The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind

Book - 2008
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Are we "noble in reason"? Perfect, in God's image? Far from it, says New York University psychologist Gary Marcus. In this lucid and revealing book, Marcus argues that the mind is not an elegantly designed organ but rather a "kluge," a clumsy, cobbled-together contraption. He unveils a fundamentally new way of looking at the human mind -- think duct tape, not supercomputer -- that sheds light on some of the most mysterious aspects of human nature.

Taking us on a tour of the fundamental areas of human experience -- memory, belief, decision-making, language, and happiness -- Marcus reveals the myriad ways our minds fall short. He examines why people often vote against their own interests, why money can't buy happiness, why leaders often stick to bad decisions, and why a sentence like "people people left left" ties us in knots even though it's only four words long.

Marcus also offers surprisingly effective ways to outwit our inner kluge, for the betterment of ourselves and society. Throughout, he shows how only evolution -- haphazard and undirected -- could have produced the minds we humans have, while making a brilliant case for the power and usefulness of imperfection.
Publisher: Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
ISBN: 9780618879649
Characteristics: 211 p. ; 22 cm.


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equilibrium May 17, 2012

Gary Marcus explores the evolutinary -- trial and error -- and therefore necessarily piecemeal and pragmatically haphazard construction of the human mind as a Kluge: an inelegant solution to a problem. Beauty, of course, is in the eyes of the beholder and, as in theatre and comedy, timing is everything. The 'problem(s)' with some of the characteristics, and characteristic limitations, of the human mind arise with the current (and, in evolutionary terms, relatively very recent ) complexity of human civilization. We have difficulty as individuals, as groups, and certainly in as large a community as a nation, making and following through on long term plans. We (the most recent large neo-cortex development of our brains) have the capacity for conscious deliberation and planning. But the fact of the neo-cortex being a late evolutionary adaptation layered onto prior brain developments/adaptations -- the 'mammalian brain' centred on feeling/emotion, the 'reptilian brain' centred on gut instinct -- mean, and lead to, reactions, and actions, that correspond more closely to responses typical of our old brain functions than of the 'new and improved', seemingly 'higher' and more 'noble' functions of which our neo-cortexes are capable.

Marcus' book is an homage to self-acceptance, based on a more careful understanding of where we come from. But also, because he believes in the value of the human project, he offers 13 practical steps we can take, in reflecting on our options to act one way or another, so that our everyday actions will more closely align to what we know we are capable of, given the profound default of our older and earlier brain reactions.


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