Thursday, 16 September 2010

How The Mind Works

A few friends have indicated their interest for the book How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker, so I took it along with me to school today.

As I was traveling on the train, I revisited some of the chapters in the book and, as always, I'm always continuously amazed and impressed by Pinker's sharpness of thought, wit and eloquence. He conveys the most difficult ideas with the simplest analogies.

Also, I first read the book as a student still muddling through psychology courses without a sound plan like I have right now, and reading it again as the person I am today felt a bit like the situation where you rewatch a movie classic a decade later as a grown man.

One of the really brilliant ideas I revisited was Pinker's computational model of the mind. Of course, he wasn't the only one to work on that concept or propose it, but he provides the most logical and insightful presentation by far.

Another more layman concept that Pinker nails down is the idea of intelligence. It is difficult to define intelligence, but we all know it when we see it. So Pinker strives to define it and says that it entails beliefs and desires.

Desires create the end-states (goals) that we wish to achieve, and beliefs determine how we will end up getting to those end states.

This makes a lot of sense if you consider how most people would feel if we saw "an alien who bumped into trees or walked off cliffs, or who went through all the motions of chopping a tree but in fact was hacking at a rock or at empty space".

Pinker says, "for all we know, the creature may have wanted to bump into a tree or bang an ax against a rock, and was brilliantly accomplishing what it wanted." But without a specification of a creature's goals, there is no meaningful basis for intelligence.

Yet more common sense brilliance: "A toadstool could be given a genius award for accomplishing, with pinpoint precision and unerring reliability, the feat of sitting exactly where it is sitting."

With beliefs and desires, "intelligence ... is the ability to attain goals in the face of obstacles by means of rational (truth-obeying) rules".

These are bits and pieces of the puzzle that have only just begun to take form to develop the foundations of a credible bedrock for psychology as a science of its own. Physics has had the luxury of many more years as well as physical objects to actually observe and measure. Psychology will have just as much to offer. I've always had this notion that there are two 'infinite' dimensions - one that extends outwards from our eyes towards the universe and beyond, and another that extends inwards from our senses to our mind and the subconscious and beyond. Perhaps Inception has helped many people visualize how much mind-boggling (aha!) depth our consciousness has.

No comments: