It might seem surprising that when New York Times columnist David Brooks delivered a lecture at Penn this past March it was at the Center for Neuroscience and Society. But Brooks’ latest book, The Social Animal, contains a surprising amount of brain research—although he’s quick to add, “This is not a science book.” Rather, it’s his own take on a broad sweep of recent neuroscience and behavioral research, which he uses as a jumping-off point for a discussion of what truly drives a human life.
Why would a journalist care about this stuff? Because, he says, policy decisions in Washington are often based on a model of the human mind that a growing stack of research says is flawed. “We’re not rational animals, or laboring animals,” he writes in the book. “We emerge out of relationships.”
At Penn he told a couple of stories about the way his day job as a Times columnist furnishes him with daily proof. “I’m in constant contact with politicians, and I’ve learned that they’re all emotional freaks of one sort or another,” he said. “But what they do have is incredible social skill, by and large.”
Yet these same politicians craft social policy that seems blind to human nature, Brooks said. Our financial regulatory system is built on the idea that Wall Street is full of rational actors, who would never do anything stupid en masse. “We now know that’s not true,” he said. So, why do we have “the most socially attuned human beings on earth, conducting policy in the most socially illiterate way?”
Toward the end of his talk, Brooks examined the fundamentals of perception, attempting to explain why some of us see the world better than others. Here’s what he had to say:
A lot of us think of the mind as a sort of three-step process. There’s perception, which is taking stuff in; there’s analysis, where you think about it; and then there’s execution, where you execute your decision. And a lot of us come in thinking perception is very simple, and then thinking about it is really hard. But the research emphasizes that perception is actually the complicated step—that the creation of the world is a very complicated step. And some people have the facility to create worlds better than others.
My newspaper did a very good story about some soldiers in Iraq who could look down the street, and they could tell when there was an IED, an improvised explosive device, on the street. And when you asked them how they knew, they said, “I feel a coldness inside.” They couldn’t tell you how they knew. They just felt it. They had certain scanning abilities below the level of awareness.
I’m reading a book called The Wayfinders, which is about how people centuries ago sailed from Indonesia to Hawaii without compasses, and without the skill to read the stars. They sailed thousands of miles across open ocean because they had a very subtle sense of the shape of the waves, the color of the water, the shape of clouds. And again, these are scanning skills.
And experts, when they’re around something, scan in different ways than people who are novices. An experiment that illustrates this was done with chess grandmasters … They took chess grandmasters, and gave them 10 seconds to look at a chessboard. They gave novices 10 seconds to look at a chessboard. And then they said, ‘Replicate the pieces on the board.’ The chess grandmasters could do it perfectly; the novices could remember about four or five pieces. Then they moved the pieces, so they were organized in such a way that could never actually happen in a chess match—and in this circumstance the grandmasters did no better than anybody else. It’s because in formations that are likely to happen in a chess match, the grandmasters don’t see pieces, they see formations—essentially seeing paragraphs instead of letters.
—Sean Whiteman LPS’11