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Organs Of Computation
A Talk With Steven Pinker

BROCKMAN: How does one even begin to explain something as complicated as the human mind?

PINKER: I think the key to understanding the mind is to try to "reverse-engineer" it ÷ to figure out what natural selection designed it to accomplish in the environment in which we evolved. In my new book, How the Mind Works, I present the mind as a system of "organs of computation" that allowed our ancestors to understand and outsmart objects, animals, plants, and each other.

BROCKMAN: How is that approach different from what intellectuals currently believe?

PINKER: Most of the assumptions about the mind that underlie current discussions are many decades out of date. Take the hydraulic model of Freud, in which psychic pressure builds up in the mind and can burst out unless it's channeled into appropriate pathways. That's just false. The mind doesn't work by fluid under pressure or by flows of energy; it works by information. Or, look at the commentaries on human affairs by pundits and social critics. They say we're "conditioned" to do this, or "brainwashed" to do that, or "socialized" to believe such and such. Where do these ideas come from? From the behaviorism of the 1920's, from bad cold war movies from the 1950's, from folklore about the effects of family upbringing that behavior genetics has shown to be false. The basic understanding that the human mind is a remarkably complex processor of information, an "organ of extreme perfection and complication," to use Darwin's phrase, has not made it into the mainstream of intellectual life.

BROCKMAN: What makes you say that the mind is such a complex system?

PINKER: What should impress us about the mind is not its rare extraordinary feats, like the accomplishments of Mozart or Shakespeare or Einstein, but the everyday feats we take for granted. Seeing in color. Recognizing your mother's face. Lifting a milk carton and gripping it just tight enough that it doesn't drop but not so tight that you crush it, while rocking it back and forth to gauge how much milk is in the bottom just from the tugs on your fingertips. Reasoning about the world÷what will and won't happen when you open the refrigerator door. All of these things sound mundane and boring, but they shouldn't be. We can't, for example, program a robot to do any of them! I would pay a lot for a robot that would put away the dishes or run simple errands, but I can't, because all of the little problems that you'd need to solve to build a robot to do that, like recognizing objects, reasoning about the world, and controlling hands and feet, are unsolved engineering problems. They're much harder than putting a man on the moon or sequencing the human genome. But a four-year-old solves them every time she runs across the room to carry out an instruction from her mother.

I see the mind as an exquisitely engineered device÷not literally engineered, of course, but designed by the mimic of engineering that we see in nature, natural selection. That's what "engineered" animals' bodies to accomplish improbable feats, like flying and swimming and running, and it is surely what "engineered" the mind to accomplish its improbable feats.

BROCKMAN: What does that approach actually buy you in studying how the mind works?

PINKER: It tells you what research in psychology should be: a kind of reverse engineering. When you rummage through an antique store and come across a contraption built of many finely meshing parts, you assume that it was put together for a purpose, and that if you only understood that purpose, you'd have insight as to why it has the parts arranged the way they are. That's true for the mind as well, though it wasn't designed by a designer but by natural selection. With that insight you can look at the quirks of the mind and ask how they might have made sense as solutions to some problem our ancestors faced in negotiating the world. That can give you an insight into what the different parts of the mind are doing.

Even the seemingly irrational parts of the mind, like strong passions÷jealousy, revenge, infatuation, pride÷might very well be good solutions to problems our ancestors faced in dealing with one another. For example, why do people do crazy things like chase down an ex-lover and kill the lover? How could you win someone back by killing them? It seems like a bug in our mental software. But several economists have proposed an alternative. If our mind is put together so that under some circumstances we are compelled to carry out a threat regardless of the costs to us, the threat is made credible. When a person threatens a lover, explicitly or implicitly, by communicating "If you ever leave me I'll chase you down," the lover could call his bluff if she didn't have signs that he was crazy enough to carry it out even though it was pointless. And so the problem of building a credible deterrent into creatures that interact with one another leads to irrational behavior as a rational solution. "Rational," that is, with respect to the "goal" of our genes to maximize the number of copies of themselves. It isn't "rational," of course, with respect to the goal of whole humans and societies to maximize happiness and fairness.

Another example is the strange notion of happiness. What is the psychological state called "happiness" for? It can't be that natural selection designed us to feel good all the time out of sheer good will. Presumably our brain circuits for happiness motivate us to accomplish things that enhance biological fitness. With that simple insight one can make some sense of some of the puzzles of happiness that wise men and women have noted for thousands of years. For example, directly pursuing happiness is often a recipe for unhappiness, because our sense of happiness is always calibrated with respect to other people. There is a Yiddish expression: when does a hunchback rejoice? When he sees one with a bigger hump.

Perhaps we can make sense of this by putting ourselves in the shoes of the fictitious engineer behind natural selection. What should the circuit for happiness be doing? Presumably it would be assessing how well you're doing in your current struggle in life÷whether you should change your life and try to achieve something different, or whether you should be content with what you're achieved so far, for example, when you are well-fed, comfortable, with a mate, in a situation likely to result in children and so on. But how could a brain be designed in advance to assess that? There's no absolute standard for well-being. A Paleolithic hunter-gatherer should not have fretted that he had no running shoes or central heating or penicillin. How can a brain know whether there is something worth striving for? Well, it can look around and see how well off other people are. If they can achieve something, maybe so can you. Other people anchor your well-being scale and tell you what you can reasonably hope to achieve.

Unfortunately, it gives rise to a feature of happiness that makes many people unhappy÷namely, you're happy when you do a bit better than everyone around you and you're unhappy when you're doing worse. If you look in your paycheck envelope and you discover you've got a five percent raise you'd be thrilled, but if you discover that all your co-workers got a ten percent raise you'd be devastated.

Another paradox of happiness is that losses are felt more keenly than gains. As Jimmy Connors said, "I hate to lose more than I like to win." You are just a little happy if your salary goes up, but you're really miserable if your salary goes down by the same amount. That too might be a feature of the mechanism designed to attain the attainable and no more. When we backslide, we keenly feel it because what we once had is a good estimate of what we can attain. But when we improve we have no grounds for knowing that we are as well off as we can hope to be. The evolutionary psychologist Donald Campbell called it "the happiness treadmill." No matter how much you gain in fame, wealth, and so on, you end up at the same level of happiness you began with÷though to go down a level is awful. Perhaps it's because natural selection has programmed our reach to exceed our grasp, but by just a little bit.


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