"If it works, don't fix it!", runs the old adage. Any engineer will tell you, however, that this is false confidence. What works today may not work tomorrow when conditions change. Animal brains worked for many millions of years. Then Homo sapiens arose somewhere in Africa with an enlarged, busy brain. Combined with walking and handiness, that brain accomplished - and still accomplishes - wondrous things. Until you wonder where you left your car keys. Gary Marcus, in this fluidly written review, backed by a wealth of references, explains how the workings of our brain have been built up over time, with bits added or enhanced through the ages. It makes us a unique species, but it's anything but a fine design. Instead it's what engineers call a "kluge" - an inelegant, marginally efficient product of evolutionary bits cobbled together well enough to get the job done.
Using the fact of our brains having an evolutionary foundation, Marcus shows how Shakespeare's and the Bible's depictions of the brain are flawed. We have poor, erratic memories, we make irrational decisions, and we'll believe things that are patently untrue - sometimes with real tenacity. Our brains are built up from very ancient structures, probably using the same processes, with added complexity developing over time ["This worked last time, but it's not working now. Cobble something up to fix it."]. Knowing that readers might be overwhelmed with data overload [our memories can't handle it!], the author focusses on a half-dozen aspects of brain "design" demonstrating the positive features and the shortfalls. Memory, Belief, Choice, Language, Pleasure and "Things Fall Apart" - distractions. In each case, he explains how the system is usually depicted, what might be the ideal process, and how it actually works.
The opening segment on Memory lays the groundwork for the entire book. "If evolution is so good at making things work well, why is our memory so hit and miss?" Marcus compares human memory with computer memory. Nothing is lost on the computer's disk and any stored information can be retrieved. It was clearly "designed" for that task. Human memory, on the other hand, lacks access, lacks specificity, lacks reliability. We can retrieve old memories, but can't recall what we had for dinner yesterday. Nor can we assume that old memory, which seems so vivid, is valid. Marcus describes computer memory as "postal code" memory due to the system's design in making an "address book" used to find data. Human memory, along with that of other animals, is "contextual" - recollection comes within a frame of reference. That might be good or bad, depending on the circumstances, but it's hardly reliable or consistent.
The author's use of comparison in memory is followed by similar scenarios in the other sections. Language is particularly vague and imprecise, why does each language have its own version of the sound of a dog's bark. Yet, our brains allow us to work out meaning in contextual ways. Choice seems to be one of the most irregular mechanisms in our brains, since we continue to avoid shifting from decisions resulting in long-term benefits for short-term gains. Those limited scope decisions likely have links with the brain's pleasure centres, hence the current rise in addictions - even video games take time better spent at exercise or learning.
The conclusion of this book may come as a surprise. The unthinking may tend to see this section as one of those "self-help" manuals so common today [and which are designed to overcome the "kluge" aspects of our minds]. Here, Marcus is able to line out a set of recommendations for improving how we use our brains. He recognises that the idea of the human brain as a kluge will find little appeal with some people. That's a prejudice that must be overcome. Evolution, he reminds us, has produced things of tremendous beauty. If the brain falls short, it has the capacity to examine imperfection and understand it. More importantly, those imperfections of the brain can be addressed. Who is capable of that? You are. Don't miss this book. It's about you. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 9 November 2008
This book explores the opinion that our minds are not up to the task of modern life, because evolution has generated a hodgepodge of inefficient systems, far better equipped for other species, let alone our own prehistory. It covers problems with our memory, beliefs, choices, language and pleasure system, while the last two chapters deal with mental illness, and advice for how we can partially overcome that bad cards that evolution has dealt us. I think this is definitely one of those science books that would have worked better as a pamphlet. The first three chapters overlap immensely (the distinction between belief, choice and memory seems rather arbitrary to me). In addition, many points are obvious, or discussed in rather simplistic terms. I was really hoping for a careful discussion on the different brain systems that make up our flawed mental life, and when/why they evolved in the way they did. There could have been a wealth of fascinating brain topics (on, for instance, the fact that humans effectively have three competing brains relating to our heritage as reptiles, primitive mammals and now primates - or why our visual cortex is at the furthest away from our eyes, and most of our brains are wired for the wrong side). There also could have been a far more interesting discussion of evolution and how, until recently, those issues Marcus flags as flaws were extremely useful. Instead, the brain is hardly mentioned, and evolution is only discussed in a cursory way, mainly to counter the US creationists, I felt. There were also some absolutely awful mistakes, that any psychology undergrad could have spotted, such as his mixed up description of the Prisoner's Dilemma, or his comment that Phineas Gage had damage to the limbic system. These, to me, were pretty unforgivable and made me more suspicious of the accuracy of the rest of the content. On the positive side, it was refreshing to hear all the myriad details of our bad thinking, even if the gist of this wasn't new. Likewise the advice chapter at the end made many sensible points that probably will be useful to some.
on 23 July 2008
The term Kluge, pronounced similarly to "huge", was first popularized in early 1962, in an article written by Jackson Granholm, a computer pioneer. Mr. Granholm defined the word as "an ill-assorted collection of poorly matching parts, forming a distressing whole."
Mr. Marcus asserts that Evolution yields suboptimal, patchwork designs, in particular the human mind. While it is widely accepted that the human body has many quirks -- wisdom teeth, the retina's backward installation resulting in blind spots in both eyes, a spine that is conducive to back pain, and even the replication process of the DNA -- what gets short shrift is the imperfection of the mind. A mind seemingly impervious to optimal design and prone to a host of human cognitive idiosyncrasies explained eloquently and in detail in this book.
Our contextual memory is unreliable. Our belief system is subject to mental contaminations stemming from superstition, manipulation, and fallacy. The brain mechanism that controls our everyday choices is susceptible to the "weakness of the will". We tend to live in the moment rather than plan for the future, a remnant of our days without refrigerators when life was, as Thomas Hobbs put it "nasty, brutish and short." Most pleasures stem from the "ancestral reflexive" part of the mind that is shortsighted.
While most of Mr. Marcus' assertions are plausible, I took issue with one in particular: That the evolutionary process is inherently flawed because it's not possible to build a superior design from the ground up. Consequently, improvements are made to existing, archaic systems ad nauseam. Mr. Marcus seems to discount the idea that evolution is a painfully slow process of building solutions to life's existing problems. In the long run, existing kluges will be replaced with superior designs for which new challenges will arise. Therefore, no matter how elegant and perfect the design, at any given period, kluges will exist because conditions, e.g. the environment and natural predators aren't static, and living organisms must stay adaptable or perish. The very nature of adaptability trumps perfection. A perfect system today will be less adaptable to the challenges of tomorrow.
Some suboptimal designs will persist in the long run (blind spots in the eyes), but they are hardly of any consequence in the grand scheme of things. The human mind, as Mr. Marcus correctly postulates, is mired in imperfection for the demands of today's life. But today's demands have been around for less than a spec of time in the billions of years since the creation of life. In the year 1900, life expectancy was 30 years. Therefore, it made sense that puberty's onset was as early as the early teens. Nowadays, teen pregnancy has become a detriment to the parent (used singularly because at that age, the father is usually not around), and offspring.
Mr. Marcus eventually offers advice on how to compensate for the shortcomings of the mind, but alas, his remedies are no more effective than telling an overweight person to diet and exercise. Lacking are specific exercises or courses to compensate for the suboptimal design of the mind. Nevertheless, the first step to every problem is to correctly identify the problem, and in that endeavor, Mr. Marcus does a magnificent job of facilitating awareness of our flawed brain. Kudos to him.