The Stuff of Thought

[Amazon Link]

A check-out from the UNH library. The author, Steven Pinker is a Harvard professor whose specialty is in language and cognitive psychology. He's written a number of popular books describing research in those fields, and this is the latest.

It's wide-ranging, but the unifying theme is the examination of how the brain generates and understands language reveals things about human nature. You wouldn't necessarily expect that a facility produced by the random dice-roll of evolution would turn out to be so complex and adaptable to other tasks beyond merely enhancing the survival of the species. You come away impressed not only with both the flexibility and power of language, but also the many ways it can trick us into misperceptions and misinterpretations.

It's clear that Pinker loves his work, and he's enthusiastic about explaining things to the average reader. His prose sparkles, and he's not shy about tossing in jokes, comic strips, and anything else that might be fun and remotely related to his subject. I'd imagine that his college lectures must be a blast.

Probably the most entertaining chapter covers taboo language, describes where it comes from, its history, and possible future. There are more expletives per page than a David Mamet screenplay, so it's not for the timid, but it's eye-opening.

One thing I learned in reading the book: if you're brain-damaged in a way that causes you to understand or use language differently, you can have an interesting side career as a lab rat for cognitive psychologists. Pinker has lots of examples.

Last Modified 2012-10-16 2:07 PM EDT

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The magic number for Pun Salad's free mattress is now 4. Condolences to the Tribe, it could easily have gone the other way.

  • Cheer yourself up with a PC World report quoting a UCSD security analyst who says Storm Worm infestations are on the wane, thanks to improved virus scanners. (Via Slashdot.)

  • Granite Geek David Brooks points out a semi-direct UNH connection in this New York Times story.
    Several major research libraries have rebuffed offers from Google and Microsoft to scan their books into computer databases, saying they are put off by restrictions these companies want to place on the new digital collections.

    The research libraries, including a large consortium in the Boston area, are instead signing on with the Open Content Alliance, a nonprofit effort aimed at making their materials broadly available.

    The consortium is the Boston Library Consortium, of which UNH is a member. So, yay for us.

  • Scott at Power Line points out that the New Republic is continuing its hunker-down on providing the results of its alleged investigation into the "anecdotes" it printed from the fabulist Scott Beauchamp.

    Captain Ed has a good bottom line, after watching Shattered Glass, a movie that chronicles TNR's previous adventure in printing made up crap.

    It's just as indefensible now as it was then -- in fact, given their history, even more indefensible now. Franklin Foer has managed to do more damage to the magazine than Stephen Glass did, thanks to an inept response and continued stonewalling in the face of the truth. In their silence, TNR has acknowledged that they care more for narrative than fact.
    I usually don't pile on, but this is outrageous. And there's no apparent appetite in the MSM for holding TNR's feet to the fire in this matter.