Book review: How the Mind Works

If there is one book that I recommend to everybody, regardless, it’s Demon Haunted World, the most efficient, readable, and interesting book to promote critical thinking that I’ve ever come across. But underneath this pursuit lies a curious question: why there is an apparent deficit in critical thinking in the first place.

How the Mind Works book coverHow the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker, goes a long way towards answering this question, and has been added to my list of recommended books. I will happily admit that, in part, this is because it deals directly with topics I’ve posted so much about before: how we’ve been shaped over the millennia to think, react, and act in certain ways. It does not hurt that Pinker has confirmed many suspicions and idle theories that I’ve had, even though he also trashed a few. But far more in support of recommending it is that the information therein is often not only startling, correcting common misconceptions about ourselves, it all fits together remarkably well. It presents a tremendous amount of information, broken up by subtopics, and I found nearly every one of these subtopics imparted something new and, quite often, completely against former understanding – even when I was already convinced of how much this approach could explain.

This is not exactly a book on evolution, and will not help much in understanding how the process works – nevertheless, in order to understand what goes in in the human mind, one cannot help but see the evolutionary path, and the influences that selection has had. Up until quite recently, it was believed that biology could explain what the brain was made of, but that psychology, sociology, and anthropology was necessary to explain what we did and why – basically, that we were influenced almost entirely by culture, the “nature vs nurture” idea that has ever after been misconstrued, sometimes wildly. What Pinker (and all of his sources) demonstrates is that biology has a hell of a lot more say in the matter than was previously believed, and that many of the perceptions of our minds were dead wrong, sometimes egregiously so. While he does not bother with fingering culprits, there are still places when the clash with the humanities is hinted at. Most times, the information is presented as-is, without editorializing, without comparison against previous ideas, without judgment.

This is good, in that many of the concepts related within range from somewhat surprising to outright contentious, depending on how open the reader is; I imagine the number of angry letters Pinker has received has not been trivial. Some of the ideas might seem radical, when viewed against the ‘common knowledge’ that many people have held all of their lives, but this is largely the point; for a long time, we really didn’t recognize how we should have been looking at the topic of The Mind. Yet this book is not speculative in nature – it does not present radical ideas that it then looks to find support for, like ‘The Secret’ and all that jazz; it is a collection of solid scientific studies, sometimes ingenious in approach, that have examined and tested numerous aspects of our thought processes. For example, in Chapter 5, Pinker relates studies that tested infants from the age of 3 months and up for what they expected to happen with different objects – this is long before they could have built a database of experience to guide expectations, much less receive any parental guidance on the matter. One could skeptically ask how anyone could determine what an infant could tell us (“one gurgle for yes, two for no, spit up if you want the experiment repeated”,) and Pinker answers that: infants can express both interest and surprise by how they paid attention. If they soon looked away, what they had seen wasn’t new or unique in any way, while if they paid sharp attention, what had happened was unexpected. In this manner, it was determined that from very early ages, humans develop strong distinctions between animate and inanimate objects, with different expectations of behavior for each – infants get upset when a face becomes still, but not when a dot does. People and animals can move independently, but objects require some outside force like a push, or collision with another moving object. Infants also had an immediate recognition of small numbers of objects, able to be distinguished long before the red and blue fishes have come along. Parents do not teach the concept of “three” to their children, only what word to use for it.

Pinker covers a tremendous amount of territory in this book, from artificial intelligence to the concept of modeling three dimensions, from our peculiar half-grasp of logic to why we have violent tendencies. Some of these have been grappled with by philosophy for centuries, but become startling clear (and perfectly sensible, if not necessarily pleasing) when examined as artifacts of evolved organisms. While we like to believe that humans are higher beings and quite rational, there’s a lot of evidence that our behavior is much, much closer to the ‘instinctual’ actions of many other species than products of careful consideration. These instincts, provoking feelings of importance with certain behaviors, can even lead to elaborate cultural constructs. The tendency for an organism to perpetuate its own genes is not only a given trait anymore, it’s fairly obvious how it could be developed through selection, leading to behavior that favors family and kin, and by extension the small tribe of kin-group. Some of this behavior, however, is rather esoteric:

In any group, the younger, poorer, and disenfranchised member may be tempted to defect to other groups. The powerful, especially parents, have an interest in keeping them in. People everywhere form alliances by eating together, from potlatches and feasts to business lunches and dates. If I can’t eat with you, I can’t become your friend. Food taboos often prohibit a favorite food of a neighboring tribe; that is true, for example, of many of the Jewish dietary laws. That suggests that they are weapons to keep potential defectors in. First, they make the merest prelude to cooperation with outsiders – breaking bread together – an unmistakeable act of defiance. Even better, they exploit the psychology of disgust.

The chapters dealing with violence and gender differences are very likely to draw a lot of resistance, which is a telling effect all by itself. A bar fight between two males, often over the stupidest of reasons, is more about sexual status (how capable and virile the participants appear, not just to any females watching, but within the ‘tribe’ as a whole) than it is about the importance of discouraging such rude behavior by whaling on someone who issued an insult – though the idea of sexual posturing isn’t likely to occur to the participants at the time. And despite the protests of a large percentage of the population, women and men really do behave entirely differently, and have entirely different outlooks and approaches, especially regarding each other.

Pinker is careful to note the misconceptions that arise from these established results, as well. While evolution shaped us in a manner that worked efficiently, our modern societies are a far cry from 99.99% of our previous history – things have changed too quickly to develop adaptations to our lives now, so much of this behavior doesn’t provide the benefit it once did. Also noted is that there is no intent or goal anywhere in the process; we cannot say that because natural selection produced these effects, this is how we should behave. The curious, and perhaps heartening, effect mentioned above is that we often feel distaste over many of these aspects – evidence, perhaps, that evolution is on the case and has produced some counteracting influence. But what is more important is the conscious recognition that these simplistic behaviors exist; if we believe that we are always rational or ‘in control,’ then we’re far more likely to consider these ancient artifacts as reasoned actions – but if we accept that we have some old instincts that still prompt unthinking responses, we’re better able to quash them when they appear. All too often, unfortunately, the efforts to recognize where such things came from are considered “excusing” them, or worse, are simply ignored wholesale because the entire idea is unsavory and counter to previous beliefs.

I feel obligated to mention that this is a dense book; Pinker broke How the Mind Works up into eight chapters when it could easily have been thirty, and at 673 pages it is half-again as long as Demon Haunted World (extensive notes, references, and index temper this just a little.) And he does not skimp on the detail, sometimes getting a little too involved in explaining certain aspects, like others’ attempts to compare (inadequately) cognition with computing. It took me longer than expected to get through it, even with my interest in the subject matter, yet I encourage the perseverance that might be necessary; it’s a complicated subject and he treats it seriously, and the understanding that it can evoke is, dare I say, something that will change the way you see people. It’s even worth it just for the numerous examples of research that demonstrate how often our impressions were dead wrong. Among many other things, the book does a number on pop psychology, which can only help – there are still far too many people who wield it with utterly misplaced confidence.

Right at the end, there’s a curious departure from the style used throughout, as Pinker allows for how some burning philosophical questions are so far unanswered. I found this seriously dissatisfying, not just from the lack of the critical approach established earlier, but because I can see numerous issues with the message. Essentially, he admits that some aspects are still not understood, like consciousness and morality, and even concedes that the mind may not be adequate to fully comprehend itself – not surprising in an adaptive organism shaped over millennia, really. I have no argument with the latter approach, but have found that large swaths of philosophy suffer from the same kind of misconceptions that Pinker has addressed elsewhere in the book, and aren’t very hard to understand when viewed within the same framework. This bit at the very end offered little more than a sop to the humanities, and I am suspicious that Pinker intentionally threw this in to allay the protests that he sees from the demystifying of the mind – he is, after all, an academic with colleagues in those fields – but to me it was almost as if written by someone else. It’s brief, though, so no biggie.

To say that this book is going to lead to some other posts is probably putting it mildly – two have crept in while I was in the middle of it, and I’ve been marking other passages as I review it, something I wished I’d done from the start. It’s remarkably thought-provoking, and assumption-challenging, and above all, smoothly fits together pieces that we may not even have been aware were part of a puzzle. Because of its style and density, I have to consider it at an ‘adult’ reading level, lacking some of the earnest appeal that Sagan and Singh bring to the table, but it is no less fascinating for that. Dig in, and keep a notepad handy.