How the Mind Works book notes

This is perhaps Pinker’s most famous book, and it encompasses a broad range of topics, touching on lots of evolutionary psychology to explain a plethora of cultural phenomena. I enjoyed it, but I thought that the chapters on vision and the last part about music were a tad too long and probably could have been condensed. Here are some of my notes:

  • “The stuff of life turned out to be not a quivering, glowing, wondrous gel but a contraption of tiny jigs, springs, hinges, rods, sheets, magnets, zippers, and trapdoors, assembled by a data tape whose information is copied, downloaded, and scanned.”
  • The Profet hypothesis is an evolutionary explanation of pregnancy sickness that explains a lot of otherwise incomprehensible facts.
  • “There are really not many jobs that actually require a penis or vagina, and all the other occupations should be open to everyone.” – Gloria Steinem
  • The icheneumon wasp paralyzes a caterpillar and lays eggs in its body so her hatchlings can slowly devour its living flesh from the inside; the natural world is beautiful
  • “Computation has finally demystified mentalistic terms. beliefs are inscriptions in memory, desires are goal inscriptions, thinking is computation, perceptions are inscriptions triggered by sensors, trying is executing operations triggered by a goal”
  • “The history of science has not been kind to intuitions of common sense”
  • Reasons to question Penrose’s idea of quantum effects in the brain: “Quantum effects almost surely cancel out in nervous tissue…  microtubules are ubiquitous among cells and appear to play no role in how the brain achieves intelligence… there is not even a hint as to how conciousness might arise from quantum mechanics”
  • “Recent thinking about zebra stripes is that they are not for blending in with stripey tall grass–always a dubious explanation–but for turning the zebras into a living shell game, baffling lions and other predators as they try to keep their attention on just one zebra.”
  • Consciousness can refer to intelligence, self-knowledge, access to self-information, and/or sentience (”what it feels like”)
  • “The technique of functional imaging of brain activity (PET and MRI) depends on the fact that working brain tissue calls more blood its way and consumes more glucose”
  • “Natural intelligence does nothing even close to striving for intelligence. The process is driven by differences in the survival and reproduction rates of replicating organisms in a particular environment. Over time the organisms acquire designs that adapt them for survival and reproduction in that environment, period; nothing pulls them in any direction other than success there and then.”
  • “Evolution is constrained by the legacies of ancestors and the kinds of machinery that can be grown out of protein.”
  • “If you converge your eyes on a nerby point to eliminate double vision, the eyes squeeze the lens to close-up focus; if you diverge your eyes on a distant point, they relax for distant focus.”
  • “The genome builds as much of the animal as it can, and for the parts of the animal that cannot be specified in advance (such as the proper wiring for two eyes that are moving apart at an unpredictable rate), the genome turns on an information-gathering mechanism at the time in development at which it is most needed.”
  • We see in 2 1/2 dimensions, cool way of thinking about vision.
  • “…problem faced by Ingrid Bergman in Notorious: how do you know when you have been poisoned? Your judgment would be addled, but that would affect your judgment about whether your judgment had been addled!”
  • “Shape recognition jis such a hard problem that a single, general-purpose algorithm may not work for every shape ujnder every viewing condition.” We use mental rotation, object-centered vision (geon theory), and multiple views.
  • Our main criteria for designating an “object” is parts moving together.
  • “Our minds explain other people’s behavior by their beliefs and desires because other people’s behavior is in fact caused by their beliefs and desires. The behaviorists were wrong, and everyone intuitively knows it.” This is not exactly a fair treatment of behaviorism! Behaviorism is a scientific standpoint; obviously people have goals, but how much do those goals actually control behavior?
  • The state lottery could also be called a “stupidity tax.”
  • “Creative people are at their most creative when writing their autobiographies.”
  • The reptilian/neocortex brain dichotomy is ill-founded, evolution modifies existing structures instead of making completely new ones.
  • You need emotions to have goals, the idea of Spock having no emotions but being completely rational is ridiculous. Check out this description of the prototypical “rational man” as a popular conception.
  • Disgust towards certain foods is irrational. Ie, insects, they are fine to eat.
  • “Anger has moral overtones; almost all anger is righteous anger. Furious people feel they are aggrieved an must redress an injustice.”
  • “Usually people do not want any suitor who wants them too bad too early, because it shows that the suitor is desperate (so they should wait for someone better), and because it shows that the suitor’s ardor is too easily triggered (hence too easily triggerable by someone else).”
  • “Perhaps grief is an internal doomsday machine, pointless once it goes off, useful only as a deterrent.”
  • “In real life, villains are convinced of their rectitude. Many biographers of evil men start out assuming that their subjects are cynical opportunists and reluctantly discover that they are ideologues and moralists.”
  • “The kinship metaphors have a simple message: treat certain people as kindly as you treat your blood relatives. We all understand the presupposition. The love of kind comes naturally; the love of non-kin does not. That is the fundamental fact of the social world, steering everything from how we grow up to the rise and fall of empires and religions.”
  • Looking at historical evidence from opinions on scientific revolutions, members of the French National Convention from 1793-1794, and various American revolutions, Sulloway found that later borns (ie, past the first child), are ten times more likely to support a revolution than first borns.
  • “Sex is useful as a defense against parasite and pathogens…. By swapping half the genes out for a different half, an organism gives its offspring a head start in the race against the local germs. Its molecular locks have a different combination of pins, so the germs have to start evolving new keys from scratch.”
  • “Men are about 1.15 times as large as women, which tells us that they have competed in our evolutionary history, with some men mating with several women and some men mating with none… Men have smaller testicles for their body size than chimpanzees but bigger ones than gorillas and gibbons, suggesting that ancestral women were not wantonly promiscuous but were not always monogamous either.”
  • “Trend-setters are members of upper classes who adopt the styles of lower classes to differentiate themselves from middle classes, who woulnd’t be caught dead in lower-class styles because they’re the ones in danger of being mistaken for them”
  • “Believers also avoid working out the strange logical consequences of these piecemeal revisions of ordinary things. They don’t pause to wonder why a God who knows our intentions has to listen to our prayers, or how a God can both see into the future and care about how we choose to act.”

Overall, this is a fascinating book. If I could only bring three books to a desert island, this might be one of them, because there are so many parts of the book that can be pondered further.