Right from the outset Steven Pinker, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, is apologising for the title of his book: ‘How the Mind Works’. We do not yet know how the mind works, he explains. The ideas contained in his book are not, he admits, his own but culled from various other fields. But this is rather false modesty as reading on it soon becomes clear Pinker does indeed intend to tell us how the mind works, albeit one particular version.
His story starts with the computational model of the mind: the idea common in cognitive science that the mind can be likened to an information processing device. Pinker considers some of the criticisms of this approach but ultimately provides a robust argument for its utility.
Pinker’s story then turns to evolution. How is it, he asks, that we have developed such huge brains in the first place? He explains that during our long evolution into homo sapiens sapiens, we have come to inhabit the ‘cognitive niche’ – survival through the use of our brains to make tools and plans to achieve particular goals.
This brings us up to date and Pinker now turns to vision, the evolution of the eye and the functioning of cognitive systems, the power of imagery in our reality. Then on to thinking and reasoning, the way we calculate probabilities, what we know about other people’s minds. Then the emotions, then our families and personalities and finally to ‘the meaning of life’.
Birds-eye view of the mind
You sense Pinker could easily have written a book 10 times the size of this 600-odd page work. This race to include so many aspects of psychology is, inevitably, both the book’s strength and its weakness. For those who prefer more in-depth discussion it may prove an irritant. But for those, like me, who enjoy the birds-eye view and rush of ideas, it will prove a joy.
Overall, it’s hard to avoid being enthralled by both Pinker’s writing and his imagination. This book might be more accurately titled ‘How Steven Pinker’s Mind Works’, but it still acquits itself well. Skipping from one analogy to another, surfing ideas, threading together intellectual insights; Pinker’s style is direct, straightforward and accessible and yet there is always one more corner to turn, one more leap of the imagination that keeps him just out of reach. A good trick if you can do it.
Published: 14 August 2007