How the Mind Works

by Steven Pinker

Hardcover, 1997




W W Norton & Co Inc (1997)


In this book the author, a cognitive scientist explains how the brain evolved to store and use information, allowing our ancestors to control their environment, and why we think and act as we do. He 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. This work 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. The author 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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member frank_oconnor
The title is misleading. The first part of the book discusses neural networking, the computational theory of mind and perception but it does so without connecting the dots or answering some major questions on these issues. Pinker then turns to an extended defence of evolutionary psychology that rattles over the big issues and relies on one or two experimental defences in each case. The question of consciousness is dismissed in a three page "I don't know" and Pinker even suggests that because the mind evolved we may never know the answer and that this might be a good thing!

The book is somewhat interesting as an overview of the mind in terms of evolutionary psychology but it fails to live up to the promise of providing clear insights into how the mind itself works.
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LibraryThing member robinhood26
Steven Pinker takes a scientific and particularly evolutionary view regarding the brain functions and development of the human mind. This view is (finally) gaining traction in the scientific community.* To me the approach is compelling, although the author feels it necessary to spend some time in this voluminous text (565 pages, not including notes and references) defending the proposition of the brain as a product of evolution.

The book, however, reaches too far. It spends most of its time on functions of the brain and the needs that evolutionary development helped solve; very interesting. Later on in the book, we are given reasons to approach concepts such as gender differences from this view; although further down the road of conjecture, the logic is impelling. However, at the end we enter the realm of philosophy and religion, which simply goes too far.

The fact that our brains are not designed to solve those questions is not very relevant. More relevant would be pondering why we ask these questions in the first place, and why we are often satisfied with answers that do not add any ueful information but in some cases tell us to willingly limit our thinking. But that would be the subject of another equally protracted analysis.

*An aside: in fact, when read without the baggage of preconcieved religious beliefs, the belated scientific approach to "all things human" is quite shocking. There are other examples of science being used to pursue prejudices which are also losing traction. For example, the attempts to mix the European genetic lineage with Neanderthal shows more signs of an attempt to separate the races than asking questions of under what circumstances this kind of mix could possibly take place. It is scientifically ridiculous to attempt to explain some minor genetic variation in the population, e.g. hair colour, protruding fleshy nose, etc., with a story that would create a relatively massive change that would likely accompany it, i.e., much higher bone mass, strength, protruding cranial features.
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LibraryThing member psiloiordinary
Complicated and challenging material made to seem almost light and entertaining by a great author.

This is a huge topic and not surprisingly other reviewers have complained that we do not get a clear and precise let alone a complete answer to meet the challenge of the title. I find these complaints a little unfair as I don't think anyone does really understand everything about the mind.

What we do get though is a fairly up to date (1997) summary of thinking on this huge topic so far.

Just understanding what the actual question "How the mind works" means is a fascinating insight into the private little bite of infinity we all seem to carry around inside our heads.

We do also get a guided tour of the history of the attempts to answer this question and therefore a better understanding of why we are where we are with the current theories.

The writing quality is high with wit and clearness perhaps his two best qualities.
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LibraryThing member Daedalus
This was the first work by Dr. Pinker I ever read and it was purchased after I began following a debate between Stephen Jay Gould & Daniel Dennett on Evolution in which the Pinkster insinuated himself. Unlike the other reviewers I was not so blown away by this work. I found it so basic as to be almost condescending. His later efforts have been much improved in this sphere.… (more)
LibraryThing member Move_and_Merge
A very broad survey, ideal for the interested layperson but ultimately frustrating to those already familiar with the topics at hand. Rather timid, "How the Mind Works" doesn't so much delve into the sea of mysteries surrounding consciousness or cognitive evolution (just to name two) as skim the surface without so much as extending a claw beneath the waters in hopes of catching prey.… (more)
LibraryThing member _Greg
Just what it says. What everyone should know about the design of their own mind. Steven Pinker is extraordinarily brilliant and a delight to read.
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
This book lacked the revelation quality The Blank Slate had for me. Written six years earlier than Blank Slate, it is more technical, more influenced by emerging computer science, and slightly less in its scope. I found the computational theory of the mind a bit dated, even though I am by no means an expert in the field, and my opinion may result from my lack of knowledge.

For me as a language teacher, it was interesting to see that the semantic maps and visualization techniques (as described in Mind’s Eye chapter 4) used so widely in language teaching must have come from the brain research described there.
I generally enjoyed the chapters in the second part of the book much more. Good Ideas- how people make sense of their world, Hotheads- on emotions, Family Values and the Meaning of Life were really interesting, and I found the chapters on art and music quite satisfying. It is as if Pinker were a big locomotive that needed time to get really going. Both of his books take time to gain speed and then are very good by the end, to the point that both times I felt really sorry they were finishing.
The style is as clear and good as ever.
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LibraryThing member echaika
I just don't like Pinker, often disagree with him, and find him arrogant
LibraryThing member abraxalito
Pinker really doesn't know how the mind works. Walter Freeman (How brains make up their minds) does though, as to some degree does Zaltman (How customers think).
LibraryThing member SpaceyAcey
Pinker explains the computational theory of the mind in easy to understand prose for the layman. It's not all literature summarizing, he also inserts some of his own ideas on all sorts of topics related to being a human — it's a delight to read the thoughts put down by someone who thinks so deeply and writes so honestly. The writing! He manages to make neuroscience, sociology, computer science, music and everything else he touches flow like a breeze. Except stereovision, that part was tricky.… (more)
LibraryThing member ShaiShap
Not quite what it says on the tin - I expected more "how the mind works" - the inner workings of the brain, neurons and such, but the book has more on "why the mind works" - evolutionary psychology and such. It was still quite interesting, and had some thought-provoking ideas, but in general, it was more on the "popular" side of "popular science". I don't know if it's specific to this book or if it's a general issue with evolutionary science, but too much of it felt more like guessing than actual science. Many ideas he presented seemed convincing, but didn't seem to come from any sort of proof, just reasonable guessing. In general, if you're interested in human behaviour and evolution, I think this book is worth your time. But don't expect too much of it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Thruston
It took me a long time to get through this, but it was worth it. Pinker writes in a very entertaining and clear style. Even if he's not correct on everything, he puts together a convincing account and gives you plenty of evidence to help you form your own ideas. I got a bit bogged down in the technical details of how the different parts of the brain work, but the last few of chapters on what emotions are for, how men's brains differ from women's, and his speculations on consciousness were full of interesting insights.… (more)
LibraryThing member raschneid
Very interesting, well-written, and comprehensive. I appreciated the overview of both computational and evolutionary psychology in one tome of a book; computational psychology is pretty much awesome, and though I must confess that I skipped some of the technical examples in an effort to prevent my brain from breaking, Pinker's writing was for the most part clear and explanatory. I learned a lot!

I would be interested to find out whether any of the specific evolutionary theories have become passe over the last ten years, since a great deal of new research must have come out since then. A second edition would be great if necessary.

I still have reservations about the conclusion of the book. Basically, Pinker says that the computational view of the mind means that consciousness - the ability of the mind to actually experience stimulus and thought, like the taste of a strawberry or the redness of red - has no apparent function. People could go through the complex computational steps of mental activity without experiencing any of it. There is no way to prove that the person sitting next to you is not a "philosophical zombie," who acts like they think and feel but is really just a mechanical thing.

Not only does this mean I have no solid proof that all of you aren't just automatons, but no can explain why we experience things to begin with! Very perverse philosophers have attempted to argue that experience is an illusion, but of course this makes very little sense. Pinker is forced to conclude that our brains are just not smart enough to solve a peculiar problem like the nature of consciousness and self, along with some other potential philosophical problems like the possibility of absolute morality or the ability of language to refer to real things (don't understand the problem with this last one myself.)

I'm not saying that I can prove Pinker is absolutely wrong in this conclusion, but it is deeply unsatisfying. Our minds are, apparently, the product of a lawful universe. Logic is able to tackle, if not solve, every other problem with which we have been presented, from pulsars to microorganisms. The only exception is strange, peripheral problem of where the universe came from to begin with. Why should our minds be another such exception? If we can't explain our minds as a logical evolutionary adaptation, doesn't that call into question evolutionary psychology as a theory? How could human awareness not be the product of evolution (the ultimate logical process)?

Pinker tries to compare our failure to understand the mind to an autistic person's failure to understand the existence of other minds or a dog's colorblindness. But the problem with an autistic person, as I understand it, is not that they can't have the existence of other minds explained to them, but that they don't intuitively act as if they exist. Similarly, if the dog were more intelligent, they could obviously believe in and understand what color is, they just can't imagine what it is to see it. If we were blind to the nature of how sentience interacts with the rest of the universe, we should not realize that we have this blindness until it is explained to us. As it is, we are aware of a blindness and can't think of how to see what we know we know must be out there to be seen.

Finally, if Pinker is right that science has failed us regarding the problem of human consciousness, it's rather questionable for him to argue that religious or mystical explanations are out of the question, because if that were so, it wouldn't be an unsolvable problem after all. Either the logical forces of the universe to which we are all accustomed are responsible for consciousness, or Something Else is. Pinker is right; it would be presumptuous and unscientific to call the Something Else God or Divine Energies or what have you. But we cannot discount these hypotheses outright, and the notion that our consciousnesses apparently work apart from the causation that is evolution at least means that the universe is a much stranger place than we have been led to believe. Really I would rather believe that my mind is the result of scientifically knowable causes, I like science, but if I am to believe Pinker, then another, very weird solution is out there.

Very interesting read, but the ultimate difficulties brought up by the theories are much more frustrating than the elegant solutions they provide! Mostly I just don't like giving up on a scientific solution to a problem; it seems wrong.
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LibraryThing member 4bonasa
My first foray into the fields of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of the mind. Interesting enough I'm reading it again.
LibraryThing member annbury
I found this disappointing in comparison to "The Language instinct", which for me was a truly mind-changing book. ""How the Mind Works" has lots of interesting ideas and plausible explanations, but I did not find it nearly so convincing or nearly as wide-reaching as the earlier work. Given the value I give to "The Language Instinct", I should probably try reading this again.… (more)


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