564 of 579 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars depends who's reading
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...
Published on September 4, 2002 by Ethan Hein
300 of 368 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not for those who REALLY want to know how the mind works
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...
Published on October 8, 2000 by Art Souther
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564 of 579 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars depends who's reading,
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. Think of it more as a big tray with lots of intellectual hors d'oeuvres on it, with the bibliography serving as a guide to restaurants where you can get the full meals. I'm glad I read it and will read it again - even if Pinker is dead wrong in all of his arguments, he's a model prose stylist and very good company as an authorial voice. I'll leave it to the experts to pick over the factual and logical holes in the book; meanwhile I think it's well worth the lay reader's time and effort.
149 of 159 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another Pinker people pleaser,
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? If they were implementing the brain state for agonizing pain, would there be some entity that really was in pain, even if every citizen was cheerful and light-hearted?"
Each species evolves to fill an ecological niche based on what's available - and humans have taken the cognitive niche, the utilization of a highly evolved symbolic brain to solve problems, and that enables us to "crack the safe" of other species / food sources. "Humans have the unfair advantage of attacking in this lifetime organisms that can beef up their defenses only in subsequent ones. Many species cannot evolve defenses rapidly enough, even over evolutionary time, to defend themselves against humans." Our cognitive process has evolved to be successful in manipulating this physical world and thus much of our thinking is metaphorical in the sense that we organize our thoughts about intangible things "in love", "full of it", "hold it against me" in the conceptual frameworks of space and force.
So the first half of the book is largely a qualitative assessment of how we process information, analogize, and come to conclusions. Pinker walks through the implications of the limitations of our cognitive abilities (again, I would've liked to see more explanation of those limitations in a scientific framework) and what that means for our ability to know, think, and believe.
My favorite sections were toward the end - Hotheads and Family Values - where the implications for social behavior really are the science at hand. Particularly interesting is the section on how anger and rage may have evolved to improve our ancestors negotiating position - if you look crazy and deranged, perhaps it is simply better to accede to your demands. Or how love - an emotion that you cannot to decide to have, and so cannot decide not to have - provides a more credible form of mate acquisition and pairing than any contract or negotiation.
Replicating creatures will help relatives if the benefit to the relative, multiplied by the probability that a gene is shared, exceeds the cost to the animal, that gene would spread in the population. Nepotism broadly defined, then, is another evolutionary strategy, and a successful one. Genes "try" to spread themselves by wiring animals' brains so the animals love their kin and try to keep warm, fed, and safe.
He cites the work of Trivers, who has worked out how the varying parental investments in an offspring (one ovum, nine months, and default child care provision vs. two minutes and a tablespoon of genes) create gender-based mating strategies.
Pinker is quite tactful in slaying the bugaboos of the politically correct, but does ultimately succinctly: "These kinds of arguments combine bad biology (nature is nice), bad psychology (the mind is created by society), and bad ethics (what people like is good)."
A good book is one which throws off another half-dozen additions to the reading list, and Pinker here has me buying new tomes covering everything from Tom Wolfe's critique of white guilt to the latest analysis of people's economic behavior to a history of fashion.
How the Mind Works is worth a read, and I certainly did enjoy it. Nonetheless, there is very little here that you won't find stated more clearly, forcefully, and comprehensively in The Blank Slate, and I would recommend you read that book first.
47 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book that elucidates many areas of the human mind.,
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.
300 of 368 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not for those who REALLY want to know how the mind works,
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. We are hooked by books that convey fascinating facts, but little in the way of careful thinking and reasoning, without which these facts have little useful grounding. The result in the case of this book is a long string of "anecdotes" about "what kind of things" minds do without almost no description of how the mind actually works. For those interested in a more meaningful but more intellectually demanding work, I suggest Dennett and some of the other authors cited by previous critical reviewers.
This area is one of the great last frontiers, but one still largely unconquered. Honest researchers would agree that we have only discovered the very tip of the iceberg, and meaningful discoveries are very unlikely to come easily. Any other portrayal does an injustice to this very challenging area.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How the Mind Acts, NOT How it Works,
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Pinker's "How the Mind Works" is an interdisciplinary tome, relying on linguistics, computer science, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, history, and evolutionary biology. It is supposed to be a strict Darwinian account of how the mind works. Does it succeed?
Yes and no. On the level of explicating mental functions and psychological behavior along a computational theory of the mind, I believe the book fails. By explicating behaviors from a Darwinian perspective, the book generally succeeds. The Modern Synthesis (the combination of Darwin's theory of evolution and Malthus' theory of genetics) has no fiercer advocate than Steven Pinker, although he can be sloppy about it sometimes (for example, calling Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness [EEA] as ancestral history, when the two are not synonymous). Still, his explication of human dynamics from intelligence to emotion to sociability onto religion from the new paradigm of the Modern Synthesis is literally encyclopedic. This last point is also both a positive and a negative; oftentimes Pinker's claims are obscured by all the tangential information he loads onto them, such as experiment after experiment, jokes, television programs and movies, lyrics, personal experiences, and a host of other qualia.
Disagreeably, Pinker's believes in the computational theory of mind. Pinker is known as a "Strong Artificial Intelligence" (SAI) advocate. He frequently oscillates between the "mind is a computer" and the "mind is like a computer." While clearly not identifying the human mind as computers, he believes the two things, computers and minds, do exactly the same thing: They both "compute." Well, that's partially true, and partially false.
He draws on a number of other SAI examples to illustrate how and why the modern computer is an excellent tool for exegesis of his computational theory of the mind. I have no problem with using the computer to explicate things, but when Pinker claims the mind and the computer are doing the same thing, I have a problem. To use my own analogy: Language has both a syntactical and semantic content; the two can be divorced from each other for analysis, but both are required to produce real ordinary language. What the computational method illustrates is that the mind is akin to language's syntax, but showing parallel construction doesn't illustrate the mind's understanding of meaning (e.g., semantics). While an association exists between mind and computer, it is at very most a Weak AI analogy, not a SAI correspondence.
Another example is Pinker's rejection of connectionism or associationism, which he derisively calls "connectoplasm." First, he sets up a straw-man argument by claiming the British Empiricists identified two features of connectionism: (1) resemblance and (2) contiguity. But Pinker fails to include the third feature (3) causality. Causality is a critical feature of connectionism, whether or not you accept connectionism's application to how the mind works. After ten pages of counter-examples, all the reader knows is (i) Pinker sets up a false dichotomy, and (ii) then gives no reasons, just counter-examples, of why connectionism fails. I agree with Pinker that connectionism as he's constructed it cannot do all the work Pinker or I want it to do, but then don't set up false dichotomies, and then furthermore fail to explain how the counter-examples demonstrate a failure.
A final example is Pinker's examination of "consciousness," something which is arguably either existent or not. It may just be a hangover from Cartesian dualism, a category without substance (see, Dennett, "Consciousness Explained"). Although Pinker can neither describe nor explain it, he wants to hold onto it for reasons he says will be apparent at the end of the book. While I kept waiting, I was also kept wanting. Consciousness is something we ascribe to our mental state of affairs, but Pinker offers no resolution as to why or how come. From Pinker's point of view, I can see no reason to hold onto it (although I still do).
For all the strengths of the book, especially issues concerning reciprocal altruism, emotions, and religion, the overall argument is too diffused to make too much of what is arbitrarily dismissed. These are just a few of the many defects that pervade the book. Too many out-of-hand dismissals of contrary theories do NOT make Pinker into a forcible advocate of HIS point of view. Other annoyances are his lack of Notes - no ordinary footnotes or endnotes, just notes. And of these, most are too broad to serve any useful purpose other than to avoid plagiarism. There is no Glossary (which, given his change of nomenclature, would have been useful), and the index at it stands is primarily name-oriented, not subject-oriented.
Despite these critical reservations, and despite a number of other books that avoid his mistakes. I still think Pinker is worth reading. It's one thing to think that one has an explanation to "describe how" the mind works, it's another thing to think that one can simply "describe why" the mind works like it does - at least from a Darwinian perspective. Description is not exactly causal (see, supra.), and the problem of causality resurfaces throughout the book. While I agree that "regressive-engineering" is a useful model for describing human behavior, it is not as exclusive or as exhaustive as Pinker seems to think.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb account of the mind,
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.
Good science, like Darwinism generally, in no way undermines osteopathy. In fact, 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.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Explanation of the Mysteries of the Mind,
I became interested in how the mind works as part of my research into the topic of the conscious web. I asked the question "what is consciousness?" and I figured out Pinker's book was a good place to start. Ray Kurzweil also quoted Pinker frequently in Kurzweil's book "The Age of Spiritual Machines" which I also loved. So although I just started with a single question I learned a lot more then I thought I would. I really appreciated Pinker's efforts to explain the mind as a series of interconnected processing units, where each processing unit needed to be understood from an evolutionary basis. He calls this "Natural Computation" and the concepts are very useful in explaining many aspects of the mind. I learned not just about models of consciousness being a model of the real world in our own brain where we exist in that model but also about topics like raising kids, dealing with family issues, emotions and the biological/evolutionary basis of love.
The book has been researched very well. This book has excellent notes and a large list of references for further reading.
My only criticism about this book is that Pinker sometimes draws on an unnecessarily large vocabulary, making his points difficult to understand in some parts. A little stronger editing might have helped here. How often do you use the word "palimpsest" in ordinary conversation? This is good if you want to expand your vocabulary but painful at times.
But all-in-all Pinker has done a great job explaining how the mind works. The title is correct.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Empirical Science's take on Human Nature,
The title of this book is something of a misnomer. The book is about more than just the mind: it is about the entire human being, with special focus on the motivational complexes stemming, in part at least, from innate, genetic factors within the human organism. Pinker discusses human nature from the viewpoint of evolutionary psychology. "Our physical organs owe their complex design to the information in the human genome," Pinker argues, "and so, I believe, do our mental organs." Starting from this premise, he attempts to "reverse engineer" the innate characteristics of human beings, assuming that man's genetic endowment is shaped by natural selection. "Reverse-engineering is possible only when one has a hint of what the device was designed to accomplish," Pinker argues. And what, may we ask, was the human device meant to accomplish? Well, since most of the evolution affecting the human mind and human motivational psychology took place during the hunterer-gatherer stage of human development, the human device was engineered to spread its genetics under conditions affecting men when they lived on the savannahs in Africa. This curious thesis, which many will automatically dismiss as absurd, is, under Pinker's advocacy, far more convincing then one would assume at first glance. Pinker marshals a host of fascinating evidence which demonstrates that, whether his basic thesis is correct or not, it certainly cannot be dismissed as implausible.
But the real value of the book is not so much its espousal of the controversial theories stemming out of evolutionary psychology, but its brilliantly empirical description of human nature. From the very start, Pinker admits that his book represents "a departure from the dominant view of the human mind in our intellectual tradition, which [is known as] the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM)." According to the SSSM, human nature is largely the product of arbitrary cultural factors. Rejecting an innate human nature, SSSM goes on to conclude that social engineers (e.g., Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro) can make of human beings what they please. This point of view, which is seen as "progressive" and benign, is totalitarian in practice. As Pinker points out, "If people's stated desires were just some kind of erasable inscription or reprogrammable brainwashing, any atrocity could be justified."
The issue over whether human nature is innate is probably the most important question facing social theorists and political philosophers. Pinker's innate biological view of the human mind leads him to adopt what is essentially the view of conservatives and traditional Christianity: the view, in short, that human beings are limited in their moral and spiritual potential, that, in other words, they are tainted by their biological inheritance. Ironically, Pinker, a materialist, Darwinist and atheist believes in a scientific version of the Christian doctrine of original sin. Christians and evolutionists have long been at odds over cosmology, but on the nature of man, they more or less speak with the same voice. After more 500 pages of analyzing the scientific evidence relating to human nature, Pinker concludes with the following sobering assessment: "No one needs a scientist to measure whether humans are prone to knavery. The question has been answered in the history books, the newspapers, the ethnographic record, and the letters to Ann Landers. But people treat it like an open question, as if someday science might discover that it's all a bad dream and we will wake up to find that it is human nature to love one another." Pinker's book is important precisely because it refutes once and for all the romantic notion that human nature is essentially good. For this reason alone, the book must be regarded as essential reading.
39 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How Pinker's Book Works...,
By A Customer
...brilliantly! I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to compile this book. Pinker uses the computational theory of mind and evolutionary biology to dismantle the most difficult philosophical, psychological, cultural, and biological problems in existence.
This book contains countless "Aha!" moments. I particularly appreciated the sections on sex and love. I thought, "so that's why women act as they do!" And the analysis of arts and entertainment: I mused, "Oh, that's why I like music!"
The author's style is incredibly concise, entertaining, and smooth. He forgoes the verbiage and gets right to the heart of humankind's oldest questions. I love his use of relevant real-life examples.
I can see why "How the Mind Works" draws so much criticism. Pinker explicitly states that he is against the Standard Social Science Model ("there is no human nature, it's all culture and environment"). In addition, he never relies on magical thinking, religious sentiments, or the appeal to tradition.
However, Pinker respects the feminist, the religionist, and many others. His (often borrowed) ideas apply to everyone with an interest in improving themselves, helping their loved ones, and understanding humanity in general.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Nicely written, but overlong and misleading,
By A Customer
This review is from: How the Mind Works (Hardcover)
An example of the narrow-mindedness encouraged by Pinker's computational brain:
In the middle of the book Pinker cites Lakoff (1987) and a few of the examples given in the latter's _Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things_ to show that the traditional criterial-attribute model of categorization is incorrect. Now, the well-read reader knows what Lakoff was trying to demonstrate; that classical logic is inadequate when it comes to explaining how people categorize. Much of his book is devoted to showing the many interesting ways people actually do categorize. It's all centered around Eleanor Rosch's prototype theory, and the significant factor played in best examples of a category, radial categorization, metaphor, metonomy, etc., etc.
Pinker's "refutation" of Lakoff's examples is amazing. Without mentioning prototype theory (there or in the entire book), he argues that Lakoff's mistake is not realizing that such fuzzy categories are the result of "idealizations". Having satisfied the ignorant reader that Lakoff is on the wrong track, Pinker moves on to other topics.
But the hypocrisy is obvious. Pinker's concept of an "idealization" is not too far removed from Rosch's "prototype"!And in the process of ignoring the vast empirical data in support of how minds *really* categorize, Pinker feels safe to remain in the classical framework of categorization.
Since I cannot believe that Pinker is ignorant of what Lakoff was actually talking about in his book, or the work of Rosch, I must conclude that by avoiding the real issues behind prototype theory he was being deliberately deceptive. And he is a very charismatic writer and speaker, so his popularizations have a better chance of reaching the public than the sometimes admittedly dense and verbose _Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things_. He leaves his readers with a biased report on the state of cognitive science, using what appears to me to be outright deception in the process, such as in the above example.
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How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker (Paperback - June 22, 2009)