on 2 January 2000
Like his previous book The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works is popular science at its best: clear, witty, and boldly committed to a specific position within the field, it makes the state of the art in the cognitive neurosciences available to the general public. How the Mind Works presents the most forcefully argued theory of the mind, its origins, and structure that I know of. Highly recommended!
The two leitmotifs of this stimulating book are "the computational theory of mind" and the theory that the mind is an array of "mental organs" that have evolved through natural selection. Kind of like Babbage and Turing meet Darwin and Dawkins. Pinker pulls together material from many sources to illustrate these theories and weaves them together into a compelling overview of the mind.
The computational bits left me feeling out of my depth at several points, but also feeling reassured that this wasn't science lite. And while the evolutionary bits were less challenging - and easier to read - they offered more than enough food for thought.
Apparently some people find the computation plus evolution theory controversial. Others find the ideas old hat. And Pinker himself seems to rub plenty of people up the wrong way for various reasons. Myself, I find the arguments fresh and convincing, and Pinker very enjoyable to read. He covers an awful lot of ground with great gusto, he packs the detail in and makes his points with wry humour.
A book to read once to get the gist and a second time to get the detail.
on 20 July 2001
Steven Pinker is Professor of Psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the renowned books, 'The language instinct' (Penguin, 1995) and 'Words and rules: the ingredients of language' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000). In this book, described by one reviewer as 'the best book ever written on the human mind', he puts forward a general theory about how and why the human mind works the way it does. Yet it is not a ponderous book; it is beautifully written and full of jokes and stories.
Pinker marries Darwin's theory of evolution to the latest developments in neuroscience and computation. He shows in detail how the process of natural selection shaped our entire neurological networks; how the struggle for survival selects from among our genes those most fit to flourish in our environment. Nature has produced in us bodies, brains and minds attuned to coping intelligently with whatever our environment demands. Housed in our bodies, our minds structure neural networks into adaptive programmes for handling our perceptions. Pinker concludes, "The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life."
Our beliefs and desires are information, allowing us to create meaning. "Beliefs are inscriptions in memory, desires are goal inscriptions, thinking is computation, perceptions are inscriptions triggered by sensors, trying is executing operations triggered by a goal." Pinker writes that the mind has a 'design stance' for dealing with artefacts, a 'physical stance' for dealing with objects, and an 'intentional stance' for dealing with people. "Causal and inferential roles tend to be in sync because natural selection designed both our perceptual and our inferential modules to work accurately, most of the time, in this world." With this down-to-earth kind of explanation, there is no need to invoke mysterious intangible powers: "We don't need spirits or occult forces to explain intelligence." Pinker sums up the recent amazing developments in neurobiology and cognitive science. This book, like those by his colleagues Daniel Dennett ('Darwin's dangerous idea' and 'Consciousness explained') and Richard Dawkins ('River out of Eden' and 'Unweaving the rainbow'), should be required reading. They are all Darwinians, but then why shouldn't they be? It is just like saying that all physicists are Einsteinians nowadays, or that all poets and playwrights are Shakespeareans, or that all osteopaths are Stillians. Their books make Karl Popper, so hostile to Darwin, and Californian gurus like Fritjof Capra, sadly outdated.
By giving coherent, intelligible accounts of the ways in which our bodies and minds have evolved, writers like Pinker can help us to understand better how and why our bodies work in the ways they do.
on 29 November 1998
I can't recommend this highly enough - Pinker argues persuasively, eclectically and best of all entertainingly that the human mind is the product of Darwinian natural selection. If his style weren't so readable and accessible, some of the ideas presented would make stuffy academic fare, but he draws his references so widely, from cultural touchstones to established bodies of research, that his ideas ring true on an intellectual and instinctive level. If you are a little jaded by society and cynical of people's motives, read this - then look at the world in a fresh paradigm. Will it make you a better person or change your life? Probably not. But it might change your mind.
on 17 March 2011
We make innumerable asumptions about how our minds work, or should work. Closer examination of the evidence reveals just how wrong many of these assumptions are.
With great clarity of observation and thought, Professor Pinker unpacks some of the truth about the mental modules inside our heads.
Drawing on evolutionary psychology theory and leading us by the hand through the evidence, Pinker firstly discusses perception, computation, and intelligence. Some of this I found rather too detailed for the layman.
I found the later sections much more fascinating, as he goes on to explore current theories of emotion, kinship, mating, aggression, the arts, humour, and religion.
An excellent `user's manual' for all brain owners.
Unravelling the mechanisms of human thinking and emotions is garnering increased attention from dedicated scientists and thinkers. Old attitudes and preconceptions are being swept away by newer ideas based on firm research. Steven Pinker has assembled these results to provide an outstanding synopsis of cognitive studies. He refers to the old views of the mind's working as "mysteries." Pinker, as a good scientist, applauds the updating of mental "mysteries" to "problems" capable of resolution. He makes no claim to the problems all being solved, or, in a few instances, even being identified. His approach, however, is a refreshing and innovative one, aimed at anyone wishing to gain an understanding of what it means to be human. As might be expected from the man who wrote The Language Instinct, he's a master of illustrative example and with many anecdotes for teaching the reader.
Pinker uses evolutionary roots as the foundation for his presentation. Like it or not, our genes carry a large part of our mental processes. The mind is not a "blank slate," but is born with vast supply of historical information on which to build as it matures. The "cultural environment" so dear to some commentators makes only a small contribution to who we become as adults. Even a child's peer groups influence its development more than does parental input, and by a huge margin. This situation arises because the mind is an algorithmic processor. It is essentially independent of an individual's environment, with a built-in learning capability to select from the wide spectrum of inputs. To Pinker, this essentially unconstrained process is part of the evolutionary path. Children's independence reflects the need of natural selection to sort among "what is" to arrive at what "will be" in the future. There are certainly no guarantees of how development will proceed over generations.
The computational image is based on "problem-solving." When to take a step, avoid predators, seek a mate, find food. Clearly, as Pinker states, computational mind processes are as universal as brains. Therefore, in Pinker's view, each brain develops modules for dealing with these issues. Like any powerful computer, he stresses, the mind depends on parallel processing for flexibility. How else, for example, could the brain control breathing while also thinking about a Mozart string trio? As humans evolved, they either added new problem-solving modules, or improved on the inherited ones. This is an algorithmic process - adding small instructions over time as adaptations to changing conditions. It is clearly a universal evolutionary process that has achieved enormous expression in the human species. Each acquired "tactic" could be passed down through generations, with each successful transmission building on an inherited base.
"The mind is not the brain, but what the brain does," is the key statement of the book. Pinker supports this image with numerous examples of mind/brain functions. Why our brain "sees" a three-dimensional image in a stereographic display when we know the photographs are two dimensional is but one of many instances he cites. The various factors he proposes must not be considered as independent entities, he stresses. The algorithmic processes form a whole, but not one based neither on conflicting elements nor particularly complementary ones. Weightings of importance take place continually, but even the expression of an idea is not a mental "victory" for that particular idea. The human mind's greatest attribute is its flexibility.
As with any of the recent works on cognition, Pinker's analysis isn't the final word. Given the complexity of the mind, that is clearly an impossible goal. Yet Pinker has broached many new concepts in this book. All deserve further careful study. Pinker avoids dogmatism with his elegant treatment. This book is required in furthering your own thinking about our place in nature and deserves respect and attention. He welcomes serious studies in the subject, even if the work appears to refute his ideas. But he insists that the refutation must rely on solid science and not traditional dogmas. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 20 August 2009
How anyone seriously interested in the subject matter of this book can only give it one star has me stumped. It is a fantastic introduction to psychology.
The book is brilliant on two levels: the content, as Pinker gives a blow-by-blow account of how our minds function (or at least our best guess), and the style in which it is written. There are some very complex ideas here and yet Pinker takes pity on the reader and makes his writing accessible, with the occasional joke thrown in. As a regular reader of turgid tomes on linguistics, I appreciated this - I particularly liked the joke on p549 about double affirmatives, but maybe that's an acquired taste. (Search for "relish" in the text if you think it'll tickle your fancy.)
The jokes are good, but the content is even better: the computational theory of mind, how the human mind evolved, the psychology of vision, how we reason about the world, our emotions, family relationships and, er, the meaning of life. Pinker discusses all of these lucidly, and although most of the ideas are drawn from the works of others, Pinker's ability to synthesise these and present them together coherently is incredibly impressive.
I've read the views of other philosophers and psychologists (Dennett, Blackmore...) on the nature of the human mind with dismay: the self and consciousness are illusions, we are all basically zombies, etc., etc. I was beginning to think I was just a stick-in-the-mud who was unable to face up to reality. Pinker has come to my rescue - he sticks his neck out and when I read the words "I am as certain that I am sentient as I am certain of anything", I nearly stood up and cheered. But, hey, that's just me.
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I suppose the same goes for book reviews. Some of the other reviews are incomprehensible - I'm not sure if they read the same book I did.
on 20 February 2015
Some spoilers ahead...
Steven Pinker's view is that much of what we perceive as intelligence, personality and thought is inherited; in other words is a product of evolution.
Many supporters of artificial intelligence cling to a hope that the brain is made of general purpose grey matter, and that intelligence will spontaneously spring into existence if you can create the right sort of 'connectoplasm'. Professor Pinker demolishes that hope: our brains are made up of specialised modules, the product of millions of years of evolution
Post-modern social scientists, not to mention teachers, parents and religious leaders, cling to a hope that mind and personality are social constructs, that it is not 'all in the genes'. Professor Pinker quotes statistics that show that they are largely wrong, that genes play the key role in our character.
Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of 'memes' and Daniel Dennett extended the idea of evolution to include non-genetic selection. Professor Pinker thinks they went too far. For Pinker, the overriding force in what it is to be human is genetic -- good old Darwinian evolution.
However, the book is not all negative. Chapter by chapter, Pinker picks an aspect of human behaviour, character or thought, and shows how it is the result of Darwinian selection and the 'selfish gene'. His insights are far more cogent and persuasive than previous writers such as Freud or Jung, because of this scientific basis in evolution. Pinker really has found a key to unlock at least some of what it is to be human, and it makes his book essential reading for students of human character.
To me, there are two weakness to the book, and I think they are related.
Pinker addresses the idea of Consciousness, meaning his sense of there being an 'I', the subject of his experiences. The colour red is a range of wavelengths of light; it causes excitations in particular nerve cells; the verbal centres of the brain respond and cause his mouth to say 'red'. But nowhere in that description is the obvious truth that Steven Pinker experienced red colour. Daniel Dennett in his excellent, if ambitiously named, book 'Consciousness Explained' claims that there is no such thing as the experience of red, other than that physical explanation of the wavelengths and nerve excitations. Pinker disagrees. He thinks that consciousness cannot be explained away (I think he is right). However, he asserts that it is not something that can be explained, because humans are simply not clever enough. A hyperintelligent alien might be able to explain exactly what consciousness is in humans and how it relates to the brain and the mind, but a human would not have the mental capability to understand the explanation.
To me, this is a cop out. By evading the question of consciousness, Pinker leaves the door open to some pretty weird ideas (you know what I mean, you've probably read the books too).
My related complaint is that Pinker takes his own introspective intuitions about what is happening inside his head too literally. His introspection tells him that he sees a picture of the world: so he assumes that inside his brain there is a two-and-a-bit-dimensional picture of the world mapped out in neurons, for some other piece of brain to look at. His introspection tells him that he thinks in words, though he knows it cannot be English: so he assumes that his internal thoughts are in 'mentalese'.
These intuitions are what Daniel Dennett calls the 'Cartesian Theatre', and for him they pave a road leading to infinite regress and incoherent ideas about consciousness.
I'd love to see a book co-authored by Dennett and Pinker. They both write superbly well, and in a way that is accessible to all readers. They both start from the same scientific premises. Yet they have very different answers to some key questions. Until they write such a book together, you must read them separately. But please do -- they are not right about everything, but they will lead you to a better understanding of Mind than any other writer living.
on 16 August 2014
How The Mind Works is a classic, and it's still up there with the very best of popular science writing about the human brain and mind. As always, Pinker treats his subject with skill and verve. His writing is almost impeccable. Clear and efficient communication is all the more important because Pinker deals with a subject that we don't fully understand. Nonetheless, as he shows, it's a subject that can now be relegated from the category of "scientific mysteries" to that of "scientific problems," in Chomsky's terminology.
You will find no cocksure pronouncements or vapid speculation in this remarkable book. That's not to say that it isn't speculative at times--it most certainly is--but the requisite qualifications are there. Allowing for such qualifications and often still-standing uncertainties and controversies, Pinker really does show "how the mind works."
on 27 October 2000
Steven Pinker starts this book by informing us that we DON'T know how the mind works, and that he hasn't found out how the mind works either; which is perhaps a stab at irony (not covered in the part on humour), or simply a bad book title. Pithy comments aside, this is a long but engaging read, which covers not only a lot of theory but investigates many ideas thoroughly. Unfortunately, the theories investigated remain of the cognitive/experimental/biological variety and little of the humanistic/social constructionist/etc perspectives are mentioned. Any alluding to these latter perspectives are single-sentenced; the arguments needed to actually be arguments, rather than simple dismissals. Much of his 'evidence' harks from assumptions of early man and hunter-gatherers - ancestors who have left few clues of their habits for us. However, Pinker's covering of human perception, neural networks, and other cognitive goodies is excellent and very well explained, and I believe that these, along with his humour, are the book's highlights. It is just a shame that he sought to explain the human mind and behaviour from the one viewpoint, with scant regard for any others.