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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bobos and the brain

Look out -- it appears David Brooks is readying a cognitive science-influenced 21st century version of Bobos in Paradise :-)

New Yorker: ... A year or so after they were married, Harold and Erica spent a week with Harold’s parents at their house in Aspen. They went riding and rafting and they attended an ideas festival. They sat through panel discussions on green technology and on how to adopt a charter school, and they spent a few hours immersed in the “China: Friend or Foe?” debate. One morning, they attended a talk by a neuroscientist. He was a young man in black jeans and a leather jacket, and he came to the session carrying a motorcycle helmet, as if he’d just escaped from a Caltech revival of “Grease.” He greeted a Finnish TV crew that was making a documentary about his work, mounted the stage, and gave a slide presentation that started with a series of optical illusions, like two tabletops that seem totally different but are actually the same size.

Then he displayed a series of colorful brain-scan pictures and threw out some startling statistics: we have a hundred billion neurons in the brain; infants create as many as 1.8 million neural connections per second; a mere sixty neurons are capable of making ten to the eighty-first possible connections, which is a number ten times as large as the number of particles in the observable universe; the ability to distinguish between a “P” and a “B” sound involves as many as twenty-two sites across the brain; even something as simple as seeing a color in a painting involves a mind-bogglingly complex set of mental constructions. Our perceptions, the scientist said, are fantasies we construct that correlate with reality.

At first, Harold found the talk a little chilling: it seemed that the revolution the scientist was describing was bound to lead to cold, mechanistic conclusions. If everything could be reduced to genes, neural wiring, and brain chemistry, what happened to the major concepts of life—good and evil, sin and virtue, love and commitment? And what about the way Harold made sense of his life as he lived it, the everyday vocabulary of morals, moods, character, aspirations, temptations, values, ideals? The scientist described human beings as creatures driven by deep mechanisms, almost like puppets on strings, not as ensouled human beings capable of running their own lives.

During the question-and-answer period, though, a woman asked the neuroscientist how his studies had changed the way he lived. He paused for a second, and then starting talking about a group he had joined called the Russian-American Folk Dance Company. It was odd, given how hard and scientific he had sounded. “I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends,” he said. “Now, though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.

“And though history has made us self-conscious in order to enhance our survival prospects, we still have deep impulses to erase the skull lines in our head and become immersed directly in the river. I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. And it happens most when we connect with other people. I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.”

As the scientist went on to talk about the rush he got from riding his motorcycle in the mountains, Harold was gripped by the thought that, during his lifetime, the competition to succeed—to get into the right schools and land the right jobs—had grown stiffer. Society had responded by becoming more and more focussed. Yet somehow the things that didn’t lead to happiness and flourishing had been emphasized at the expense of the things that did. The gifts he was most grateful for had been passed along to him by teachers and parents inadvertently, whereas his official education was mostly forgotten or useless.

Moreover, Harold had the sense that he had been trained to react in all sorts of stupid ways. He had been trained, as a guy, to be self-contained and smart and rational, and to avoid sentimentality. Yet maybe sentiments were at the core of everything. He’d been taught to think vertically, moving ever upward, whereas maybe the most productive connections were horizontal, with peers. He’d been taught that intelligence was the most important trait. There weren’t even words for the traits that matter most—having a sense of the contours of reality, being aware of how things flow, having the ability to read situations the way a master seaman reads the rhythm of the ocean. Harold concluded that it might be time for a revolution in his own consciousness—time to take the proto-conversations that had been shoved to the periphery of life and put them back in the center. Maybe it was time to use this science to cultivate an entirely different viewpoint.

After the lecture, Harold joined his family and they went downtown to their favorite gelato shop, where Harold had his life-altering epiphany. He’d spent years struggling to dazzle his Mandarin tutors while excelling in obscure sports, trying (not too successfully) to impress admissions officers with S.A.T. prowess and water-purification work in Zambia, sweating to wow his bosses with not overlong PowerPoints. But maybe the real action was in this deeper layer. After all, the conscious mind chooses what we buy, but the unconscious mind chooses what we like. So resolved, he boldly surveyed the gelato selections before him and confidently chose the cloudberry.

Below Brooks describes the "soft skills" he feels are more critical to success than IQ. See earlier discussion of "soft" elite firms. I'll maintain my earlier claim that value creation (e.g., technological innovation) is tied more directly to g, whereas extraction of rents, skimming the cream, manipulation of other apes, etc. are more tied to soft skills ;-) Who is creating more value for human civilization in the excerpt above -- the neuroscientist (a high g maverick who comes up with original insights) or Harold (a relatively dull person who nevertheless, thanks to his soft skills, earns much more money)? The neuroscientist is a PhD and Harold is a prototypical HBS guy.

Throughout his life, Harold had a superior ability to feel what others were feeling. He didn’t dazzle his teachers with academic brilliance, but, even in kindergarten, he could tell you who in his class was friends with whom; he was aware of social networks. Scientists used to think that we understand each other by observing each other and building hypotheses from the accumulated data. Now it seems more likely that we are, essentially, method actors who understand others by simulating the responses we see in them. When Harold was in high school, he could walk around the cafeteria and fall in with the unique social patterns that prevailed in each clique. He could tell which clique tolerated drug use or country-music listening and which didn’t. He could tell how many guys a girl could hook up with and not be stigmatized. In some groups, the number was three; in others seven. Most people assume that the groups they don’t belong to are more homogeneous than the groups they do belong to. Harold could see groups from the inside. When he sat down with, say, the Model U.N. kids, he could guess which one of them wanted to migrate from the Geeks and join the Honors/Athletes. He could sense who was the leader of any group, who was the jester, who played the role of peacemaker, daredevil, organizer, or self-effacing audience member.

Compare with this description (comment) offered by a former physicist who now occupies a very senior position at an elite financial firm:

My experiences with HYPS grads from "wimpy majors", econ, history, etc... who ended up at tier I i-banks have been interesting. I am consistently shocked by their superb interpersonal skills. I hate to dilute serious discussion with politics, but think of Barry Obama - a man who can sell an entire country on a contentless refrain of "hope and change" off the back of his empty resume while taking on Mr. McCain - a man with a "power establishment" resume. The American system finds the Barack Obama's and promotes them. At the same time it finds the Mark Zuckerberg's. At a place like Goldman you will find both Obama's and Zuckerberg's - but only because both types figure out, in advance, that it was in their interest to go there to leverage the brand name. In the fullness of time, each are revealed for what they are.

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