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Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind [Hardcover]

Gary Marcus
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 18 2008 0618879641 978-0618879649 1
How is it that we can recognize photos from our high school yearbook decades later, but cannot remember what we ate for breakfast yesterday? And why are we inclined to buy more cans of soup if the sign says "LIMIT 12 PER CUSTOMER" rather than "LIMIT 4 PER CUSTOMER?" InKluge,Gary Marcus argues convincingly that our minds are not as elegantly designed as we may believe. The imperfections result from a haphazard evolutionary process that often proceeds by piling new systems on top of old ones-and those systems don't always work well together. The end product is a "kluge," a clumsy, cobbled-together contraption. Taking us on a tour of the essential areas of human experience-memory, belief, decision making, language, and happiness-Marcus unveils a fundamentally new way of looking at the evolution of the human mind and simultaneously sheds light on some of the most mysterious aspects of human nature.

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From Publishers Weekly

Why are we subject to irrational beliefs, inaccurate memories, even war? We can thank evolution, Marcus says, which can only tinker with structures that already exist, rather than create new ones: Natural selection... tends to favor genes that have immediate advantages rather than long-term value. Marcus (The Birth of the Mind), director of NYU's Infant Language Learning Center, refers to this as kluge, a term engineers use to refer to a clumsily designed solution to a problem. Thus, memory developed in our prehominid ancestry to respond with immediacy, rather than accuracy; one result is erroneous eyewitness testimony in courtrooms. In describing the results of studies of human perception, cognition and beliefs, Marcus encapsulates how the mind is contaminated by emotions, moods, desires, goals, and simple self-interest.... The mind's fragility, he says, is demonstrated by mental illness, which seems to have no adaptive purpose. In a concluding chapter, Marcus offers a baker's dozen of suggestions for getting around the brain's flaws and achieving true wisdom. While some are self-evident, others could be helpful, such as Whenever possible, consider alternate hypotheses and Don't just set goals. Make contingency plans. Using evolutionary psychology, Marcus educates the reader about mental flaws in a succinct, often enjoyable way. (Apr. 16)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Marcus's emphasis on the peculiar quirks of our minds -- or odd decisions and weird interpretations -- makes for a fascinating, self-referential read...Marcus's book makes "kluge" an indispensable term for explaining the human mind." (Seed )

"Invigorating fun...inspired, one of those unexpected analogies that help us look at everything afresh." (New York Times Book Review )

"A shot across the bow of intelligent design." (Kirkus Reviews ) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome! March 24 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A great way to understand how the brain works, even if you don't know the first thing about the parts of the brain or how it works. This is a theory of his but it's based on actual science. I thought it was a great read with real life examples and common language when needed for explanation.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It works . . . but you can fix it! April 12 2008
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
"If it works, don't fix it!", runs the old adage. Any engineer will tell you, however, that this is false confidence. What works today may not work tomorrow when conditions change. Animal brains worked for many millions of years. Then Homo sapiens arose somewhere in Africa with an enlarged, busy brain. Combined with walking and handiness, that brain accomplished - and still accomplishes - wondrous things. Until you wonder where you left your car keys. Gary Marcus, in this fluidly written review, backed by a wealth of references, explains how the workings of our brain have been built up over time, with bits added or enhanced through the ages. It makes us a unique species, but it's anything but a fine design. Instead it's what engineers call a "kluge" - an inelegant, marginally efficient product of evolutionary bits cobbled together well enough to get the job done.

Using the fact of our brains having an evolutionary foundation, Marcus shows how Shakespeare's and the Bible's depictions of the brain are flawed. We have poor, erratic memories, we make irrational decisions, and we'll believe things that are patently untrue - sometimes with real tenacity. Our brains are built up from very ancient structures, probably using the same processes, with added complexity developing over time ["This worked last time, but it's not working now. Cobble something up to fix it."]. Knowing that readers might be overwhelmed with data overload [our memories can't handle it!], the author focusses on a half-dozen aspects of brain "design" demonstrating the positive features and the shortfalls. Memory, Belief, Choice, Language, Pleasure and "Things Fall Apart" - distractions. In each case, he explains how the system is usually depicted, what might be the ideal process, and how it actually works.
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17 of 25 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars This book is a perfect example of a Kluge April 29 2008
In this book, Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at NYU, likens the human brain to what engineers call a KLUGE, "a clumsy or inelegant - but surprisingly effective - solution to a problem". However a KLUGE "is rarely reliable" and "they are designed for the moment not a lifetime." The use of the word KLUGE is of course really just a hook to grab the attention of potential readers and give a catchy name to a hypothesis which he rationalizes as being a case for what he perceives to be imperfections in the human brain. As an owner of one of these brains I must protest this unfair characterization of it being clumsy and inelegant.

The book begins as an interesting and thought provoking exploration of what the author sees as the shortcomings in the brain's ability to reason and use logic. He makes his case with examples of the many ways humans fail to make what he deems should be rational decisions. Unfortunately the standard by which he makes his judgments, that the brain should be a purely reasoning and logical thing with the "addressable memory" of computers, and precise language, is really only a creation of his imagination and definitely not something that would work in a world filled with other irrational humans, living in a heuristic and chance determined universe in which nothing can be ever be one hundred percent certain except death. (Even the rich can avoid taxes.
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