Book Thoughts 5: Psychology, Mind, Human Nature

I’ve been reading pop psych and more scientific psychology books for decades, starting with Fritz Perls of Gestalt Therapy fame.  Dennett’s and Pinker’s books, listed below, turned my mind more to cognitive science.  While in prison I bought a copy of Dale Purves:  Neuroscience, a true textbook, and read it 2½ times, plus Joaquin Fuster’s Mind and Brain (five times) and several books by Gerald Edelman.  And so on.  So the following selections are mostly fairly recent in my experience–not necessarily the case with other categories in this series.  But still, I know much less than I’d like, and I am in most ways just another doofus.  A bit of general advice:  these books are worth study, not just reading.  Multiple readings, my most common form of “study,” helps.  If you want to get into all this, do consider a neuroscience textbook or a college course.  I found it a great help.  If you only want to read one book, I’d recommend the Kahneman as being the most immediately useful.

Daniel Dennett:  Consciousness Explained

Dennett’s famous book is now 25 years old, which means that it’s now way behind in the cognitive science race.  For me, when it was new, it came as a revelation of sorts.  His “explanation” of consciousness was mostly obscure, not really what I was looking for.  I was looking for self-understanding, knowledge I could use; for this, Kahneman’s and Epstein’s books are greatly superior.  Dennett has moved on from here as well, so, while Dennett’s books are brilliant, this one is largely passé.  From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, Dennett’s most recent treatment (2017) of cognitive science, would likely be a better choice.  Nature said about this book, “A supremely enjoyable, intoxicating work, tying together 50 years of thinking about where minds come from and how they work. . . . Dennett has earned his reputation as one of today’s most readable, intellectually nimble and scientifically literate philosophers, as this subtle, clever book shows . . . . immensely instructive and pleasurable.”  For full disclosure, I must say that this book is sitting on the shelf, only half-read.

Steven Pinker:  How the Mind Works

I read this book between readings of Dennett’s book (above), and was excited all over again.  It’s been a while, but I recall an emphasis on the modularity of the mind/brain.  This theory may have been superseded by more recent treatments.  My list of “Best Books” is largely a historical document.  Twenty years ago, this book blew me away; today, I wouldn’t bother with it, because I’m always looking for this year’s studies.  If you’re just getting started on cognitive science, I think this would be a reasonable choice, because it’s a good deal easier to understand than Dennett’s Consciousness Explained.  But it is almost as old (1998) as Dennett’s in a field where stunning revelations occur all the time (the 2009 edition of Pinker adds an afterword).

Steven Pinker:  The Blank Slate

This book is about human nature, and it came as a revelation despite my extensive reading in psychology and cognitive science at the time I read it (2002).  I think it’s Pinker’s best book, and that’s saying something, i.e., I thought I learned much from it AND I think it is still extremely valuable.  There’s less cognitive science here, and more science.  I bought another copy last year but haven’t gotten to it yet (so many books, so little time).  I cannot say specifically what I learned from it–it’s become an indistinguishable part of my world view.  Perhaps I’ll have more to say if I can find the time to read it again.

Daniel Kahneman:  Thinking, Fast and Slow

This book has entered my vocabulary and my day-to-day thinking.  I now refer in my talking and writing to “fast thought” and “slow thought,” that is, “emotional” and “rational” thought styles.  In general, fast thought gets us out of immediate trouble (or into it) and slow thought helps us recover and/or make better choices.  But the specifics are more complex than that, because sometimes slow thought makes errors where fast thought (gut feelings) can warn us off of excessive reliance on our math or reasoning.  The specifics are worth spelling out in detail, and I have a list somewhere of about twenty reminders or rules of thumb (so many papers, so little filing done); eventually I’ll find it, and post it in this blog as a separate essay.  As a read, Thinking is mostly quite entertaining, but I found one long topic in the middle pretty dull.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy:  Mother Nature

I didn’t actually finish this long but totally fascinating book about babies and mothering and such, but what I read put it in the class of “Best Books.”  Alas, I can’t remember much more than that; books I’ve read in the last five years or so have essentially subsided into a mush of vagueness, leaving only emotion as a guide to whether I’d want to read it again.  I loved this book at the time, but the face is a complete blur.

Gerald Edelman:  Wider Than the Sky

The late Dr. Edelman made understanding the mind the final focus of his very productive life.  His Wikipedia article says, “Edelman’s Nobel Prize-winning research concerned discovery of the structure of antibody molecules. In interviews, he has said that the way the components of the immune system evolve over the life of the individual is analogous to the way the components of the brain evolve in a lifetime.”  His books are pretty technical both because cognitive science is technical and because he gets into some pretty heavy artificial intelligence work that he did.  So he offers a different take on the mind than the philosopher Dennett or the linguist (and I’d say, generalist) Pinker.  Wider Than the Sky is the most readable of Edelman’s books, as well as being the briefest.  He’s worth a look; start there.

Rod Judkins:  The Art of Creative Thinking

I’ve read a LOT of books on creativity; this is the only one I’ve found that is worth much.  It is both brief and mind-blowing.  I read it last year and have it on the shelf to read again; as with the usual mental mush I have working these days, I can’t say much more than that at the time I was reading it, I was excited and thought, “This is stuff I can USE!” Well, maybe.

Seymour Epstein:  Cognitive-Experiential Theory

Epstein’s “Cognitive-Experiential Theory” or CET has a lot in common with Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, but Epstein’s theory is more detailed, more complicated, and less directly relevant to daily life.  But if you read Kahneman and want more, follow it up with this.  Of course, this is just my advice based on my regrettably limited exposure to the many, many other books and theories that are available.

Alfred Korzybski:  Science and Sanity

This controversial book from 1933 is 800 pages long and gets into all kinds of things that will be completely obscure even to well-educated general readers:  colloidal chemistry, the mathematics of infinity, and god-knows-what.  It is also naïvely over-enthusiastic and grandiose.  I first tried to read it about forty years ago, and I was immediately excited by the prospects of General Semantics.  “The map is not the territory,” comes from GS, along with a few other, I might say, rules of thought that are actually very valuable but not necessarily original.  GS was all the rage in the forties, and the Institute of General Semantics still clings to life, though much diminished from its heyday.  A lot of Korzybski’s writing is available at the web site, but the masterwork is not.  So why is this book listed here?  Because the first 300 pages are still exciting reading, and still provide, to my mind, the best introduction to the principles that are still worth knowing.  After that, the book becomes virtually unreadable (at least, I was defeated, twice).  Neil Postman (I copied out the quote, but can’t find it), in Technopoly, praises Korzybski as a genius, but calls Science and Sanity unreadable.  As a whole, it is.  Three-eighths of it are excellent, quirky, and fun.

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