Projecting Onto David Brooks's Brain

Five different bloggers draw five widely different conclusions from a David Brooks column on neuroscience

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David Brooks's Tuesday column covering the cultural implications of neuroscience research has become a sort of blogger Rorschach test. While Brooks touches on everything from the class origins of fear to differing Arab and Jewish responses to pain, bloggers have projected their own pet curiosities onto the piece. They move far beyond Brooks's conclusion--that the hard sciences are shedding new light on cultural phenomena--to personal reflections on politics, science, and the spirit.

  • Reveals 'Panentheistic' Nature of Reality  Beliefnet's Rod Dreher has the quirkiest take. After pointing out that "[p]eople aren't machines ... There are people raised in cultures ... that inhibit human flourishing who nevertheless do flourish, and vice versa," he goes cosmically big picture: "[W]when it can be demonstrated that the human spirit/consciousness, and its artifacts (e.g., culture) can affect neurological structures and processes, and that these effects can be measured and observed scientifically, are we not moving closer to a kind of panentheistic understanding of reality?" (Panentheism, he explains helpfully, "is is the belief that God's spirit interpenetrates matter." One wonders whether his readers will find this explanation entirely clarifying.)
  • Explains Israel The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan latched onto Brooks's report of Arabs perceiving higher all-round levels of pain when shown painful images, while Jews "were more sensitive to pain suffered by members of a group other than their own." Suggesting this finding might explain "why Jews tend to be liberal," he also suggested it could be "a useful insight into the politics of the Middle East."
  • Shows How We Can Improve Humanity Ryan Sager at True Slant calls the studies Brooks covers "important," and says "[w]e have to understand human nature to know how to control it and channel it and improve it."
  • An Insult to Social Scientists complains Tibor Machan, a professor of business ethics at Chapman University in California. He takes issue with the following Brooks statement: "Economists, political scientists and policy makers treat humans as ultrarational creatures because they can't define and systematize the emotions." Machan is unimpressed. No one ever said humans were always rational, he points out.
Brooks seems to be gaga about findings the show that the theoretical model with which the social scientists work does not perfectly match the actual world. (He must not have read his Plato very carefully who taught that point many moons ago!) Moreover, Brooks should listen more closely to the people conducting the neuroscientific research who themselves attribute far less significance to their discoveries. Mostly what they have found confirms what those awful economists, political scientists and policy makers have believed by way of a close inspection of the brain with the aid of cat scans and MRIs.
  • Poor Portrayal of Society  "Brooks' point," writes anthropology researcher Anne Buchanan at The Mermaid's Tale, "seems to be that people are malleable, and can be socialized to overcome tribalism or anti-social behaviors." But Buchanan is not sure about the overall usefulness of this observation: "Even if neuroscientists show us that culture is taught, and people are teachable, who gets to decide who's the best role model? David Brooks thinks he knows, but so do Glen Beck and Rachel Maddow--and the rest of us. So, even if we ever do understand how the brain works, the politics won't get any cleaner or easier."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.