The Social Animal

Stephan Is A Fraud?

DISCLAIMER: I must state before I begin this review that I am a fraud because I have only read this book once.  I have been convicted by the science referenced within The Social Animal because I claim to understand the book well enough to summarize it after only one run-through.  Author David Brooks maintains that for true learning to take place in the human mind, a process of repetitive reading and analysis is needed for the brain to internalize information, make connections between facts and form new data into unconscious knowledge.  But, as I’ve already confessed, I only read the book once.  So with that caveat, I will attempt to convey, at the very least, an appreciative flavor of the book before I dive back in for my own second round of reading!

At Brandtrust, we are no strangers to explorations into the complex mysteries of human behavior.  So it should come as no shock that our collective ears perked up at the release of David Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.  Readers of Brooks’ Op-Ed column in “The New York Times” know that he has expressed a deep enthusiasm over the years for research and breakthroughs in the social sciences, and has a passion for finding relevant ways of applying those studies to social policies, societal implications and everyday life.

The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

The Social Animal mirrors this passion as Brooks continues in his quest to raise awareness and challenge traditional theories behind the inner workings of human beings.  Brooks’ third foray into full-length publication, following previous releases of Bobos in Paradise (2001) and On Paradise Drive (2004), aims to shed light on the previously dark caverns of the human subconscious and explain how understanding our own behavior as social creatures can lead to a more fulfilling and rewarding existence.

To create a captivating collection of the latest breakthroughs in the social sciences, Brooks structures his commentary in the form of story – a didactic narrative that is meant to illustrate these scientific findings playing out in real life.  In this tale, he takes us through the lives of two individuals, and tracks their development and social evolution over time, hitting on major social milestones ranging from conception, adolescence, marriage, retirement, and finally death.  Since the use of narrative for furthering human understanding of, well, anything is another concept we hold dear, Brooks really fired my imagination.

A Mind Only Exists Within a Network

While the story follows the fictional lives of Harold and Erica, the main character in this story turns out to be the non-conscious mind, which Brooks pauses to explore and analyze through the typical life stages a majority of people in our society will encounter.  Brooks challenges the simplistic view of human nature where we are “primarily the products of our conscious thinking” and aims to explain how we are all influenced and directed by our subconscious – developed and directed by our social interactions and relationships.  We are all, in a sense, products of relationships that we have with our past, with others, and with the environment we develop in. He states,

“…people don’t develop first and create relationships. People are born into relationships – with parents, with ancestors – and those relationships create people…A brain is something that is contained within a single skull. A mind only exists within a network. It is the result of the interaction between brains…” (p. 43)

To inform his story, Brooks attempts to synthesize a broad spectrum of work from many social scientists and make sense of a wide variety of studies.  While the studies and data cited can occasionally come across as sloppy and tangential, the purpose of the collection of data is to stretch our thinking and bring awareness to the subtle mysteries of the human brain.  It is meant to inspire us to re-examine the common ruts and perceptions with which we view our behavior and understand the role that social relationships play in our lives.

The Social Animal falls into perfect alignment with a lot of the emotional research that we practice at Brandtrust, and stretches our thinking even further as we seek to understand the influencers of human behavior.  After reading Brooks’ recent work, it is impossible not to examine our lives to see what influencers have led us to become who we are today, and to understand how we are all, indeed, social animals.

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