Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

On the Overconfidence of Consciousness

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Striking a similar tone to a speech I reviewed last week by William Deresiewicz, David Brooks’ recent piece in The New Yorker also addresses the theme of over-achieving people and understanding their paths to success and happiness.  Arguing that “brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy” in our understanding of the human person, Brooks notes that “Researchers at the University of Minnesota can look at attachment patterns of children at forty-two months, and predict with seventy-seven percent accuracy who will graduate from high school.”  The early experiences of life do not determine us, but they certainly provide us with pathways, “changed or reinforced by later experiences.”

What makes us happiest are social interactions with friends, family, or our spouses.  People whose work is most social tend to be the happiest, Brooks notes.  According to research, “joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income.”  Above all, humans desire deep social connections.

Brooks adroitly and poignantly weaves the story of a stereotypical bourgeois relationship, its development, and culmination into a précis of medical findings centered on the primacy of unconscious desiderata and evolutionary brain science.  Throughout the foregoing analysis, one senses the overconfidence humans experience in the analysis of human behavior, lending far too much credence to our conscious, rational selves.  But “living is an inherently emotional business.”

The implications of this argument are obviously vast.  Human beings appear as mindless automatons, not as ensouled beings capable of structuring their own lives.  Perhaps even more importantly, especially from a philosophical point of view, it sunders the previously sacrosanct nexus we held dear between our consciousness and our happiness.  The implication here is that happiness is no longer an entirely conscious production, or the role of consciousness in producing happiness is attenuated significantly.  Happiness, or what we thought was happiness, no longer resides in conscious accomplishments, the trophies, pictures, or degrees we display somewhat ostentatiously on our walls.  Instead, “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.”  If this is the case, no amount of intelligence or education, formal or informal, can substitute for these findings; our culture has yet to formulate words for the traits that matter most.  Gifts with the most utility “had been passed along to him by teachers and parents inadvertently, whereas his official education was mostly forgotten or useless.”  (This reminds me of a quote by the French philosopher, Yves Simon, “No spontaneous operation of intellectual relations protects the young philosopher against the risk of delivering his soul to error by choosing his teachers infelicitously.”)

Brooks avers that we generally “learn from the people we love.”  I concur.  Learning seems to begin with an intellectual intrigue that develops into an emotional resonance, an affectionate friendship of sorts.  Paradoxically, however, in the process of interlocution, the ebb and flow of dialogue and the exchange of knowledge and ideas, one participant may be (temporarily) superior to the other interlocutor as the conversation tends toward his or her expertise.  Indeed, this happens to Brook’s fictional bourgeois couple.  Thus, emotional connection, especially the deepest type of friendship, is not about a radical equality between people—constant meetings of well-matched minds—but something more like the fictional couple, who each have spheres of dominance.  Occasionally, one prowess outstrips another in conversation; on another occasion, vice-versa.  Brooks notes that these moments of inequity are not indicative of a slippage in emotional connection or friendship.  Rather, they afford friends and lovers a kind of intellectual “map-melding” that gradually engenders profound understanding.  Contrast this with a relationship of equally-matched minds (on all issues), locked in a calamitous struggle that would defeat the dynamism of affection and friendship itself—not to mention the potential for growth as individuals.  Significantly, these occasional inequities in an affectionate relationship are yet another demonstration of self-insufficiency, and thus the need to overcome our vision of human beings as completely rational, self-sufficing, and coherent wholes.


Written by ryancberg

January 27, 2011 at 3:53 pm

One Response

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  1. Really good article and a very timely one for me, as I’m preparing a talk about raising children in cross-cultural environments (when each parent is from a different culture, yet has grown up in a third culture, then they move to a fourth culture and the grandparents help out with the kids etc.) I especially like what you say about the ‘inadvertent’ passing along of learning.

    The more I research, the more it feels that we are ‘indoctrinating’ children with our values about education, national identity, the nature of truth, wealth, family and so on. And we’re doing it not explicitly, not through a rational discussion of the different values, but through our methogs of handling parenting issues such as sleep, eating, disciplining, talking, body language. This is both good and bad, of course.

    Sanda Ionescu

    February 14, 2011 at 3:50 pm

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