Zadie Smith, brain plasticity and optimism about human nature - RSA

Zadie Smith, brain plasticity and optimism about human nature


  • Education
  • Cognition

Happy New Year from the Social Brain!

Happy New Year from the Social Brain!


Here at the RSA, we like to be optimistic. We even like to be optimistic about the potential of human nature – something that is deeply unfashionable these days. By a slightly circuitous route I’m going to argue here that we can be quite optimistic about 2009 and beyond, because we can be optimistic about human nature in general.


My boss, Matthew Taylor, has spoken about the fact that the conception of the self (and concomitantly of agency) we have inherited from the Enlightenment, is no longer tenable given what we know about how people think, feel and act. Experiments like those carried out by Benjamin Libett have exposed as myth the idea that all our decisions and actions flow from an adjudicating and executive self. Much of what we think, say and do is actually triggered by sub-personal psychological mechanisms. And cases like that of Phineas Gage, made popular by Antonio Damasio, have shown us that despite the myth of a logical, purely rational self, when we do make self-conscious decisions, these are only possible because our emotions are fully integrated with our rational powers (emotions make possible the appearing salient of one choice over another, and thus the very possibility of making a decision at all). Moreover, behavioural economics (and recent events) have given the lie to the Chicago School conception of ‘economic man’ as the right one to understand economic agency.


This might seem to put the RSA in a bit of a pickle. We are an institution with its roots in the Enlightenment, and proud of this fact too. So how can we be optimistic about human nature in the classical Enlightenment sense, if the Enlightenment self has been exposed as fraud?


Matthew Taylor also blogged a while ago about Zadie Smith’s quite excellent article in the New York Review of Books. In the article, Smith discusses lucidly, honestly and eloquently the fact that many writers are committed to a form of expression (lyrical realism) which is still wedded to the Enlightenment conception of the self ( a self from which nothing is hidden from view, as it were). Smith likens this form of expression to neural pathways we are stuck in – engrained grooves of thinking and feeling that are familiar and comfortable but which don’t accurately represent how we actually experience the world. Being stuck in these grooves is not good for literature because part of its remit is to give expression to the latter.


Smith admits she is partly guilty of conformism to lyrical realism. But she points to another style of writing,  citing Tom Mcarthy’s Remainder as its apogee. This form of expression eschews the full transparency and authenticity of the Enlightenment self, and (somewhat ideologically) commits itself to depicting where the latter comes up short (where it is not transparent to itself, where it is inauthentic). I have my own reservations about this particular literary approach (it is set up almost wholly in opposition to lyrical realism, so to my mind is still beholden to it). But I accept wholeheartedly that what we want from our writers in the twenty-first century is, well, an honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a self in the twenty-first century.


Remainder sets to that task with iconoclastic relish and much dark humour. But perhaps rejecting the Enlightenment self needn’t go hand in hand with its nihilism? Perhaps it can go hand in had with a continued optimism about human nature?


How so? Experiments in neuroscience on brain plasticity suggest that neural pathways can always be reconfigured – that the grooves we think and feel in are just that, rather than fixed routes. So we are perfectly capable of reshaping our imagination, of thinking and feeling differently where need be. In the current economic climate there is much pessimism. But why? Surely, the credit crunch, despite its obvious immediate hardships, is also a great opportunity? It’s a chance to reassess what’s important. Moreover, the conception of self and agency that is emerging from the rubble of the Enlightenment notion of authenticity is not necessarily inauthentic and nihilistic. For it turns out that being a self is a far more social affair than we took it to be. How we perceive ourselves, what makes us happy and contented, the very content of our minds, all this is determined by things and others external to ourselves. But why is that a problem? Why does that make us inauthentic apart from in terms of a rather crude opposition to classical Enlightenment authenticity? Surely being a thoroughly socially and environmentally embedded self means only that the world is open to us in a different way than we previously thought, rather than not open to us to understand and work with in a positive way at all? In fact, the chances of bringing about lasting social progress on this new conception are better not worse, because it pictures us change-makers as social creatures dependent on our environments. And we need to think of ourselves more like that, not less.


So that’s my pitch for optimism in 2009. We have a chance to change things, we are perfectly capable of changing things, and the way in which we can change them is actually better than the way the classical Enlightenment conception of the self promised. So it’s Enlightenment social progress without the Enlightenment self. It’s an optimism about the potential of human nature without the Enlightenment conception of that nature.


All we need now is a political class with the vision to see this.

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