have opportunities to rise; where whenthere is disorder you create things like early childhood programs to trainpeople to have healthy relationships from an early age—a whole series ofprograms to create a sense of order and networks. I think we’ll have a sort ofcommunitarianism of the Right and a communitarianism of the Left.
The British Conservative Party isactually much more conscious about brain research than we are in the UnitedStates. In the U.K., they call the Conservative plan the “BigSociety,” and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, says: “We used to haveeconomic problems, but now we have social problems, and we shouldn’t puteconomics first—we’ve got to put sociology first.” I think this is justthe ebb and flow of politics, though; my book will hopefully move us towardsseeing things more as collective problems, more as social problems, and less asproblems that can best be solved by the liberation of individuals.
JM:You write interestinglyabout the British Enlightenment. I suppose many people know Adam Smith for The Wealth of Nations, which is in a sense the sourcebook ofcapitalism, but his other great work was TheTheory of Moral Sentiments. Would you talk a bit about thedistinction between the French Enlightenment and the British Enlightenment, andhow the interest of the British Enlightenment philosophers in sentiment set thestage for some of the thinking you present in The Social Animal?
DB:We’re mostly heirs tothe French Enlightenment, which was a celebration of reason. What Descartestried to do was tear down the prejudices of the Middle Ages and construct asystem of truths based on logic. The philosophers of the French Enlightenmentsaid reason needed to tame and control the passions.
The British Enlightenment, led by peoplelike David Hume and Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, argued that reason is simplynot that strong—reason can be slave to the passions. So, they said, we have towork on educating the emotions, and if we can educate the emotions, that will make people better.
The other difference is that the Frenchviewed people as individual thinkers. Think of Rodin’s sculpture, The Thinker—the guy hunched over withhis 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 Smithactually anticipates mirror neurons. He says something like: “When I seesomeone get their leg pricked by a pin, I not only observe their pain, I feeltheir pain. I jerk up, like it’s happening to me.” He was observing aphenomenon that we now know to be neurologically true; it’s how the brainworks. He wrote (I’m paraphrasing, of course): “Why are we virtuous? It’sbecause we want to be admired in other people’s eyes, and we not only want tobe admired in their eyes, but we want to be admired by an impartial observerwho would see us honestly.” He put sentiments, emotions, and socialconnections at the core of his thought.
It seems me that the research I writeabout makes Adam Smith’s vision of humanity seem much more accurate than theFrench Enlightenment vision. But unfortunately, especially in the policy world,we’re heirs to the French vision, still trying to reduce everything to amethod, thus also reducing human behavior to a science, as if we could createmodels and then map out how people are going to behave. We do this ineconomics; we do it in marketing and business; we do it in all sorts ofspheres. But it rarely works out well, as the financial crisis, among otherthings, has demonstrated. We thought, “Oh, we’ve got this figured out;we’ve got these sophisticated risk assessment models.” But people are veryemotional, and they get swept up in emotional contagions, and then—calamity.
JM:We’ve talked about thehigh school cafeteria, and much of our public life is like a high schoolcafeteria now. Because of your position and the platform that you have, andalso because of the nature of the ideas you present in The Social Animal and the way you’ve chosen to present them, itoccurs to me that there might be a lot of critics sitting in the cafeteria whowill like nothing better than shooting spitballs at you.
DB:[LAUGHS] Well, we’llsee. The other thing, by the way, that’s going to materialize, is someresentment. I happen to work at the NewYork Times, a major newspaper. I’m on TV a couple of times a week. I havethe platform at Random House. So I get to take work that people have spentyears on, and summarize it in about a sentence—and I get broadcast all over theplace. That is bound, naturally, to create resentment. When I simplify a lifetime’swork in a sentence, I am definitely going to miss some of the nuances thatpeople treasure; they’re going to be upset, and I understand that. Tocounteract their arguments, I try to defer to the scholars, and always givethem credit by name, saying, “They’re doing this work—it’s not me.”But nonetheless, I understand the reaction.
JM:Let’s point ourdiscussion toward your day job. Near the end of the book, you write: “Whetherthey mean to or not, legislators encourage certain ways of living and discourageother ways. Statecraft is inevitably soulcraft.” As you survey the currentpolitical scene, do you see any players who seem to understand this, eitherconsciously or intuitively?
DB:I must say, I don’tthink they’re well-versed in a lot of this stuff. Obama is an exception. In thebook, I mention that one of the foundation experiments in the research I surveyis the Walter Mischel marshmallow experiment, which is about how kids learn tocontrol 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 startedtalking about the marshmallow experiment. I was very impressed that he wasaware of it, and that he understands its importance—because this particularexperiment shows that kids who can control their impulses at age four are goingto do better in life. We were talking about education policy, and he wasclearly aware of the relevant examples.
But I think most politicians think interms of appropriations and money—specifically where the money goes—and they’reslow 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 youredistribute wealth. That’s important, of course, but, to me, it’s not the mostimportant thing. I tried to introduce some of the work I deal with in the bookinto their discussion, but it was a completely different vocabulary. It wasfrustrating. How do you say to these hard-headed economists, who are talkingabout money, “We’ve got to create neighborhoods where kids are enmeshed inrelationships”? I always think if you went into a Congressional hearingand used the word “love” they’d say, “Who the hell are you? Whatkind of mushhead are you?” When you try (and I’ve tried), they sort of nodtheir heads patronizingly, and then they want to get back to talking abouttheir defense budgets.
JM:On the education front,at least, it seems to me that some of the charter schools are taking a morecomprehensive approach to kids’ lives—you describe this in the book. Much ofthe federal and state policy seems to be, “Let’s get these test scoresup,” or “Let’s evaluate teachers on how those test scores aredoing,” 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 investorsbuy a company that makes beautiful chairs, and say, “We can make theoperation bigger, and more efficient, and cut waste,” they may well driveup the stock price and get a very positive economic return—but you may not getbetter chairs. When you deal with kids, you have to remember how complicatedand malleable and, frankly, impossible to measure the end product is.
DB:That’s right. One of thethemes of our conversation is that there’s a giant cultural bias in favor ofreason and the conscious mind; many people try to ignore everything else. Ithink we need the tests, because kids do have to know how to read and write anddo 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-wildwith the tests and with the uniformity—because another thing that comes alongwith 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 aterrible mistake. You’ll just get a bunch of bored kids, and bored kids willnot 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 inyour head.” This is after a very lucid and eloquent description of whatgoes on with neural networking. As I read that passage, I was thinking ofProust, when he takes his cookie and his cup of tea, and then maps his ownspiritual 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 whatwe’re now learning or “proving” in the research you treat in the bookwas actually discovered—at least in the past, if not now—by people when theyread novels. It’s why readers delved into Stendhal and Balzac and EdithWharton. Stories would convey some of the lessons you deliver in The Social Animal with no”scientific” basis whatsoever. You could probably illustrate theneurological development of people, and their neural networking, with scenesfrom Dickens or George Eliot. Am I off-base here?
DB:I’ll start with yourfirst question. There was an experiment done years ago tracking the IQ of agroup 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 notadopted. The eventual disparity in scores didn’t come about because theiradoptive mothers had tutored them, because the moms themselves were mentallydisabled; the mothers had just lovedthe children. The truth of this has been demonstrated in rat experiments,too—that somehow love creates more connections in the brain. An emotion createsa material change—and, of course, every day you have the material in the braincreating emotions. In fact, this leap from the material to the emotional is theultimate problem of brain science. It’s a problem of consciousness—how do youget consciousness out of matter? We have no idea how that works. I don’t eventhink we’re close. I don’t really write too much about God, but if there is aGod, I think his divine creativity lies in taking matter and creating emotionout of it. That is just an inherently spiritual thing, and we know it’s goingon; we just have no idea how it happens.
DB:Thanks. To address yoursecond 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 Smithwas right and Descartes was wrong.
Scientists are pretty literate, and it’sinteresting to see that they gravitate towards certain novelists. They loveProust, for obvious reasons: because he deals in memory and the fluidity ofmemory, and we know from countless researchers that when we remember somethingit’s not like we’re picking up information from a disk: we’re reweaving it andrecreating it. They also love George Eliot. Somewhere, Eliot wrote somethinglike this: “Imagine you’re playing chess, but each individual chess pieceis making its own moves, and you can barely control any of them—that’s what lifeis like.” Scientists like that a lot. They like Jane Austen and HenryJames—and especially his brother, William James. A lot of them are very good atgoing back to the literature and saying, “See, they’re describing thisbehavior; now we have some clue of where it originated.”
JM:It seems as ifscientists, at least those working in this field, are drawn particularly tosocial novelists—writers who are creating the contexts in which all theseconnections can be made.
JM:There’s a wonderfulbook—I don’t know if you know it—by a woman named Shirley Letwin.
DB:I know her work as apolitical theorist.
JM:She wrote a book called The Gentleman in Trollope, which is verysimilar in spirit to what you’re doing in TheSocial Animal. She takes the world of Trollope and deals with the idea ofthe “gentleman,” by which she really means people like those you’venamed Harold and Erica. But instead of using scientific evidence to explorerealms 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 Ilike 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 thinkyou’d be quite taken with it.
DB:I wrote the introductionto a Random House edition of The Way WeLive Now.
One of the frustrations I encounteredwhile writing this book came from the knowledge that, back then, they had aconcept of a “gentleman”—a concept of how one should behave. Icouldn’t find a contemporary word for the same sort of thing. How do wedescribe a person that we think is admirable? We don’t have an exact word, andwithout the word, we don’t have a code; we don’t have a way of being. Trollopehad that. I do love Trollope’s novels, but I must say, it bugs me that hehimself was so mechanical. He would write something like 3,500 words a day, andif 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 thesame time, the worlds he creates are very complicated and rich and imaginative.
JM:You must read a lot. Inthe book, you reference volumes from Aeschylus to Lydia Davis.
DB: I do. I went to the University of Chicago, and theytaught us to read a lot; my parents were professors, so I read a lot evenbefore college. With this subject, I just became inflamed with curiosity, so Iwanted to read everything I could. Then I would call the authors, because I wasjust so curious about what they were finding. Many of the people who publish onthis subject are very good writers. Antonio Damasio writes beautifully. I didwonder, at certain points, whether I was simply being seduced by the ones who happenedto write well. I had to be a little cautious of that. But this is a subjectthat’s about us—it’s about who we are—so it’s always interesting.
–January 18, 2011