May 10th, 2008

reading, activism, writing

Book #17: Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, by Gary Marcus

"My brain! It's my second favorite organ!" said Miles Monroe, aka Woody Allen, in Sleeper. I agree! And now Gary Marcus comes along to explain that the brain is just a patched-together mass of cells that rarely interact smoothly. How shocking. So much for God's loftiest of creations--humans.

There are three layers to the brain and each developed at a different period of human evolution. The hindbrain has been around the longest and is in charge of the real basics, breathing, hunger, balance, awareness, things that animals need from humble newt on "up." The midbrain, built right on top of the hindbrain, takes on eye movements, coordinates visual, auditory, and reflex functions. And the newest area, the forebrain, sits atop the rest and governs language and decision making. This is the part that all of the fuss is about. It's what makes our brains "big" and demanding and gave us that leap of cognition that has been so useful.

The three layers indeed communicate, but sometimes badly. Hence a tasty goody may be too much to resist despite a long-term rational goal of healthy eating.

Marcus has illuminated the reasons that our minds can work both logically and illogically. Natural selection is a messy system where solutions only have to be "good enough" to give a creature the edge. It's not about perfection, just function.

I hope the book and Marcus' 13 suggestions for becoming a better "thinker" stay with me. I'm trying to run on all my circuits, not simply the ones that evolved first.