By Steven Pinker
Norton. 660 pp. $29.95

Go to the first chapter of "How the Mind Works"

Go to Chapter One


It's All in Your Head

By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Sunday, November 16, 1997; Page X01
The Washington Post

At some time or another, most of us become puzzled, at least for a while, about the strange workings of the mind. How come we recognize our upside-down suitcase on the airport conveyor belt even though we have only seen it right side up before? Why do some objects look more beautiful than others? Why is it that sometimes we become so wrought up emotionally that we cannot think straight? (Or, for that matter, how come we can think straight at all, and what does that mean, anyway?) These and hundreds of similar conundrums are solved once and for all in this new book from Steven Pinker, the wunderkind from MIT who directs the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience there.

Not so long ago, during the glory days of behavioral psychology, the mind was imagined as a black box into which flowed stimuli from the environment, and out of which came instructions for behavior that were mechanically linked to the incoming stimuli. An alternative to this model was the older notion that the brain was packed with instincts and drives pulling the mind in various directions, again in a strictly mechanical fashion. Neither one of these perspectives explained how the nervous system came to operate this way. The psychologist was supposed to observe and record how people behaved. It was considered an unscientific waste of time to ask how the black box of the mind was built.

In the last two decades a much more exciting and liberating image of the mind has started to emerge. This new line of inquiry into the laws of thought is based on the application of evolutionary theory to the workings of the mind: what the pioneering psychologist Donald Campbell called "evolutionary epistemology." Its basic assumption is that the forces of natural selection have been shaping the way our ancestors perceived the world, stored sense impressions and connected them into strings of thought. Under this assumption, the strange and wonderful things our minds do fall into meaningful patterns. Biologists have known for some time that without evolutionary theory the study of life forms makes little sense; now it is becoming clear that one cannot really understand psychology either unless one looks at it through the lenses of that theory.

Of course, there is no direct way to study the effects of natural selection on thinking. The best one can do is resort to "reverse engineering," which consists of looking at current functions of the brain and trying to understand why and how they developed over time. This might seem like a rather feeble way of building an argument, and when carelessly done, it is indeed unconvincing. But when the approach uses detailed evidence and sound logic, it reveals an impressive story about how a homogeneous blob of protoplasm barely able to sense light through some accidentally thinner layer of skin could evolve into a complex organism with a brain that can build computers and compose symphonies.

No one tells this story with greater authority and panache than Steven Pinker.

OK, I admit that his smarts and knowledge verge on the annoying. One senses a guilty wish for a law against someone knowing this much and passing judgments on intricate problems with such ease. Fortunately Pinker eschews the usual ponderous academic obfuscation, and his light sense of humor makes one almost forgive his intimidating erudition.

In the first part of the book, Pinker describes how natural selection might have engineered different computational faculties, starting with the simplest perceptual feats, such as "seeing" where one object ends and another begins (actually, as it turns out this feat is not simple at all, since it is very difficult to get a machine to do it). He describes how successful links between reflexes and memories begin to interact and form the basis for logical inference. From these simple, basic building blocks Pinker reveals how consciousness, values and a religious sense have developed. One might quarrel with some of the quick conclusions -- I for one felt that his analysis of consciousness trivialized its self-reflective quality -- but most of them are like shafts of light illuminating what is usually a dark domain.

Although this narrative tells how physical and biological processes can ultimately explain the origins of humankind's most cherished accomplishments, it never seems reductionist. Pinker is justly suspicious of currently fashionable talk about self-organizing matter, but he takes into account the qualitative differences that appear as matter achieves higher levels of organization when forced to do so by selective pressures. Thus he can acknowledge that his genes have programmed him first and foremost to propagate themselves. Yet as a conscious individual, he has chosen not to have children. "By Darwinian standards," he notes, "I am a horrible mistake, a pathetic loser . . . But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don't like it, they can jump in the lake." With these few words, the bane of evolutionary arguments, which is their strict causal determinism, is neatly dispelled. It is a welcome message, which allows the reader, who has been just informed that his mind is made up of blind demons obeying obsolete instructions carved into the genes by natural selection, to go out into the autumn sunshine wondering whether to take a walk, go to a movie, or go for a beer, and know that what his or her mind will decide cannot be predicted by the laws of physics or biology.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's books include "Flow" and "The Evolving Self."

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Co.
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