Re: PSYCH: Book Recommendation: Pinker's "How the Mind Works"

Damien Broderick (
Sun, 22 Mar 1998 12:26:53 +0000

At 10:10 AM 3/21/98 -0500, Roderick A. Carder-Russell wrote:

>On Sat, 21 Mar 1998, GBurch1 wrote:

>> This large book is well worth the investment of time.

> I have to disagree on this point. My personal perception of
>Pinker's "How the Mind Works" was that it contained very little writing of

For what it's worth (perhaps not much), here's a mass-market newspaper
review I published some months ago of Pinker's book and another by Per Bak.
Bottom line: I endorse Greg's view, not Roderick's.


The Science of Self-Organized Criticality
by Per Bak
Oxford University Press, 212pp.
by Steven Pinker
Allen Lane, 660pp

In the 1980s, `chaos' was science's sexy topic, although people kept
misunderstanding it. Chaos dynamics found that the world's rich and
unpredictable confusion hid simple rules. By the early 1990s, the buzz
word became `complexity'. Interesting things (life especially) exist
mostly on a boundary between frozen order and hissing chaos. Now there's a
new spin: the spontaneous emergence of those complicated and lovely things
is due to `self-organised criticality'.

Criticality occurs when all the parts of a system impact on each other
holistically. Its emblem is a pile of rice. Trickle long-grain rice
steadily onto a flat surface and it builds into a cone, shedding as many
specks as it gains - but in jolts and avalanches, small and large.

Despite Per Bak's enthusiasm, his beguiling book should be titled `Some of
the Ways Nature Works Some of the Time'. Still, in its brief account, he
offers a startling new unified picture of many wildly different phenomena:
word use frequencies, the size and number of earthquakes, the surprising
computer program called the `Game of Life', dinosaur and other extinctions,
the limits of planned economies, and why we will never get rid of traffic
jams. Oh yes, and he thinks he's learned how the brain works.

It's all due to those avalanches. For Bak, a frequent visitor to the Sante
Fe Institute, home of complexity studies, the secret of life is a
mathematical peculiarity called 1/f (`one-over-f') noise. Unlike chaos,
which has a boring `white noise' signal, this key regime creates a weirdly
universal pattern. Mapping it, you get a tall spike on one side, tailing
off quickly as the curve moves to the right. Consider urban scales: for
every megalopolis of ten million inhabitants, there are roughly 10 cities
with a million, 100 with 100,000, and a thousand towns with only 10,000.

It's the same with earthquakes, as measured by the Gutenberg-Richter law.
Most are barely detectable. Some shake villages. Very few are dangerous
monsters. Snow avalanches follow much the same pattern. Graph such
frequencies on a logarithmic chart and you get a straight line,
representing a neat equation. This is Bak's key to how nature works, and
you'll need to read his little book with some attention to see why he might
be at least partly right.

Does it matter if he is? Indeed it does. Systems poised at
self-organising criticality (SOC) are neither too hot nor too cold,
bubbling with novelty. Every now and then, an awful avalanche is triggered
by some tiny event that can't be identified in advance. It doesn't take a
killer asteroid from space, Bak claims, to wipe out the dinosaurs. SOC
gives us eco-catastrophe for free, the downside of complexity. Sante Fe's
Stuart Kauffman says of such ideas: `I have a feeling that all this shit
links together in some wonderful way.' Couldn't put it better myself.

Or does it link together just because the human mind is a gadget designed
by natural selection to extract (and impose) patterns or features on the
confusion of the world? Yes and no, according to Steven Pinker's superb
new book. Three times as stout as Bak's, a paperback well worth its thirty
dollars, Pinker's romp through cognitive science's current portrait of the
mind covers an immense amount of territory. It's terrifyingly up to date -
900-odd apposite references take up 37 pages. Luckily Pinker wears his
learning lightly and with appealing whimsy.

"I want to convince you," he says at the outset, "that our minds are not
animated by some godly vapour or single wonder principle." Rather, mind is
a complex package of small dedicated specialists, "and thus is packed with
high-tech systems each contrived to overcome its own obstacles". The mind,
Pinker argues, is what the brain does. Even if complexity theorists like
Bak are right, even if mind emerges only in certain self-organising regimes
of criticality, the way it arises is heavily influenced by the solutions
history has imposed on its evolving development. We are each parliaments
or coalitions of small neural experts.

The ancients suggested that inside each human was a homunculus, a `little
man' who watched, as it were, from behind the eyes. That idea hindered
science and philosophy for ages, and was eventually hustled out of both
biology and literary theory. Now the homunculus has returned, although in
a new guise. The brain is built of numerous agents, some of them
genetically hardwired, each with limited but focussed powers, compiled
together into characteristic modes of sensing, feeling and reasoning - into
faculties, another discarded term making a comeback.

Forcing this reappraisal are many quite recent experiments, using
astounding new technologies to peer inside the working parts of humans and
less complex animals. Pinker leads his charmed reader through a series of
exemplary case histories in `reverse-engineering'. We know what vision
does, for example, and what parts of the brain and optic tract are involved
- but to understand the entire impossible process it's necessary to probe
backwards, using evolutionary insights as a guide.

A central chapter picks apart what's going on when you gaze at one of those
weird computer-generated pictures made up of squiggly lines. Let your eyes
defocus, and an elephant or T. Rex pops out in three dimensions. As it
happens I don't have the neural machinery to perform this useful trick,
because my brain wasn't wired up correctly in infancy. Hence, like a few
percent of the population, both stereograms and reality are quite flat to
me (although luckily I can use other cues to stop myself running into the
back of the car ahead). Pinker's story takes some small effort to follow,
but I recommend the trip, because it's a delightful exploration of... well,
of how minds work. Angry minds, family minds, coarse, subtle and
artificial minds. Plus, in the final chapter, the meaning of life.

On the other hand, don't expect more than is reasonable. Pinker states
candidly at the start: "we don't understand how the mind works - not nearly
as well as we understand how the body works". Even so, "dozens of
mysteries of the mind, from mental images to romantic love, have recently
been upgraded to problems" rather than impenetrable mysteries. But what
about the teachings and verities of the past? "Our old ideas," he observes
stingingly, "were too vapid to be wrong."

Pinker's enjoyable treasure-trove, perhaps even better than his excellent
The Language Instinct, meets the goal he set: "to get you to step outside
your own mind for a moment and see your thoughts and feelings as
magnificent contrivances of the natural world". If you're looking for a
summer book to expand and explain your mind at the same time, this is it.