The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement
by David Brooks
(Random House, 2011, 448 pages)
In his day job as a columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks writes about politics and public policy, exploring ways that human flourishing can be promoted at a societal level. In The Social Animal, Brooks zeros in to look at what makes for a satisfying and well-lived life. Through an examination of the last thirty years of neuroscience and psychological research, he shows how the subconscious – the more affective, intuitive, and mysterious side of human beings – is shaped and formed through the relationships we forge and the traditions we are a part of.
Brooks weaves together scientific studies and the narrative of a fictional couple, Erica and Harold, to give a picture of the non-analytic side of everyday life, including decision making, the learning process, raising children, constructing meaning in life, growing old, and many other issues. By drawing our attention to the scope of the brains operations that underlie our conscious and overtly rational thought processes, Brooks helps to show how complex and elusive we really are.
There are two aspects of this book that I found particularly enjoyable. First, Brooks provides all sorts of interesting and unusual scientific studies about human thought and behavior. Some of these are pretty hilarious, in addition to making excellent trivia. Second, the story of Erica and Harold is well told and skillfully integrated with the scientific findings. I found myself fully invested in these characters, and I got caught up in their story in the same way I would get caught up in a novel.
Brooks writes with humor and emotional power while condensing and simplifying a vast amount of research. I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in sociology, public policy, or neuroscience – or to someone who simply wants a little more insight into who they are and how they should live.