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How the Mind Works

December 21, 2014

Some time ago, I read Steven Pinker‘s book How the Mind Works.  He introduced two new concepts that have revitalized the study of psychology.  One is the computational theory of the mind.  The other is evolutionary psychology.  Most of the material in his book follows from these two principles.

The mind-body problem is a long-standing problem in psychology.  It treated the mind as something separate from the body and as something fundamentally different.  The computational theory of the mind shows that this is not so.  The brain is clearly part of the body.  The brain creates the mind.  The two are connected because thinking is simply computation.  Of course, it’s not the kind of computation that today’s computers can do, but it’s still computation.  For one thing, it must be rapid to be useful to us.  It’s quick thinking that allowed us to compete with and prevail over other living creatures as we evolved.

The body and the mind must have evolved together, as a strategy to ensure our survival.  As the organs of the body changed, the facilities of the mind also changed, in a series of improvements that made us what we are today.  The function of the mind is to create reality, at least our concept of reality.  This is something that we are born with, but also something that we enhance and expand through learning and experience.

Coordinating our various sensations is one aspect of our sense of reality.  Perhaps we are examining a wooden cube, a block of wood.  With our vision, we sense the distance and location of the cube.  We also sense the faces, the edges, and the corners of the cube.  Our sense of touch also gives us the shape of the cube and the sharpness of the edges and corners.  Our kinesthetic sense also tells us the distance and location of the cube.  Notices how the senses overlap.  For something to be real, all of them have to agree.

Of course, our concept of reality is a practical version, one that we can verify in a pragmatic way: if it works, it’s adequate.  We can never include the entire world, with all its complexity, in our world view, in our self image.  As long as we can use it to make predictions about the world, we consider it to be correct.  Any time our predictions are wrong, we incorporate new information into our world view so that it becomes correct once again.

These two new concepts, the computational theory of the mind, and evolutionary psychology, are the framework for many new ideas about how the mind works and about psychology in general.  Most of these new ideas can be tested scientifically, providing a way to accept some ideas and reject others.  It’s an exciting time for the study of psychology.


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