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How the Mind Works [Paperback]

by Steven Pinker
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (211 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 17, 1999 0393318486 978-0393318487

"[How the Mind Works] marks out the territory on which the coming century's debate about human nature will be held."—Oliver Morton, The New Yorker

In this extraordinary bestseller, Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading cognitive scientists, does for the rest of the mind what he did for language in his 1994 book, The Language Instinct. He explains what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows us to see, think, feel, laugh, interact, enjoy the arts, and ponder the mysteries of life. And he does it with the wit that prompted Mark Ridley to write in the New York Times Book Review, "No other science writer makes me laugh so much. . . . [Pinker] deserves the superlatives that are lavished on him."  The arguments in the book are as bold as its title. Pinker rehabilitates some unfashionable ideas, such as that the mind is a computer and that human nature was shaped by natural selection, and challenges fashionable ones, such as that passionate emotions are irrational, that parents socialize their children, and that nature is good and modern society corrupting. Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize A New York Times Notable Book of the Year and Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1997 Featured in Time magazine, the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Nature, Science, Lingua Franca, and Science Times Front-page reviews in the Washington Post Book World, the Boston Globe Book Section, and the San Diego Union Book Review Illustrations

Editorial Reviews Review

Why do fools fall in love? Why does a man's annual salary, on average, increase $600 with each inch of his height? When a crack dealer guns down a rival, how is he just like Alexander Hamilton, whose face is on the ten-dollar bill? How do optical illusions function as windows on the human soul? Cheerful, cheeky, occasionally outrageous MIT psychologist Steven Pinker answers all of the above and more in his marvelously fun, awesomely informative survey of modern brain science. Pinker argues that Darwin plus canny computer programs are the key to understanding ourselves--but he also throws in apt references to Star Trek, Star Wars, The Far Side, history, literature, W. C. Fields, Mozart, Marilyn Monroe, surrealism, experimental psychology, and Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty and his 888 children. If How the Mind Works were a rock show, tickets would be scalped for $100. This book deserved its spot as Number One on bestseller lists. It belongs on a short shelf alongside such classics as Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, by Daniel C. Dennett, and The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, by Robert Wright. Pinker's startling ideas pop out as dramatically as those hidden pictures in a Magic Eye 3D stereogram poster, which he also explains in brilliantly lucid prose. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

MIT's Pinker, who received considerable acclaim for The Language Instinct (LJ 2/1/94), turns his attention to how the mind functions and how and why it evolved as it did. The author relies primarily on the computational theory of mind and the theory of the natural selection of replicators to explain how the mind perceives, reasons, interacts socially, experiences varied emotions, creates, and philosophizes. Drawing upon theory and research from a variety of disciplines (most notably cognitive science and evolutionary biology) and using the principle of "reverse-engineering," Pinker speculates on what the mind was designed to do and how it has evolved into a system of "psychological faculties or mental modules." His latest book is extraordinarily ambitious, often complex, occasionally tedious, frequently entertaining, and consistently challenging. Appropriate for academic and large public libraries.?Laurie Bartolini, MacMurray Coll. Lib., Jacksonville, Ill.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (January 17, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393318486
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393318487
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (211 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #775,890 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Steven Pinker is one of the world's leading authorities on language and the mind. His popular and highly praised books include The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate, Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, and The Language Instinct. The recipient of several major awards for his teaching, books, and scientific research, Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He also writes frequently for The New York Times, Time, The New Republic, and other magazines.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
565 of 580 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars depends who's reading September 4, 2002
It seems from reading over the reviews that your response to this book depends heavily on who you are and what your background is. I'm not a scientist, but I have a strong general science education. The book was recommended to me by a neurobiologist friend. I went in looking for a good general overview of the subject matter written by someone with a good prose style, and that's exactly what I got. If you have a general liberal artsy science grounding and want to be pointed at some new lines of inquiry, the book is terrific. I think Pinker does a better job making potentially dry subject matter exciting than just about anyone. Very few of the ideas in the book were completely new to me, but I hadn't encountered them all between two covers before and I very much enjoyed watching Pinker draw connections. It's especially interesting to compare this book to the Selfish Gene, which Pinker refers to quite a bit. Richard Dawkins is more concise and clear, but has such a gratingly obnoxious and condescending authorial voice that I find it distracting. Pinker, on the other hand, is a treat to read; it's like sitting at a table with an old friend. Some scientist friends of mine have complained that Pinker speculates too much for their tastes and tries to overextend his Darwinian ideas. Fair enough, but Pinker is careful to warn the reader when he's speculating and when he's summarizing the results of actual research. I felt like I had room to think critically about his arguments while he was making them. The book is very clear about its intentions and its limitations. If you're looking for a highly focused argument backed up by hard data, this book isn't it (The Language Instinct does that better.) If you're looking for Evolutionary Biology For Dummies, this also isn't it. Read more ›
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149 of 159 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another Pinker people pleaser June 1, 2003
Unlike most reviewers, I come to How the Mind Works *after* reading Blank Slate, which is by far the superior work, in what are two very similar themes. This volume could as well be entitled "How the Persona Works" as it delves very little in the science of the mind. This is not an introduction to neuroscience, but rather is much more focused on the psychology of social interaction and knowledge acquisition. I suppose I was hoping for a more structured scientific statement of how the brain is composed chemically, designed genetically, and structured systemically.
In a series of sections, Pinker somewhat dis-connectedly jumps through findings from psychology and brain science to illuminate interesting problems. I found the opening sections - on areas like the mind's eye and how the brain is a thinking machine - far less interesting and compelling.
Pinker describes the brain as a machine that has costs (in tissue, energy, and time) and confers benefits. Knowing where the gold is buried in your neighborhood - and whether it's broadly in the northwest quadrant, or specifically underneath the flowerpot - improves your position because it reduces the physical work required to unearth it. That one bit of information allows 1 man to find the gold which would have taken 100 if the digging was done indiscriminately.
There are some very nice thought experiments in this section:
"What if we took [a brain simulation computer] program and trained a large number of people, say, the population of China, to hold in mind the data and act out the steps? Would there be one gigantic consciousness hovering over China, separate from the consciousness of the billion individuals?
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47 of 54 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
"How the Mind Works" by Steven Pinker is one ofthe best books available today about the human mind. It is wideranging, extremely well written, and has an thorough bibliography.

The book gives an excellent introduction to cognitive science, which explores the human mind in terms of the composite fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and philosophy. One can read the entire book, take notes, and learn as much in a week or two as one would in a semester college course(s).

The central ideas of the book involve the computational theory of mind and the theory of evolution. Pinker argues that the mind is a modular, information processing, natural adaptation.

In reading about current brain research, I must say that it is amazing how much scientists can learn about the brain simply from close observation of animals, children, brain injury patients, twin siblings, and computerized robots. Pinker also includes important topics such as human emotion, social relations, and the arts.
...Pinker clearly and emphatically addresses the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy involves deriving "ought" from "is". That is to say, the way things were is not necessarily the way things have to be or should be. He leaves plenty of room for human freewill and ethics.

To sum up, an excellent book that elucidates many areas of the human mind.
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300 of 368 people found the following review helpful
This is an unfortunate introduction to the topic of mind and brain.
I have been a researcher in neurophysiology and cognition, and currently am a researcher in artificial intelligence. When I picked up this book to read, I was expecting great things, since Pinker has such a strong "public" reputation. After struggling to find real substance in the book (I read the first 3 chapters and then about 1/3 of each of the remaining chapters), I became curious about what other reviewers had said about it. It was soon clear that there were two camps: those who loved it (five stars) and those who thought it was shallow, misrepresentative, glib, or even pseudo-scientific (1 or 2 stars). Most of those who found it excellent (the vast majority) seemed to be generally unfamiliar with the field, while those who disliked it were usually very familiar with the field.
For the uninitiated or laymen readers, it appears to be a very entertaining and stimulating experience, but I believe it is very unfortunate that the breadth of treatment by Pinker is taken for a great intellectual exercise. On the contrary, he actually says very little of substance about how the mind works, as the informed disappointed reviewers have pointed out. It seems to be mostly a scattered rehashing of old and not particularly illuminating ideas in the field.
I like many other researchers am concerned about conveying the findings in our field to the general public and potential young scholars. But there is a trend in the consumption of science (and knowledge in general) in this society which I find disturbing. We have become consumers of knowledge without serious reflection.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow, enlightening and engaging with exceptional quality of logic and...
This is such a well written book on such fundamental concepts.
I have enjoyed the clear and understandable writing style. Read more
Published 25 days ago by Ronny Saelens
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting But Verbose
Stephen Pinker's book on how the mind works in very interesting. He explains in sometimes excessive details the various functions of our mind. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Zacharie Liman Tinguiri
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic depth & breadth
Pinker covers many topics in evolutionary psychology (family, sex, music) and does a fantastic job of explaining how the machinery of the brain produces the mind.
Published 3 months ago by Lowell Bander
3.0 out of 5 stars Dissapointing Compared to "The Language Instinct"
I found this disappointing in comparison to "The Language instinct", which for me was a truly mind-changing book. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Anne Mills
1.0 out of 5 stars Skip it. The ratings lie. This is a drab book.
This bookk sucks. It's just all about the other. Poor format. Absolutely boring. Lots of other books and pamphlets have diagrams and more interesting formats that don't read like... Read more
Published 4 months ago by paige deplume
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good!
I liked it very much, very interesting. I took me too long to discover this book. I think it deserves an update. Please!
Published 5 months ago by Rodrigo Gomes
5.0 out of 5 stars Pinker doesn't disappoint!
My only complaint is that it wasn't read by Pinker himself. As always, I am grateful for the massive amounts of research he must do to complete his books, as well as his... Read more
Published 6 months ago by DeMaris
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book for curious teens
Purchased for Grand Nephews Birthday. He loves it. He is a bright adolescent with lots of questions and says it helps him answer some of them.
Published 6 months ago by Kacie
2.0 out of 5 stars Pinker doesnt know
this is a large volume of speculation. Pinker endlessly discusses the obvious, then misses the boat on speculation about the unknown.
Published 7 months ago by Phyllis Tyson
1.0 out of 5 stars Complete waste of time
I have been studying how the brain and mind function for about 5 years now. I am not a scholar on the subject, but merely a layman with the desire to increase my mental strength... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Texas Lee
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