David Brooks has written an intense and slightly strange article in The New Yorker. It begins ‘brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy’ and then proceeds, somewhat lyrically, through the life and love of a middle class American and their discovery of deeper forces and meaning. He continues, ‘Many members of this class, like many Americans generally, have a vague sense that their lives have been distorted by a giant cultural bias. They live in a society that prizes the development of career skills but is inarticulate when it comes to the things that matter most. The young achievers are tutored in every soccer technique and calculus problem, but when it comes to their most important decisions—whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise—they are on their own.’
This is partly the proverbial trip to India and what has been for me, someone raised in America, six years in Sri Lanka. There is this modern confrontation with things like the social world and India and China as if they are something new when in fact they are very very old. I think Brooks most interesting insight is that we are information, and that we derive much happiness from our connection to it, in disparate forms.
“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.
It’s a long, thought provoking piece, a bit different from his usual editorials. I don’t understand his preoccupation with gelato and I think his case study is increasingly obscure, but it’s well worth a read.