The Frontal Cortex

Gladwell and Freud Again

My post comparing Gladwell and Freud seemed to provoke a few defenses. Dave Munger over at Cognitive Daily offered a guarded defense of Gladwell, while Mixing Memory offered a defense of Freud. I’ll respond to Cognitive Daily first. Here is Dave on me on Gladwell:

Jonah’s problem with Gladwell’s method is that Gladwell doesn’t parse the data the way Jonah wants him to. Jonah would like to see Gladwell explain all the data he discusses in the context of showing how the mind works. But that’s not what Gladwell’s doing in Blink: Gladwell’s goal is to show how we respond to a particular type of situation, regardless of whether the same neurological mechanisms are involved.

I agree with Dave that Gladwell is much more interested in the sociology of the unconscious than in its neurological underpinnings. Books that toss around neuroscience terminology don’t sell in airport newsstands. But my problem with Blink is that Gladwell wanted it both ways. He wanted to name-drop science in order to justify his anecdotes but he didn’t choose his anecdotes in order to accommodate the science. As I wrote earlier, his examples of blink thinking involved a whole mess of brain regions, which most scientists would never dream of connecting under some vague rubric called the “unconscious”. I was criticizing Gladwell not because he wasn’t a card-carrying reductionist, but because he didn’t take the reductionist discoveries of neuroscience into account. If you are going to write a book about the mind in the 21st century, it’s important that all the different levels of description line up. Even if you don’t write about neurons – and not every book has to look at us from a cellular perspective – your anecdotes should still accord with, or at least not contradict, the discoveries of modern cognitive neuroscience. To insist that we can fully understand the “unconscious” from the outside, by studying our reactions to New Coke or marriage videos or war games, is to neglect the astonishing progress that has been made since Freud first started thinking about dreams and cigars. At his best, Gladwell draws original and insightful connections between disparate ideas. In Blink, alas, his connections didn’t quite pan out.

Tomorrow, I’ll respond to Mixing Memory’s defense of Freud.


  1. #1 Dave Munger
    June 26, 2006

    I think we have the same basic objection to Gladwell in Blink — that he’s overselling the science. Perhaps the main difference is our degree of dissatisfaction with Gladwell’s approach. I think it’s better than the alternative — not selling the science at all — and you think it’s unforgivably neglectful.

  2. #2 Jonah
    June 26, 2006

    I think we do agree on the main point. I hope I’m not too unforgiving…I guess I just expected more from Gladwell. Blink could have been a great and important book. Instead, it was just mildly entertaining. But thanks for your thoughtful comments.

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