The Story of the Human Mind

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The author, Paul Bloom, based this book off an "Introduction to Psychology" course he taught at Yale. (He's now mainly at the University of Toronto.) It shows, and in a good way: the text is accessible to the general reader, full of interesting anecdotes, funny asides, and colorful language. An easy read, and you nevertheless find yourself learning things.

He discusses some famed luminaries of the field in detail: Freud, Piaget, Skinner. But most of the book focuses on broad concepts, broken into clearly demarcated, stand-alone chapters: the materialist origins of thought and consciousness; language development; rationality (and irrationality); biases and racism; mental illness; the nature of happiness.

Bloom is a research psychologist, but he's straightforward about the troubles in his own field, and full of healthy skepticism. Thomas Szasz is discussed; Bloom disagrees with his radicalism, but respectfully. He looks at that pesky replication crisis. And, although Bloom's got evidence on his side that psychological therapy works—that lady telling you to "seek professional help" is actually giving you good advice—there's not been a lot of actual progress in that area for a long time. The most damning quote Bloom provides is from Thomas Insel, onetime director of the National Institute for Mental Health: after 13 years at NIMH, spending an estimated $20 billion on research, he admits not "moving the needle" on suicide, hospitalization, or patient recovery.

He's not refunding that money, however.

When Bloom discusses racial/gender differences, he's not that far off from Charles Murray, although not in any way that would cause Yale students to shriek. He notes that formally egalitarian societies can "max out" genetic potential: people can literally "be all they can be". But he doesn't go on to mention (as Murray does) that those racial/gender disparities still persist in the most egalitarian countries. So?

When discussing schizophrenia, Bloom rattles off the symptoms, including "disorganized speech" (the tendency to produce word salad) and "odd and inappropriate actions, such as inappropriate giggling". Gee, I didn't previously think Kamala Harris was schizophrenic, but now I'm open to the possibility. I'll keep my eyes open for other telltale signs.

And Bloom mentions an ongoing mystery: why we behave so darn oddly when seeing cute babies: the urge to pinch, squeeze, and nibble. Prof Bloom, that happens to me all the time. Why? When psychology solves that enigma, I'll be more comfortable calling it a science.

Last Modified 2023-05-30 7:42 PM EDT