How the Mind Works (Book Review)

On September 10, 2012
mindworksSteven Pinker (currently Professor at Harvard University in the Psychology Department; Former Professor at MIT in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department; Former Professor at Stanford University), one of the world’s leading cognitive scientists, explains in How the Mind Works (1997) 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. There are also sections on visual perception, neural network modeling, passionate emotions, social behaviors, and cultural innovations.
One of the main topics covered in the book is comparing the functioning of the human brain to the functioning of a computer. Pinker states that there are some similarities between the two. For example, when it comes to recognition, the brain does so by firing off action potentials from one neuron to the next and the computer does so by recognizing a pattern in the data, or symbols. Also, the mind and the computer both work towards a goal, which Pinker likes to call intelligence. He notes that intelligence involves specifying a goal, looking at the current situation to see how it is different from the goal’s situation, and applying a set of operations that minimize the difference between the two to get one closer to the goal. But, there are things that the brain can do, that Pinker cannot necessarily explain why, that a computer cannot do. One thing the brain can do that a computer cannot is make new connections about something without having to go through the steps as if it were learning about that thing for the first time. The mind is capable of many things such as vision, emotion,understanding, intelligence and information processing.
This is a great and dense journey through research on our mental makeup. Pinker tries to follow a logical but accessible narrative through this maze and makes every attempt at distinguishing between actual research and supposition, though he sometimes runs his suppositions so far that you start forgetting that you aren’t working with fact anymore. From a psychological and scientific point of view, Pinker answers questions such as “why do we fall in love?“, “what makes us feel certain feelings such as happiness, sadness, anger disgust?” or “how do we see in three dimensions?“. He also explains the difficulties in being able to completely understand the mind, how it works, and why it works the way it does.
The book presents a synthesis of the cognitive science and evolutionary psychology view of the mind. But take into consideration that How the Mind Works was written in 1997, so it misses the neurological synthesis of the computational and emotional aspects of the mind achieved by Damasio in his 2009 book and the decade of great ferment in cognitive neuroscience due to studies using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). This is a great read for anyone, as it is written in an accessible vocabulary, and the reader may benefit and read only the chapters that spark his or her interest. So the book is highly recommended to every human with a mind! You will enjoy it and perhaps find it provoking and a wonderful model of the mind.

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