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