Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Social Animal - David Brooks.

This is one of the most profound books I have ever digested.  EVER.  And I mean no exaggeration.  The Economist touted it as 'a fascinating study of the unconscious mind and its impact on our lives' and it has certainly lived up to the name and dare I say beyond it.

The Social Animal is a narration on the life story of two protagonists and everyone in between from their foetal conception right up to their grave.  I'm not exactly a fan of fiction, but what Brook did was ingenious.  He interspersed general fiction of these characters which are very possible lives of anyone in today's world with facts, data, sound researches, hypotheses to back almost every behavioural decision made by these said characters - in short, he proved that as we go through life from cradle to grave, we think we are the ones making the decisions but most often than not, it is our unconscious that's been steering the ship.  We processed millions of data and stimuli to make a decision even before we realized we've already decided, the conscious was just a matter of executing it.  And what Brooks did was not to let the course of his work turn airy fairy - just because there're still no definitive scientific researches today that can prove the workings of our brain, let alone our mind - instead he meticulously weaved in relevant scientific facts and insightful literary prose that would justify even our most shameless subconscious behaviour or actions that we might have taken and to be so dumbfounded as to why.

To be honest, this book was almost like a mysterious answer that fell from the sky, right onto my lap.  But less dramatically, it just caught my eye on one of Border's shelves in the 'self-help' section.  Have you ever felt like there are two people living inside you and you don't know why?  And worse, when one of them misbehaves, the other deeply resents that, and you're stuck in the middle not knowing which one to side?  In The Social Animal, Brooks introduced many characters (that I'm assuming can be generalized into a representative segment of the general population) that I resonate with.  It feels like every character has a little bit of me at different parts of the narration.  And by him 'dissecting' actions, choices, decisions, thoughts and showing a path to how our everyday unconsciousness could be leading and making the decisions for our own best interest, I suddenly understood what it means to 'surrender'.  The word 'surrender' in a religious context - surrender to God - has always felt more like giving up and being defeated.  Put it in a non-religious context then it sounds a tad too new-age for me - surrender to what?  It felt to me we could easily replace it with an indifferent 'whatever' and it would still work.  But after this intense journey, I realized that 'surrendering' simply means letting my unconscious take over and trust it to make the best decisions for me based on its unexplainable unscientific unfounded way of processing simple and complex information.  I've got strong intuitions, and I've always allowed it to point me to some kind of direction - at work, in relationships, in sports, in travelling - but once the course is set, logic will simply take over and say, "Good job, but we don't need you anymore".  I suppose when it comes to highly objective matters (as in business) being less emotional and more logical would be appreciated.  But now I'm curious.  I'm curious if, when and should my 'unconscious' take over - would the decisions be the same?  If love was something that falls entirely in the 'unconscious' segment, would my unconsciousness be able to guard my heart and protect me like what I've been so consciously doing?  If I'd play badminton more intuitively, would I be a better player serving more strategic shots without actually needing to learn how to do that in theory?

This is truly tricky if you ask me.  As I mentioned, I've always been highly intuitive.  Not always but most of the time, I could foresee outcome A or B because of XYZ so that I now can decide to pick solution C or D accordingly, but never really thought about letting my intuition take the entire course.  Because it is scary to not know what you're doing.  Since I've learned that the unconscious will and is capable of making the best decision, I should hold back less, analyse less - all these presumingly points to better balance and inner peace.  It is truly liberating to know now that I didn't trust myself enough to make certain decisions and now I can actually change that ;)

The Social Animal is highly recommended for anyone who has an interest in psychology, social science, behavioural economics, sociology or simply an interest in their own mind and thoughts.  The last time I read an over-500-pages book in 3 days time was the last instalment of Harry Potter.  A good book is one I consider, after an intense back-to-back reading, you feel rejuvenated (or have some kind of closure - as in the case of Harry Potter 7) instead of feeling exhausted.  You know, the amazing thing is I feel like re-reading The Social Animal simply because it carries so much insights.  Some blatant on the lines, some hidden in between.  I feel like I want to take it slower this time and make sure I've really digested everything.  Awesome :)

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