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How the Mind Works Paperback – June 22, 2009

3.8 out of 5 stars 254 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition (June 22, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393334775
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393334777
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (254 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #22,235 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ethan Hein on September 4, 2002
Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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.
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