Permeable Minds and Invisible Networks
“Minds are intensely permeable…Invisible Networks Filling the Space Between Them”
David Brooks writes a book titled The Social Animal. In the United States, the book has also been subtitled in different editions, The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement and A Story of How Success Happens. Personally, I like the first title better for its added depth of explanation about the text and engagement of breadth of the human condition.
Anyhow, the book has done excellently despite needing to weather some rather scathing critiques. It made it to the New York Times bestseller list, placed Brooks on a Ted Talk, captured the heart of the British Prime Minister who had his cabinet read it and put together a discussion with the author and the cabinet, etc. The interest makes sense. Brooks takes a lot of dense psychological theory and distills it in an engaging manner through the narrative lens of a fictional couple named Harold and Erica.
Oddly enough, the book was also excoriated by a number of reviewers as having broad and good intent, but failing to deliver on the hopes/promises it offered in any depth and in a manner that proved captivating. The reviewers who disliked the text found themselves both bored with the author’s two main characters – who were fictional – and found them unconvincing. As well, these negatively oriented reviewers thought the author was not inclusive enough in his choice of theory to write about but instead felt he cherry-picked theories that supported his claims and the trajectory that he was heading with the text.
Basically, Brooks’ text is about the non-measurable aspects of human cognition and affection. Brooks purports that this is where our primary drives and fears reside. This is why we often see people who “shouldn’t have made it” writing or speaking about their success stories. They “beat the odds” because the odds actually leave a considerably substantive portion of our human nature out of the equation. Thus, the supposed empiricism/objectivism of the whole schema is skewed from the outset.
“…failures have been marked by a single feature: Reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. Many of these policies were based on the shallow social-science model of human behavior. Many of the policies were proposed by wonks who are comfortable only with traits and correlations that can be measured and quantified. They were passed through legislative committees that are as capable of speaking about the deep wellsprings of human action as they are of speaking in ancient Aramaic. They were executed by officials that have only the most superficial grasp of what is immovable and bent about human beings. So of course they failed. And they will continue to fail unless new knowledge about our true makeup is integrated more fully into the world of public policy, unless the enchanted story is told along with the prosaic one.”
Now this doesn’t mean that the whole system is on the verge of collapse; the system does offer significant predictive validity in certain narrow confines. However, it does mean that things are not as iron-clad determined as they are often purported to be. Of course, the loosening of iron-clad definitions tends to make people currently in power nervous because it is those definitions that undergird and aid in perpetuating their success. They have found a way to summit according to the current system and in many ways (not necessarily the most holistic, compassionate, or just ones) it is in their benefit not to change such structure. On the other hand, recognizing this ongoing systemic flexibility consistently opens up room for new players to find further validity in the process where they previously had much less. This is good news for such people and good news for society as a whole. It moves us toward greater appreciation of more people more of the time which lends itself toward more thoughtfully constructed systems that take into account the dignity of more people. I’m all for this.
Overall, I found Brooks’ amalgamation and distillation helpful. In a way, it both is and isn’t meant to be groundbreaking. It’s not meant to be groundbreaking in the sense of “discovering” new theories about human nature, about our being human. However, it is meant to be groundbreaking in aiding people in grasping new theories that have been “discovered” and encouraging people to implement these findings into their lives. As far as I am concerned, this is a worthwhile endeavor. I particularly resonated with an optimistic statement/claim/insight by Brooks that I found to be a strong driving impetus for the entirety of the text, “we are living in the middle of a revolution of consciousness.” Of course, other decades and eras were also living in the midst of such revolutions, but I find that the era we are in is both producing never before considered insights exponentially swiftly and making connections and re-connections with older material and reappropriating it in eminently helpful ways that weren’t previously considered or considered and too cursorily dismissed.
There is much to be considered in Brooks’ text and as I have mentioned, I found the book to be thoughtful and helpful. Of course, if you ask more from it than it offers you’ll be disappointed, but otherwise it offers some wonderful learning that just might make you both laugh and cry a bit.
An important factor to me that Brooks brings out in the book is the importance of presence, preference, proximity and imitation (I unfortunately couldn’t muster a fourth “p” for alliterative purposes) – I’m really thinking of the entirety of the book with these aspects, but as I am considering it I’m particularly also thinking of chapters 1-5. I greatly appreciated his discussion of what is essentially a mother and child’s ‘dance of knowing.’ You can likely quickly imagine how the four above aspects might play out in this scenario of knowing between a mother (also, a father) and a child. As well, these aspects can be extrapolated into adult relationality. Of course the ‘dance steps’ appear different in different relationships, but the same aspects of human connection are present. What I doubly appreciated about this discussion that Brooks offered were some ideas that arose in my mind beyond the text from engaging with it.
Begin to imagine to yourself what happens with relationality when one, two, three or all four characteristics of presence, preference, proximity and imitation are absent – absent due to either lack of ability to enact them or lack of desire to do so. In imagining this you’ll begin to be able to mentally conjure all kinds of skewed scenarios of unhealthy relationality. Brooks never specifically delineated the above four aspects as I have here and I’m not suggesting what I have offered is exhaustive. I do feel that it is a reasonable extrapolation from his work and I think bears forth into helping understand a healthy sense of human interactivity or lack thereof.
For instance, Brooks’ noted in his text — from the research of Tanya Chartrand and John Bargh at Duke University — that the more two people mimic each other’s movements, the more they like and will like each other. As well, the reciprocal is true. The more people like each other, the more they imitate. Of course, this could be construed as somewhat of a tautology at this point, but what is important is that Brooks talks about this process in terms of empathy. If you can imitate and like, it offers space for compassion, for caring, for morality. If you can’t do the first part of the above sentence, the aspects of the second part will likely be lacking. Liking (i.e., ‘preference’) and imitation are facilitated by presence and proximity. Therefore, the less of the last two means likely the less of the first two. So, for example, in a socio-politico-economic sense the more there is a shrinking middle-class and the gap widens between the rich and the poor, the greater the probability that there will be less liking and imitation because there is less presence and proximity. The vital question becomes how does one stop such a trend at the societal level? Among other things, that answer could lead into a discussion of anthropological change agentry.
Suffice it to say, this text won’t offer you everything, but there’s material here worth reading and considering.
 David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement (New York: Random House, 2012), 41.
 Ibid., xiii.
 Ibid., vii.
 Ibid., 40-41.
8 responses to “Permeable Minds and Invisible Networks”
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The effort to summit, and reluctance to change reminds me of the concept of fitness landscapes. Biologists use the term “fitness” to describe the success of an organism. In business it is used to describe the competitive edge.
Fitness depends on numerous interrelated factors that can combine in endless variety. There are three types of fitness landscapes, and each can be used to characterize familiar scenarios:
1. gradual. like the undulating terrain of southern California.
2. rugged. like the topography of Nepal – compare to the present day competition in the cellular industry.
3. random. the topography of the moon, where the impact of meteors rather than the logic of plate tectonics shaped the surface
Higher degrees of fitness are depicted by linear height on a landscape, and a loss of fitness is visualized as going downhill. When a species is threatened, as happened with the coyote in America, it descends the fitness landscape to the edge of chaos. The coyote had to cope with habitat destruction, encroachment by human population, and even outright attempts to eradicate it. If a species adapts, it may lead to increased fitness, even better than the original habitat. In the case of the coyote and the foothills around Malibu, this is what occurred.
The struggle to secure a niche is described as an uphill climb. But when a species reaches a subsidiary peak (called a local optimum) on the fitness landscape, it may choose to remain there. Biologists call this perch a basin of attraction – a rest stop during the competitive journey. But species become stranded on these peaks. And because there are no bridges to get to the higher peaks, the organism must “go down to go up.”
In order to make this shift, there has to be sufficient instability or challenge; otherwise, an organism will not opt to leave the intermediate peak and suffer the unknown prospects of the valley. Living systems are driven out of a basin of attraction by discomfort – whether internal or external. Employee unrest, new competition, dwindling food sources, customer defection, loss of margins.. all these can combine to generate unrest.
“The living systems view does not focus only on the path of an organism as it maneuvers across the competitive landscape. Complexity also concerns itself with the way the landscape itself changes as the organism moves across it. Systems dynamics sees the challenge as mapping causal factors that move a system from point A to point B. Complexity regards the journey as walking on a trampoline. Each step alters the whole topography. What was “up” at the start may be somewhat “down” farther along the route, and the ascent may be far steeper as the destination draws near.” (Surfing the Edge of Chaos, 106)
Interesting reflection on the closing — that without proximity we build suspicion more than trust. Strong missional implications there, that if we don’t intentionally cross cultural and relational barriers then the walls only grow stronger.
Len, thank you for your reflection! I found it very beneficial and it is greatly appreciated. I will follow-up on your thoughts with some further personal reading/research.
We are dynamic (though limited) and not static systems. To do your analysis a disservice, but to be succinct, truly, too much of a good thing is still too much. Our systems need rest, but too much turns a needed positive into a dangerous negative. Our systems need adaptive challenge, but too much turns it into chaotic threat.
Clint, I loved your post as you ably journeyed through Brook’s themes in this weeks reading. I enjoyed the book even though I felt that at times it was not going to end because Brook writes in such a skillful and dense style. Not only that, but the book was loaded with many ideas which caused me to stop many times during the reading to connect the logic. There where times the author seemed to highlight greater regard for emotions over reasons, but there were times he used reason to acknowledge emotions. All in all, Brook is book is a great resource.
One of the take aways from you post was the observation “begin to imagine to yourself what happens with relationality when one, two, three or all four characteristics of presence, preference, proximity and imitation are absent – absent due to either lack of ability to enact them or lack of desire to do so.”
Such insight and more are necessary for anyone to reflect on.
Thanks for reading this, Michael.
I appreciated Brooks bringing us back to the simple and vital importance of shared existence. Sometimes we get so caught-up in all kinds of other thinking that we forget it’s all for naught in the end if we forsake the goodness of healthily being together.
I appreciate your reflections on this book, Clint (i made a veiled attempt at trying to find you another “p” word but “parody” didn’t seem to quite do it and then I figured if you couldn’t find one, I certainly don’t have much of a chance at it). However, you also said “Of course the ‘dance steps’ appear different in different relationships, but the same aspects of human connection are present. ” This statement really caught my attention and provides an excellent lens through which to read this book. With all the areas that Brooks covers through his characters, the dance, is essentially what they are doing – not just in trying to keep in step with their partner but ultimately trying to keep in rhythm to the music that’s playing in their unconscious mind/soul. Then the question, for me, becomes – what’s the song that God wants us to listen to as we move through life and how do we get others to listen to it as well?
Deve, as normal, your insights are perceptive and your questions profound.
My thoughts on your query: Perhaps it is less about being concerned about the song we sing and more about seeking to sing in harmony together whatever song is being sung around us? That is, I think God wants us to listen to the song God is singing through others — even though they may not be hearing their own song.
If this is so, I think we bring others into a song, by making ourself the “other” and — as noted — constantly seeking to harmoniously enter the songs of those around us. Then the question becomes how many people do we meet in a day and how well do we love them? That answer becomes the answer for “how do we get others to listen.” That is, we add harmony to the song they are already singing so that they can hear their song in a new way that brings further life to them.
Thank you for your thoughts and query. I’ve appreciated how it has caused me to further reflect on an aspect of my own manner of engaging the world.
Hey Clint. Enjoyed your reflections especially the whole presence and proximity leading to a passivity of proper patience with those of poor places. This came up in my last paper discussing immigration and globalization. Bauman talks about how the collateral damages of people pile up as the separation of classes becomes ever greater. The greater the distance between people the less empathy there was. We cannot feel what we refuse to touch. Out of sight, out of mind. As Dr. Len commented this does have significant missional implications. I too found Brooks’ amalgamation and distillation helpful. His distillation approach of interweaving a story kept my attention and allowed the appreciation of the cold scientific facts to accumulate in my mind with a certain solidification that will not be so easily forgotten.
Thanks referring back to Bauman, Mitch.
This is an aspect of so much (post)modern continental philosophical thought that I deeply appreciate. This attempt to push us to re-connect the dis-connect. I find it simultaneously prophetic and pastoral.