Steven Pinker

How The Mind Works

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How The Mind Works Summary

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How the Mind Works is a 1997 nonfiction book written by Canadian cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who is currently a professor of psychology at Harvard University. The book seeks to explain how the human mind processes information using evolutionary biology and the computational theory of mind, which posits that the human brain functions like a computing machine. Pinker’s book was critically acclaimed and a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize. However, it has received considerable criticism from fellow cognitive psychologist Jerry Fodor, who wrote a rebuttal entitled The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way critiquing Pinker’s over reliance on the computational theory of mind.

In the first chapter of the book, “Standard Equipment,” Pinker presents his definition of “mind” and explains how it is connected to – and yet distinct from – the brain, which is the actual biological organ that processes mental functions. Pinker explains that, while the mind and the brain are not the exact same thing, the brain can be considered the mind insofar that it carries out the mind’s mental processes; in other words, the mind is the activity of the brain. He explains that the human brain is composed of many different mental modules, and that a human thought is not formed by activity in just one module but from the interaction of many different modules spread out haphazardly throughout the brain and connected together by fibers. Pinker also emphasizes the importance of natural selection in explaining how the brain evolved over time and critiques the Standard Social Science Model of cognitive theory which states that the human mind is more a product of culture than of biology.

In the second chapter of the book, “Thinking Machines,” Pinker introduces the concepts of “intelligence” and “consciousness.” The former, according to Pinker, is “the ability to attain goals in the face of obstacles by means of decisions based on rational (truth-obeying) rules.” In Pinker’s view, human intelligence is a computation process that recognizes symbols and processes them into decisions or actions based on a set of established, reason-based rules. Pinker explains that consciousness is often mistakenly conflated with intelligence but is, in fact, a distinct concept. Pinker explains that consciousness is composed of two different aspects – access to information and sentience. He describes access consciousness as each individual person’s sense of self or “I,” the executive pulling the levers in the brain which creates free will. Sentience, on the other hand, is the person’s ability to experience the external world and react to it.

The third chapter of the book, “Revenge of the Nerds,” focuses on the evolution of the mind. In this chapter, Pinker references Richard Dawkins in arguing that the mind, like all complex systems, is the result of Darwinian natural selection and has been shaped by the surrounding environment. He also echoes Stuart Kaufmann’s idea that evolution may be a “marriage of selection and self-organization” in maintaining that both natural selection and complexity theory, the idea that complex systems naturally organize themselves according to mathematical principles and patterns, contribute to the current design of the human mind.

The next two chapters of the book explore the origin of more abstract mental processes, such as visual illusion, knowledge, learning, and ideas. The fourth chapter, “The Mind’s Eye,” focuses mainly on vision and the mind’s ability to perceive visual images. He explains that visual illusions can be partly explained by evolution; over time, the mind has adapted and become accustomed to perceiving objects in the environment in a certain way, and illusions arise when the objects fail to resemble the “average ancestral environment.” In the fifth chapter of the book, “Good Ideas,” Pinker discusses the ways in which the mind forms ideas based on the information it receives from the external world. He attempts to resolve the debate over whether ideas are innate in the human mind, or if the mind begins as a clean slate that acquires ideas. Pinker believes that what is innate is not knowledge itself, but “ways of knowing” or obtaining knowledge. While he does not believe that knowledge is innate, he believes the mechanisms through which the mind acquires knowledge are.
The sixth and seventh chapters of the book explore the cognitive origin of emotions and social relationships. In the sixth chapter, “Hotheads,” Pinker discusses the reason-emotion dichotomy, the origin of positive and negative emotions, and the function of emotion as a prioritizing agent that helps people organize their many goals and subgoals into levels of importance. In the seventh chapter, “Family Values,” Pinker explains that because each individual person’s mind is adapted to maintain that person’s self-interest, the natural state of human relationships is conflict and violence arising from the clash between competing interests. Harmony in social relationships and communities is not innate, but a product of natural selection and the individual’s gradual adaptation to the demands of living with others. Pinker also dismisses “difference feminism,” the idea that men and women are innately different in their mental processes, and asserts that, in fact, both genders are remarkably similar in the way their minds work.

The eighth and final chapter of the book, “The Meaning of Life,” discusses the human mind’s capacity for creativity, art, music, humor, and philosophy and the evolutionary goals that these aspects of human consciousness achieve. He refers to the visual arts as “sensory cheesecake” and explains that their main purpose is to stimulate the mind and give sensory pleasure. He says that music, or “auditory cheesecake,” serves a similar function. Literature, on the other hand, serves a more rational goal in allowing the mind to strategize to solve real-world problems by imagining fictitious characters in similar situations.

How the Mind Works is notable for its reliance on computational theory and Darwinian evolutionary theory to explain the origins, nature, and functions of the human mind. The overarching message of the book is Pinker’s belief that the mind is a product of biology and rational adaptation to human surroundings, rather than of culture or social conditioning.