In the book “The Social Animal, The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement,” New York Times columnist David Brooks introduces us to the world of brain research and behavioral science through a literary style that is a marriage between fiction and reporting (anyone who enjoyed this book must watch Brain Games in Netflix).
What is his driving motivation to write this book? After years of political coverage, Brooks has observed a diversity of foreign and domestic policies in American government that have failed to produce the desired stability in foreign nations or improve the educational system in the U.S. What is the core problem? Brooks argues that the problem is that these strategies are based on a deficient understanding of human nature.
Our traditional view of human nature has been shaped by the French Enlightenment, which emphasizes pure reason over emotions. In this view, rational abilities are depicted as superior and divorced from emotions. However, advancements in neuroscience reveal that the relationship between emotions and reason is rather intricate. The many experiments in cognitive science mentioned in the book reveal three core principles that shape our new understanding of humanity. First, even though we rely on our conscious mind, the vast majority of the brain activity that affects our decisions happens at the unconscious level. Secondly, emotions are central to rational abilities, providing a framework of how we think and how we make evaluations. Third, we are not self-contained individuals; rather, we are highly interconnected with one another through our mind processes.
Therefore, Brooks argues that if we are to live fulfilling lives and produce policies that actually work, we need to base our strategies on a better understanding of humanity that is shaped by the insights from neuroscientists. This understanding points to five valuable traits that we must pursue: Emotional connection (mind sight), epistemological modesty (equipoise), environmental perception (metis), relational perception (sympathy), and self-control (character). Building a lifestyle or creating social policies within this framework will lead to fulfilling results because they are built upon a more accurate understanding of the human mind. Brooks concludes, “The research being done today reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, character over IQ, emergent, organic systems over linear, mechanistic ones, and the idea that we have multiples selves over the idea that we have a single self. If you want to put the philosophic implications in simple terms, the French Enlightenment which emphasized reason, loses; the British Enlightenment, which emphasized sentiments, wins.”
I enjoyed the book in many levels. It reminded me of Empower to Connect, a parenting philosophy based on brain development founded by Dr. Karyn Purvis. Brooks succeeds in reminding us that our brains are complex and that good discernment is a combination of what Manfred Kets De Vries calls analytical, emotional, and social intelligence. He also gives us a sobering call to exercise intellectual humility, realizing that our human perception is not as objective as we may believe. However, Brooks approaches his research with the assumptions of a Darwinian worldview, which results in a shallow portrait of human nature.
Brook asks, “Who are we? …We are junctions where millions of sensations, emotions, and signals interpenetrate every second. We are communication centers, and through some process we are not close to understanding, we have the ability to partially govern this traffic.” Reducing humanity to a series of bio-chemical processes borders into genetic determinism. He also seems to consider mind and brain synonymous, ignoring the many studies of brain research conducted by Dr. Bruce Greyson which indicate that mind activity continues even after brain death.
Even though the book is insightful in many ways, there is an underlying fallacy that runs throughout the pages. The author confuses who with how. Attempting to define who we are is not the same as asking how we function. Ontology is a branch of philosophy and theology—not science. Giving science the final word in ontological issues inevitably leads to Darwinian ethics, which presents a problem that Brooks does not address. For instance, the author recognizes that emphasizing skills over character leads to failed results. Yet, if we are only a highway of bio-chemical processes as he suggests, what is the objective foundation that defines good character from lack of character? Dr. John Lennox identifies the deficient relationship between science and ethics and poignantly asks, “If there is no non-material, non-genetic, element or force within us, what is there in us that could possibly have the capacity to rebel against our genes and behave morally?”
I find it ironic that the life guiding principles that Brooks discovered in science were already given in theology. Christian theology tells us that humans were designed to be social beings. We know that godliness is more important than material possessions, that humility is a divine virtue we should embody, and that koinonia is an essential ingredient of a healthy life. The difference is that theology answers Brooks’ ontological question with God at the center. We are beings created in the image of God, and loving Him is the beginning of wisdom.
Despite disagreeing with his apparent Reductionist-Darwinian view of human nature, Brooks reminds me that a thriving life is characterized by emotional health. “The key to a well-lived life is to have trained the emotions to send the right signals and to be sensitive to their subtle calls.” However, this level of emotional health is fragile and requires disciplined pursuit.
According to Brooks, the discerning abilities of a healthy emotional mind can be damaged by brain injuries. In the same vain of thought, Dr. Friedman reveals something even more astonishing, “Every single skewing of perception, reasoning, discernment, decisions, judgments, and thought processes observed in physically brain-damaged people who otherwise seem to have their intellects intact can also be the result of chronic anxiety.” In addition, in the book The Road Back To You, Ian Cron describes nine types of personalities and the distorted emotional processes that can enslave them. All of these authors value emotional health but warn us of the struggle to achieve it.
Despite the difficulty of achieving emotional health, the good news is that emotional maturity is attainable. Ian Cron says, “All of us bring some amount of brokenness to our connections with others, but you should understand that every single number on the enneagram is capable of healthy and life-giving relationships.”
From the Christian perspective, in order to have trained emotions as Brooks says, we must align our worldview with God’s view. We must love him with our minds and hearts, with our intellect and emotions. When we embrace our identity in Christ and live accordingly, we begin to experience a healthy emotional life—one that never ceases to be broken but also never ceases to be in the hands of the One who heals the brokenhearted. This is the place where the distorting effects of anxiety are replaced with God’s peace and the discerning abilities of our rational mind are guarded in Christ Jesus. These are, after all, the revealed sources of love, character, and achievement that remained hidden to Brooks.
 The Social Animal, 10.
 Ibid, 15.
 Gunning For God, 111.
 Brooks, 44.
 A Failure of Nerve, Loc 2225.
 The Road Back to You, Loc 438.