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How the Mind Works
Steven Pinker
read on June 1, 2013

This book is loooooong, and dense, and relatively often strays off topic; I feel like it would benefit from a more aggressive editor. That said, it's quite comprehensive. I wouldn't recommend it to someone as a first read on the topic though, because they'd never be motivated enough to make it through to the end. The first three quarters of the book are largely pretty slow, with a couple bright spots mixed in. The end is pretty great though.

  • Pinker has a really great explanation of how we see, and specifically he describes very well how our brain sort of tricks us into seeing. I'd read before that we don't exactly "see" anything, in the literal sense. We have this general feeling that we observe the universe in it's true state - that what we see is what exists - but that's a fantasy, it's totally wrong. Pinker explains this in a much more accessible way than I've seen before, and it's quite interesting. He describes the different heuristics the brain uses to sense shapes, edges, people, motion, etc, and that how our visual interpretation of the world is much closer to a complete hallucination than it is to observing the actual state of things.
  • Theres an interesting discussion about grief being the opposite of love. He describes grief as a 'doomsday machine' - a horrible circumstance to be in that doesn't actually do you any good while you're experiencing it, but whose very existence allows for love and commitment to exist.It was an interesting perspective. Much later in the book he also describes friendship as a kind of positive feedback loop as well, where each friend owes the other a favor, and because of that favor each friend is incentivized to keep that person around, which means they help each other out, which means they do each other more favors, etc. etc.
  • The last quarter or so of the book focuses a lot on neurological and evolutionary differences between men and women, and how so much depends on the adaptation that females generate eggs, and carry a child. For instance, it discusses differences in infidelity reactions (jealousy) - all stemming from the fact that a women knows that a baby is hers, but men can never be certain. So in that case infidelity is a much greater threat to a man, since he may spend significant resources raising genes that aren't his. Or another one is how men react much differently to seeing naked women - evolutionarily, that presents an opportunity. Whereas a women seeing a naked man, evolutionarily, represents an enormous threat. Unfortunately, the discussion doesn't branch out very much beyond the obvious sexual ones. It would have been much more interesting to discuss other consequences of those differences (e.g., women being generally more risk averse than men, having higher personal discount rates, etc.)

Author Bio:

Steven Arthur "Steve" Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a Canadian-born American cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. Pinker's academic specializations are visual cognition and psycholinguistics. His experimental subjects include mental imagery, shape recognition, visual attention, children's language development, regular and irregular phenomena in language, the neural bases of words and grammar, and the psychology of cooperation and communication, including euphemism, innuendo, emotional expression, and common knowledge. He has written two technical books that proposed a general theory of language acquisition and applied it to children's learning of verbs. In particular, his work with Alan Prince published in 1989 critiqued the connectionist model of how children acquire the past tense of English verbs, arguing instead that children use default rules such as adding "-ed" to make regular forms, sometimes in error, but are obliged to learn irregular forms one by one. In his popular books, he has argued that the human faculty for language is an instinct, an innate behavior shaped by natural selection and adapted to our communication needs. He is the author of seven books for a general audience. Five of these, namely The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules (2000), The Blank Slate (2002), and The Stuff of Thought (2007) describe aspects of the field of psycholinguistics and cognitive science, and include accounts of his own research. The sixth book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), makes the case that violence in human societies has, in general, steadily declined with time, and identifies six major causes of this decline. His seventh book, The Sense of Style (2014), is intended as a general style guide that is informed by modern science and psychology, offering advice on how to produce more comprehensible and unambiguous writing in nonfiction contexts and explaining why so much of today's academic and popular writing is difficult for readers to understand. Pinker has been named as one of the world's most influential intellectuals by various magazines. He has won awards from the American Psychological Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society and the American Humanist Association. He delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 2013. He has served on the editorial boards of a variety of journals, and on the advisory boards of several institutions. He has frequently participated in public debates on science and society and is a regular contributor to the online science and culture digest 3 Quarks Daily.