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How the Mind Works (1997)

af Steven Pinker

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4,743402,331 (3.96)62
In this book, Steven Pinker 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. How the Mind Works explains many of the imponderables of everyday life. Why does a face look more attractive with makeup? How do Magic-Eye 3-D stereograms work? Why do we feel that a run of heads makes the coin more likely to land tails? Why is the thought of eating worms disgusting? Why do men challenge each other to duels and murder their ex-wives? Why are children bratty? Why do fools fall in love? Why are we soothed by paintings and music? And why do puzzles like the self, free will, and consciousness leave us dizzy? The arguments in the book are as bold as its title. Pinker rehabilitates unfashionable ideas, such as that the mind is a computer and that human nature was shaped by natural selection. And he challenges fashionable ones, such as that passionate emotions are irrational, that parents socialize their children, that creativity springs from the unconscious, that nature is good and modern society corrupting, and that art and religion are expressions of our higher spiritual yearnings.… (mere)
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Possibly a bit out of date (I remember noticing that he cited a study about rats consuming addictive substances if they were freely available which has since been shown to be mostly because they were put in isolated cages and not because animals will inherently choose to be blissed out if given the choice), but it did have some interesting stuff in it. A little hard to read at times because of the way in which he uses language (very brusque) and they way he talks about human behavior as if the way we evolved to do things is the "right" way (while he does have a disclaimer about this saying that he's not making moral judgments before he starts doing it, it's very hard to read it differently from how it's written).

The book has several asides which are somewhat interesting in and of themselves but seem to somewhat distract from the main purpose of the book. ( )
  stardustwisdom | Dec 31, 2023 |
I had this on my list for a while and kept putting it off, but it got a nudge when I was reading a review copy of A Skeptic’s Faith: Why Scientific Materialism Cannot Be the Whole Truth and the author didn’t even make it off the first page without misrepresenting Pinker twice, in a derivative (and incorrect) single sentence summation of this book and another from The Language Instinct. I’d read the latter, but not this one. So… (he sent me down a lot of other rabbit holes with his clever word twists; but this was the longest read.) One problem with someone of Pinker’s status is that there are people who take everything he says as gospel (pardon the non secular ref), dismiss everything, and as I learned, distort what he says. And, of course, there are those of us who read everything with two bookmarks: one for where I stop, and one in the Notes section for checking, and when I jump off the check the reference. Sometimes those are tedious, and sometimes they are hard to find (if at all).

I said of The Language Instinct, “Pinker could have made his point very well in 100 pages. I admire succinct conveyance of knowledge. Pinker sure has a way of complicating concepts with extraneous details. I didn't admire this book.” Now, I do admire Pinker. And he probably could have made all his points in this book in 200, not 660, pages. Tedious at times to sift the good stuff.

Now, this book is 25 years old and a lot of progress has been made in the fields Pinker discusses. Still, he makes good points, however prolix {grin}.

Curated highlights and notes:

“There are millions of animal species on earth, each with a different set of cognitive programs. The same basic neural tissue embodies all of these programs, and it could support many others as well. Facts about the properties of neurons, neurotransmitters, and cellular development cannot tell you which of these millions of programs the human mind contains. Even if all neural activity is the expression of a uniform process at the cellular level, it is the arrangement of neurons—into bird song templates or web-spinning programs—that matters.”
{A neuron is a neuron, and the arrangement matters. Those arrangements give rise to thought and without them, thought doesn’t exist.}

“When the first face recognizers are installed in buildings to replace doormen, they will not even try to interpret the chiaroscuro of your face but will scan in the hard-edged, rigid contours of your iris or your retinal blood vessels. ”
{Facial recognition isn’t a fiction anymore.}

“The hand can be configured into a hook grip (to lift a pail), a scissors grip (to hold a cigarette), a five-jaw chuck (to lift a coaster), a three-jaw chuck (to hold a pencil), a two-jaw pad-to-pad chuck (to thread a needle), a two-jaw pad-to-side chuck (to turn a key), a squeeze grip (to hold a hammer), a disc grip (to open ajar), and a spherical grip (to hold a ball). Each grip needs a precise combination of muscle tensions that mold the hand into the right shape and keep it there as the load tries to bend it back.”
{I liked this description.}

“An intelligent system, then, cannot be stuffed with trillions of facts. It must be equipped with a smaller list of core truths and a set of rules to deduce their implications. But the rules of common sense, like the categories of common sense, are frustratingly hard to set down. ”
And if they are set down, they can’t be immutable.}

“Why give a robot an order to obey orders—why aren’t the original orders enough? Why command a robot not to do harm—wouldn’t it be easier never to command it to do harm in the first place?”
{This is silly. New orders are different than preprogrammed orders. As to the second, somebody wishing harm may not have the restraint to not command such.}

“The computer running WordPerfect on your desk will continue to fill paragraphs for as long as it does anything at all. Its software will not insidiously mutate into depravity like the picture of Dorian Gray.”
{But Bing chat did.}

“The far-reaching effects of the genes have been documented in scores of studies and show up no matter how one tests for them: by comparing twins reared apart and reared together, by comparing identical and fraternal twins, or by comparing adopted and biological children. And despite what critics sometimes claim, the effects are not products of coincidence, fraud, or subtle similarities in the family environments (such as adoption agencies striving to place identical twins in homes that both encourage walking into the ocean backwards).”
{Uh oh. Genes driving actions and behaviors? Oh, the outcry from the religious, anti-determinists, and libertarians alike.}

“Cognitive science helps us to understand how a mind is possible and what kind of mind we have. Evolutionary biology helps us to understand why we have the kind of mind we have.”

“... the mind is not the brain but what the brain does, and not even everything it does, such as metabolizing fat and giving off heat.”
{Dualists have a hard time with the mind not being something separate instead of "what the brain does"}

“The computational theory of mind resolves the paradox. It says that beliefs and desires are information, incarnated as configurations of symbols. The symbols are the physical states of bits of matter, like chips in a computer or neurons in the brain. ”
{This is it. This will vex the philosophers, theo-folk, and anyone not understanding that the brain makes the mind.}

“Many of us have been puzzled by the takeover of humanities departments by the doctrines of postmodernism, poststructuralism, and deconstructionism, according to which objectivity is impossible, meaning is self-contradictory, and reality is socially constructed. ”

“Since the modern mind is adapted to the Stone Age, not the computer age, there is no need to strain for adaptive explanations for everything we do. Our ancestral environment lacked the institutions that now entice us to nonadaptive choices, such as religious orders, adoption agencies, and pharmaceutical companies, so until very recently there was never a selection pressure to resist the enticements”
{Spot on. We are not far enough removed from those Stone Age roots for them to be evolutionary decimal dust.}

“Contrary to popular belief, the gene-centered theory of evolution does not imply that the point of all human striving is to spread our genes. With the exception of the fertility doctor who artificially inseminated patients with his own semen, the donors to the sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners, and other kooks, no human being (or animal) strives to spread his or her genes. Dawkins explained the theory in a book called The Selfish Gene, and the metaphor was chosen carefully. People don’t selfishly spread their genes; genes selfishly spread themselves. They do it by the way they build our brains. ”
{Cue the old Jewish trope: ah-haaa!}

“[...] the mass of information processing in the nervous system falls into two pools. One pool, which includes the products of vision and the contents of short-term memory, can be accessed by the systems underlying verbal reports, rational thought, and deliberate decision making. The other pool, which includes autonomic (gut-level) responses, the internal calculations behind vision, language, and movement, and repressed desires or memories (if there are any), cannot be accessed by those systems. Sometimes information can pass from the first pool to the second or vice versa. When we first learn how to use a stick shift, every motion has to be thought out, but with practice the skill becomes automatic. With intense concentration and biofeedback, we can focus on a hidden sensation like our heartbeat.”

“The two deepest questions about the mind are “What makes intelligence possible?” and “What makes consciousness possible?” With the advent of cognitive science, intelligence has become intelligible.”
{Leaving, still, the question of what makes consciousness possible.}

“The chasm between what can be measured by a physicist and what can cause behavior is the reason we must credit people with beliefs and desires.
In our daily lives we all predict and explain other people's behavior from what we think they know and what we think they want. Beliefs and desires are the explanatory tools of our own intuitive psychology, and intuitive psychology is the most useful and complete science of behavior there is.”
{Complete? Uh, okay. Don't forget that it is still just a guess.}

“The traditional explanation of intelligence is that human flesh is suffused with a non-material entity, the soul, usually envisioned as some kind of ghost or spirit. But the theory faces an insurmountable problem: How does the spook interact with solid matter? ”
{This.}

“Of course, something about the tissue in the human brain is necessary for our intelligence, but the physical properties are not sufficient, just as the physical properties of bricks are not sufficient to explain architecture and the physical properties of oxide particles are not sufficient to explain music. Something in the patterning of neural tissue is crucial.”
{And this.}

“No, intelligence does not come from a special kind of spirit or matter or energy but from a different commodity, information. ”
{AND....this!}

“These are called the “causal” and the “inferential-role” theories, and philosophers hostile to each have had fun thinking up preposterous thought experiments to refute them. ”
{Pastime of philosophers is thinking if questions that can't be answered, then answering them (ostensibly)> And, it seems, knocking about with other philosophers.}

“We don’t need spirits or occult forces to explain intelligence. Nor, in an effort to look scientific, do we have to ignore the evidence of our own eyes and claim that human beings are bundles of conditioned associations, puppets of the genes, or followers of brutish instincts. We can have both the agility and discernment of human thought and a mechanistic framework in which to explain it. ”
{Yes.}

“If we could ever duplicate the information processing in the human mind as an enormous computer program, would a computer running the program be conscious?”

“One of the reasons God was invented was to be the mind that formed and executed life’s plans.”

“Mencken when he wrote, “Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.”

“For anyone with a persistent intellectual curiosity, religious explanations are not worth knowing because they pile equally baffling enigmas on top of the original ones. ”
{This goes in the quote pile.}

“Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or meaningless or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. ”

“And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience.”

“It is easy to draw extravagant and unwarranted conclusions from the suggestion that our minds lack the equipment to solve the major problems of philosophy. It does not say that there is some paradox of self-reference or infinite regress in a mind’s trying to understand itself. Psychologists and neuroscientists don’t study their own minds; they study someone else’s. Nor does it imply some principled limitation on the possibility of knowledge by any knower, like the Uncertainty Principle or Gödel’s theorem. It is an observation about one organ of one species, equivalent to observing that cats are color-blind or that monkeys cannot learn long division. It does not justify religious or mystical beliefs but explains why they are futile.”
{I need to give Pinker more of his due.}

“The computational aspect of consciousness (what information is available to which processes), the neurological aspect (what in the brain correlates with consciousness), and the evolutionary aspect (when and why did the neurocomputational aspects emerge) are perfectly tractable, and I see no reason that we should not have decades of progress and eventually a complete understanding—even if we never solve residual brain-teasers like whether your red is the same as my red or what it is like to be a bat.”

“First, if the mind is a system of organs designed by natural selection, why should we ever have expected it to comprehend all mysteries, to grasp all truths? We should be thankful that the problems of science are close enough in structure to the problems of our foraging ancestors that we have made the progress that we have. ”
{And there again are the primitive roots we aren't so evolutionarily far from.} ( )
  Razinha | Jun 29, 2023 |
A thoroughly readable and interesting book about the many aspects of the mind, this was a joy to read. Enlightening as well in a good way that provided endless insights into the nature the human mind. ( )
  jwhenderson | Nov 6, 2022 |
Como as crianças aprendem sobre o mundo que as rodeia? Como tomamos decisões ou enfrentamos riscos? O que diferencia os gênios do comum dos mortais? Amor, confiança, sensibilidade, decepção, criatividade - quais os mecanismos por trás desses e de e outros processos que tomam conta de nossas mentes diariamente? Neste livro extraordinário, o psicólogo e cientista cognitivo Steven Pinker conduz o leitor com maestria por duas grandes teorias: o evolucionismo de Darwin e a moderna ciência cognitiva. Através do uso de exemplos do cotidiano e de uma argumentação lúcida, em estilo cativante e acessível, Pinker mostra como podemos estar bem próximos de uma das últimas fronteiras do conhecimento - a mente humana.
  matheus1berto21 | Jul 13, 2021 |
The beginning sections of this book on consciousness, visual perception, cognitive structure, and how the structure of language can illuminate the way that the brain actually processes information are excellent, and worth the price of the book right there. In particular, I don't think you will find many more interesting discussions on how seeing works than Pinker's description of why so many people are frustrated by Magic Eye diagrams (personally, I've always despised them, and now I know why!). As a hardcore work on intelligence those parts don't reach the heights of Marvin Minsky's godlike book The Society of Mind, as few books by mortals can ever hope to, but they're still quite good. The later sections of the book, however, are much less focused and seem to be more about social structure - i.e. the interaction of many minds - than about the mind, per se. I suppose they're justified because most if not all social behavior can be explained as epiphenomena of the way that our brains are wired, and he did find ways to ground things like incest taboos to the evolutionary explanations he brought up in the first few parts, yet I kept wishing he would go back to talking about all of the neat things psychologists have learned about how to fool our systems of perception and what that says about the brain rather than snarking about academic debates over gender roles. As a side note, I can't help but think that Pinker must have been a huge hippie back in the 60s and 70s, and is working out some issues with that part of his life in his works. The Family Values chapter in particular is rife with a peculiar mix of open contempt for the peace-and-love sentiments of stuff like John Lennon's Imagine, along with heavily qualified semi-assurances that the stifling conservative cynicism that John Lennon was opposing is equally misguided and not supported by any natural or biological laws. Pinker never contradicts himself, exactly, you just definitely get the impression that maybe he had recently found some pictures of himself in bell-bottoms or something and is trying to exorcise some bad memories through popular science non-fiction by taking a "the answer is in the middle!" half-stance. It definitely doesn't have the same sense of scientific rigor that the first half of the book did, anyway. Thankfully he expanded the better parts about the history of violence into his recent excellent book The Better Angels of Our Nature (which still has some questionable hippie-bashing, yet is still a cohesive work on its own). Overall I would recommend to inhale everything up to the Hotheads chapter, and then afterwards try to keep an eye out for buried gems like his discussion of the brain's mysterious relationship to music, which is a nice complement to full-length books like Daniel Levitin's The World In Six Songs. Overall quite good. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
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In this book, Steven Pinker 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. How the Mind Works explains many of the imponderables of everyday life. Why does a face look more attractive with makeup? How do Magic-Eye 3-D stereograms work? Why do we feel that a run of heads makes the coin more likely to land tails? Why is the thought of eating worms disgusting? Why do men challenge each other to duels and murder their ex-wives? Why are children bratty? Why do fools fall in love? Why are we soothed by paintings and music? And why do puzzles like the self, free will, and consciousness leave us dizzy? The arguments in the book are as bold as its title. Pinker rehabilitates unfashionable ideas, such as that the mind is a computer and that human nature was shaped by natural selection. And he challenges fashionable ones, such as that passionate emotions are irrational, that parents socialize their children, that creativity springs from the unconscious, that nature is good and modern society corrupting, and that art and religion are expressions of our higher spiritual yearnings.

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