Gladwell: The New Freud?

In my post on Blink, I argued that Gladwell's book was a wee bit incoherent, and that this incoherence stemmed from his reliance on spiffy anecdotes instead of nitty-gritty scientific details. Katherine made an excellent comment:

I thought the problem with Blink was that he never really made a point. He basically said our first impressions are always right, so we should trust them ... except when they aren't right. His style of anecdotal evidence is indeed what makes him so readable, but he has a common problem of either not making a point, or citing anecdotes for both sides of the argument. I don't think the book needed more neurons or fMRI or brain scans (and this is coming from a cognitive neuroscientist), it just needed more coherence. The Tipping Point was a lot better in this regard.

I couldn't agree more. I'm not a trigger-happy reductionist, and I don't think that behavior only makes sense when stated in terms of molecular acronyms and obscure brain regions. So why was Blink less than satisfying for me? Becase Gladwell ended up lumping together all sorts of research, from Damasio's Iowa Gambling Task to Ekman's cartography of facial muscles to brain scans of autistic people, that, at least from a neurological perspective, were totally unrelated. They all involved different brain regions that are activated by different stimuli. Gladwell got around this slight problem by never discussing the actual details. Instead, he wrapped this unrelated research in a neat bow of readable anecdotes, all of which revolved around a nebulous entity called the "unconscious".

Does this approach sound familiar? It should. Sigmund Freud was also a master prose stylist, wasn't particularly interested in the neurological foundations of his theories, and loved theorizing about the all powerful unconscious. (Like Gladwell, he also loomed large in mass culture and had a talent for giving his books pithy names, although I'm pretty sure Freud never made the rounds of the corporate lecture circuit...) Blink could have been a great book. It could have really explored the modern science of unconscious thinking. But Gladwell took the easy (and best-selling) way out, and chose to privilege the logic of the anecdote (is this a good story?) over the messy anatomy of the mind. 100 years after Freud first dreamt up the Id, we are still entranced by oversimplified stories about the subterranean self we don't know.

A caveat: Lest anyone accuse me of snobbery, let me be clear: I am a huge Gladwell fan. (See his blog post today on generic drugs and the NY Times.) When I first heard about Blink, I was embarrassingly excited. Gladwell takes on neuroscience! But then I read the book, and, unfortunately, it seemed to combine all of Gladwell's occasional faults (an over-reliance on short anecdotes in the service of a larger point, a glib tendency to assume that just because you can name something - i.e., "a blink moment", or "connectors," or "a tipping point" - you can unify disparate phenomena) with too few of his numerous talents.


More like this

I've been excited to read many things about consciousness and the unconcsious mind, and so far, they all have been disappointing. There's a copy of Blink around here, but based upon others who have said things much like you have, I have not even read it.

Our understanding of both consciousness and the unconscious mind will come when there is a convergence of our understanding of both the abstract notions and the neurochemical details. Understanding always comes from the ability to describe what is happening on all pertinent levels of abstraction.

Ah, but you're faulting Gladwell for being Gladwell, I think. His purpose is to draw connections that others aren't drawing, perhaps because they aren't really there, or perhaps because people haven't done it yet. Gladwell isn't a scientist and isn't writing to an audience (in terms of his broad audience) that would appreciate deep dives into the nitty-gritty details of the science. It's not Gladwell's fault if that sort of "details" book doesn't sell or is boring. The books I've seen that do try to mix prosaic writing with real scientific detail have turned me off halfway through. e.g., Lise Eliots's "What's Going On In There?"

By allocating the memory at start-up, you reduce the number of times your driver calls memory allocation routines and therefore the number of situations in which it must be prepared to handle an allocation failure. ,