Daniel Pink:

"A Whole New Mind" (2005)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
First of all: if you are looking for something that is even remotely grounded on scientific evidence, stop reading here. This is one of those books for people who dream of becoming millionaires written by the modern equivalent of snake-oil peddlers.

Pink speculates on the poorly understood connection between the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of the brain, notably the folk belief that the left hemisphere is responsible for analytical, logical reasoning while the right hemisphere is responsible for the holistic kind of reasoning (pattern recognition instead of logical reasoning) that is popular with the new-age crowd (the crowd that never studied Math and Science and therefore wants to be told that Math and Science don't really matter). Bashing of the left hemisphere has been going on since the hippies revolutionized the Sixties and has been the emblem of the baby-boomer generation ever since.

Pink describes our age as the "Conceptual Age" in which recognizing patterns is more important than doing math (and never mind that the people who specialize in pattern recognition instead of logical thinking are the ones who cause the biggest problems, from wars in the Middle East to economic recessions). Blame Asia and automation for it: the jobs that rely on the left brain are being replaecd by machines or exporters to Asia.

Pink's "right-brain" thinkers are the designers and inventors (scientifically false, but, again, this is not a science book) that will be immune to the job losses of the Conceptual Age. (Clearly this advice is only good for citizens of the USA, since the citizens of Asia are the ones causing the Conceptual Age).

In the end, Pink lists "the six senses" that right-brain thinkers need to succeed: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning. Pink draws a revolutionary conclusion: that a Master of Fine Arts will soon be worth more than a Master in Business Administration (admittedly one of the lowest intellectual points in the history of Western education).

His "Symphony" is about seeing the "big picture". That has always been essential to "left-brain" thinking: Einstein and all the great scientific thinkers saw the big picture, otherwise they would not have been able to come up with their great theories.

The valid point he has is that "abundant" societies (societies that don't have to solve daily problems of subsistence) have spare time to invest in activities other than money-making ones. He thinks that this will be reflected on the successful products of the future, that will target the aesthetic and emotional senses more than the pragmatic ones. Hence design will be more important than functionality. But I suspect that he totally misses the big phenomenon of our age, that is only likely to grow exponentially: the power of marketing. The biggest success story of the last decade has been Google, which gets almost 100% of its revenues from selling advertising. The modern economy is being increasingly driven by marketing: not by what the consumer wants, but by what the producer (via a highly valuable intermediary like Google or Facebook) makes the consumer want. The vast majority of successful products are neither stylish nor functional: they are just well publicized. Pink would probably respond that his "Story" is precisely that: convince the customer with a good story. But what we are witnessing is a lot less than that: it's just sheer quantity of advertising. It's quantity, not quality. His "Empathy" (the ability to understand other people) is likely to be used and abused to violate your privacy, analyze your lifestyle and target advertising campaigns to you.

The weakest part of this unscientific book is the examples. Pink makes a strategic mistake: when you write an unscientific book, stay away from examples because they might come back to haunt you. Sure enough: he presents General Motors as an example of a success story that employed a "holistic" kind of approach. Tell it to their disgruntled customers and to the taxpayers that had to rescue it from bankruptcy.

The whole (very popular) idea that the (advanced) economies are entering a new age that is significantly different from the old industrial one is actually predicated on very old assumptions: automation has been around since ancient times, and exporting jobs to poorer countries is not a significant intellectual step foward but just a contingency (sooner or later those countries will get richer just like Japan did and today most innovations in consumer electronics and transportation come from Japan).

For the record, the two hemispheres are roughly mirror images of each other. The differences are negligible. Most brain functions are actually distributed across both hemispheres. Popular psychology speculates on the idea that the right hemisphere does "holistic reasoning", which is too vague a notion to be confirmed or discredited. Mathematical skills require both hemisphere. So does vision. So does pretty much everything else. The one notable exception is language, which is clearly localized in the left hemisphere (Broca's area and Wernicke's area). Right-brain thinkers: beware.

Pink and his readers should reflect on the simple fact that the left hemisphere is the thing that makes humans different from other primates and mammals. We think. The other primates only do what Pink calls "design". Every animal is an artist, but only humans had Newton, Edison, Sabin and Einstein. Technically speaking, the left hemisphere is the site of the "interpreter" that makes sense of what is going on. See Gazzaniga's work on the two hemispheres. Suit yourself. I'll pick the left hemisphere any day of the year. (To be fair, Pink never says to abandon "left-brain thinking" but only to complement it with more "right-brain thinking" but readers will probably draw the conclusion that "left-brain thinking" is obsolete).

This is basically the Wall Street version of the books on new-age spirituality. Instead of how to achieve nirvana, it teaches you how to become a billionaire, a very materialistic goal which in itself constitutes an interesting transformation of the (anti-materialistic) new-age philosophy. Pink's sixth sense, "Meaning", is the fossil, the leftover from the previous stage of new-age philosophy.