Whybrow (Director, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior/UCLA; American Mania: When More Is Not Enough, 2005) addresses significant issues related to the navigation toward a more meaningful life.
Many of society’s current plagues—obesity, debt, stress, etc.—find their sources in three areas: instinctual strivings for short-term rewards, our habit-driven brains, and the affluence of contemporary culture. The problem, as Ogden Nash neatly put it in 1971, is that “progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long.” Relic, habit, and circumstance have created the perfect storm to wash away much of our better selves: our senses of measure, self-control, empathy, and thoughtful decision-making. Whybrow rightly recognizes the nature-nurture complexity of why our behavior has been derailed. Our intuition (“reflexive self-knowledge based on implicitly learned, social habits of mind”) has shed its deliberate, reflective qualities, and when it comes to choice, we are opportunists. The author digs deep into economic theory—primarily Adam Smith and the necessity of moral obligation—and psychology and a variety of social fields, easily handling complex topics. While Whybrow’s storytelling is entertaining, it falls shy of the sophistication that would give the unspoken science more palpability. When he launches into some basic cures, however, he bracingly calls on our better selves to wake up. “The genetic prescription we each carry,” he writes, “does not alone determine our destiny: but the interaction of that prescription with family, culture, and experience certainly does.” Whybrow’s crisp neuroscience reporting is important, as it helps us understand why parts of the brain are at war, some busy offering rewards and reinforcement, others cross-talking, all the while being stressed and pulled by environment. “The ecology of the family is a multitude of sympathetic, synergistic, and symbiotic interactions,” the author astutely points out. “Personal freedom and individual responsibility are forged…within this ecology.”
“To reshape the future we need first to better understand and reshape ourselves,” writes Whybrow, and he offers a running start.