Pinker is a psychology and linguistics professor who has lately come to fame as a prolific non-fiction writer, releasing a couple of best-selling books. "How the mind works" is a book he penned in 1997, and in which he tackles some of the most difficult introspective questions humanity faces - how do we actually "work" under the hood.

This book can be divided into two major parts. The first part tackles the question stated in the title more directly. Pinker explains the prevailing belief that the human brains are just powerful multi-parallel computers, providing recent research highlights that try to deal with this difficult subject. He devotes quite a few pages to the interesting topic of visual perception - how the brain forms the three dimensional images from two dimensional light projections on the retina, and how we actually come to recognize the objects we see. He also tries to explain the simplest words possible how neural networks work, conjecturing how human thoughts and computations in the brain may be a result of massive networks of highly interconnected neurons.

This topic is certainly very complex, and if anything, this book shows just how much we don't know yet. One interesting thing to note is the ingenious experiments people concoct in an attempt to decipher small bits of the great riddle. I always enjoy reading about such experiments, and Pinker presents an especially interesting one, in which very young babies are shown objects and their reaction to them is recorded. Since the babies hasn't gotten a chance to be influenced by the environment yet, their reactions display pretty well the hard-coded circuits in our brain, the connections shaped by evolution.

The second part is evolutionary psychology. There was not much new here for me since I've already read a couple of books on the subject, but it's always refreshing to take another look at such a complex subject, from the angle of another author. Pinker presents the basic notions of evolutionary psychology very well, and I enjoyed reading this part as I find the topic absolutely fascinating. Getting to understand human actions based on evolutionary premises is very satisfying for my ever-rationalist mind.

I was a little dissapointed by the last chapter in the book. It didn't deliver the promise of its glaring title ("The meaning of life"), and instead discussed why we find music and arts pleasing. I didn't, of course, expect the chapter to actually tell me what the meaning of life is, but I did hope for something at least close to the question. Another issue that left me with mixed feeling was Pinker conjecturing on the un-graspability of human cognition. He raises the question of whether we can, in theory, understand our awareness and consciousness, or is it a lost cause, in the same league with trying to imagine objects in the 4th dimension. I surely hope this isn't true, and that with further research we will be able to understand consciousness.


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