- Paperback: 672 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Later prt. edition (January 17, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393318486
- ISBN-13: 978-0393318487
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars See all reviews (270 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #237,939 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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How the Mind Works Later prt. Edition
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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 alternate Paperback edition.
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 alternate Paperback edition.
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Top customer reviews
Fun and worth reading, particularly the sections on language.
Pinker also shows how the mind was designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their hunter/gatherer existence, which may be why we have such trouble explaining such esoteric concepts as consciousness and sentience.
Pinker does not have a whole lot of respect for Freud, B.F. Skinner, or the Standard Social Science Model, which views the mind as a blank slate at birth. He disdains a moral approach when discussing natural selection, which gets him in trouble with feminists among other value-laden "isms". Instead, he argues for a "module-packed mind" that "allows both for innate motives that lead to evil acts and for innate motives that can avert them."
When discussing the computational mind, Pinker spends a lot of time on the eye. He shows how the eye evolved from light sensitive skin tissue, how humans developed stereoscopic vision leading to a bigger brain, how the brain tricks us into believing that matter is solid, and how seeing in color and in three dimensions led to more brain capacity. Pinker even shows us how the "Mind's eye" works. The eye connects to the brain, but the brain also connects to the eye.
Emotions began with the family and extended to non-family because foragers lived in groups. We love people who carry our genes. Pinker shows how the emotions evolve from the family to non-family relationships using reciprocal altruism. If you grant a favor to another (such as supplying him with meat) and he later returns the favor, you like him. If he cares for you when you are sick with no apparent compensation, you grow to love him. Cheaters inspire other emotions such as anger and resentment and the list grows. Guilt happens when we're cheating and we know it. Sympathy is an emotion for gaining gratitude. Body language ensures that emotions are hard to fake. Most people have scam detectors; you can tell the difference between a real smile and that of a beauty contestant.
Pinker also discusses bi-products of natural selection such as religion, music, philosophy and art. As mentioned earlier, we are blessed (or cursed) with a forager's brain. "The intellect evolved to crack the defense of things in the natural and social world," not answer such questions as "Why do bad things happen to good people?" We are lucky our stone-age minds do as well as they do when tackling complex scientific problems.
Steven Pinker's book, "How the Mind Works", is a study of the human brain, how it works, and why it works the way it does. In eight chapters it reconstructs the brain from the bottom up, starting from the simplest of processes and combining them into the complex thoughts and behaviors we experience. The book is as much about how the mind works as it is about evolution, Pinker's main solution for the 'why'. He begins with the "Standard Equipment" of the mind, how it is an organ system made up of many subunits called modules. Then, he discusses in length the Computational Theory of Mind, essentially the idea that our brains are information processing machines, not to be confused with the 'mind as a computer' model, which differs slightly but in very fundamental ways. With the fundamental 'how' taken care of, Pinker jumps headlong into the 'why'. Over the next two chapters he gives an expert description of the theory of evolution, and his thoughts on why our brains could have evolved from an ape's. He calls to light our ancestor's massive devotion to visual processing in the brain, and the ability to see and understand in three dimensions, adding that most attempts to understand abstract concepts result in mapping them in 2- or 3-dimensional space (graphs, charts, etc.). He goes on to describe the benefits of increased intelligence from an evolutionary standpoint, and how it would outweigh the costs associated with it. With the basic concepts of how and why the mind works as it does, in the next few chapters he extrapolated these ideas across a number of human behaviors and abilities, on topics such as love, kinship, art and music. Finally, he ends the book with a perhaps overzealous chapter title: The Meaning of Life". Pinker suggests that he cannot profess to know if these ideas are absolutes, and furthermore that there may be some things, such as consciousness, which we may never be able to comprehend because of the way we are made. Of course, all these claims are contingent on the Computational Theory of Mind and the Theory of Evolution, but both theories are well supported and there is no reason not to except sound rationalizations based upon them.
Pinker is an academic, and it shows in his style. He tends to delve into almost excessive rigor in describing and defending his ideas on the matter at hand. At times this can make it difficult to read, especially in a casual manner, and reminds one of reading an academic journal more so than a book for the layperson - this may be due in part to the actual subject matter, which itself needs long and sometimes arduous explanation for anyone not familiar with it. Verbosity aside, the format of the book is excellent. It provides a neat step-by-step analysis of each part of the currently discussed issue, citing its pros and cons and moving successively closer to the final conclusion by rejection and substitution of 'lesser' theories or models with more robust ones. Then each major idea is expanded or built upon to introduce and explain higher or more complex levels of thought.
Pinker essentially relies on two major theories for everything in his book: The Computational Theory of Mind and the Theory of Evolution. In fact the explanations of those two theories take up roughly one third of the book, and with good reason. Because of the way the book is structured, the underlying theories make up the meat of the message he is trying to send; everything else is simply a logical extrapolation from the rules set by the theories he bases his ideas on. Therefore the most scrutiny should be put on how he defines the rule set and how those rules are put to use.
The Computational Theory of Mind is fairly straightforward. Pinker simply iterates through various models of neural circuitry and how it accomplishes a task on a very basic level. The abstract model is based on symbols, a sort of mental identifier of a concept, that are used to describe things with more complexity by combination of symbols. Each subsystem in the brain is made up of a hierarchical set of sub-subsystems which are in turn contrived of yet another set of subsystems, and so on until you reach a basic unit that is not much more than a switch, which is similar to how computer circuits work.
Pinker's application of this model to vision is quite interesting. Vision is not simply a recording like a home video, but a set of inputs that go through a tremendous amount of processing in real time throughout parallel circuits which analyze different aspects of the input. He explains these stunningly with the use of a number of optical illusions or phenomena. Most memorable being the folded sheet, which is a grid with two bends in it and a plus shape coloring. He uses an analogy of a painter, a lighting specialist and a metalworker trying to recreate that image. Each can produce the image individually, but if a supervisor utilizes each one optimally, the cost is significantly reduced. This supervisor in the analogy is the algorithm that computes the most likely rendering of what we see based on a sort of cost analysis, with more common or normal renderings being 'cheaper'. The analogy, though simplified, is enlightening.
The discussion of evolution is similarly engaging. It is a great description of why certain structures, such as his favorite, the eye, would have come to be so complex. Furthermore, he adequately dispels many misconceptions about evolution. One being that all features of an animal are adaptations to some selective force. This is simply not true, and is a gross assumption to make. Applying evolution to many cultural aspects of humanity explains a lot. Pinker shows that cohesive social groups and intelligence are potentially reciprocating stimuli for improving the other. Being a social creature requires more intelligent interaction to maintain the good of the whole and to protect oneself from any mal intent of others in the group. Similarly, higher intelligence and the ability to predict the consequences of an action allow social creatures to share resources in return for mutual protection and fidelity; an alliance. These benefits would select for more intelligent creatures over the generations. Evolution, Pinker says, has resulted in the "ultimate revenge of the nerds". The intelligent - but weaker, smaller, and slower - animals have overtaken the large, fast, and strong, essentially by being able to plan more effectively.
Unfortunately, one aspect of the mind that Pinker seems to neglect is the plasticity of the mind. Pinker seems to maintain the model of the mind as a sort of compartmentalized system with innate abilities and tasks assigned to each. However, it has been shown that this is not the case. The mind can in fact rewire itself (at any age) to learn new things, or to strengthen new or old connections. (See the studies of Paul Bach-y-Rita)
Overall the book sheds an amazing new light on the world and ways we interact with it, as well as why we interact that way. With few exceptions, Steven Pinker's presentation here is well-formed, compelling, and intriguing. If you have issue with evolutionary theory, you may have difficulty accepting much of what is postulated throughout the book. However, if approached with an open mind, the ideas within can at least make you think about the world a little differently, even if you don't accept the content.