Despite his politics (he sports the labels conservative and Republican), I’ve always liked New York Times columnist David Brooks. I admit it’s partly because he can be very engaging, but also because he’s one of the few people in the national media who says things of substance. I learn from him.
In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Brooks continues his ongoing exploration of American culture and who we are with an essay that’s part of his latest book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (to be published in March). I haven’t read either of his earlier books, but I imagine I’d enjoy them if for no other reason than that he’s funny. In this magazine article, he opens with a wonderful description of the Composure Class—college-educated, professional and well-to-do. “Wealth settled down upon them gradually, like a gentle snow.”
But this is a superficial view of people who suspect they may be “shallower than they need to be.” Brooks is interested in another perspective:
…. We are living in the middle of a revoluton 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 ….
The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years provides a different perspective on our lives, one that emphasizes the relative importance of emotions 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.
Despite the fact that there are all sorts of people, especially artists, who have never subscribed to the view he holds out as normative, Brooks’ description of a member of the Composure Class from the perspective of his inner life, is instructive and limned with some delightful results of studies and experiments. Brooks sums up the debate about what makes us happy by juxtaposing the book, “On the Road,” with the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Thirty years of research makes it clear that the movie is right. Happiness is not so much the life of freedom and adventure as of roots and connections.
At the conclusion of the article, Harold attends a lecture at an ideas festival in Aspen, where the speaker throws out some incredible statistics about the human brain:
we have a hundred billion neurons in the brain; infants create as many as 1.8 million neural connections per second; a mere sixty neurons are capable of making 1081 first possible connections, which is a number ten times as large as the number of particles in the observable universe; the ability to distinguish between a “P” and a “B” sound involves as many as 11 sites across the brain; even something as simple as seeing a color in a painting involves a mind-bogglingly complex set of mental constructions. Our perceptions, the scientist said, are fantasies we construct that correlate with reality.
Harold finds the whole thing dispiriting until a member of the audience asks Brooks’ fictional neuroscientist how his studies have changed the way he lives. He relates that he had previously thought of himself as an agent who made choices and established alliances with colleagues and friends.
Now though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.
…. I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. And it happens most when we connect with other people….
Brooks began the research that led to this book with a query about why there are so many high school dropouts when it’s clear that success requires a diploma, and much of the book investigates the inner reality of classes other than the Composure Class. His initial concern was not one that haunts most conservatives and Republicans. And his conclusion seems even less Republican to me. Maybe not Democrat. How about a fledgling Buddhism?