David Brooks / Syndicated columnist
'Social Animal' author David Brooks says your unconscious can be your best friend
An interview with David Brooks, author of "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement."
Seattle Times book editor
David BrooksThe author of "The Social Animal" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5 at www.brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006, and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
David Brooks' new book is a departure for the widely read New York Times columnist. It's not a knowing satire like his book "Bobos in Paradise" (though there are funny parts), and it's not about politics, the usual stuff of his opinion columns and public television commentaries.
Instead, "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement" (Random House, $27) is about the human unconscious. Brooks concludes that the unconscious has an image problem — rather than a deep dark place where even therapists fear to tread, the unconscious is our ablest ally on the battlefield of life.
"The Social Animal" is constructed around the lives of two fictional characters — Harold, a contemplative young man from a privileged background, and Erica, a half-Chinese, half-Mexican scrapper who raises herself up into society's most rarefied circles through focus and ambition. Reviews have been mixed — in the March 13 New York Times Book Review, one critic said (among other things) that Brooks is no fiction writer, calling Harold and Erica "mannequins for the display of psychological and social generalizations."
Well, I have to demur. I liked "The Social Animal" (I confess that one major character's eventual demise choked me up). It's really a work in the tradition of "Emile," the 18th-century book by the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau who hung his theories of education on the frame of the life of one child. Brooks explores the engines of how and why people think, feel and act — especially those early influences so necessary to the creation of a successful human being.
Brooks is in town Monday to speak about the "Social Animal." In a phone interview, he fielded answers to several questions:
Q: "The Social Animal" is a departure from your usual subjects. What was your original impetus for writing the book?
A: I was doing some research on why so many kids drop out of high school; it's such an irrational thing to do, and we've been so bad at preventing kids from doing it. When I got into the research, I found that a lot of the influences that lead to that decision start in the first few years of life. From that I was drawn into the field of brain research. Some reporters cover politics; I do that, but I also try to cover ideas.
Q: Compare the Freudian version of the unconscious with the version you write about in your book.
A: With Freud, first of all, there's a lot of sex. Second of all, it's a dark and tangled place, filled with neuroses. I think the research shows now that the unconscious is helping us figure out the world.
It's more sophisticated than we thought. If the conscious is logical and linear, the unconscious is associative — it helps us create these maps of the world. The example I sometimes give: If you have trouble making a tough decision between two options, tell yourself you'll flip a coin, but don't go by the results of the flip, go by your reaction to the results.
Q: This book touches on an enormous amount of research into how the brain operates. How did you absorb so much material on such a complex variety of topics?
A: I read as much as I could; I now have many bookshelves filled with the subject. I hired a fact checker, then I separately hired a professor to make sure I got the interpretive parts correct. Then I sent it to a bunch of academics who were willing to read it for free.
I'm not doing any original research, but I'm reasonably good at organizing other people's research. I do that geographically. I literally lay things out on the floor. Book writing is traffic management.
Q: You praise the human brain's ability to synthesize emotion and information over that of a computer. Do you think differently about that topic since the "Jeopardy!" television game show's humans vs. computer matchup in which Watson, an IBM computer, trounced two trivia champions,?
A: Not at all. Computers can process a lot of raw information, but one of the examples I used in the book was that of a kid pretending to be a tiger. No computer can do that. It's just way more complicated. My youngest kid [Brooks has three] is now 12. [When they were younger] I found them very intellectually challenging to keep up with. I can't imagine how a nursery schoolteacher does it.
Q: In "The Social Animal," you talk about how it's easier to legislate in quantifiable areas such as military budgets than in creating programs that can really change lives. Please explain how governmental strategies that promote "personal development and social mobility" might work. How do you legislate incentives for positive human behavior?
A: It's very tricky. A lot of what I talk about is things that happen within families and close friendships. Government is not good at creating at that intimate level.
In areas of poverty, you have very disorganized neighborhoods. In programs that have worked, they try to do everything at once. Nurse-family partnerships to coach parents. A lot of day care, a lot of pre-K. They're building institutions — every second of every day, people are going from one institution to another. I'm in New York right now, I'm looking north towards Harlem — the Harlem Children's Zone is an example. I think we need to think in those terms. We've spent so much time doing small things; the big things need to get a chance.
Q: What's been the reaction to the book thus far?
A: So far it's been very different from my normal books and my newspaper articles. When I talk about politics, people either like it or they don't. When I talk about this subject, people give me a hug.