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How the Mind Works Paperback – January 1, 1994
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- Publisher : PENGUIN BOOKS INDIA (January 1, 1994)
- Language : English
- ISBN-10 : 0141980788
- ISBN-13 : 978-0141980782
- Item Weight : 1.01 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.24 x 1.22 x 7.83 inches
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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Every good teacher learns from experience when introducing someone to a subject to do so with the least amount of information; just so the learner can build a structural skeleton of knowledge. Knowing that with intellectual curiosity knowledge gaps will gaps can be filled later. Good teachers lean it is essential to build the structure first.
Steven Pinker sounds like someone who is high on a joint before he wrote; and the words and ideas overflowed into a rambling mass of ideas that connects loosely to the theme.
Some of the same subject matter in this book is treated masterfully in the books "Evolution for Everyone" by David Sloan Wilson. "The Self Illusion" by Bruce Hood. "Bootstrapping Complexity" by Kevin Kelly. I enjoyed reading and learning from these books.
The reason many of the important concepts or points are driven home with multiple, detailed (sometimes dry) examples is because they're being written by a serious professional and academic, writing about a very complicated topic. The depth is required to really understand what is being talked about.
As for the work itself, it's a good overview of how the brain evolved the way it did and how it functions, but some chapters are better than others. It's not surprising that the most informative and in-depth chapters are the ones that focus on aspects of perception, symbology, and language (all fall within his general area of specialization). But since so much of what we do requires or revovles around these functions this is a plus for the overall quality of the book.
The chapters at the end, especially the ones related to emotions and family aspects, get pretty far afield from general brain structure and functioning (compared to earlier chapters) and as such were a little difficult to wade through, and ultimately disappointing. Those read more like basic human psychology / sociology primers; interesting, but not really brain-function specific, if I had to describe in a sentence. So for that, four stars not five.
As a general criticism, there are sections where he gets pretty far "into the weeds" to drive home a point, but this is to be expected; this is a scholarly work even though it is run by a mainstream commercial publisher. Bottom line: one could fairly accuse the copy editor of not reigning the author in a few area (i.e. don't make your point over 5 pages if you can make it in 4), but that's a far cry from the makings of a bad book or a book made of filler (a common flaw of many popular authors today but not Pinker).
In summary: if you want entertaining, easy reads, don't buy any of Steven Pinker's books. There are whole series of books from Oxford press and others that do this — provide 100+ page overviews of "serious topics" — try one of those instead. None of Pinker's books are easy reads; all require some "stop and think" moments to really absorb what's being described. Even re-reading some passages a couple times or writing notes in the margin. These books are for people who are looking for a deep understanding of a topic and are willing to struggle a bit to get there. ;- )
Top reviews from other countries
Steven Pinker's view is that much of what we perceive as intelligence, personality and thought is inherited; in other words is a product of evolution.
Many supporters of artificial intelligence cling to a hope that the brain is made of general purpose grey matter, and that intelligence will spontaneously spring into existence if you can create the right sort of 'connectoplasm'. Professor Pinker demolishes that hope: our brains are made up of specialised modules, the product of millions of years of evolution
Post-modern social scientists, not to mention teachers, parents and religious leaders, cling to a hope that mind and personality are social constructs, that it is not 'all in the genes'. Professor Pinker quotes statistics that show that they are largely wrong, that genes play the key role in our character.
Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of 'memes' and Daniel Dennett extended the idea of evolution to include non-genetic selection. Professor Pinker thinks they went too far. For Pinker, the overriding force in what it is to be human is genetic -- good old Darwinian evolution.
However, the book is not all negative. Chapter by chapter, Pinker picks an aspect of human behaviour, character or thought, and shows how it is the result of Darwinian selection and the 'selfish gene'. His insights are far more cogent and persuasive than previous writers such as Freud or Jung, because of this scientific basis in evolution. Pinker really has found a key to unlock at least some of what it is to be human, and it makes his book essential reading for students of human character.
To me, there are two weakness to the book, and I think they are related.
Pinker addresses the idea of Consciousness, meaning his sense of there being an 'I', the subject of his experiences. The colour red is a range of wavelengths of light; it causes excitations in particular nerve cells; the verbal centres of the brain respond and cause his mouth to say 'red'. But nowhere in that description is the obvious truth that Steven Pinker experienced red colour. Daniel Dennett in his excellent, if ambitiously named, book 'Consciousness Explained' claims that there is no such thing as the experience of red, other than that physical explanation of the wavelengths and nerve excitations. Pinker disagrees. He thinks that consciousness cannot be explained away (I think he is right). However, he asserts that it is not something that can be explained, because humans are simply not clever enough. A hyperintelligent alien might be able to explain exactly what consciousness is in humans and how it relates to the brain and the mind, but a human would not have the mental capability to understand the explanation.
To me, this is a cop out. By evading the question of consciousness, Pinker leaves the door open to some pretty weird ideas (you know what I mean, you've probably read the books too).
My related complaint is that Pinker takes his own introspective intuitions about what is happening inside his head too literally. His introspection tells him that he sees a picture of the world: so he assumes that inside his brain there is a two-and-a-bit-dimensional picture of the world mapped out in neurons, for some other piece of brain to look at. His introspection tells him that he thinks in words, though he knows it cannot be English: so he assumes that his internal thoughts are in 'mentalese'.
These intuitions are what Daniel Dennett calls the 'Cartesian Theatre', and for him they pave a road leading to infinite regress and incoherent ideas about consciousness.
I'd love to see a book co-authored by Dennett and Pinker. They both write superbly well, and in a way that is accessible to all readers. They both start from the same scientific premises. Yet they have very different answers to some key questions. Until they write such a book together, you must read them separately. But please do -- they are not right about everything, but they will lead you to a better understanding of Mind than any other writer living.
Well worth persevering with the book.
(Computational theory of mind) + (evolutionary reverse engineering) = (How the mind works)
Well hypothesised, well written, and well defended. This is more of an outcome of intense research work than a mere psychology nonfiction. This book is a work of a pioneer of the highly developing field called Evolutionary Psychology. For lack of a more precise analogy, Steven Pinker is Steven Hawking of Psychology.