Thinking and Talking: Where's the Human in David Brooks' Social Animal?
The human sciences must always start with being simply human
Posted April 10, 2011
By Janet G. Benton, Psy.D.
People often confuse outside success with inner contentment, stability, or peace. Despite "having it all" they find themselves feeling incomplete, dissatisfied, or shallow.
Consider Harold, the fictional character whose life David Brooks chronicled in his New Yorker article "The Social Animal," published earlier this year. By the time the reader meets him, presumably in his late 20s or early 30s, Harold already feels life has become shallow, despite his apparently happy marriage and involvement in the world. But then he has an epiphany listening to an inspirational speaker and he re-connects with his feelings. How does Brooks demonstrate such an important event? He has Harold follow his feelings when choosing a flavor of gelato!
This apparently trivial choice about gelato does awaken the reader's curiosity from the lull that Brooks' facile writing style easily induces. Finally, some interesting questions: why has Harold come to feel shallow, what inspired him at the lecture, and why has choosing gelato taken on such importance? Unfortunately, the only answers to be found are found in what Brooks does not talk about.
Brooks is arguing for the value of emotions and unconscious process instead of conscious, rational thought as illustrated by Harold being far too concerned with his accomplishments and rational thinking. "He had been trained . . . to be self-contained and smart and rational, and to avoid sentimentality. Yet maybe sentiments were at the core of everything." This sounds good. But Brooks doesn't then explain the processes by which Harold came to feel and think the way he does. The epiphany "just kind of happened" inside Harold's head, in the same way that he just somehow found himself feeling unhappy with life. Connecting his disequilibrium and the resulting epiphany to the full experience of living requires going human-places Brooks does not visit.
Brooks draws from a broad range of disciplines in his work, including psychology and neuroscience, about traits that need to be developed for sane living. He wants our culture to revive the importance of unconscious activity and emotions (he gives a nod to Freud for having brought our attention to the unconscious a hundred years ago but ignores recent work such as Ken Eisold's book about the "new unconscious"). He prioritizes " . . . the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over abstract logic, and perceptiveness over IQ." He says, " . . . traits that do make a difference are poorly understood, and can't be taught in a classroom . . ." and talks about "the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one's shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures."
These are not new ideas; philosophers and psychologists have been exploring them for centuries. While I applaud Brooks' bringing them to our attention, he leaves out two basic processes intrinsic to being human that would actually let Harold emerge as a complete person rather than a cipher for Brooks' preferred theories: the ability to symbolize and the ability to exchange symbols with each other.
Symbolization is a very old concept, and one, of course, reliably used in discussing many topics, including art and psychoanalysis. Humans need to be able to convert concrete, "outside" experience into non-concrete, "inside" experience. These include experiences about value or worth, i.e., that the exterior measurements of success (and failure) must eventually be translated to something inside the mind. What happens at the critical moment when someone undertakes the intricate task of understanding that what was outside no longer has meaning there but is present inside the mind as a memory, a feeling, or a concept? How does what Brooks calls the outer mind convert to the inner mind of our experience? In particular, how does one's exterior success or accomplishment turn into a sense of general well being?
Transformation (changing one thing into another), illusion (misapprehending one thing for another and being able sort out what is what), and personal narrative (knowing and owning one's own story) are ingredients in this rather extraordinary process of experiencing outside as inside, making the concrete into something symbolic. Central to the making of symbols is being able to feel what one does or does not like and then allowing oneself and/or being allowed by others to use these feelings as guides in making choices-even about gelato! But we need to hear Harold struggling with all these concepts, as embedded in his own experience, to understand his "process." Just knowing about dessert is not enough.
The other important component in moving from outer to inner mind is conversation with others who also have an inner mind. The articulation and exchange of that which has been symbolized is a basic premise of human development, as well as of "the talking cure." Social exchange between people is deservedly privileged, and Brooks is no exception in highlighting the "social." Exchanges of feelings and thoughts also take place in settings other than the social, such as inside of one's own mind as an interior dialogue or in making art. But in Brooks' work the reader does not hear Harold's exchanges either with other people, within himself, or with an artistic tradition. Though social, Harold remains a social animal, not a social human.
Although Brooks is remarkable in his abilities to research and draw many ideas together, and is often very humorous, he does not give the reader sufficient emotional material about how Harold has become a person and how he experiences his sense of himself. The reader is privy to the facts, not the psychology.
To quote the interpersonal psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, "We are all much more simply human than otherwise." And put simply, to be useful, Brooks' social animal needs to become simply human.
About the author:
Janet G. Benton, Psy.D. is a psychotherapy supervisor and faculty member at the William Alanson White Institute and is an Associate Editor of Contemporary Psychoanalysis. She is also on the faculty at the Institute of Contemporary Psychotherapy. She is a supervisor for the Metropolitan Center for Mental Health and for the clinical psychology graduate programs at Teachers College and the City University of New York. She is in private practice in Manhattan.
© 2011 Janet G. Benton, All Rights Reserved