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||March 08, 2011|
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357 of 394 found the following review helpful:
My thoughtsMar 11, 2011
By G. Anderson
In this book, New York Times columnist David Brooks takes on the audacious endeavor of weaving together a unified picture of the human mind through various discoveries from the sciences. Oh ya, and it's all presented in the context of a story about two fictional characters, Harold and Erica.
You can get a good feel for the topics he covers from the chapter titles:
1 - Decision Making
2 - The Map Meld
3 - Mindsight
4 - Mapmaking
5 - Attachment
6 - Learning
7 - Norms
8 - Self-Control
9 - Culture
10 - Intelligence
11 - Choice Architecture
12 - Freedom and Commitment
13 - Limerence
14 - The Grand Narrative
15 - Metis
16 - The Insurgency
17 - Getting Older
18 - Morality
19 - The Leader
20 - The Soft Side
21 - The Other Education
22 - Meaning
If you think that's a lot of chapters, you're right on target. It's a pretty thick book at 450 pages, but it's easy to move through (not quite novel easy, but much more so than typical nonfiction).
- If you are familiar with Brook's social commentary (and like it) you won't be disappointed, but this isn't the real strength of this book.
- In a style that's reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell, Brooks offers a pop view of experimental psychology that is downright fascinating. The studies he explores are the real meat and merit of this book, and they expose many fallacies in the way we think that we think. Here are a few of the topics:
* The hidden role emotions play in making decisions.
* How mirror neurons in the brain are wired to mimic the person we're talking to.
* The massive role non-cognitive skills (aka, other than IQ) play in success, fulfillment, and achievement.
- My biggest criticism of this book is that the author created characters to personify the characteristics he wants us to understand. Allow me to explain. This is fine in theory but in practice (for him anyway) it falls flat compared to the entertaining and poignant explanations he writes when he isn't trying to explain through a character.
- As for the story itself, the narrative isn't as flat as your typical non-fiction fiction book (aka management fables and parables of other stripes), but a juicy, page-turning novel it is not. You'll get into the story enough at times that you'll want it to be a page turner, but it's too flat for that.
- I wish the book would show you how to use non-cognitive skills to your advantage. Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is a great book for this.
848 of 949 found the following review helpful:
Plenty of breadth, but disappointingly little depthFeb 19, 2011
I don't share his politics but I like David Brooks on THE NEWS HOUR for his thoughtfulness and decency, and in his columns for his well-articulated ideas and remarkable way with words. I read a preview of this book in THE NEW YORKER and felt my interest piqued. Parts were quite amusing, and the thesis that we are far more ruled by the unconscious than the rational mind sounded like something I'd like to read. Disappointingly, the book has not lived up to my expectations, though it has some wonderful writing and fascinating ideas here and there.
The major problems for me were that the hypothetical, stereotyped characters grew tiresome and even offensive over time and that not enough that was new or weighty materialized. The book combines the fictional stories of protagonists Harold and Erica with lots of recycled information from various neuro-scientific, psychological, and other studies that scores of popular writers have already mined. The reasoning here seems circular in that Brooks invents this implausible pair to illustrate his idea that noncognitive skills like "character" and "street smarts" lead to happiness and fulfillment, then cherry-picks studies to support his made-up characters and preconceived view.
Tracking Harold and Erica's imaginary life stories ("the happiest story you've ever read"), the book purports to explain what makes for the most successful infancy, schooling, young adulthood, love, career, culture, self control, morality, freedom, commitment, and more. The reach is so broad and the evidence that directly supports it so scant that I never entirely trusted Brooks' conclusions. Further, the use of allegorical characters for hundreds of pages to illustrate his contructs failed to move or engage me in the way an actual novel or real life story might. The tone was often satirical and over the top so it was difficult to take many points seriously. Also, since Brooks starts with a vision he wants to support, he only cites studies that reinforce his view and ignores any conflicting material. Over and over I found him making assertions I had reason to doubt, such as the claim that intelligence has "near zero correlation" with conscientiousness or curiosity, which flies in the face of everything I've read in the professional literature or observed in the classroom over the past thirty years. His constructions also appear at times to be at odds with themselves as when he presents the highly intelligent as both socially awkward nerds and as prime collegiate social movers.
While the book can be quite amusing for relatively short bursts and offers some wonderful language and food for thought, this is not the place to look for deep, reasoned discussion or final understanding of the very important topics addressed. Parts read as delightfully witty vignettes, but Brooks' approach wears thin and his thesis remains diffuse and unconvincing.
355 of 419 found the following review helpful:
Wanted to Enjoy This BookMar 08, 2011
By Dave English
I wanted to enjoy this book -- a grand idea to integrate disparate threads of human research by a smart writer I enjoy reading in the New York Times, a book profiled over two pages in Newsweek and featured by the Scientific American Book Club -- but unfortunately I found it ultimately unsatisfying. For someone who hasn't read about modern psychology advances, this may be a good primer. But for most people the wide range and added space of a narrative device results in too shallow a depth to be fulfilling. It's not that Brooks has things wrong or couldn't go deeper if he tried; it's that there is not room.
In the introduction Brooks explains "I'm writing this story, first, because while researchers in a wide variety of fields have shone their flashlights into different parts of the cave of the unconscious, illuminating different corners and openings, much of their work is done in academic silos. I'm going to try and synthesize their findings into one narrative." This is exactly what he does, combining the wide expanses of psychology from neuroscience to social groups and behavioral economics, using a literary device used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1760 for the book "Emile". We follow two fictional characters through their life, seeing how recent scientific findings shape them and their inner life. Some of this fiction is witty and insightful, all of it is well-written, but as fiction it is not enough. It does not work as literature that shows not tells. The science is fascinating, and fully referenced, but the sketches are too fast and pass too quickly. The insights and implications of human connection, friendship and love are illuminating and sometimes exhilarating, but somehow it doesn't quite gel. Many of the studies mentioned are so new they haven't been replicated, plus they are more complex and interconnected than Brooks lets on. There is no resulting new big idea. It can't stand on its own as fiction, and the science studies start to seem self-selected, without enough critical review.
All of which is too bad, as it was a promising concept. But somewhere between the conceptual framework and the smooth prose, there is something missing. I can certainly recommend as a first introduction, but for anyone who has read Freakanomics or Malcolm Gladwell or the many recent books on how humans make decisions, this book is not going to sustain your interest for 350 pages. I hope you find this review useful.
183 of 219 found the following review helpful:
surprisingly entertaining and informativeMar 09, 2011
I must be the ideal audience for this book because I found it to be a wonderful mix of great writing, new ideas, and interesting information.
The goals of Brooks' book are "to synthesize [recent scientific] findings into one narrative... to describe how this research influences the way we understand human nature... to draw out the social, political, and moral implications of these findings."
He achieves the goal of aggregating the research admirably. I don't consider myself well read on brain and cognitive sciences but I read several science blogs and had encountered many of the info-bites he introduces, many of which are extremely recent. A random sampling of research results he mentions:
"six-month-old babies can spot the different facial features of different monkeyse, even though, to adults, [the monkeys] all look the same."
"Anthropologists tell us that all cultures distinguish colors. When they do, all cultures begin with words for white and black. If the culture adds a word for a third color, it is always red."
Brookes uses a device of narrating the lives of 2 invented people, Erica and Harold. For example, to illustrate ideas on decision making, he introduces Erica's coworker Raymond whose "knowledge of his own shortcomings was encyclopedic. He knew he had trouble comparing more than two options at a time... so he would build brackets and move from one binary comparison to the next. He knew he liked hearing evidence that confirmed his opinions, so he asked Erica and others to give him the counterevidence first," etc. After describing a situation within the context of the narrative, Brooks jumps in to elaborate with more information. I feared this tactic would be too forced and would thereby fall on its face but he actually pulls it off! He binds up all the ideas in a cohesive story that has surprisingly sympathetic characters and a completely unexpectedly interesting character-driven plot.
Brooks uses his characters' lives and personalities to illustrate his ideas. One theme that arises is that rational thought is far from the dominant component of human reality: "Unaware of what is going on deep down inside, the conscious mind assigns itself the starring role... people are still blind to the way unconscious affections and aversions shape daily life." Underestimating the importance of culture in forming the subconscious and thus human behaviors causes the government to misdirect their energies, focusing on "money and guns" rather than community. Brooks argues for a more paternalistic government that shapes culture: "You can pump money into poor areas, but without cultures that foster self-control, you won't get social mobility... You can establish elections but without responsible citizens, democracy won't flourish... it was not enough to secure a village; they had to hold it so that people could feel safe, they had to build schools, medical facilites, courts, and irrigation ditches; they had to reconvene town councils... the hardest political activity- warfare- depended on the softest social skills- listening, understanding, and building trust."
Brooks' characteristic writing style is funny, engaging, and smart, but sometimes sarcastic and intentionally provokative/offensive. Example: "Like most upper- amd upper-middle-class children, these kids are really good at obscure sports. Centuries ago, members of the educated class discovered that they could no longer compete in football, baseball, and basketball, so they stole lacrosse from the American Indians to give them something to dominate." I'd seen this style of soft science writing before, most recently in a book called Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. Brooks manages to keep his punchiness sparse enough that I don't tire of it but if that style doesn't appeal to you, you may want to steer clear.
At times Brooks writes beautifully, surprising me with his poetic phrasing, so for me this book also holds artistic value. In writing about the human mind, he explores happiness and the meaning of life, pulling from sources ranging from Walt Whitman to Poincare. Describing Harold's impending death, he writes, "his wife and his nurses served him with a care, patience, and devotion that surpassed all expectation. Their efforts were more dear to him because he knew that he could never repay them... It was hard at first to simply fall backward into their love."
This book is great for someone who's interested in the human mind and wants an incomplete overview of recent developments in that area. It's also great for people who are interested in a unique perspective on how human nature relates to society and politics. Keep in mind Brooks is not a scientist- he's a journalist interested in culture and he uses various studies to inform his view but does not analyze the science. This book does not offer deep analysis of studies, nor does it come close to being exhaustive in its depiction of all the research done in this field.
40 of 45 found the following review helpful:
Couldn't finish itOct 28, 2011
By Greg M
I generally appreciate columns in the New York Times by Mr. Brooks. This book, however, was too much. He tries to use a pair of characters to illustrate a series of opinions about the social nature of humanity. I do not disagree with this approach, but the way it is executed in this piece is disjoint and provides little flow. As soon as you get comfortable with a line of reasoning and storytelling, he changes voice or direction that makes you lose all reading momentum. This, put simply, makes the book a chore.
I would characterize the book largely as ADD-ridden. He explores none of the ideas he covers completely, and leaves you feeling like you have been told what to think rather than led down a path of thoughtful discovery.
What makes it worse is the tone with which the book is written. I understand Mr. Brooks is an intelligent man. Indeed, he may be in the top 1% of intelligent people. That does not make it necessary to write a book like he is speaking to a room of 1st graders. His pedagogical methods are simplistic and assume that the reader is a donkey who must have basic tenets of logic explained to him at the expense of the actual philosophies that he proposes. His characters are flimsy and the lessons learned through his linked vignettes are poor, thin, disorganized, and cover such a broad range of topics (personal decisions like cheating on one's spouse all the way to broad political policy questions -- only Dante to my knowledge has ever covered such a broad range of topics effectively, and that required epic poetry). His parable system is simply ineffective in keeping him as an author on a central, narrow message and allows him to embark on whimsical flights of philosophical fancy into areas in which he has no background or authority.
I had high hopes for this book, but Mr. Brooks has disappointed. For only the second time in my life, I quit a book before finishing it (the other was Jurassic Park when I was 13 because the dino scenes were so vivid that I was literally frightened). I am deleting this work from my Kindle and never looking back. I am sorry to have spent $9.99 or whatever on it.
In short: Jesus was good at parables; David Brooks is not.
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