The Stuff of Thought book notes

Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought starts off a little bit verbose, but by the end of the book he has really hit his groove, and he uses the architecture that he has built up to make a number of fairly profound points. Here are my notes:

  • Linguistics is often studied based on simple intuitions. “Designating a sentence as ‘ungrammatical’ simply means that native speakers tend to avoid the sentence, cringe when they hear it, and judge it as sounding odd.”
  • “Language acquisition is an example of the problem of induction — making valid generalizations about the future from limited data available in the present, whether they involve language acquisition by a child, learning by a computer, or theorizing by the scientist.”
  • We naturally think about objects geometrically: “when the mind conceptualizes an entity in a location or in motion, it tends to ignore the internal geometry of the object and treat it as a dimensionless point or a featureless blob.”
  • Objects are conceptualized as having a certain amount of dimensions; we literally have maps of objects in our brains. He illustrates this fact brilliantly using linguistics.
  • On humans trying to do statistics: “It’s as if people heard the statistic that women outlive men on average and concluded that every woman outlives every man. The image of one orb floating above another seems to come more naturally to the mind than an image of two overlapping bell curves.”
  • How language works. “We gather our ideas to put them into words, and if our verbiage is not empty or hollow, we might get these ideas across to a listener, who can unpack our words to extract their content.”
  • There are two natural systems for keeping track of quantities. “One is an analogue estimation system, in which quantities are gauged in an approximate manner by relating them to some continuous magnitude in the head, such as a vague sense of ‘amount of stuff,’ or the extent of an imaginary line. The second system keeps track of exact quantities, but only up to a small limit, around three or four.” Neither of our innate systems can do complex math, for which you need a number system and language. There is some evidence that the first continuous magnitude one may be on a logarithmic scale–see this post from Columbia’s Statistics blog.
  • People report that they “think in” their native language, “but these echoes are not the main event in thinking; most information processing in the brain is unconscious.”
  • Enst Poppel believed that “We take life three seconds at a time. That interval, more or less, is the duration of an intentional movement like a handshake; of the immediate planning of a precise movement, like hitting a golf ball….” This is a pretty ambitious theory, but it is interesting. Perhaps the time frame varies a little bit from person to person? Regardless, this should be testable.
  • Politeness is about pretending to give the listener options. For example, “would you pass the salt?” is more polite than simply “pass the salt.”
  • Evolutionary psychologists believe that aside from language, humans stand out because of their propensity for tools and a talent for cooperation. The former is a manipulation of the physical world, the latter is a manipulation of the social world.
  • Evolutionary psychological mechanism for abstract thinking: “Now imagine an evolutionary step that allowed the neural programs that carry out such reasoning to cut themselves loose from actual hunks of matter and work on symbols for just about anything. The cognitive machinery that computes relations among things, places, and causes would then be co-opted for abstract ideas. The ancestry of abstract thinking would be visible in concrete metaphors, a kind of cognitive vestige.”
  • Bribing maitre d’s works nearly every time. If you remember one thing from these notes, it is to bribe maitre d’s, you will skip lines in restaraunts nearly every time.
  • He deconstructs our courtship patterns brilliantly. Essentially our current practices our built to ensure plausibility deniability for all parties involved. Tactless pick-up attempts are too bold, which is awkward. It’s not about whether the person knows that you’re interested in them, it’s whether they know that you know that they’re interested in you, and whether you know that they know that you know that they’re intersted in you. Seriously.

Pinker’s other work is more famous, but I’d recommend this book wholeheartedly. Just remember to power through those first 100 pages–you’ll be thanking me later.