How The Mind Works – Stephen Pinker

Taking a look at the workings of the mind based on evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of the mind – quite interesting. I didn’t realise when I bought it that it was quite as old as it was – written in 1997, so I’ve probably read a fair bit of stuff that was written since, although I can’t remember anything that contradicts what’s in this book.

From the description and blurbs on the book, I was expecting a much lighter read – it’s pretty dense in places, although it is leavened with some nice jokes (it didn’t ever make me laugh out loud, so it’s not as funny as Wodehouse – I’m sure Pinker won’t be too disappointed if he finds out that that is my opinion).

So what is evolutionary psychology? The idea that the mind (not the brain, although… duh) evolved to adapt to the environment of early man – foraging, nomadic, small bands of humans (and pre-human hominids) – Pinker provides lots of examples in the second half of the book. I was a bit surprised to read that so many thinkers have denied the possibility of the mind evolving so completely, but Pinker argues pretty successfully that just as there is no argument that the body evolved, so did the mind.

So what is the computation theory of the mind? The idea that intelligence is based on problem-solving modules that cooperate with each other and with memory to enable us to perceive and interact with the world. It isn’t what I thought it was, which is  the idea that the workings of the mind can be modelled on a high-powered computer system. There is too much parallel work going on, and too much going down from the brain into the sensory organs (although Pinker concentrates mostly on vision, I think the same has been argued for hearing in several other books I’ve read lately).

He illustrates things neatly with examples of illusions (visual tricks are one thing that works a lot better on paper than auditory illusions) and thought experiments that show the limitations of the human mind, which he uses as evidence for his theories (not actually his theories – his book is a summary of some of the prevailing thought from the late 90s) – rather welll, I think.

Has it changed the way I think about the way I think (as promised on the cover)? Well, no, probably not. But it was enlightening, if a little bit tough to chew in places.

See also:

Everything Bad is Good for You – Pinker, a later book

The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten – some philosophical thought experiments

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