(targeting customers of the more familiar bodice-ripper and cherry-chomp brands)
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.
Yes. There is a name for that: fascism
Fascism, at heart, is a belief that surrendering to an emotion engendered by an idea can bring about an earthly utopia. In politics, the idea is usually appears as a messianic leader, but in current psychology, anyone with some neuroscience training can generate these visions using machines, drugs, or narratives that get published as research on human subjects.
And it is always very difficult, at best, to explain to people that, on Earth, utopia is the trade name for hell.
Anyway, Brooks unintentionally outlines the problem better than any detractor could by retailing this loathsome love story:
Harold and Erica got their first glimpse of each other in front of a Barnes & Noble. They smiled broadly as they approached, and a deep, primeval process kicked in. Harold liked what he saw, from the waist-to-hip ratio to the clear skin, all indicative of health and fertility. He enjoyed the smile that spread across Erica’s face, and unconsciously noted that the end of her eyebrows dipped down. The orbicularis-oculi muscle, which controls this part of the eyebrow, cannot be consciously controlled, so, when the tip of the eyebrow dips, that means the smile is genuine, not fake.
Erica was impressed by him: women everywhere tend to prefer men who have symmetrical features and are slightly older, taller, and stronger than they are. But she was more guarded and slower to trust than Harold was. That’s in part because, while Pleistocene men could pick their mates on the basis of fertility cues discernible at a glance, Pleistocene women faced a more vexing problem. Human babies require years to become self-sufficient, and a single woman in that environment could not gather enough calories to provide for a family. She was compelled to choose a man not only for insemination but for continued support. That’s why men leap into bed more quickly than women. Various research teams have conducted a simple study. They hire a woman to go up to college men and ask them to sleep with her. More than half the men say yes. Then they have a man approach college women with the same offer. Virtually zero per cent say yes. So Erica was subconsciously looking for signs of trustworthiness.
James Le Fanu, a British doctor who seems to have got fed up with all-rubbish all-day (a busy practice will do that), ripostes,
It would be good to think that perhaps this is all a jest, an 'argument ad absurdum' that would appeal to The New Yorker's sophisticated readership. David Brooks cannot seriously suppose this bizarre amalgam of pop psychology and cold evolutionary theorizing can really tell us anything of interest about the human psyche, let alone that it represents a "revolution in consciousness." But if he does, he would certainly not be the first to suspend their critical judgement in deference to science's claims to knowledge not possessed — for the most salient feature of the studies he cites is how unconvincing they are even on their own terms. To take just one example already considered, Willis and Todorov's "First impressions: Making up your Mind after a 100-Ms exposure to a Face" was published in the journal Psychological Science in 2006.This study was designed to investigate the "minimal conditions" under which people infer character traits — revealing a significant correlation between psychology undergraduates' assessment, when shown photographs of 70 amateur actors, of their "competence, trustworthiness and aggressiveness," whether viewed for just a tenth of a second or "without time constraints."
This would indeed confirm the truism that people are capable of making "snap judgments," but without casting any light on the two really important questions — the nature of the brain's astonishing feat of processing information that allows such judgements to be made and their validity — i.e. whether those judged to be "competent, trustworthy or aggressive" really were so. So for all the ingenious ingenuity of Willis and Kosorov's experiment, we are left none the wiser.
There are, needless to say, profounder issues involved here, of which the most salient is whether it is indeed possible to illuminate the workings of the human mind by reducing it to so many distinctive attributes that can then be investigated independently of each other.
Of course it isn’t possible, but many people welcome swamp gas, having no other light. And Brooks probably really does want his fictional (whew!) profoundly unpleasant couple to be “happy.” That, however, makes the offence worse.
On the plus side, Brooks has at least made clear that no one who values reason over emotion in assessing the human condition need take him seriously.
Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.