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Is it consciousness or the unconscious?
That is the central question addressed by David Brook’s book ‘The Social Animal’ about the way the mind works and how we function psychologically.

Brooks, a NYT columnist, presents the most recent findings in brain sciences with the help of two fictional characters, Harold and Erica, their individual life stories, professional achievements as well as their love story. The book is a brilliant example of how to popularize scientific findings—it reads well, is funny, transmits knowledge and raises interesting questions.

Is it consciousness or the unconscious?

It’s the unconscious dummy, Brooks argues, consciousness representing only a small part of the neural and synaptic processes that are associated with perception, decision-making, thought, emotion and action. However, this need not imply that we are pawns of our collective memories. On the contrary, the unconscious represents an ocean of emotional cues and as such the source of character, creativity, love and achievement–so also the book’s subtitle.

Brooks’ message is not just epistemological. He uses brain science to argue in favour of a more communitarian approach to politics, a marriage between the ‘individualism of the moral sphere’ (p.315) (characteristic of Liberals) and the ‘individualism of the market’ (p.314) (characteristic of Conservatives)—what he would have liked to call ‘socialism’ had it not been that ‘socialism’ is negatively packed (at least in the United States) and has come to refer primarily to state-ism.

It is this slightly manipulative turn (based on a partial and simplistic reading of the social and political philosophy of the Enlightenment) that also explains the somewhat critical reception of the book in Forbes, TNR and, more mildly, by the New York Times.

The storyline used by Brooks to illustrate his argument lacks historical specificity: Harold and Erica are born, raised and grow up within the first decade of the twenty-first century. This is a nice trick that makes the characters—and their messages—accessible to a wide readership, old and young. At the same time, it points to the main weakness of the book. Despite insisting on the importance of context, Brooks fails to recognize that the role played by the unconscious in our social and individual lives depends, among else, on the historical context in which we live.

An earlier book with the same title took a somewhat less positive perspective on culture and social networks as codified by consciousness and mediated through unconscious processes. The ‘Social Animal’ by Elliot Aronson (originally published in 1972) was written from the perspective of the social psychology of the 1950s and 1960s, the objective of which was to explain the emergence of phenomena like conformity, propaganda, manipulation, prejudice and bias—how these are rooted in community rules and lead, in specific contexts, to violence and genocide.

One mistake committed equally by Brooks and his critics is that of equating consciousness with rationality and the unconscious with non-rational emotions. This is a misleading association. We have different modes of making sense of the world and our own experiences; and our levels of awareness, as illustrated by brain-imaging technology, differ within rather than across these modes. Emotions have their own rationality and thoughts their own irrationality.

Our unconscious, as a pool of vast and less differentiated information, is in actual fact the source of creativity, but it can also be the seedbed for cultivating hatred—just like consciousness is necessary for human agency, but can also act as the sclerotic depository for anachronistic beliefs and inhibitions.

It is time one imagines the relativity theory of the human mind …
In the meantime my recommendation is reading both ‘social animals’—that of Brooks and that of Aronson.