A case for the supremacy of the unconscious mind

By Bill Beuttler
Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2011

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David Brooks’s third book, “The Social Animal,’’ is his most ambitious and earnest, and will likely surpass his sharply observed satirical masterpiece, “Bobos in Paradise,’’ as his biggest seller if not necessarily his best.

Brooks, the amiably conservative columnist for The New York Times (and frequent guest on NPR, PBS, and “Meet the Press’’), makes the case that society’s longstanding emphasis on the rational mind over the unconscious is misplaced. “We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness,’’ he explains. “Over the past few years, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and others have made great strides in understanding the building blocks of human flourishing. And a core finding of their work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness.’’

Here’s where the book’s title and subtitle come in. The outward mind, according to Brooks, focuses on the power of the individual; the inner mind highlights the bonds among people. Those bonds have become frayed in recent decades, he argues, and need rebuilding if we are to thrive as individuals and as a society.

“The unconscious is impulsive, emotional, sensitive, and unpredictable,’’ Brooks concedes. “It has its shortcomings. It needs supervision. But it can be brilliant. It’s capable of processing blizzards of data and making daring creative leaps. Most of all, it is also wonderfully gregarious. Your unconscious, that inner extrovert, wants you to reach outward and connect. It wants you to achieve communion with work, friend, family, nation and cause. Your unconscious wants to entangle you in the thick web of relations that are the essence of human flourishing.’’

Brooks fills his book with recent scholarly studies. But he makes his theories vivid via fictional characters, a technique Brooks borrows from the Rousseau classic “Emile.’’ Princeton researchers demonstrating people being able to “make snap judgments about a person’s trustworthiness, competence, aggressiveness and likability within the first tenth of a second’’ come up in the context of a character doing essentially that on blind date. A whole series of studies showing morality arising more from the unconscious than from reason are linked to another character’s self-disgust after committing adultery. There are dozens of other examples of Brooks using his characters’ stories to humanize new scientific insights regarding the primacy of the unconscious. This approach may sound unbearably didactic, but it works.

Brooks’s lead characters, Erica and Harold, spend most of their lives married to each other. Erica is half-Chinese and half-Mexican. Raised by a single mother, she blusters her way into a charter school that provides cultural advantages missing in her lower-class home. She graduates college, launches a consulting business, and, after its demise, joins a large cable conglomerate whose mismanagement she helps to correct on her rise to CEO. She then serves in the Cabinet of a charismatic two-term US president, before finally slowing down and devoting her twilight years to more soul-enriching activities.

Harold is Caucasian and has upper-middle-class roots. We watch his parents, Julia and Rob, meet for that aforementioned blind date outside a Barnes & Noble and proceed through their romance and Harold’s childhood. Harold is smart but less career-driven than Erica, with an interest in history implanted by a favorite high school teacher. When his wife’s consulting business dissolves, Harold finds work at a historical society and begins writing books. When Erica enters politics, Harold joins a Washington think tank.

Toward the start of all this, Brooks quotes Stendhal observing, “The greatest happiness love can offer is the first pressure of hands between you and your beloved.’’ The story of Harold and Erica goes on to describe both the first time they clasp hands and the last. In between, we’re shown them living through a patch of marital discord and other setbacks and successes. Though they are largely stick figures created to help Brooks illustrate points, the scene in which Harold slips out of consciousness for the last time is surprisingly moving.

Brooks also uses Harold to opine on how he’d like to see the revolution in consciousness affect politics.

“For a generation,’’ he writes, “no matter who was in power, the prevailing winds had been blowing in the direction of autonomy, individualism, and personal freedom, not in the direction of society, social obligations, and communal bonds.’’ Conservatives embraced the individualism of the market, liberals the individualism of the moral sphere, and both sides emphasized materialistic approaches to public policy while fighting fiercely over the proper size of government.

To protect social mobility, Harold and his creator advocate reviving the Hamiltonian tradition of limited but energetic government for modern times. Among other things, this would require tightening those human bonds Brooks believes have unraveled.

“Hamilton, Lincoln, and [Theodore] Roosevelt had been able to assume a level of social and moral capital,’’ Brooks argues via Harold. “They took it for granted that citizens lived in tight communities defined by well-understood norms, a moral consensus, and restrictive customs. Today’s leaders could not make that assumption. The moral and social capital present during those years had eroded, and it needed to be rebuilt.’’

“The Social Animal’’ has its flaws. At times Brooks works too hard to be funny. The numerous sources he cites, while nearly always intriguing, fly past too quickly to stick long. The lessons Brooks takes from them occasionally sound platitudinous. There’s no acknowledgement of the irony that the theories Brooks celebrates regarding the superiority of the unconscious were documented by conscious, rational minds — the part of us he considers second rate.

But none of that should matter much to readers. Brooks’s layman’s tour through the science-sparked revolution in consciousness is, on balance, an enjoyably thought-provoking adventure.

Bill Beuttler is publisher/writer in residence at Emerson College. He can be reached at

THE SOCIAL ANIMAL: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement
By David Brooks
Random House, 424 pp., $27