Dr. Fred Bortz

How the Mind Works

by Steven Pinker

(Norton, 1997, $29.95, 672 pages)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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The human brain is an elaborate but tangible organ. Its physical structure and biochemical nature are the subject of ongoing scientific investigation with instruments of ever increasing sophistication and sensitivity. Normal and abnormal behavior can now be connected to electrochemical activity within the brain, its physical structure, and neural interconnections.

Yet for all our scientific investigation and knowledge the workings of the brain, we know astonishing little about the human mind that it houses. How does this piece of sentient meat perceive, think, reason, and emote? Beyond those functions and their clear survival value, why does our species value the arts, seek entertainment, appreciate humor? Why do we, unlike any other species on our planet, concern ourselves with How the Mind Works.

In a wide-ranging tome, Stephen Pinker, Director of the Center of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tackles that question with zest. He provides his readers, scientists and lay people alike, with much to ponder. Pinker acknowledges that scientific investigation of the brain is an exercise in problem solving, while the inner workings of the mind are a mystery never fully to be revealed. Still, the quest has value, whether viewed through physical or life science, psychology, social science, philosophy, or intuition.

He begins the book in his professional realm. Clever computer hardware and software mimic the brain's behavior, shedding light on and occasionally enhancing the processes of human perception, problem solving, and decision making. These admittedly crude models of the computational, mathematical mind provide insights into thought processes that cannot be investigated directly. He likens them to "reverse engineering," in which a company, trying to understand how a competitor achieves a particular functionality in its products, tries to deduce the purpose of each detail of internal structure.

On that level, the brain can be viewed as a biochemical computer, and the mind can be viewed as its output. The problem with this approach, he notes, is that the brain is the product not of systematic design but rather of natural selection. Our mind is the ultimate "Revenge of the Nerds," in which our species survived by occupying "the cognitive niche," giving up the heightened senses of other animals to do so. We thrive as a species, expanding our physical niches on this planet, not because of speed, strength, or acuteness of senses, but rather because of our ability to create good ideas.

From this perspective, civilization, social convention, and emotions -- all deriving from the mind -- have survival value. But survival, for humans, is not enough. Natural selection has produced not only a brain, but also a mind enriched by curiosity and appreciation of the mysteries of life and the universe. As Pinker says in his closing sentence: "Our bafflement at the mysteries of the ages may have been the price we paid for a combinatorial mind that opened up a world of words and sentences, of theories and equations, of poems and melodies, of jokes and stories, the very things that make a mind worth having."

Ph.D. physicist Fred Bortz is an author of science books for young readers, including Mind Tools: The Science of Artificial Intelligence.