Saturday, January 22, 2011

Is the world right-brained or left-brained, IV

Digesting the latest cognitive science research in this past week's New Yorker, David Brooks appears to conclude that, deep down inside, we're all right-brainers, and that it's the right-brained stuff that makes all the difference:

Intelligence, academic performance, and prestigious schools don’t correlate well with fulfillment, or even with outstanding accomplishment. The traits that do make a difference are poorly understood, and can’t be taught in a classroom, no matter what the tuition: the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures. 
The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years... emphasizes the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over abstract logic, perceptiveness over I.Q.


There’s a debate in our culture about what really makes us happy, which is summarized by, on the one hand, the book “On the Road” and, on the other, the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The former celebrates the life of freedom and adventure. Research over the past thirty years makes it clear that what the inner mind really wants is connection. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was right. Joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income. According to research by Daniel Kahneman, Alan B. Krueger, and others, the daily activities most closely associated with happiness are social—having sex, socializing after work, and having dinner with friends. Many of the professions that correlate most closely with happiness are also social—a corporate manager, a hairdresser.
The inner mind. Left out of Brooks' discussion is any sense of human diversity; any notion that there may be significant exceptions to these general trends. 

In particular, if what Brooks writes is really true of all of us, it's really bad news for the individuals on Autistic Spectrum out there who don't do well in groups, don't have tons of friends, and tend not to succeed in social professions. (Brooks' note about social jobs is also bad news for writers like himself; will he quit his OpEd gig to become a hairdresser?).

But are writers, solitary travelers, and people like Temple Grandin really less happy than the rest of humanity?  Or might the cognitive science research show us something different if it didn't lump all of humanity together?

Ironically, Brooks' other recent piece, his OpEd on Amy Chua in last week's New York Times, has the opposite problem: in places it is more applicable to Aspies than to their neurotypical counterparts. For here he claims that:
Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.
Um, I imagine most neurotypical 14-year-olds find sleepovers less cognitively demanding than four hours of focused attention.

On the other hand, Brooks repeats the tired fallacy that "most people work in groups," confusing, as do so many of his colleagues in education, the notion of collaboration (where large projects are divvied up and people typically spend most of their time working apart) with cooperation (the much less common practice of co-workers spending most of their time working together, in groups, in the same place at the same time--e.g., sitting around a conference table and talking for hours on end and somehow being productive).

One can only imagine how Brooks' pieces, both of them anticipating his forthcoming The Social Animal, will be used by educators to further justify current practices. I wonder whether any of these people will notice (and remember) the one direct mention Brooks makes of classrooms:
The traits that do make a difference [the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures] can’t be taught in a classroom. 
[Italics, emphatically, mine].

1 comment:

Hainish said...

Remember your posts on artsy science?

I just blogged about sciency art here.