Mental Landscapes, David Brooks and the Aspen Festival of Ideas

David Brooks gave a talk last week in Aspen that inspired me and that I can’t stop thinking about. Note that it comes in three parts. His book is due to come out in the fall of 2009.

Brooks discusses an intellectual revolution that brings together neuroscience, sociology, psychology, behavioral economics, genetics, and a variety of other fields in an effort to shine a light on non-cognitive skills — that which cannot be counted by IQ scores, but is important to success.

He addresses the importance of the action that takes place in the human mind below the level of the awareness, in the unconscious; how emotion is the central core for giving value to thinking – it’s the central organizing process of the brain; and the permeability of the human mind.

Brooks speculates: How do you talk about the unconscious or love at a Congressional Hearing? We tend to focus on what we can easily measure. Yet, what really matters is extremely emotional, unconscious, and relationship-based and, for that, we need a new vocabulary.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on Brooks’ talk. If you have the time, there are a number of talks worth viewing on the site from the Aspen Festival of Ideas.

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  • Andrew

    I’m not sure it counts as an “intellectual revolution” – it’s over two hundred years old. It’s the sort of thing that numerous philosophers since Kant have written about.

    Fundamentally, attempting to access the unconscious through the cognition conscious is futile, for you can only talk about it in terms which negate it. It’s analagous to what Wittgenstein wrote about language and silence.

  • Dan

    You’d think that David Brooks’ neocon status makes him persona non grata in civilized company. But as Humbert Humbert said, most people are suckers for a fancy prose style. Now he’s trying to earn a living being an intellectual, as he did when he wrote Bobos. But, he remains a rhetoriticist, willing to say (or write) anything, no matter how disingenuous, that will get him an audience. Read his stuff with a strong filter in place, being sure to know what his agenda is.

  • Unfortunately these peoples landscape is a desert!

  • His story about the separated twins, and other similar stories I’ve heard, seem to drastically challenge our present notion of the limits of consciousness. Is it possible that such individuals lead such similar lives not because the genes dictate these trivial aspects of one’s life (child’s names, favorite cigarettes, etc), but rather because there is some type of psychic bridge between these individuals?

    This is a radical notion for the present day, mainstream scientific community, but let us not forget all the other scientific discoveries throughout the centuries that were once thought of as ludicrous (a heliocentric universe, the atomic world, the link between bacteria and disease, etc). As for myself, I’ve long since accepted the notion of a psychic dimension at the depths of human consciousness.

  • I really think that neuroscience, sociology, psychology, behavioral economics, genetics and so on will be of more importance in near future than it is now. In a world growing together so fast i think it will surely be something of interest for the people with a minimum of intelligence…

  • I think Brooks has a point::what is happening in science right now is new and deep. I can easily imagine he will have a different understanding of the implications than I do, but I’m happy that he is paying attention. On Being Certain by Burton, Robert A., MD and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions dive into some of these issues.
    I might only rarely agree with Brooks, but he is right (and the comments show it) about the need for a new vocabulary.

  • jack

    I’d have to agree with the notion that these sciences will become more important as our understanding of the human psyche grows.

    this aspen festival of ideas is certainly an interesting event though. I was reading this article about global thinkers / problem solvers and came across this event, as well as others around the world. maybe they can actually accomplish something.

  • Brooks is not only rambling, he is getting his facts and interpretations wrong too. I want my 8 minutes of back.

    And Linda – “how emotion is the central core for giving value to thinking – it’s the central organizing process of the brain; and the permeability of the human mind.” – it is not. I suggest you actually pick up a book on neuroscience, there are plenty of popular treatments available.

  • Michael R. Bernstein

    “Yet, what really matters is extremely emotional, unconscious, and relationship-based and, for that, we need a new vocabulary.”

    I suspect we don’t.

    Or rather, not yet, since such a vocabulary must almost inevitably be initially oriented around the effects it has on group dynamics (cohesion, agglomeration, permeability) and decision making, it will be a while, since first we have to be able to talk about the exterior effects before we can talk (more) meaningfully about the individual interior landscapes that gives rise to those effects.

    When we can disambiguate various qualities that currently get lumped into fuzzy labels like ‘social harmony’ and measure them, then we will be able to start getting all reductionist about the individuals who are participating.

  • This mostly negative comment thread makes most of David’s points better than he did. What a ride!

    Few audiences in the world are less aware of their emotions and unconscious, than the O’Reilly Radar, uber-alpha-geek audience. We are a male dominant, logic-centric, engineering-minded crew and his message is entirely threatening to us, especially if we desperately want our brains and bodies to be orderly slaves in the same way our gadgets and programming languages are.

    The comedy is that not a single person on this thread responded to Linda’s post, or David’s talk in emotional terms. No one said: it made me angry / sad / curious / frightened / confused, or what have you, despite the fact every single person who read the post felt something.

    We’re simply not comfortable talking about our feelings, or not aware of our feelings enough to mention them, despite their huge, if not dominant impact, on the decisions we make. It’s hard to argue that our Amygdala’s run most of the show we call our lives – that tiny ancient reptilian peanut brain runs all of our lives more than we’ll ever admit.

    And the irony is, by rejecting Brook’s points on purely intellectual and logic driven points, y’all are making his point for him.

  • sim

    Thanks for letting us know about that talk. I found it fascinating and leaving me wanting to hear more!

  • gregorylent

    How do you talk about the unconscious or love at a Congressional Hearing? or in business … i was hoping that the influx of women into business would effect this change, but no, they talk about the same useless stuff men do

    the highest need of the world at this time is to understand consciousness, and probably from a subjective as well as an objective pov … but of course making money or brittney is what everyone focuses on

    we have a long way to go as a species, though as an individual you or i can grab onto the heights at any time

    we start by letting go of what we think we know ….

  • Michael R. Bernstein


    Well, I felt curiosity, but isn’t that a given, considering the audience?

  • Sam Penrose

    Brooks is a scoundrel. Here’s a dissection of his latest column:

    His stock in trade is faux evenhandedness and platitudes masking as intellectual curiosity. He’s very good at it on paper — I imagine he’d be downright dazzling as a speaker. But there is no there there.

    (Note that I personally don’t agree with all of Sleeper’s comments on the underlying issue. There are other blow-by-blow analyses of Brook’s rhetorical tactics out there; I just happened to have stumbled across this one at the same time I read your post.)

  • I know this person. Should they know?

  • His talks are well structured and it is fun to listen to him. But as far as I am concerned I like Schopenhauers aproaches better.

  • “I know this person. Should they know?”
    –> LOL…never ever ;-)

  • “he is getting his facts and interpretations wrong too”
    – I have to agree to Tooley, but i also have to say that this article was very fascinating….the hole thing cannot be discussed in comments but Michael Bernstein made a good comment reflecting the hole thing…