Feb 24

Non-Fiction Friday: How the Mind Works

It’s my turn to give a brief book review. I will be talking about How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. I am a Pinker fan and I had a few of his books to choose from for this review. The first of his books I read was The Language Instinct. I was so impressed with his writing style and scholarship that upon finishing it I immediately sought out more of his work. The Blank Slate was next on the list and I found myself even more impressed. I followed up by reading How the Mind Works, the subject of this review, and I am currently reading The Better Angels of our Nature.

I don’t consider How the Mind Works to be the best example of Pinker’s work. That should in no way be an indictment of this book since Pinker at his worst is better than most at their best. My primary criticisms stem from comparisons with his other works. His intense attention to detail and scholarship are positive attributes for me, though I understand why many lay readers would find them tedious and possibly even distracting. That is why in this review I will take the book on its own merits without taking any of his other work into consideration.

The human mind continues to be one of the greatest mysteries that those of our species can try to comprehend. We are a peculiar lot in that we seem to be capable of the most rational and intelligent thought of any species and yet we engage in some of the most irrational behavior ever observed. My mind wanders from Einstein’s paper on general relativity, the realizations and intuitive leaps of a mind capable of grasping how the universe works at scales most people’s brains can barely fathom, to the antics of politicians who might contradict themselves twelve times in the same paragraph and not realize it once. The most amazing thing about all of this is that both of these phenomena, the most insightful and profound as well as the the most ludicrous and insane, can take place within a single human mind. If you, like me, are interested in how such an organ could have developed, how it works and what its potential might be then this is a book worth reading.

When approaching the book for the first time it will be immensely helpful to look at the title as a question as opposed to a statement of what answers it intends to provide. If it accomplished that it would have been a bit more popular I suspect. It is an attempt to reverse engineer the human mind as a product of millions of years of evolution. Beginning with the computational theory of mind it takes us through a plausible pathway back in time, drawing on psychology, neuroscience, anthropology and other fields. Staying true to form, Pinker anticipates objections to his proposals and puts them to rest as the book progresses.

This is a middle ground type of book. It lacks some of the rigor and depth of a more scholarly work while seeking not to oversimplify to the point of misinforming or misleading. At the same time it lacks the feel of a more popular work intended solely to entertain. If you are like me and get your kicks from a good romp in the details you will no doubt be delightfully entertained at times. Those more inclined toward snippets or articles in popular science magazines may feel like they are reading an enormously long research paper.

If you are a professional in the field of neuroscience or evolutionary psychology then there is probably nothing in the book that will be new to you. This book is intended to bridge a gap between scientists and the public and I think it does the trick very well. If this is the kind of subject that you want to understand with all your might then consider this book a starting point. You won’t regret it.

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